Traveling in my discomfort zone

I have long admired people who can see things artistically in this world. To be able to capture a mood or  a moment and relay that feeling to another is, well, magical.

A great-great uncle of mine was Alexander Wyant, a tonalist, whose work hangs in several museums. When I was in junior high school, it was the cool thing to learn to use oil paints in an after school program. I am afraid that one or two of those paintings may survive somewhere in an attic.

This week, I entered two photographs in the Westford Regional Art Event, mostly to live in my zone of discomfort. I do not have any illusions of becoming a photographer – one per family is plenty and we actually have two: Adrien and my son Matt.

Very few of my own photographs are ones that I would consider worthy of showing to anyone else. Maybe once a year I’ll shoot something that I’m actually not embarassed to show. Making a decision to show two photographs was a giant leap outside of the zone in which I am most comfortable. While I don’t harbor any illusions of giving up my day job, it was interesting, to say the least, to experience exposing the inner artist, to actually seek the opinion of another on a work so personal.

Here are the two photographs that I entered in this years art exhibit (raw files, hence the chomatic abberations on the rope photograph):

Rope Room, Mystic Seaport Connecticut

Living with a photographer has advantages: one is on-demand instruction and advice. Can you spot any of Adrien’s recommendations in the composition of these two photographs?

Waiting and Watching

Around 9:00 last night, I got sucked in to watching C-SPAN of all channels. And yes, I was watching the Health Care “Debate” — if you can call that circus a debate.

I am a supporter of national health care and, frankly, I think this particular round of legislation is a pale shadow of what health care should be in the wealthiest industrialized nation on this green earth.  But putting that aside, my great hope is that the minimal protection provided by the Bill will prevent such health insurance financial fiascoes as happened in my family being thrust on another.

My suspicions are that this debate was not so much about health care as it was about other changes that some factions — loud ones as it turns out — cannot tolerate.  I felt ashamed and mortified that grown adults lobbed disgusting epithets in the direction of Representative Lewis and Representative Frank. What is wrong with us that we can’t have a civilized disagreement? That once a vote has been taken, those of the opposing opinion cannot accept what the majority has decided.

Last night’s vote was mesmerizing. But now there is more to come with the Senate debate. Will there be less acrimony? Doubtful. And what happens from here, no one can know for certain.

March Madness

Does it seem odd to you that all year long, we tell our students to use the word wall or whatever else we have available for students to use in a classroom, but when it comes time to do standardized testing we effectively tell them “just kidding” ?

Yesterday, I was giving my students a practice run at what next Wednesday, our first day of MCAS, will be like. Kids are used to asking for help when they need it, or (even better) using a classroom resource when needed. For some, it is a challenge just to read a text in silence. For others it is a shock that, when they ask for help with a word in a text, instead of working through the thought process for strategizing how to decode the word, I say “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you at all.” Frankly I don’t know why I am apologizing.

One of my students was stuck on a spelling word yesterday.  Of course if helping students decode challenging vocabulary in a text is outlawed, helping them with spelling is definitely out. He did exactly as he has been taught to do – he went to his personal word wall folder to look for it.  And when I told him he couldn’t use that word wall? He shut down. Completely. From that point on he wanted no part of the whole business – I’m hoping I can cajole him back into positive thinking before next Wednesday. This student, by the way, is one of my most accomplished readers and writers.

So I have to ask, why in the name of all thing holy are we preventing students from using the tools that they are accustomed to using? What are we telling them – give it up, there’s no way you can be successful?

As adults, if we don’t know something from memory, don’t we look it up?  Can’t we allow students to do what an adult out in the work world would do?

Ed Reform and Failure

Personally, I’d give most Ed Reform a failing grade. I’m certain that someone reading this is thinking that’s a no-brainer because I’m a teacher (and a union member). But that is not why I think reform is failing students.

That’s right, I said Ed Reform is failing students – not taxpayers, although taxpayers hold a certain stake in successful schools as do real estate agents.

As a teacher in a school where many of my students are not successful when the state assessment tools – standardized MCAS and/or MEPA testing – are applied, I am somewhat familiar with “reform”. Lately, most of the talk about reforming schools is that the teachers are incompetent or effective. I am not a statistician, but I am sure that given a group of educators some will be wildly competent, some will be competent, and some will be incompetent. The reasons why are complicated. Afterall, we are not working with widgets; we are working with humans – and humans will have human issues that are not necessarily black or white.

Now I’m not vain enough to think I have all the answers – or many times even an answer to critics who see my students are under performing. I am open to ideas and I don’t mentally toss out ideas without giving them a trial. I listen when someone thinks outside the educational box because I know I my belief system may sometimes cloud perception.

Lately what I’ve seen is some underfunded or unfunded mandate requiring one thing or another. Anyone here familiar with Reading First? I’ve been through so many different reform models that claim to be the answer to all my prayers, I can no longer keep them all straight. Honestly, does anyone really think one-size-fits-all programmed education will work for every student? Seriously?

What bothers me is know-it-all “reformers” who haven’t set foot in a public school classroom since high school graduation. They don’t have a grasp of the problem, but they do have a solution. Usually one that involves lots of cash being sent in their direction.

In order to analyze what is wrong, shouldn’t you actually know what the conditions or problem might be?Wouldn’t it be productive to know what is already in place?

So, to those who dare, you are extended an open invitation to my classroom. Come and see what is going on. Don’t make an appointment – just show up at the office and get a visitor’s badge. Someone can direct you to Room 207. And after you’ve looked at what is going on, after you’ve observed what my students have, need, and wish for, then let’s have a conversation about your ideas.

Art Appreciation

My husband, Adrien, is a photographer. He actually has been a photographer for most of his life, having started out in high school, but was sidetracked by a career in music and in software.  A couple of years ago, he started renting studio space in a revitalized textile mill building in Lowell, MA, Western Avenue Studios, and has been building his photography business ever since.

If you’ve never had a career in the arts, it is quite different from the 9 to 5 corporate world. First of all, as I am always fond of pointing out, unlike my career, you can use the bathroom whenever you want 🙂 Just kidding, Adrien!

What really takes some perseverance is staying focused throughout the cyclical nature of getting commissions and jobs. For example, from the week before Christmas through some time in  late January, not many corporations are interested in scheduling corporate head shot appointments. This creates some down time, which allows Adrien to think about self assignments: photography projects that he works on to develop as a photographer and as an artist.

In addition to working on a portfolio for an upcoming show at the Loading Dock Gallery in Lowell next November, Adrien has been working with a friend of his, Melissa, to create a video of what happens during a professional photo shoot. Here is a link to the stop-action video he created called 396 Square Feet. I think you’ll find it amazing.

Balancing Reading Assessment

I’ve just started reading a professional book by the Sisters (Gail Boushey and Joan Moser) called The Cafe Book. The Sisters wrote The Daily Five which I’ve been partially using in my own classroom during Reading Workshop to help manage what the “other kids” are doing while I’m conferencing or working with a group.

When I began my career, like the Sisters, I was uncomfortable if I met one of my reading groups more often than another. But after being encouraged by my Principal to “get out of the way” of more adept readers and not meet with them so often, I’ve been a bit more willing to let go of the fairness is equal philosophy. What this means for me as a third grade teacher is that my more advanced readers meet with me as a group just once a week. They read longer, chapter-based texts, and I’ve taught them (a painful process I have to admit) to work as an independent literacy circle. The time I’ve carved out is spent on my Safety Net and Below Level students – who need more support in order to become more proficient as readers.

So now that I’ve divided up my time so that the students who need more of me, get more of me, what’s next?  Well, if you say Assessment and Conferencing, the kind of assessment that lets you know where your students and and what they need help with, we’re in agreement. However, once you’ve conferenced or assessed a student, a teacher needs to actually do something with that information.

Like the Sisters, I’ve been through a ton of different models and suggestions for keeping track of what my students know and what they need to know next.  Sticky notes seem like a good idea — but like Joan, I kept having to retrieve them from the floor and try to figure out in retrospect who the note was about. Not exactly efficient. Clipboards, file cards, the whole gamut of record keeping is enough to drive one crazy. Trying to find an effective and efficient way to gather information about my students — one that I can sustain when the year’s pace becomes high pressure and crazy — is key for me right now.  I know data gathering is a fact of my teaching life that will probably never disappear.

And then, once I’ve got all this fabulous data, what to do next? I’m hopeful that the Sisters, who seem to have a practical and realistic handle on balancing assessment with putting the results of assessment into practice, have a few ideas.