Today would have been my paternal grandmother’s 129th birthday; she was born in High Falls, New York on May 31, 1883.  I do not know much about my grandmother; she died in 1927 when my father was just 9 years old. Yet I sometimes feel a connection.

In addition to carrying my grandmother’s name, Elizabeth, as my middle name, I share a vocation with her. Elizabeth Antonia Duym graduated from New Paltz Normal School in 1905 and was, by all accounts, a teacher in or near High Falls until she married my grandfather in 1913. What levels or subjects she taught are a mystery that I have not yet uncovered.

Records are hard to come by as a fire at the Normal School in the early 1900s destroyed most of the documents that could possibly reveal what she prepared for.

What impresses me, however, is that my grandmother and her younger sister both went to normal school (college) in the early 1900s – I would imagine that to be unusual for two women, daughters of immigrants from a small New York village.

I often wish I could ask my grandmother about her growing up years — and how she became a teacher. What was it like to teach in the first decade of the 20th century? Questions without answers except when a genealogical find lifts the curtain of history to reveal some small detail of everyday life.

We share other connections, my unknown grandmother and I. Elizabeth’s middle name, Antonia, is derived from both her father’s name, Anthony, and honors a brother also named Anthony who died in infancy. My middle name honors hers. Cancer had an impact on both of our lives; hers cut short by it and mine has been spared through advances made my medicine.

I wonder what my grandmother would have thought of all of that has changed since 1883. Of course, even given a long life on this earth, she would no longer have been with us. But the connections endure and the questions as well.


Dear Mitt…

As a citizen of the fair Commonwealth of Massachusetts for quite a number of years – nearly 35 at this point – I feel uniquely qualified to respond to Mitt Romney’s latest education campaign speech.

You see, as a public school teacher in a small urban Massachusetts school district, I wonder how Mitt can call the US public education, particularly this state’s system “third world” when his fiscal policies directly affected the state’s ability to adequately fund education. Draconian cuts to the state’s education aid and education budgets were implemented by the Romney administration so that Candidate Romney can now point to his budgets as being so lean and mean that he was able to cut taxes. And if our education system resembles anything “third world” – and I disagree about that pithy little soundbite – Mitt should look in the mirror for the one to blame.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen the district in which I work decimated financially.  Teachers, paraprofessionals, librarians,  cafeteria, custodial staff, social workers…. all cut heavily and some cut in entirety. Buildings closed. Class sizes are bigger, which means that there’s far more crowd control in an elementary classroom today than there used to be.  Sorry Mitt, but despite your crack “research” from McKinsey & Company, size does matter.

Yes, Mitt, successful education is dependent on a partnership – parent, teacher, and student – who support each child.  There may be lots of reasons for that partnership to fail, but it is insulting and simplistic to think that a child’s school success is dependent upon a two-parent family unit. Forcing your own social prejudices into education policy is just plain ignorant.

Hopefully your flawed and obvious pandering to win votes will be seen for what it is. Garbage.

Raising Rigor in Readers’ Notebooks

I used to look with envy at those spiffy Readers’ Notebooks available through a nationally known publisher.  In fact I envied them so much, I figured out how to customize a similar notebook for my students to use.

And while they seemed to work pretty well, I’ve come to realize that maybe the beautifully GBC-bound notebooks and forms I’d created were not all that.

Asking my students to write a weekly response in the form of a letter to which I would write back produced writing about reading. But what I mostly got was a retelling (plot) or even worse, an “I like this book….” without a “because”.

I’m reading Aimee Buckner’s Notebook Connections and discovering something about what has passed for a reader’s response in my classroom. Because my students were so wrapped up in writing a letter to the teacher – and maybe even in getting it done over revealing something they were thinking – the thoughts about reading and literacy were pretty much on the surface.

I want my students to learn to do more than that! Upping the rigor of a response means that I will need to teach students to first notice their thinking and then record it.  And then dive deeper into what the author chooses to do when writing; it’s all interconnected.

So I’m no longer envying teachers who can purchase those fancy Readers’ Notebooks for kids. I want to raise the rigor on what students write in reading responses. I want them to think in depth about a text and wonder. I want them to notice an author’s craft and how it impacts a reader.

What I am thinking about for next year is a much more simple tool for holding ideas than the fill-in the form I’ve grown comfortable with over the last 2 years.  Students need a space to record a year’s growth in becoming literate, a place to keep track of genres and kinds of books (given the opportunity, some of my kids would only read Arthur books!), and a place to record and notice not only their own thoughts as they read but how an author crafts writing.

It’s a tall order with many opportunities for missteps on my part. By breaking down the Readers’ Notebook to what is essential, I hope for depth in thinking. A spiral notebook and some self-sticking tabs should do the trick.


Revisiting Notebooks

Having read Notebook Know-How (Aimee Buckner) this spring; I’ve moved on the another of her books, Notebook Connections. Know-How is to writing as the Connections book is to Reading. What I am discovering though is that they both are interconnected – as they should be.

At this time of year, many of us start thinking about what we need in place on Day 1 of the next school year.  Last year, by this time, I had a very elaborate, custom-designed Readers’ Notebook all mapped out and in the copier. That Notebook had many of the elements of the fancy Fountas Pinnell Readers’ Notebooks and some of the elements that Beth Newingham uses with her Third Grade Class.

What I’ve come to through reading Notebook Connections and seeing what was tedious, is that much of what I have in the current notebook needs to be revised or maybe even removed.  My students are fairly consistent in completing the daily book log that is part of their current notebook. We both refer to the Color Conference (book level) page and the Goals page. Each week we write back and forth to each other about reading.  But there seems to be lots that is not in use and some places where the Readers’ Notebook is not effective.

I think I still need something more structured than Ms. Buckner’s notebooks so I will keep the basic structure of a separate dedicated notebook for reading. But as I read more of Aimee’s book, I want to create something that is going to be more authentic and clearly connects what my students read to what they will write. I want to move my students past retellings to deeper thinkings about texts, so I will make the shift from a Dear Mrs. Bisson response to students actually recording their reaction to parts of texts or strategic reading.

While I am savoring each day with my current students, I am looking forward to a new year with new faces and new challenges. And getting excited about trying new strategies for learners.

Two Great Math Resource Sites

I haven’t been able to write much lately. We’re in the middle of state testing – again – and now getting ready for that paperwork marathon known as end-of-the-school-year. Not a big fan of paperwork. Does anyone ever really read all that stuff?

So I procrastinate. Which sometimes is not as much of a time waste as it sounds.

This time, my procrastination(s) proved fruitful.  I’ve discovered two really useful – in my opinion – websites that I’ve already started using in math classes with students.

Learnzillion is a video treasure of lessons started by a charter school in Washington, DC and recently opened to teachers willing to shared taped lesson snippets.  In addition to being tied directly to Common Core Mathematics Standards, a teacher can sign up for a (FREE!) account and create a playlist of videos. Teachers with more technology available to them that I currently have in my school, or than my students’ families have, may find using a playlist with “homework” that confirms whether or not the students has viewed and understood the concept presented powerful. But even without this piece, I thought the video lessons were quite strong. Anyone who uses Lucy Calkins Units of Study will appreciate that the videos begin by addressing students as “mathematicians”.

Currently the videos support Common Core standards in Grades 3 through 9. And while not all standards are in the video library, there are plenty of visual lessons to help students understand math concepts.

Another new to me site is K-5 Math Teaching Resources.  These are not video lessons but they are wonderfully constructed explorations of mathematical concepts. The activities are categorized by grade level, linked to the Common Core Mathematics Standards and, for the most part, are free.  The only for-fee sections appear to be the downloads of math projects, math vocabulary wordwalls, and math journal problems. Each of these downloads are $7 for a single-user PDF file.


What Is It That You Do Again?

Teaching is simultaneously instilling in a child the belief that she can accomplish anything she wants while admonishing her for producing shoddy work.

As I read these words in a blogpost by Dennis Hong, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Here in less than 25 words is what we do every day, every year in our classrooms regardless of grade level.

This week, I found these words to be of a particular truth. There are many stories of perseverance and of failure in every classroom of an urban school such as the one in which I work. One child may flourish despite the traumatic challenges in his life, while another cannot function.

My challenge – the one I take most seriously – is to lift the curtain so that kids can see it doesn’t have to be. That yes indeed, they can graduate high school – some days it is indeed just that basic.

In my white, middle-class upbringing, it was always assumed each of us would go to college and go on to a career. We would make our contributions to society. There was not doubt in anyone’s mind that we were going to do this regardless of any obstacles. I have had third grade students tell me they weren’t sure finishing high school was something they cared about. How sad is it that a child in this day feels that a high school diploma is OPTIONAL? That, to me is unacceptable thinking. So yes indeed, for me teaching is about instilling not only the belief that a student can accomplish anything she wants, but also to show that there are many possibilities.

Shoddy work. I catch myself on this often. Giving kids a bye on quality work is not doing anyone a favor. Education – and homework – is frequently not a priority for some families, and while I understand why, I feel a need to redirect children – without denigrating parents – to make it one. Tricky? Sure.  Worth it? Definitely.

To be a teacher is a series of what seem to be contradictions. In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov says

Teachers must be both: caring, funny, warm, concerned, and nurturing – and strict, by the book, relentless, and sometimes inflexible. Teachers send the message to students that having high expectations is part of caring for and respecting someone.

Isn’t that the truth?