It’s the vocabulary, stupid

Well, not just the vocabulary, but for my urban kids, that surely is a major factor.  This week, our writing focus – visualizing a text – was driven by a poem written by Carmen Lagos Signes:

Pumpkins in the cornfields,

Gold among the brown,

Leaves of rust and scarlet,

Trembling slowly down;

Birds that travel southward,

Lovely time to play;

Nothing is as pleasant

As an Autumn Day!

Such a seemingly bucolic text loaded with typical fall scenery. So what vocabulary did my third graders find to be a challenge? Scarlet, rust (multiple meanings get them every single time!), pleasant, Autumn and…. cornfield.  Without explicit instruction – defining, finding synonyms, antonyms, using the words in sentences – visualizing this text would have turned into a meaningless regurgitation of the author’s words.

A simple text, one with which my students would have some familiarity and experience, and the task of writing what the mind saw during the reading, so impacted by challenging vocabulary, challenging especially for second language learners. I am humbled.

Reason #1: I touch the future… I teach

Some years ago — probably more than 10 now that I think of it — I was eating my lunch at a MassCUE conference when Grace Corrigan sat down with her tray. That name may or may not mean anything to some, but it was an exceptional thrill for me to sit and chat, however briefly with the mother one of my education heroes, Christa McAuliffe.

Sharon Christa McAuliffe may have faded from some memories, but not from mine. When the Challenger explosion happened, I was in the midst of my career rebirth — the M.Ed. program at University of Lowell — and my own child was a first grader. I still think of the day Challenger burst into flames to the horror of everyone watching and I’m willing to bet that any child who happened to be watching the event on the television that day, certainly can recall it vividly.

While I did not know Christa McAuliffe personally, her choice to train to be the first teacher in space, was a huge impact on me. For me, teaching is not about following what is expected. It is about learning to take chances, to try new things, to have a curiosity about life and parlaying those opportunities into moments of educational euphoria.  It is not about the safety of doing what we’ve gotten used to; it is being on the edge of disaster or success and not necessarily knowing how things turn out until much later. And for me, that is what Christa McAuliffe inspired in me on day she boarded a space shuttle for what should have been the adventure of a lifetime.

So many years later, I try to remember this when experts tell me to be successful I need to do this, that or the other thing. Education, even in the era of unprecedented scrutiny where taking chances on what might work seems tougher and tougher to do, needs to be about trying new things even while being mindful of standards and accountability.

Christa McAuliffe’s mission ended in a tragedy that those of us on the sidelines can barely appreciate. The loss to her family, her friends, her colleagues, her students had to be immeasurable. But her courage, her insatiable curiosity inspires me to keep on taking chances no matter what the odds.

Daily Five and Math

This year I’ve made an attempt to follow the “Sisters” in implementing the Daily Five and the Literacy Cafe. So far, I’m happy with what is starting to take shape. Conferencing is more focused. Tracking those kids who need more than a once a month reading conference, keeping kids accountable through the Literacy Cafe Menu, all are clearly going to be helpful when presenting a case at an RTI meeting.

Now if the Daily Five can help me with getting to those students who need some extra one-to-one support, maybe it can help with meeting the needs of students in mathematics.  The Sisters are way ahead of me on this one — the Math Daily Five provides a way to organize “guided mathematics”.  In my classroom, the five categories that I’m playing with are: Math Fact Drills, Landmark Math Games, Exploring Data, Problem Solving, and Featured Activity.  The math fact activities are games – electronic and otherwise – that provide fluency practice in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  Landmark Games are the “go to” games we teach throughout our third grade Investigations in Number, Data, and Space units and include games like “Close to 100/1000”, “Capture on a 300 Chart” and “Fraction Cookies”. Exploring Data is a new category — our school has identified interpreting, representing, and constructing data as a focus for this year. Activities in these categories will provide students with activities for practice. I want my students to solve problems in context and I have been providing a problem for students to solve and later share solutions in this category. Finally, in the Featured Activity category, we will work on explorations that accompany the launches for the daily Investigations lesson.

I want to keep the launches down to about 15 minutes – whether it’s a model launch or a discussion. This isn’t easy for me. But by limiting my talk, and getting kids actively involved in activities while I meet with smaller needs-based groups, we should be able to make some progress toward students meeting Grade 3 Math Standards.

Will it be noisy? I’m sure it will be. Just like the Daily Five and Literacy Cafe, I’ll need to build students’ stamina for staying on task. But in the end it should be worth the time it will take – hopefully we can work smarter not longer.

Life in the pressure cooker

Elementary level teachers notice it. If the moon is full, if there it is a windy day, students seem more than a bit wired.  Are kids hypersensitive?

I got to thinking about this idea because my students have seemed just a bit more unfocused than usual. There is no full moon and it hasn’t been remarkable windy, so what gives?

Actually I feel like the explanation is fairly basic. It is no secret that educators are feeling pressure: pressure to raise test scores, pressure to overcome lack of materials needed for teaching, ever dwindling classroom assistance, pressure to be all to some very needy students.

We rush to stay on task ourselves and get annoyed with students who balk at transitions. We rush, rush, rush to get from place to place, from lunch to recess, from the bathroom to our classroom. Is it any wonder that our kids act out, that their behaviors telegraph their resistance?

Knowing, or thinking that I know, the root cause for students’ misbehavior is one thing. But until we all can get off the hamster wheel, students will balk and we will deal.


Standing on the shoulders of…

Emily Rooney’s Greater Boston panel discussed the connection between a teacher‘s despondency and suicide and a recent LA Times article which ranked teachers by name. One can argue the stupidity of people who don’t understand educational issues and all of the things that impact students. One can argue about the current need to equate education with business practice, i.e. “value added”. But what I really don’t get is how anyone can think testing in one grade level isn’t impacted by what has happened before.

Case in point: my current group of students includes 11 students reading at the first grade level. I teach third grade. I am not one of the two special education inclusion classes this year. This group of children is “regular” education, or as I prefer to say, my sped students haven’t yet been identified.

Where I will start teaching this year is not based on some immovable starting line. Where these students finish may not be at “grade” level.

Will they get better? Will they improve as readers and writers? You had better believe that they will. But I am not the second coming and it is statistically doubtful that we can close a gap of 2 years within the 10 months (or 6 until MCAS Reading) we are working together. In other words, my students’ learning and my ability to help them move along is based on what they have been able to do before they got to third grade.

The class dynamic is quite a challenge even for a teacher with 23+ years experience. Traumas, poverty (2 of my students are living in welfare hotels), custody battles, ELL challenges, indifferent parenting….  this particular group of students, and their classmates in other homerooms are impacted by it all.  I often hear people talking about “last year’s second grade”; they don’t look wistful in their reminiscence.

There’s a history here; there’s a dynamic with this group that has been present since they first arrived in the building. It spills over into the academics over and over throughout the day, impacting not only that one child’s learning, but the other children’s as well.

What I am trying to say is that no one teacher is responsible for a students’ progress. No teacher should be singled out by name in a newspaper article as ineffective. Education is a collaboration. It starts the minute a student steps in to a school. We are standing on the shoulders of what has happened before and we are reaching for the sky.