Poetry…. a little silly

We are beginning a new unit of study in English Language Arts this week – poetry! Going through this new unit I discovered a poem by Emily Dickenson – Autumn. And that reminded me of something Adrien shared with me long ago.

You see, you can sing almost every Emily Dickenson poem to “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. Try it. These folks did: Sing-a-Long-With-Emily. Still not a believer? Here’s another:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers


“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

Emily Dickinson
More serious analysts of literature will tell you that the meter of Dickenson’s poetry is common meter – the same rhythmic pattern used in hymns. But for me, the Yellow Rose is indelibly etched into my head every time I try to read Dickenson. And now I dare you to get it out of your head as well.

Go Ahead…. Make My Day

My students started their state testing yesterday.

While it continues to aggravate me that my kids are getting tested as if it were the end of the school year (which, believe me it is not!), the test is here and we need to deal with it. By the way, did I mention the test is scheduled before the second trimester has ended? And that this year the students will have had a week’s less of instruction because of the snow days we’ve piled up here in Massachusetts?

In the end, all I can do is ensure that my students have some strategies under their belts: strategies for decoding those challenging words – especially important for my English Language Learners, strategies for deriving word meaning within context, strategies for understanding what they’re reading, and strategies for making the best out of this testing situation.

I have no idea how my students did on yesterday’s test. I am not allowed (by law!) to even take a look through students’ completed test booklets to see that they haven’t skipped a question. I do know that I saw children who are 8- and 9-years-old diligently reading (read the directions, read the italics, read the questions, THEN read the selection), and underlining, and rereading, and writing.

If effort and persistence were something we were assessing, every single one of my kids would be proficient. And that makes my day.

Monitoring Language

Teaching in an urban educational setting has many challenges. Of course, there are challenges associated with trauma and with poverty and other social problems.

One of the greatest challenges, in my opinion, is to work with students whose primary language is not English. In my current classroom, the ratio of native English speakers to English Language Learners, or ELLs is about 1:3. Just to be clear, 17 of the 23 students are acquiring English and learning in English simultaneously.

I have a lot of admiration for my ELLs.  First of all, I attempted to learn a foreign (to me) language – and not just as a whim in high school.  After about 30 minutes of the teacher speaking to our group in the new language, in my case Italian, I thought my brain was going to burst. Hanging on to my minimal grasp of Italian and understanding about 10 percent of what was being said is exhausting! By the end of a three-hour class, I could have curled up into the fetal position and never come out.

In a classroom with such a large percentage of ELLs, we accommodate English and English acquisition all of the time. We work with realia, we check in and monitor when vocabulary is incomprehensible, we shelter our students’ learning as they acquire the language in which they are expected to work and perform.

One of the most important things I think I do for my students is insist on speaking. If that seems like a “duh” moment, realize that when managing 23 personalities in group discussion and activity how easy it is to accept a head shake or pointing or some other gesture in place of using words.

I – and we – accept gestures in communication all of the time. The importance of using verbal communication is in learning the constructs of English and in increasing the vocabulary word bank of my ELLs.

Even after so many years in this teaching environment, I catch myself accepting nonverbal communication from my students. It is an easy habit to slip back into – for both of us! But it is one habit that we constantly monitor because the success of my students who are acquiring English as they work in English depend upon it.

Blaming the Common Core?

This morning’s Washington Post carried an Op-Ed piece by Deborah Kenney, founder of Harlem Village Academies. Unlike many charter schools run by large (overseas) conglomerates trying to turn education into cash cows, this charter appears to have pedagogy and students at the center.

The question Ms. Kenny poses? Is the Common Core causing school experiences to become rigid, developmentally inappropriate, prison-like experiences? Or is it poor pedagogy? Or is it something else?

I started examining the Core when it first came out – partially because of my interest in mathematics curriculum development.  I do believe having the road map for instruction that comes out of the Core is beneficial. I know I may be lulled into subtly lowering expectations for my students because the topic is difficult or because there is some roadblock to students’ learning. Checking adherence to the rigor that is expected of most students at grade level serves as a reminder of the goal and expectations.

The contrasting examples Ms. Kenny cites – a Kindergarten class learning about verbs through interactive and directed play and the class where students didn’t speak except for a rote response to a drill activity on the same topic – point to what I believe is the giant release the core gives teachers. Or at least what it should give us: we are free to address the standards in whatever way our students need. This is the aspect of the Common Core that excites me, the potential to address the curriculum as creatively as I want.

Instead of relying on a textbook, series, or program, what if we plan collaboratively with our colleagues for the students we have in front of us without fear of reprimand for not using some mandated materials? Instead of using a textbook as a Bible, use it as a resource — go to it when necessary? Unpack those standards, understand what happens vertically as well as in our own grade level.

Raise your hand if you’ve seen large textbook publishers “correlations” to state or Common Core standards. Did they make sense to you? Well, most of the time they didn’t to me either.  It seems as if those correlations are marketing materials aimed at purchasing agents within districts. The connections to what we are teaching seem truly fuzzy. Okay, I’ll say it….. they are bogus. A lot of the time.

As one of a team of teachers aligning our available materials to Common Core math standards, I frequently hear teachers complain that they have to go looking for materials. That’s a fact, but it is a fact by design. There are many inventive teachers out there who relish the chance to tap into their creativity and deliver meaningful and memorable lessons.

Our students deserve a rigorous education. They deserve one that is not stifling, or rigid, or devoid of the joy of learning. What we need is time to collaborate, time to research best practice, time to unpack standards.



Well, That Was Ugly

I have always thought it important for students to learn to work cooperatively. When I worked in the private sector, we worked as teams or groups – almost never without some kind of interaction with colleagues.  Kids need to know how to work in collaborations, too.  

And so, we set out this week to work in cooperative groups to create “rules” for defining two-dimensional polygons.

I modeled the expected outcome (a chart listing the attributes of the four polygons each group was investigating). I semi-randomly created groups of 4 students with one eye on creating a heterogeneous group. Defined and had students take on group jobs – recorders, materials, etc. And sent the groups on their merry way to focus on the task.

Which failed miserably. Why? Because despite our attention to polite dialogue (one student ended up telling her group to “shut the hell up”), the task of working with others needed to be broken down further. Even the simple – or so I thought – task of choosing one out of the four to record on chart paper was unattainable. I ended up spending much of the period on how to choose a recorder, what the responsibilities might be for the materials manager, etc.

Clearly, this is something my students and I need to work on aggressively. After we re-gathered in our meeting spot to talk about what was not working, I knew we needed to work much more diligently on getting along in a group so that the task (remember that?) actually is completed.

Yes, this is a very egocentric group; many try to have private conversations with me at the same time! But we need to learn how to get along in a group and how to negotiate working under group dynamics.

And that, my friends, was the take-away from that math lesson.



You convinced me!

We all need a good laugh – or even just a smile – every so often. Just to remind us of the joy that can be teaching.

In the midst of this silly season – this season when there is some hefty assessment going on – I had one of those moments as I corrected a sizable (read daunting) stack of persuasive reviews. Third grade writers are very earnest in their recommendations – even my less nuanced writers try their darnedest to convince me with their very best 9-year-old logic.

Here is the writing that made me smile:

Slerp! Crunch! Ahh! China Buffet the place I love, I’ll show you, actually show you all the amazing features with a con about… China Buffet of course. I previously mentioned that earlier. The food: China Buffet has some good food like the refreshing cold and hot, (I meant for it to be hot and cold) beverages which will eternally rock your socks off. You will be doing your stomach a favor!

And then there’s seafood, not much of it, but worth it. There’s about a dozen creamy rich flavored ice creamy smooth textured ice cream flavors. There is a fish tank with angelfish, clownfish, and tiger fish. It’s near Sleepy’s and Chuck E. Cheese (and Target).

China Buffet has great service. You use tongs to “get” food instead of ordering on a menu and waiting for cooked food. It’s already done!

And now for a con, one measly con. Your reaction may be “What! You can’t find the bathroom!” It’s silly yes, it’s there though. I’ve been there numerous times. (P.S. there’s fruit cocktails, pork fried rice, sushi, Jell-o, fortune cookies, chicken, shrimp, clams, etc.).

So that’s why you should go check out China Buffet. I rate it 5 stars.

Come to think of it, I would like to do my stomach a favor! Hope there’s a table available!