A Common Thread

If you don’t subscribe to the weekly Tip of the Week newsletter from the Sisters – Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, you are missing out on something really special.

This week’s front page essay was written by Joan and it really struck a chord with me. Teachers in current education practice are often stuck between a rock and a hard place: we often are charged with a mandate that we, as teachers, as professionals, know is not in the best interest of our students. What do we do – beside the obvious choice of continually attempting to change thinking? Joan – and Gail – raise an issue that, in my opinion, makes education a different kind of career.

Or does it? When an employee in the private sector – an employee at a large corporation – encounters a mandate that just doesn’t make sense is there ever any pushback? When the directive is one that impedes or prevents the employee from accomplishing a goal, do employees abandon their own thought and analysis to blindly follow a directive “just because”?

My sense, which is anecdotal of course,  is that they do not. Maybe educators need to be more forceful advocates for what benefits our students when we get a mandate that clearly won’t be helpful.

Which brings up another blog entry that was recommended to me this week: The Real Mr. Fitz. In his “Letter to Mr. Obama”, David Lee Finkle points out the irony of some of the more head-scratching initiatives that have impacted education in recent memory. Need I mention it is statistically improbable – if not impossible – that 100% of all students will read on grade level by 2015.

As David Lee Finkle says

…reformers are saying we should put students first. That is what I try to do every single day in my classroom. But I feel the reformers are putting everything but students first: test scores, data, common standards and assessments, value-added models, and standardized curricula are all coming first. Real, flesh and blood students with real problems, hopes and dreams are the last thing on the reformer’s agenda.

Two blog postings connecting with a common theme: teachers DO know what they are doing, we are here for the kids.

I Am Not A Nudge….. Really

When you have pretty strong convictions about something, they are not always understood or shared by others.

For me, one of my thoughts is that creating an environment of order and welcome is of high importance to my students’ frames of mind. With many of my students coming from existences that are not always orderly, I have felt that the ambiance created in the classroom can go a long way toward settling students, toward allowing students to focus and learn.

My colleagues and I are reading Charles Appelstein‘s No Such Thing As a Bad Kid, as part of a teachers’ book club this fall.  I was struck by the importance of cleanliness, warmth, and color in a classroom toward creating a safe environment for my students. Appelstein specifically calls out attending to classroom design – as do the Sisters. It is something I have been dabbling in for the last 4 months and now, armed with both Appelstein’s and Gail and Joan’s thinking, I may be ready to do something drastic.

I hate clutter. There seems to be no end of it in an inclusion classroom, so the first thing I need to address is the collection of materials that do not appear to have a use. Countertops get covered with materials – surely there has got to be a neater way to store what materials are needed for a day or week. This is tricky when you are sharing your space with other adults – I don’t want to be bossy about it, but some of the materials I see tucked away has no real purpose in the everyday learning of my students.

The next step will be to somehow find a way to create a more welcoming space – adding curtains/valances (whatever the fire code allows), changing that God-awful turquoise to something more calming, putting away or weeding out materials that aren’t in use, creating spaces that are welcoming for children to read, write and think.

So really, I am not a nudge, but I am convinced that the changes I can make — and the clearing of clutter — will impact the learning environment in this classroom. And they must be done.

Whew – 4 down one to go

We are still laying down the routines and expectation for the Daily Five. Here’s how my morning goes: Get up (usually before the alarm), start coffee, sit down with my laptop, check email (and Facebook, okay I admit I’m addicted) and then watch one of the Sister’s videos on the Daily Cafe website.

Most of my students – with the exception of two who are exceptional in that they have significant developmental delays – are able to sustain 15 minutes of Read to Self  followed by 15 minutes of Writing.  I don’t suppose it is that unusual at this point in the year to find my students can sustain stamina for nearly 30 minutes for the first choice session, but the stamina in the second choice session  is about 2/3 of that.

There are a few glitches. I can hear my students using Check for Understanding when they Read to Someone. But the voice levels are so loud – or at least I think they are. Coming from a background in constructivist mathematics where the classroom can be a noisy place, I am torn about stopping and restarting the students – they are talking on topic after all.

Next week we will add Listen to Reading — without the benefit of a listening center. (shameless plug: I’ve written a proposal on Donorschoose.org if you are feeling supportive). We will be using our boombox for that… wish us luck!

What I am seeing is a powerful transfer of responsibility to my students. They are starting to feel empowered by choosing what they will work on. And I am delighted that I was able to give a complete Fountas & Pinnell benchmark test without waving off at least one student who didn’t know what to do next and who wanted to interrupt me.

I think we’re getting somewhere.




I’ve been working – really working – at the conferencing table for the last several session of D5 choice. Up until this point, I have been “fake working” — monitoring students without their knowledge — so as to regroup if and when stamina for an activity is broken. We are nearly pros with Read to Self now and becoming much more independent with Writing; just a few missteps in the “”work quietly” department.

Word Work is still a work in progress as is Read to Someone. The kids are getting very accustomed to setting their goals for independently working (hurrah!) and are starting to verbalize why we do what we do in the classroom (extra hurrah).

When I hear other educators talk about the Daily Five, it is often said that D5 is simply an organizational structure. Well, yes, there is that aspect. However, for me, the beauty, the benefit of working with this structure is the explicit guide for creating independent students – students who become responsible learners.

It is not enough for students to comply in school just because teacher “said so.” Think about it: when you were a kid, you were probably often told to just do something. When you didn’t understand the point of the activity or the routine, did you find it easy to remember and to comply? I didn’t.

Building stamina for independence has been a painfully slow process. It is natural to want to get the show on the road, to be able to get in the routines of the day – all of them – as quickly as possible.

Independent habits of mind take time. We are building our stamina this year and already the payback is becoming obvious.

D5 One Day at a Time

We have been in session with our students for 3 days now. At one point yesterday afternoon I came to the realization that these third graders are funny and likeable and want to learn. Being somewhat superstitious I’m a little nervous about saying that out loud so early, but there you go.

We started our journey with the Daily Five on our very first day of school – just like the Sisters advocate.  I picked out one of my favorite read alouds, Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems and began by asking students about the ways they thought this book could be read. That resulted in a blank look that telegraphed, “Lady, if you don’t know how to read a book, we’ve got a big problem here.”

It took some coaxing, but we finally came up with 2 bullet items to add to our anchor chart. We tried reading the pictures for Knuffle Bunny first and then I modeled reading the words. I have quite a few students for whom reading is a challenge, the permission to read by pictures gave them a sense of accomplishment — just as the Sisters said it would.

We continued building the anchor chart for 3 Ways to Read on the second day of school by adding “Retelling the story”.  We’ve been talking about good fit books and will continue to develop that concept over the next week.

Working on developing the I-Chart for “Read to Self” was quite an eye-opening experience for me. It took a bit of coercing to get kids to realize that reading to yourself can be fun — but it also makes you smarter.  That’s a term I use a lot with my students as I am a big proponent of using attribution theory in developing habits of mind for effective effort. So instead of “becoming a better reader”, I’ve tweaked the sense of urgency to get smarter by reading.

As teachers, I think we assume that children intuit that we are working hard when they are working hard. my students had absolutely no clue what I might be doing while they were reading to self… really.  Blank stares followed by tentative guesses that I might be walking around the room.  So we stopped and took the opportunity to talk about teachers listening to students read, coaching students to improve their reading, and meeting with a small group.

I’ve paid close attention to the purposeful use of a good model and a  not-good model of nearly every routine we are working on. What a powerful way to get my barometer kids to buy in to successfully participating in focused and meaningful reading activities!

I find it is challenging to resist the urge to just dive into a fully developed schedule; I want to get everything rolled out all at once, but I know that doesn’t work. This year as I implement the Daily Five more purposefully, I am resisting the urge to rush building stamina and go right to sustaining a block of reading for 15 minutes. I learned from experience last year that even though I felt like the kids could sustain their attention, in reality, they could not. We’re up to 5 minutes as of today; five minutes when they are truly independent, when they are truly employing those 3 ways to read a book, 5 minutes when they are totally ignoring me because they are focused on reading. Awesome!

So far…. so good.

Finding my compass – again

I’ve put it off for nearly as long as I dare. It is time to start getting ready for a new school year. Completing my list for summer has suddenly kicked in to overdrive: there’s still much (re)painting to complete, sorting and throwing to do, cleaning and gardening/landscaping. But suddenly, there is a pressing need to squeeze it all in quickly — the students return in about a week.

I used to get pretty worked up about starting room preparations as soon as we turned the calendar to August. This year for the first time in my career, I’ve managed to make it all the way to the last 10 days before school begins. I suppose that’s growth. Hopefully it’s not burnout.

I love what I have chosen for my life’s work. But sometimes, more often now than in the beginning of my career, there are far too many experts telling me how to do my job. And demanding proof that I am doing it. This week,  I am in the processing of completing my self-assigned professional reading: The Cafe Book by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser – better known as “The Sisters”. Reading this book is helping me to find the balance between all the frenetic demands made on teachers today and a calm and purposeful learning experience for my students. Here is a quote from Debbie Miller that the Sisters included in their book (page 60) which caused me to sit up and take notice:

…when getting done takes precedence over the doing, when finishing becomes more important than the figuring out, we’ve lost sight of why we became teachers in the first place. (Miller, D. Teaching with intention: Defining beliefs, aligning practice, taking action, Grades K-5. (2008). Portland, ME: Stenhouse. p 106

As I read and reread Debbie Miller’s words, I realized that this is what has been causing me unease with what I do. In the rush to turn in this, that, or the other evidence, I have lost my bearing: why I am a teacher. I chose to teach because I believe that it is important to give every child the opportunity to soar to heights neither of us imagined possible. I do this on a selfish level because, when that moment of connection happens, when child and teacher both realize that something wonderful has happened, it is the most exquisite of emotions that makes all the hard, hard work worth everything.

This year, my personal goal as teacher, will be to refocus on why I teach, to not let outside forces undermine why my students and I are here, working together. And if I let some of those demands for evidence slip, if I’m late with something someone somewhere wants in order to show that I have been working, that is what will be.

You can find me here in Room 207 helping my students figure out how to take the next step in their learning path.