You May Never Know How Much That Means

As I checked out of the supermarket this week, I heard someone calling my name. That’s pretty unusual as my grocery store is in the next town. It’s not what you might assume; the next town allows food shopping and wine buying in the same place.  I like to call it lowering my carbon footprint or practicing fuel conservation.

Since I’m horrible with placing people outside of the everyday, usual spots, this lovely woman didn’t leave me hanging. She (re)introduced herself and the minute she stated her name I knew where we had met. About 25 years ago, I taught her youngest son.

Memories of an engaging second grader flooded back in an instant. Hearing he was already 31 left me speechless. That was just not possible. He just had to be 8 or 9, maybe 12. 31? I couldn’t believe it. How thoughtful of his mom to recognize me and to let me know how he was!

One of the best fringe benefits of teaching? Catching up with students who have passed through my classroom. It doesn’t matter if it’s been one year, or 21 years. Each one holds a special place in my heart and mind.

Hearing from former students is an honor and privilege for every teacher. Don’t ever stop. You may never know how much it means.

 

 

 

What We Have Here Is A Failure to Communicate

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This weekend, our grade level was asked to give some feedback on communication, or lack thereof, in our school.  As further proof that everything in life can be explained by movies, these lines spoken by Stother Martin in Cool Hand Luke popped into my head immediately:

 What we have here is a failure to communicate.

2014-11-25-lincoln-024Communication on every level is one thing that makes or breaks a school’s culture. I’ve worked with some really great communicators over the span of 30 years.  Here are some things that I’ve learned are important:

Is the message always top-down? Collaborative decision-making can be less expedient. Why are major decisions and messages always delivered by administrators? Is it for expediency of delivering a consistent message or is it because it’s easier to just make the decision at the top?

Group decision making takes extra time and effort because the group having the discussion must hear all the points of view and then negotiate the final message. I believe that a healthy debate of topics is a sign of a group/team that respects each other. We teach our students accountable talk, why is it so impossible for adults to practice the same talk moves? We need to stop the “pants-on-fire” method of decision making and allow vertically grouped staff to have discussions and make decisions that may not please everyone, but will allow all voices a time to be heard.

Is the reasoning known? One of my relatives gave my son and husband each shirts many years ago. Matt’s said “But why?” and Adrien’s “Because I said so.”

For administrators and leaders, it must be much more expedient to say “this is the way it’s going to go”, end of story. But “because I said so” is a sign of the micro-management that signals a death knell for collaborative cultures. It dis-empowers (is that even a word?) those who are doing the actual teaching. It squashes any chance of finding a creative solution to a “problem”, whether the problem is big or small. And it takes the voice away for the ones who are going to do the task. Sometimes those of us on the ground floor can see a problem that those with a wider view cannot.

Is it timely? Last minute changes happen, everyone understands that. But a constant stream of last minute important information is not only frustrating, it makes people (me) resentful. As good as they are subs and paraprofessionals cannot deliver instruction the way a teacher can; teaching today and teaching with the Common Core standards is more complicated than “open your book to page 109″.  Plans that are rewritten or simply rehashed on the fly are mostly a waste of time for students.

I want to know how long someone has been sitting on the information.  This week I got a notice for a special education meeting on Friday – the day of the meeting. I got an email about it on Thursday. There was no time to prepare data for the meeting. How professional does that appear?

What does success look like? In contrast, this week our Literacy Coach took time during Common Planning to step my grade level through all the (known) events upcoming for the last 6 weeks of school. While it makes my head spin, I appreciated how she communicated what was expected to be accomplished by year-end and now can approach planning more thoughtfully.  She also willingly adjusted some dates to accommodate year-end events our grade level wanted.  Collaborative? Check. Timely? Check. Reasoning explained? Check.  Now that’s successful communication.

Cramming or Happiness?

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I can’t be alone in thinking that this stretch of the academic year could be better used.  We have been practicing for state tests, administering state tests, and administering district assessments since March. Here we are 2 months later getting ready for the next round of state assessment and end-of-year assessments.

If you are ready to say “uncle”, raise your hand.

Recently I heard suggestion made that we should “double up” on our mathematics instruction so the students would have more math exposure ahead of the MCAS.  Think about that for a moment.

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Exploring erosion with a stream table.

I enjoy math and I actually enjoy TEACHING math. But I don’t think force-feeding math standards down kid’s throats in anticipation of state math assessments is good for anyone. Remember college and cramming for a final? Well, this is just as effective, except the people cramming are 10 years old.

What makes my students happy and excited these days is science.  So far I’ve been able to resist the suggestion to bag science instruction and cram for a math test.  I’ll continue to do this even in the face of state testing and suggestions that my class is “behind” the district schedule. Why? Because for some of my students, it is the highlight of their day.

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Standardizing stream table variables.

Why does school need to be so full of drudgery and test preparation and sticking to artificial schedules that do not reflect developmental learning? Ten year olds need to be filled with the excitement of discovering something new, of making sense of something; they need to learn to love learning. And if that something is science (or math, or reading or writing), then that’s where we will be going.

Learning should be happiness.

Help Wanted.

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Our current Assistant Principal is retiring as is our Superintendent of schools.  Selection Committees, Blue Ribbon Panels, all are busy vetting candidates to find the best possible match for our school(s). So even though my own career days are numbered (and no one listens to the “old guy” anyway), I have a few thoughts.

One. A school leader, no matter the level, needs to have a strong background in teaching.  More than 5 years, although I know of several outstanding administrators with less teaching experience. Those people are exceptions and exceptional – grab them. But for most administrators, a wide-ranging experience as a teacher is needed. Think of it as a reality head slap.

Two. Don’t be afraid to hire someone who seems “smarter” than you. As a 30-year-old, I learned to play tennis recreationally. Want to know how I got better at it? I played with people who could whiz a serve right past me. It was terrifically humbling and made me want to do better. Never play your game down, play it up.

Three. Be a listener. If you don’t understand what someone may be telling you, ask them to re-explain it. As many times as it takes. Then make your decision.  Early in my career, I disagreed voraciously with my then-administrator. We eventually agreed to disagree – after all SHE was the one responsible for the decision’s impact. But I felt listened to. I felt I had a voice even if the ultimate decision was not what I would have wanted.

Four. Get in there and get dirty. One of my favorite administrators did that my first year in a new school. She led by example and modeled exactly what she expected of each of us.  Taking the time to work with even an experienced teacher was one of my all-time career favorite moments. I learned and continued to apply those techniques even after she retired.

Five. Research on practice is great, but be sure it has been judiciously applied. Not all research will be valuable to all students. Try. Reflect. Adjust. Be strong enough to tell the emperor he has no clothes on (that’s a tough one on an “at will” contract).

Six. Read your staff CVs. Who is it that is working in your building? What about that person’s strengths and background can be used to greatest value? You may come away surprised.

It is most difficult to be a school administrator. It’s difficult to be any level of educator. You end up holding the responsibility for lots of things and sometimes leading a staff is like herding cats.

But your students, parents, and teachers are all relying on your leadership to move us to reach higher than we thought possible.

Discuss Amongst Yourselves

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Linda Richman was right. Throw out an open question and get the talk going.

Author collectionIn our fourth grade classroom we’ve taken accountable talk to another level. We use many of the prompts that programs like Making Meaning explicitly teach, so outside of insisting on speaking patterns that first use and then play off of these stems, there were just a few new talk moves to initiate.

So this year, I have taken myself out of the discussion leading role and thrown that back to students.  When we have a whole class discussion, we gather on the carpet and – this is important – face each other by sitting on the perimeter just like we do for Morning Meeting.  Why is this important? Because students can see each other and that is part of the active listening that is required in group discussions.

Students must talk to each other and not to me. I throw out the question. I sometimes have to be the traffic cop when discussions go off-topic or when students in their enthusiasm forget about talking over each other. But basically, I’m out. If someone has a follow-up point, it’s up to the person initiating to recognize them. And me? I get to observe students and their thought processes.

Oh we’ve used “talking sticks”, but mainly my students have gotten used to talking with each other using polite and focused discussion questions, perhaps challenging each other’s thinking. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the talking heads on TV could learn some of these same skills?

No one has to be the sage on the stage. The students can do this. And the benefits are endless for both of us.

To whom are you accountable?

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We were asked that very question during a faculty meeting presentation yesterday.  Oh there are layers and layers of accountability in the education world in which we live: administrators, students, parents. Yes, we are all accountable to them. Family members, significant others? Those people too.

My answer? I am accountable to me.

I am accountable to me for what I do in my profession. And for acting to improve those things that need fixing in my own practice. If, on reflection, a lesson fails, it is on me to figure that out and fix it. If the students “don’t get” what I’m teaching, I am accountable for finding another way for them to access those skills or that knowledge.

If I disagree with how I am being told to teach or even what to teach, I am accountable to me. I need to read and research and seek out those who are expert so that I can persuade or disagree or (heavens!) go against the directive and do what is right. Even when it is lonely.DSC_0107

Oh there are some “experts” who have the bully pulpit these days who would tell me that my job is to follow directives. Like a sheep.

But sometimes I cannot do that.  I am accountable to me.

You are more than a number

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We are at that time of the year when high stakes test prep is kicked into gear. I try to keep the required and inevitable test prep low-key and casual, if that’s even possible, because, for goodness sake — the kids are 10! 2014-11-25-lincoln-024

Here in my urban classroom, however, the tension and stress can be seen in my students’ actions and words. They have already endured round after round of mid-year assessment. Layering MCAS testing on top of that is like dousing your paper cut in hand sanitizer. Some kids are at the breaking point.

To O who wondered yesterday if he hadn’t been born, would the world (and I) be better off.  You are more than a number.

And to A, a kid with a tough exterior, but so hard on herself that tears rolled down her cheeks and dripped onto her desk because her reading score “wasn’t good.” You are more than a number.

To C who worries if she will “flunk the MCAS” and not go on to Middle School. You are more than a number.

To N who just wants to get a 4 on his report card. You are more than a number.

To all my sweet, hard-working students, who rise up to meet every challenge I throw at them in the best way that they know how. YOU ARE MORE THAN A NUMBER! And I apologize that you have to go through this.

Torn between not giving a rat’s behind and giving my students every strategy I can muster so they can get through this unfair and practically useless test is a non-stop debate I have in my head every day. MCAS tests our students on English Language Arts and Composition when we are barely three-quarters of the way through fourth grade. When my kids get their score – or number – how are they supposed to feel?

So for you, O and A and N and all of “my” kids, I apologize. You are so much more than a test score to me. You are funny, and enthusiastic, and curious, and talented and challenging, and I would never have wanted to miss out on knowing who you all are. You are more than a number, you are infinity.

Text Mapping Nonfiction

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We’ve been working with nonfiction texts this winter, and so I was doing my due diligence on better ways to teach students how to read and comprehend these texts.

For an experienced reader, navigating nonfiction is not a daunting task, but imagine for a moment what it must be like to see all the busyness that makes up a nonfiction text for elementary students.  Text features – captions, text boxes, maps, labels, diagrams – a less expert reader has a difficult time capturing the flow of text. The difficulty of this really wasn’t brought home to me until I started text mapping with my fourth grade students.

A challenge for my students has been that either the text is so fractured because students stop to attend to the features as they try to read the text or the features are skipped entirely.  For my students, that means they are missing important pieces of information. And in testing situations, students often miss something nuanced that ends up in a test item. I knew I needed some new strategies that would help kids – and me – sort out how to read nonfiction in a more methodical, systematic manner.

And so with the help of Google, I happened upon text mapping, an innovation created by Dave Middlebrook.

One of the biggest advantages to implementing text mapping strategies was that I noticed how almost immediately my students could follow the flow of the actual text. Since the visual and textual features that supported their reading could be segregated away from the flow of words, the whole reading made more sense to them. They were more able to follow the flow of the words and then go back to pick up more information using those visual and textual features. For a more detailed version of the advantages of text mapping, be sure to read this section from the Textmapping Project Page.

We used the scroll strategy in my classroom for several iterations; however, this being test prep season, I’ve moved away from a physical scroll to adapting text maps to the normal page formats. Also, with a nod to prepping for state testing, we needed to invent black and white coding as colored pencils, highlighters, and the like are not allowed.  While some of the impact of coding is lost when color coding features is removed, the supporting features are still called out from the text. And students are still able to follow a logical flow of text and text features.

For elementary level teachers and more ideas about using text mapping, check out Classroom 2.0. 

Private Sector Burnout – This sounds familiar

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I was drawn to this article in the New York Times this morning: Why You Hate Work. Now, there is no way I can say I “hate” the work that I do. There is something uniquely satisfying about teaching even the smallest of skills or ideas to a child. Spiritually, teaching is an incredible opportunity to serve the greater good.

But the current atmosphere surrounding educators and education is particularly toxic.

Which made this OpEd citing conditions for mainly white-collar workers in corporate America kind of interesting.

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

As I read the article, I thought about how similar burnout in a white-collar environment is to burnout in education. According to this article posted in Forbes, 46% of all new teachers leave the professional within 5 years. Boomer teachers, like me, are finding it nearly intolerable to deal with the onerous working conditions brought on by mandate after mandate undermining what was once an honorable profession.

I’m not at all comforted by the fact that those who work in white-collar positions are feeling the same burnout that most educators increasingly experience. I am alarmed. I hope you are too.

It’s the poverty stupid

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Remember when then-candidate Clinton – Bill, not Hillary – had a sign probably written by James Carville that read “It’s The Economy, Stupid”?

Well, to paraphrase in this age of educators-can-do-nothing-right, I’d like to say that as anyone who scratches below the surface of education knows, it’s the poverty, stupid.

The Alternet recently published an article summarizing some recent research concerning the effects of poverty on students. Read it for yourself here. The conclusion indicates that poor school performance is not about poor teacher performance. It is about hunger and trauma and the social ills that come from worrying whether or not your family will have a place to live when you arrive home or how hungry you will be because there is not enough money to buy food. Want to know more? Get your hands on Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.

Educators know that we are not the only factor in a child’s academic “success”, especially when that success is defined by those who would quantify learning by the correct number of answer bubbles on a high-stakes test.

So many factors fall beyond an educator’s control and affect our students: medical care, hunger, lack of housing, parents who must work multiple jobs and long hours, and social factors such as the ones mentioned in articles.

This week my classroom has been battling the flu. Teaching children basic cleanliness routines, to use soap and water in fact, is not that unusual. Telling a parent that a child with a temp over 102 degrees that a trip to the doctor (or more likely the hospital emergency room) was in order – not a dose of Tylenol – is not that unusual.

Poverty and trauma affect children at their core. Kids who are hungry, or worried about where they will get their next meal; kids who don’t have a safe, clean environment in which to stay outside of school – those kids are not focused on whether or not Choice A or Choice C is the best answer to a test item.

Unless we as a society are willing to tackle the ugly and difficult issue of economic equality, I fear the stupidity will continue. It’s not just the teacher, it’s the poverty.

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