Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ke$ha in the Classroom? Maybe Not, But...

This morning I was singing in the shower. I do that every morning. Some people say they do their best thinking in the shower, but I think my tuneless-but-joyful singing voice drowns out any thoughts.

Not today! I began with a lusty sing-a-long to Don McLean's American Pie. The next song on the playlist was Ke$ha with Tik Tok. It's probably a bit funny that a 40-year-old woman likes Ke$ha. But, hey, I have two daughters (13 and 10) and I teach middle school. I think it is important to stay current with kids' fads. Liking them as well is a plus!

So as I'm singing along with Ke$ha I find it amusing that there are certain lyrics I won't sing out loud. Even all alone in the shower. Kind of funny. That got me thinking about appropriateness of popular music, and that some people are too uptight about it. It is not thinking that is unique to 2010. People have been lamenting the state of popular music since the first song hit the airwaves. From Elvis's hip thrusts to George Michael wanting our sex, there have been people who want to shelter kids from negative effects of pop music.

I am not one of those people. In March I am taking my daughters to see Lady Gaga in concert. I am pretty geeked about it. I know there are parents who think the concert is not an appropriate place for me to take the girls, though nobody has criticized this decision to my face.

In deciding whether or not to take them to see Lady Gaga, I began to think about all the songs I have loved over the years. Songs that came under scrutiny by censors or parents (not mine thankfully.) Songs like George Michael's I Want Your Sex (which, during my senior year, my best friends and I blared on the car radio every morning before school as we drove to the nearest gas station to buy Robo-Pops, until Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar on Me took its place) and Salt-N-Pepper's Push It.

These songs did not turn me into a deviant. They were simply the sound track of my life. I can attach a song to almost every memory I have. Many people feel this way, and kids at the middle and high school levels are no different.

I read recently--I wish I could remember where--scathing indictments of universities offering courses such as The History of Rock and Roll. What makes people think these courses can't be challenging and full of learning? Do they think if students are really interested, it can't really teach them anything? Music mirrors society. Why wouldn't students be interested in taking a course that can really teach them history through the lens of one of their biggest loves: music?

And that is one of the problems with education, in a nutshell. Too many people, mostly those on the outside--politicians, critics, some parents--think in order to be a challenge, education has to be drudgery. What our students need is to find relevancy in their education. If music makes history relevant, why wouldn't we offer The History of Rock and Roll? If Katy Perry's Firework can help students understand metaphor, play it loud!

If history and society are mirrored in the popular culture of the time, I say, show the movie clips and play the songs and teach students the higher order thinking skills to analyze what was happening at that time in history and how those events led to what came next. Because something is interesting is a reason to use it in education, not a reason to criticize it as frivolous.

In a past blog post, I shared some songs that could be used in the curriculum. Take a peek and find something you can use after the holidays to help your content area come alive for students: Music as Motivation.

By the way, just to be clear--I do believe that the parent has the ultimate say in what their children listen to. When I use music in the classroom, I am cognizant of that, and I do not use songs that may be offensive. I do like Ke$ha, I don't care if my daughters listen to her, but I wouldn't play most of her songs in a middle school classroom.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Building Tier 2 but on a Foundation of Sand?

C. S. Lewis once said, "We read to know we are not alone." Unfortunately, our struggling readers in middle school often feel very much alone. They are left on the perimeter of understanding in every class they attend. For many of them, we have turned our focus from learning to read to reading to learn and we've made the switch before they were ready for it.

I moved into the position of middle literacy coach after 10 years of teaching 8th grade language arts. During those 10 years, the administration went back and forth between listing my class as a reading class and a literature class. My focus changed with the name, but even when I was attempting to teach my students to be better readers, I was not doing the best job. I knew they needed help, I tried to give it to them through instruction in reading strategies but I didn't understand nor did I know how to adequately address the lack of fluency that many of them came to me with.

I've learned much in the last six and a half years that I have been a literacy coach, but that fluency piece has still been slow to come for me. After looking at some longitudinal data, it was apparent that our struggling readers are not making the gains necessary to close the gap. Something had to change. And in January, those changes will begin. Intervention groups that are all currently working on comprehension will be restructured to deliver an intervention that suits their needs better. I have set up an intervention using REWARDS authored by Anita Archer to address the 5th and 6th graders who are still struggling with phonics and decoding. Another set of students will be using the Read Naturally program to help increase their oral reading fluency. And the students who are not struggling with phonics or oral reading fluency will continue to get direct instruction in comprehension strategies. But I worry that even these additional interventions are not going to be enough to close the gap.

My district, beginning in the two elementary buildings is using the Response to Intervention (RtI) model. Our two feeder elementary schools each have a literacy coach who is addressing the needs of students in their buildings. But the three of us still feel frustration at building an intervention system on a foundation of sand. In the middle school, I know I am doing what needs to be done for Tier 2 of interventions.

But Tier 1, the classroom, is not strong. In our district, we don't have a set reading curriculum. The basals that exist are old and falling apart. And while I do not think a basal reading set is the way to go, we haven't had any money to buy any books AT ALL in the last three years, not even trade books. Content areas like science and social studies should be supplementing their curriculum with material accessible to struggling readers. But although most text books in science and social studies are up to date, those content areas haven't had money for supplemental books either. And when struggling readers are presented a text book written above the level at which they can read, it is no wonder that they fall behind and feel alone.

So, while I am excited about starting our new programs in January, I am still worried about these struggling readers. They need interventions that begin in the classroom, with teachers who have to walk the tight-rope of meeting every child where they are and moving them forward in the way that is best for them. They also have to do this in a way that does not become drill and kill, as it often does for the strugglers. As we help them to become more literate, we have to try not to create aliterate readers. It is not an easy task we take on.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Practical Homework Tips for Parents

Last month, I blogged about the purpose of homework. This post was written mainly for teachers to hopefully reflect on their homework-giving practice. This morning, I came across a post on homework tips for parents written by Scott Guditus, a middle school principal in Massachusetts. His blog is a good one. His homework tips for parents make sense. But there are a couple I would add:

1. If your child is legitimately struggling with a homework assignment because he does not understand the concept, do not push him to finish the assignment. It is the teacher's job to teach that concept and it does no good to try and practice a concept the child does not understand.

2. If the homework seems like pointless busy work, don't be afraid to respectfully ask the teacher for a rationale for the assignment. Assignments like spelling packets, time-consuming workbook pages of drill and kill practice skills, and copying words and definitions from a book have little research to back up their effectiveness. And if the teacher mentions teaching responsibility, pass along the name Alfie Kohn for their reading pleasure or let them know that the chores you assign at home do a good job of teaching responsibility. Here's a great resource to share.

3. If the homework is turning your kids off learning, respectfully ask the teacher for other options. If taking low-level comprehension based computer tests over books or building dioramas is making reading a chore rather than a joy for your child, take a stand against them.

Parents and teachers must be partners in a child's learning. In order for this partnership to be valuable and valid, parents shouldn't be afraid to have open, honest, respectful dialog with teachers about the homework being assigned.

Friday, December 3, 2010

To Catch a Cold

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."
— Ray Bradbury

It is the goal of reading teachers to foster a love of reading. They employ many strategies to try and win young hearts over to the beauty of undiscovered lands, unrequited loves, and adventures that are daring and sometimes deadly. For some students, this one teacher holds the entire world and she does it with zeal and enthusiasm. But is it enough.

"When you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and the ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a good book."
—Christopher Morley

Alliteracy is a concern in today's world. Parents who choose not to read risk raising children who also choose not to. But non-reading parents are not the only concern. The one place where students should be surrounded by reading role-models, school, they often are not. Surveys conducted of teachers show that they do not read any more often that adults in the general population. What can be done?

"Reading early in life gives a youngster a multitude of 'friends' to guide intellectual and emotional growth."
— Carroll D. Gray

Can the reading teacher alone turn every student into a person who finds the joy of reading? They try! They band together. They share their reading lists. They make recommendations to help each other when they have a student who doesn't seem interested in anything. They book talk, they display books, and they read, read, read. But would more kids be bitten by the reading bug if all teachers shared a love of reading with students? If the science teacher shared science fiction titles. If the social studies teacher book-talked historical fiction. If all classes made time in the day to show that reading is a priority, how much of a difference would it make?

You can't catch a cold or the love of reading from someone who has
neither. -Jim Trelease

Monday, November 29, 2010

I do not want to go to work today...

I would make an excellent couch potato. I could be the queen of all couch potatoes. And as a wanna-be-queen-couch-potato, I was blissfully happy with five days off from school over the Thanksgiving break. Last night, as I spent the last few precious couch moments and bemoaned the fact that I would have to get up early and go back to work, I was browsing the topics in my RSS reader. Stephanie Perkins had a new post.

Stephanie is a YA author and her posts are great to read when you are lounging on the couch. She is witty and fun and she includes a lot of pictures of really cute guys. I really needed her post last night. Stephanie was lamenting the struggles she was having with one of her writing projects. She had spent a "couch day" but was ready to get back at her writing because, as she says in her post, "I do not want to write. But I do want to be a writer."

That was the kick I needed to change my attitude about getting off the couch. I did not want to get out of bed this morning. But I do want to be a teacher. So, here I am back at school. Bring on the learning!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Power of Integrated Curriculum

Today has been declared a Day of National Blogging for Real Education Reform. There is no way I can be as eloquent as many of the bloggers in the educational community will be today. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the bigger picture of education reform. Merit pay, firing teachers, getting rid of unions. I admit that some of it frightens me. Ok, maybe a lot of it frightens me. We are talking about some pretty major changes coming at a time when, financially for many schools, things can't seem to get much worse.

In thinking about how I could contribute to this conversation, my mind kept returning to the theory of integrated curriculum. The world inside our middle and high schools is so subject oriented and fragmented that it should be no surprise that we are "losing" students at an enormous rate. We are losing them literally as many choose to drop out, and we are losing them figuratively as they become more and more disenchanted with school and education.

Integrating the curriculum in order to make apparent the connections between all facets of life and the world could go a long way to bring the enchantment back to education. We need to get away from teaching Biology for 45 minutes, then sending our students off to 45 minutes of History, then 45 minutes of math, etc. By centering the curriculum around essential questions and the bigger concepts that transcend subject areas, we bring meaning back to the curriculum. And by letting students ask the essential questions that drive the curriculum, we bring relevance and authenticity back into learning. For students, we bring back the joy of discovering that so many of them lost after elementary school. The National Middle School Association has addressed the value of curriculum integration in this Positon Statement.

The theories of curriculum integration have been around a long time. But it was in 1993 when James Beane wrote his book A Middle School Curriculum: From Rhetoric to Realilty, that the conversations began in earnest for middle level educators. Beane describes curriculum integration in a 1995 article from Phi Delta Kappa this way:

Curriculum integration is not simply an organizational device
requiring cosmetic changes or realignments in lesson plans across
various subject areas. Rather, it is a way of thinking about what
schools are for, about the sources of curriculum, and about the uses
of knowledge. Curriculum integration begins with the idea that the
sources of curriculum ought to be problems, issues, concerns posed
by life itself. (p.616)

But some of the structures put in place during the middle school movement actually keep us from the goal of curriculum integration. When teachers are teamed in order to have common planning time, students are attending their "specials" classes of art, music, and PE. In a truly integrated curriculum, these "specials" are part of the core.

And even teachers in teams still tend to think of themselves in terms of the subject they teach. While teams of teachers may do innovative things like interdisciplinary units to help make more concrete the connections between subjects, these units are often add-ons. Some teachers even feel resentful when they have to take time away from their curriculum to "do interdisciplinary units." These teachers cannot be faulted for their feelings of fear and resentment. Our culture of standardized testing has made them feel that the curriculum, the standards, benchmarks, and grade level content expectations for their subject are of the greatest importance. And the fear of repercussions if students don't achieve to those standards has led many teachers to teach in a very regimented way.

The fact that teachers see themselves as subject area experts is partially a result of teacher training. Therefore, teacher training and certification is another roadblock to integration. When teachers have to be certified, tested and proven highly qualified in a subject area, we severely limit their ability to attempt curriculum integration. As a teacher who is certified to teach language arts, I can easily integrate other subject areas into a class, but I still have to send students off to do their time in those other subject areas. Although I am perfectly capable of leading my students to answering their questions and helping them find the resources they need when I don't have all the answers, the state says that because I haven't passed a teacher certification test in social studies, science, or math, I am not qualified.

Organizing the curriculum around essential questions and larger concepts is something many teachers have no practice with. Even elementary teachers, who tend to teach with themes, may find that their units are a lot of flash with little substance. Organizing units around dinosaurs, apples, Western Expansion, etc., limits the depth that we can help students achieve in their thinking and learning. Carol Ann Tomlinson addressed this in a November 1998 article in the Middle School Journal; For Integration and Differentiation Choose Concepts over Topics.

For the past 4 years, as an adjunct instructor, I have been teaching a graduate level course on middle level curriculum. The final assessment in the class is to be able to create integrated curriculum. My university mentor has always wanted me to require that the teachers in the class work in teams to create an integrated unit. While I admire her immensely, I have been moving away from that requirement in the last couple of years. As school budgets dwindle, middle schools that operate on the middle school model tend to be first on the chopping block. It takes extra staff to provide common planning time for teachers. Because so many of my grad students no longer work in team-teaching environments, it has become increasingly important to me that they learn how to look differently at their subject area. That they help students ask the important questions, develop curriculum around those questions. That they show their students the integrated nature of learning in order to re-awaken their desire for learning. It is important that they be able to work on their individual subject area to find ways to make the concepts of that subject integrated and show their students how the knowledge gained in their class can help them develop deeper understandings of our world.

Resources recommended and/or mentioned in this post:
Beane, James A. (1993.) A Middle School Curriculum: From Rhetoric to Reality. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Nesin, G. & Lounsbury, J. (1999.) Curriculum Integration, Twenty Questions--with Answers. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Middle School Association.

Tomlinson, Carol Ann. (1998) For Integration and Differentiation Choose Concepts over Topics. Middle School Journal, 30(2), 3-8.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Purpose of Homework

Recently, a member of my PLN, Russ Goerend, sent out this tweet:
Would you do the homework you're assigning?

It is really quite a profound question. I have found myself thinking about it off and on since he tweeted it. It is a question I have often wanted to ask the teachers with whom I work as well as my daughters' teachers. Not because I question the homework they give (though in all honesty, I often do), but because I want them to question the homework they give.

The homework debate can get very heated and I am not writing to add flames to the fire. I don't see homework as inherently evil, but I have seen some pretty evil assignments. I think Cathy Vatterott, in her book Rethinking Homework, gives teachers many angles to think about in assigning homework.

One consideration she highlights is the purpose of homework. She delineates 4 main purposes. The first is prelearning. I like to think of this as building background knowledge. Homework for this purpose may be as simple as these directions: Tonight for homework, find two people who can tell you something about the Civil War. In class the next day, what the students share can be the beginnings of a group KWL chart. When using homework for this purpose it should not be graded. Hopefully, homework assigned for prelearning would involve tasks that are motivating to students and get them thinking about the specified topic. If that is the goal, there is no reason to give a grade.

The second purpose for homework is checking for understanding. I'd like to think that was the purpose for my daughter's math homework last night. What her teacher would have found out was that she had very little understanding. However, knowing that probably wasn't the purpose and that she would end up getting a grade for an assignment she didn't know how to do, my husband spent 30 minutes figuring out how to do the math so that he could teach her what to do. This was after I spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to do it. I think my husband should get part of that teacher's salary for doing the job of teaching that concept. (By the way, the concept was: stupid-slope-y-intercept-graph-crap. At least that was the way I texted it to my husband to get him out of the deer blind!) When using homework for this purpose, it should not be graded. A teacher can tell by checking the homework if there was understanding. If there wasn't, it becomes the teacher's job to determine what needs to happen next in their teaching to get to that understanding.

Practice is the third purpose. I think this is what the math teacher intended last night's homework to be. But a student can't practice something they are not close to mastering. It only builds resentment and confusion for the student--and sometimes the parent! When using homework for this purpose, it should not be graded. When a basketball coach instructs her players to practice free-throws at home, the players don't earn points for the ones they make. The points only count in the game. Homework for the purpose of practice is like free-throws.

The fourth purpose for giving homework is for processing. Getting students to think more about the learning that took place can extend their understanding. Processing might take the form of a learning log post reflecting on what was hard and what was easy in that day's lesson. This is information that a teacher could then use to determine where instruction needs to go next. When using homework for this purpose, it should not be graded. The information that a teacher gets from student processing is invaluable to further planning of instruction, but should not translate into a score.

You should have noticed that Vatterott does not believe in grading homework. For any reason. So don't even try the "teaching responsibility" argument. Here is what she says about the flaw in the concept of homework teaching responsibility:
The flaw in this concept lies in the implementation--when students don't complete
homework on time, late policies punish them for not learning responsibility! So if
don't complete homework on time, doesn't that mean that the teacher has failed
to teach them responsibility? If that is true, the logical act would be to reteach
them without penalty. Instead, the use of late policies judges students for not
learning responsibility and then fails them as a result. (p.89)

The next time you give homework, think about your purpose. Consider what you will do with the information you get from it. And ask yourself, Would you do the homework you're assigning?

Vatterott, C. (2009). Rethinking Homework. Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Starbucks and Writing

When the latest issue of Time magazine appears in my mailbox, I immediately turn to the last page and read the last column. I find that quite often, Joel Stein's or Nancy Gibbs' essays are ones that often resonate with me and would also be accessible by 7th or 8th grade students. And sometimes even with 5th and 6th graders. When Joel wrote recently about his personal experience with bed bugs in a hotel, I could pair his essay with the Time For Kids article about bed bugs to give literacy students a reading experience that was first at their reading level and that then moves them to text that is more complex. In this way, I can push their comprehension to higher levels.

What a neat surprise I had today, when I got the November 15 issue of Time and in turning to the last page, I found this advertisement for Starbucks coffee on the back:

The first thing I thought was, "I need to get me some of this coffee!" And then realizing the article's effect on me, I thought, "Self, how could this be used with students?" And oh-so-many ideas began to hit me. Aside from the obvious that it can be analyzed critically, like any advertisement, for the appeal that the author is using to entice customers, this one sentence is a great piece of writing.

A writing teacher could use it in a mini-lesson on using juicy words in writing. It could be used for a mini-lesson on personification. It would also be fun for students to think of a product and see if they could write one sentence about it that would make someone want to buy it. It could even be made multi-disciplinary by having students design their own ads for their product, thinking about graphics, size and placement of design elements and font style and size.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Autonomy-or the lack thereof....and then some humor

I seem to have had several things to complain about recently. Complaint is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you try to also offer suggestions to help remedy the problems about which you complain. Yesterday, I had to opportunity to speak to the principal of my daughter's middle school. He said some things about the 8th grade situation that give me hope for the way it is being handled.

I also emailed my younger daughter's teacher and linked him to information that explain my stance on the reward/punishment system. The link led him to my blog and my last post, which I think insulted him. That would never have been my intention, as there are MANY teachers in the district who are wonderful, caring, challenging teachers. He is among them. One thing he said, though, in his email was that the PRIDE program was the decision of the administrators. That bothers me. I have always felt that the great teachers in this school system are not afforded enough autonomy, and that was what I meant when I said in the last post that I chose not to look for a job here because my values didn't match the schools. Even when I attended high school here myself, I felt the teachers were not treated like competent, intelligent professionals. I need to work in a place that I feel a part of because my expertise is understood and appreciated. His statement explained a lot too. If the teachers are not given more than a token voice in what happens in a district, how can they be expected to understand how to help students have a voice? At this point I am just going to keep my mouth closed for a while. I have made my feelings known, but I think I need to learn when I've said enough.

In honor of staying on the positive side, here's a fun middle school story I have to share. The other day, I was coming out of the copy room in the office. Right outside the copy room door there is a phone on the wall of the main office. As I walked out, I saw one of our POHI students (not sure if that label is still the one in use.) Asa (not his real name) is short and squat, with Coke-bottle glasses and a smile that warms your heart. He was looking at the phone like it was a new invention, holding the receiver off to the side in his left hand. I asked him if he needed help and showed him how to choose an outside line to make his call. I watched him painstakingly dial the 11 digits, but still hold the receiver off to the side as he rechecked the number in the display. I assured him he had dialed fine and that he needed to put the phone to his ear, but he continued to stare at the display. I took the receiver from him and heard a voice saying, "Hello?"

"Hi, this is the school. Asa needs something, here he is," I said into the phone and then handed it back to Asa, telling him to go ahead and tell his mom what he needed.

Asa took the phone, said "Hello? Hello?" looked up at me and said, "I can't hear anything." So I took the phone again.

Speaking into it, I checked to make sure someone was still there and that the reception was ok. I had the brief thought that perhaps Asa had called a cell phone and had lost the connection, but mom was still saying hello, plain as day. I asked her to hang on just a second, then looked at Asa and said, "Asa, why did you call mom? What do you need?" His answer made me laugh out loud so that I was barely able to relay the message to his mom. He said...........................................

"I need a battery for my hearing aid."!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Making 8th grade a police state is not the answer.

Remember the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld? He held the ultimate power over whether Jerry and friends received soup or not. When the show's characters entered the store, you could see their change in demeanor. They lived in fear of being yelled at and denied soup. It is unfortunate that I find myself making a connection between the Soup Nazi and some of the 8th grade teachers at my daughter's school. She has coined them "The Gum Nazis."

Right now, there are several things rotten in the state of Denmark that is my daughter's middle school. I am so frustrated at how the values of the school seem to be the polar opposite of the values I hold as a parent and as a middle school educator. (As an aside--people used to ask me why I never went for a job in the district in which I live. I think I always knew that I couldn't be happy working there specifically because some of the policies and practices are in direct conflict with my beliefs. I never fully realized that was why until I my own children became school age.)

My daughter is a responsible young woman. I also realize that she is a child. She will make mistakes. She will get in trouble. But for the most part, I find that her reflections on what is happening in her school, while tinted by the lens of adolescence, are usually pretty accurate. Two days ago, the principal, explaining to the entire class just how terrible their behavior is, enacted new rules that make an analogy to a prison state pretty accurate. As data to support his plan was the fact that the 8th grade has the largest number of PRIDE slips--more than the other three grade levels combined. PRIDE slips = discipline referrals. I have a hard time keeping them separate in my mind from PRIDE tickets, which are given randomly for "doing good things." I'll just let you read what Joe Bower has to say about these reward systems; he says it much more eloquently than I could.

So, they have a lot of PRIDE slips as a group. My daughter has had zero. Most of her friends-zero. But some of the teachers are seeing this new list of "rules" as vindication and revenge. ("Rules"? I call them punishments-see what Joe Bower has to say about that as well. He is one smart guy.) It seems that one rule being broken quite often is No Gum Chewing. And a couple of teachers are on the war path to catch the gum chewers. They have decided that chewing gum will earn a PRIDE slip. After 4 PRIDE slips, students "earn" a suspension. I don't know. I would be embarrassed as a teacher or administrator to explain to a parent that their child was suspended from school for gum chewing.

I can understand the frustration of a whole group of students that is overwhelming naughty. We've had that group move through my own school system. They were trying. They were aggravating. But we always tried very hard to remember it was the behavior of a few that made the whole group seem "bad." And we tried to remember that there was some reason behind why each student who was acting out made the choice to do so. It was our job to try to help them understand what those reasons were and to help them learn to make better choices. My daughter's teachers don't seem to understand this. My daughter described one of her teachers as being "cocky" when she enforces the "new rules." And that is just not necessary. In fact, my daughter said, "Geez, we get it. They have all the power. We have to do whatever they say. She doesn't have to like it so much." The sad fact is that when the teachers take this attitude, they are alienating themselves from the "good" students who at one point wanted to make them happy and proud. The "good" kids are so fed up with being in trouble and they aren't taking it out on the "bad" kids causing the trouble, which I think is something adults often hope will happen. Instead, they are losing respect for the authority figures who are abusing their power. Kids shouldn't be given the task of monitoring or trying to change the behavior of another kid, especially through manipulative ways like group punishments.

Any teacher's #1 strategy in having an efficient, learning classroom should be creating caring and respectful relationships with students. My daughter no longer feels like she has a respectful relationship with several of her teachers. Turning 8th grade into a police state is not the answer. This school needs to take a careful look at their beliefs about teaching, learning, and basic nature of people. If their behaviors are supported by their beliefs, I have to seriously ask myself if this is the school in which my child belongs. I would much rather my children learn in a school that spends time reflecting on the best way to teach each child to reach higher levels of critical thinking, life-long learning, and ethical behavior and not on devising punishment and reward systems that do things to kids rather than work with them.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What is Important About the Common Core State Standards?

Lately, I've been pretty immersed in the Common Core State Standards. I'm trying read up on the research about why and how they were developed. I am thinking about the best way my district can begin to have conversations about them. In listening to others talk about what their districts are doing, I keep hearing, "We just have to get the Standards into the teachers' hands."

I don't know, maybe I am being too cynical, but I have this vision of me handing teachers a binder with the Standards and teachers sliding the binder onto a shelf. I do not mean to say that my teachers don't care about teaching and learning. I am part of a staff that is very caring and committed to student learning. I know they are going to think, "This is just another passing fancy. In a year or two, I can empty the binder and have another empty binder for my collection." Teachers are just busy! If I put the standards into their hands, I think I also need to give them the time and opportunity to talk about them, to dissect them and discuss them. Unfortunately, I am not the one that has the power to do that.

Last Monday, I went to a conference led by the Michigan Department of Education. The purpose of the conference was to give information about the standards and about the assessment that is supposed to be ready to replace the MEAP by 2014. I appreciate that the state put it together. I got some good information and some teaching ideas from the break-out sessions. But the general session that attempted to address the new Common Core test really bothered me. (It bothered me first of all because it was "a suit" reading a power point to me.) I know schools are going to be worried about the new test--what it will look like, who will score it, where will the cut scores be set (this one, I think, could cause some real issues for Michigan. MEAP cut scores in math have been set as low as 32% in the past!)

I think the focus of adopting the Common Core State Standards should be the teaching and learning associated with them. How do we engage in best practices to ensure that our students are learning to be critical readers and thinkers? How do we engage in conversations to make sure that we implement the Standards in a way appropriate for our community, school, and students? The focus should always be our students. But one of the state people, in regard to what was of primary importance in adopting the standards and getting ready for the change in assessment, actually said (and this is when I really started getting hot under the collar):

We don't want to endanger how we prepare for tests.

Seriously? That was the important piece of information I was supposed to take away from the day? The content specialists were saying that the standards aim for teaching the "capacities" of English language arts and "mathematical practices" in mathematics. That sounds like a step in the right direction. But the people at the top are worried about "endangering how we prepare for tests." Nice.

And the consortium that is charged with developing the new assessment asked for $350million to develop the test. They were awarded $160million. No money has been earmarked for administering or scoring. Of course not. Why would the state or federal government ever issue a mandate to schools AND then actually fund it? But we shouldn't worry about that. We just need to remember not to endanger how we prepare for tests. Oh-and one more thing-that the goal of the new standards and the new common assessment is to improve teaching. Because that has worked well for us so far.

Who wants to develop the scale that improves weight loss for me?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Me as a Reader

Franki, Kevin, and Linda all recently blogged about things that define them as readers. Aren't they great lists? They inspired me to create my own.

1. The first book I remember reading on my own was Bears in the Night.
2. I think that book fueled my love of horror novels!
3. I read aloud a book in my first grade class. It was a Tweety and Sylvester book and I remember my teacher marveling over my Tweety voice: "I tawt I taw a putty-tat. I did! I did taw a putty-tat!"
4. I read The Hobbit in 4th grade.
5. I also read A Wrinkle in Time in 4th grade and Madeleine L'Engle became my favorite author.
6. In 7th grade we had to write 7 book reports per marking period. I was in heaven!
7. I was an Anne McCaffrey fanatic in 7th grade.
8. I cannot remember a single book that I had to read in high school.
9. I have never read Shakespeare and I have no desire to do so now.
10. I used to read to my daughters every night. I still read to them, but not as often. (They are 13 and 10 now.)
11. When I read to Genevieve as part of her bedtime ritual, I was the one who fell asleep!
12. G and I cried together when we read about Matthew Cuthbert death.
13. I have read almost everything by Stephen King. But not the Dark Tower books.
14. The Stand is my all time favorite book. It is another book I read in 4th grade!
15. Every year for Christmas I got one boxed set of books. It was my favorite gift to open.
16. When I think one genre is my favorite, I remember all the great books of another genre!
17. I wish I were a published author.
18. I love to read aloud in classrooms.
19. Today I read "Are We There Yet?" a short story from the book Just Annoying. The kids LOVED it!!
20. I remember racing Mike Bachman (not sure what grade it was) to see who could finish the SRA kit first.
21. I loved those SRA kits as a kid.
22. I hate those SRA kits as a teacher!
23. On long car trips, I read aloud to the family. I think my husband likes it more than the girls.
24. I partner-read Red Dog with a 5th grade boy. After it made me cry, he was determined to find another book for us to read together that would make me cry.
25. I don't think I have read a single Patricia Polacco book that did not make me cry.
26. I saw Patricia at last year's Michigan Reading Association conference...and she had THE keeping quilt with her!
27. My personal picture book library has over 800 books.
28. I love meeting authors.
29. I love getting my books autographed.
30. I love sharing autographed books with kids, who then see them as treasure like I do!
31. I was beyond geeked when I book I bought in a whole box of picture books was autographed by Patricia Polacco.
32. I think it is so uber-cool that I can follow and TALK TO some of my favorite authors on Twitter!!! (I'm @mom2preteens if you'd like to follow me!)
33. I fell in love with the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature in high school.
34. In college I used the Reader's Guide like a treasure hunt to learn about things I didn't even know I wanted to know about.
35. I find it harder to read longer nonfiction text since I've been online.
36. I love science fiction--especially Heinlein and Asimov. But also Orson Scott Card and Ray Bradbury.
37. Two of my favorite books, The Doomsday Book and Outlander, are an incredible mesh of science fiction and historical fiction.
38. Goth Girl Rising was the first book that ever made me want to write to the author. And I did. Here. (And he read it, because I follow him on twitter! :D)
39. I am addicted to Scholastic book orders and I often will not let myself go into a book store if I know I can't buy anything.
40. I get disappointed when books I've really loved get made into movies. The biggest disappointment was probably The Tale of Despereaux.

I think I will stop at 40. Maybe I will come back and add more at another time. If you decide to blog about yourself as a reader, link back to me!!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

6 Word Memoirs from 5th Grade

October 20 was the National Day on Writing. To celebrate, I spent some time with a 5th grade classroom, writing 6 Word Memoirs. They would love to share their work with you!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Is it cyber-bullying

Being a mom to a young adolescent is so much different than just being a teacher of young adolescents. And the world of our preteens and teens is so much different now than even 17 years ago, when I first set foot in my 8th grade classroom. We have so many things to worry about as parents. And technology can add to those worries. Thankfully, it can also be an outlet for finding people who can help with answers and advice. That is what I need today!

My 13 year old daughter is on facebook. She handles herself well and she understands (mostly) how to stay safe, how to develop her digital footprint. I like to think that I am right there beside her to guide her. I am her friend on facebook and I do monitor what she says and what others say on her wall. I do not get into her account, as she has given me no reason to think she is hiding anything or doing anything inappropriate. In fact, the issues she is facing right now, she is being very up front with me about. I guess I just need some reassurance that I have handled things correctly and maybe some suggestions on what more I might need to do.

The issue is that there are a couple of high school girls who are posting very catty posts to her wall and commenting snarkily on her status updates. There is nothing overtly threatening to the posts, but I can tell that it causes my daughter anxiety. I recommended that she "unfriend" them. Really, why do you want to invite people into your life who make you feel that way? She did take my advice, but reluctantly. She seems to think these girls will view her as weak if she unfriends them, or that they will think they have the upper hand. I think at this point she needs to ignore them. She is already worrying about next year when she will be in the high school with them!

So at this point, do I ignore them as well, or do I let someone know about the behavior of these girls? And if so, who? I know my daughter is worried, and it is a worry that I share, that if I do say something to the school or to the parents, the backlash from the girls will be worse than what she is currently experiencing.

When these perplexing problems show up, I really miss those sweet little toddler days, when the biggest struggle in her life was avoiding naptime!

Monday, October 18, 2010

First Meeting continued....

If you haven't already, read about the first half of this meeting here...

The second team member to share was the art teacher. After reading the William's article, she realized she wanted to work on giving students wait time after she asked questions. That became a focus for her in the first month and a half of school. It became apparent during the meeting that she does like to jump in when people are speaking and to finish sentences. It really did help our rapport grow that we could tease her when this happened and help her to self-monitor her behavior. In addition, she wanted to decrease the number of times she had to give instructions in her class. To do this, she utilized the tool of Thumbs-Up, asking students to show her non-verbally whether they understood directions or not. This tool helps students to become metacognitive and to think and decide if they really do understand. We talked as a team about building the kind of classroom community that makes it OK for students to be honest when they are confused or behind, so that they aren't giving the "thumbs-up" even when they don't understand something.

Next to share was the 8th grade language arts teacher. She was sharing her new Independent Reading requirement with the group and how she was trying to monitor that with Reading Logs, which were the tools she was sharing. I had had a planning conversation with her the week before about this new part of her classroom requirements, and I could see how her thoughts had progressed since our conversation last week, and also her misunderstandings about how formative assessment might fit into the independent reading requirement. In explaining her reading logs, she talked about how much time her students were required to read. Some probing questions led her to the understanding the giving students a reading log and a goal was not requiring the students to set goals, which is the formative assessment strategy she thought she was accomplishing. It was serendipitous that over the weekend I found a great blog post in which a reading teacher wrote about her students using reading logs to do some self-assessment and for conferencing between the student and teacher. I passed this reading along to my teacher and will check in with her later in the week to see what she thought.

The last presenter for our first meeting was a 5th grade teacher. This teacher was part of the team last year and in a classroom, she would be the perfectionist. :) The tools she shared, I think, really gave the rest of the group a clear picture of how to plan for using formative assessment tools and for using the data that the tools provide. She shared some learning targets she had written for her fifth graders in their science class. The learning targets had been revisited by the students after each classroom activity and once more after the summative assessment. Students were self-assessing their knowledge and understanding of the learning targets. The team was able to suggest to this teacher that she somehow have the students code each time they re-assess the targets, better tracking the flow of their understanding. It is the mark of a good team that even though it was apparent this teacher has a deeper understanding of formative assessment, they still felt comfortable giving her suggestions for improvement, and she was thankful to hear them. This 5th grade teacher teaches ELA as well. She also shared a method of providing feedback to students using twiducate. Twiducate is a social net-working site that is private in the classroom. It has a format similar to facebook. The teacher posted a prompt for students to write about dealing with the book she is reading aloud to them. After their posts, she went back and left feedback comments for them and the students made changes to their posts to reflect what they had learned from the feedback left to them. Several other teachers were eager to learn more about using twiducate for similar lessons.

The last part of the protocol for sharing formative assessment tools asks presenter to reflect on how the data from the tool caused them to adjust their instruction. As a group we kept struggling with this reflection. We realized a couple of times that instruction wasn't adjusted because the tool really wasn't used formatively. In those instances, we all brainstormed ideas for pushing those tools to be formative. Other times, we were just confused about how that adjustment of instruction was supposed to happen.

But then we moved on to our new learning. We looked at chapter three in our formative assessment learning guide. This chapter is about the triangulation of data in order to get a valid picture of what students know and can do. This chapter gave us an "A-HA moment" when we read this:
"The purpose of developing and using assessments and gathering student evidence within The Formative Assessment Process is three-fold. It allows (1) you to know where students are in relation to the learning targets, (2) students to see what they know and need to work on, and (3) you and your students to use this information to make decisions about where to go next with the learning."
And then I knew the problem. When I created the protocol, I was making formative assessment about the teacher only. And it isn't! The huge power of formative assessment comes in the way that it puts the ownership for learning back into the hands of the students. It gives them choice and power. It takes the veil of secrecy off our teaching, letting students in on the "why" of learning. The team discussed how we could revise the protocol to reflect our new understanding.

In addition to the above new learning, the chapter outlines the three types of formative assessment: products, conferences, and observations. I asked the team members to think about their own practice and share where they felt their strengths and weaknesses in using these three types of assessments. After some discussion, I asked the team to start being intentional and trying to use all three types with at least one class. This was their homework.

I had planned to spend a bit more time on the learning portion of the meeting, but the time got away from us and I did not want to hold them any longer on a Friday afternoon. But honestly, I could have. When I said it was 4:30, so we would wrap it up, they were all surprised. How refreshing to still feel ready to share and learn more on a Friday afternoon after a full day of professional development!

The last thing I asked the team to do was to fill out a Ticket Out the Door. The first question was asking them to reflect on the tool they presented (or were going to present) and explain which type of assessment it was. In this way, I was tying what they had done to the new learning they accomplished from Chapter 3 in the learning guide. The second question was asking them to reflect on which tool from today's presentations they could envision working in their own classroom. With this question, I was hoping to build their efficacy as well as have them reflect on their craftsmanship. In the coming weeks, I can check in with them about what they indicated they wanted to try and see how it is working for them.

I have such positive feelings for the year ahead!!

First Formative Assessment Team Meeting

This is the second year that my school district has been involved in The Formative Assessment Process, an initiative by the Michigan Department of Education and Measured Progress. My team last year consisted of three high school and three middle school teachers. As the Literacy Coach in the middle school, I functioned in the role of their coach. At the end of last year, one of my high school teachers became the coach for a full high school team and I opened the middle school team up for new members.

My original three members remained and five new teachers joined the project this year. My team consists of one 5th grade teacher, two 6th grade teachers, three 8th grade teachers, the middle school art teacher, and the middle school Spanish teacher. Math, English Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies are all represented in the team. In a rural school with about 24 teachers, my formative assessment team represents about one-third of my staff. I think that is pretty impressive when one considers that the team is completely voluntary.

Last Friday was a Professional Development day across our district. There were several meetings and presentations throughout the day and the formative assessment team agreed to place our meeting at the end of the day and stay beyond the posted end of the day to accomplish the goals we had set out for ourselves. In exchange for putting in the extra time, they asked to have the meeting held off-site, so at 2:30, we headed for the meeting room of a local restaurant.

We began our meeting with the protocol called Hopes and Fears. We discussed what we hoped to gain from our work together as well as our fears about what was ahead of us. Through this protocol, we came up with our norms. We are a fun-loving group and in addition to the norms that will keep us on track, we entertained some less academic norms as well. We agreed that our one male team member should be reminded at least three times per meeting that he was the only guy. And I was quick to veto the norm that the coach would pick up the tab for off-site meetings!

But we soon got down to business and discussed an article from Educational Leadership by Dylan Williams called Changing Classroom Practice. The team all agreed that the article helped assuage their fears that this process was going to be more than they could handle. We all agreed that each member should consider where they are now in their understanding of formative assessment and set a goal to move forward. We don't all have to be at the same place but we all have to respect where each person is.

The next part of our meeting was the sharing portion. Each team member was asked to bring in evidence of a formative assessment tool they used in their classroom since school began. Each person was given five minutes to share following a protocol I created that asked them to consider and talk about their goal or objective, how the tool was used, with which formative assessment strategy it aligned (activating prior knowledge, goal setting, feedback use, self-assessment, and peer assessment), and how the data from using the tool was used to adjust their instruction. I created this protocol hoping to create some reflective thinking about the tools teachers were selecting and if and how it really was formative assessment. Last year I sometimes felt I was not fulfilling my role of coach as well as I wanted to. Often, the tools teachers presented were very creative, fun activities. But they were not always formative assessment.

It was apparent an hour into the sharing time that we were not going to get through our agenda and through everyone presenting. We decided that four people per meeting would share. That would allow us to explore each tool in depth and not feel rushed.

The first person to share was the 8th grade Social Studies teacher. He shared a rubric he created for a Town Project in the Living Through History program. His goal with this tool was to allow students to have choice in the point values assigned to each criteria on his rubric. As the group discussed the strategy that this tool aligned to, I could really see the thinking being much more reflective and deeper than it got last year. While the rubric was a good one, and giving students some choice in how they would be graded is also a positive thing, the group decided that the actual rubric was not formative assessment. The group then helped this teacher brainstorm some ways that could push his rubric into the formative assessment realm. For example, if the groups had the rubrics from the start of the project, they could use it to self-assess half-way through. The teacher could conference with the groups on their progress and the groups could reflect on areas that they felt needed more work, or in which they lacked knowledge or understanding. That group brainstorming was powerful, as was the safe and respectful way that we recognized the good teaching in what was presented yet were still able to help push the teacher to see through the formative assessment lens.

Come back tomorrow to read about three other teachers using formative assessment tools and to find out what the team learned together!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dear Barry Lyga...

Recently I read two books by Barry Lyga: "The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl" and "Goth Girl Rising." They are two of the most excellent books I have ever read and I thought about writing traditional reviews of them. But this is not a book review blog. And there are many book review blogs out there that do a much better job than I ever could.

Instead, I was reading an interview with Barry on and I came across this quote: "The sequel had to be a better story than the original, in my mind. That's the standard I hold myself to when writing a follow-up--it has to be better than the original." It was serendipitous because as much as I enjoyed "Fanboy and Goth Girl," I found "Goth Girl Rising" to be so much more engaging, fulfilling, suspenseful. That is when I decided that I needed to take a page from the book and write to Barry Lyga. The fact that I follow him on twitter and that he could potentially read this letter (unlike Neil and Kyra's letters to him) both excites and terrifies me! (Or maybe Neil has read Kyra's letters? If not, he should!)

Dear Barry,
Kyra is one of my most favorite characters. Ever. I would have loved her as a teenage girl, but as a (gulp) middle-aged woman, I can relate to Kyra and her story on so many levels.

First of all, kudos to you! As Kyra marveled in Fanboy's ability to relate to and write about a mature woman, I marveled in your ability to capture the feelings, insecurities, and idiosyncrasies of an adolescent female. Though I did not have to suffer Kyra's heart break of losing a parent, I can remember how volatile it was to live through adolescence. The highs and lows, the need to be an individual yet also belong to a group, to feel connection with others but to push those connections away--those are all feelings I dealt with--feelings that are almost universal for many adolescents both male and female.

But Kyra also made me think about my adult roles. My heart broke for her many times throughout the book. I wanted to scream at her through the pages to let her guard down, to let someone in. And at the same time, my mind's eye was seeing students that have come through my classroom and my middle school. Kyra has nothing good to say about her teachers (much like Melinda in Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak) but that doesn't mean they weren't good people. For whatever reason, none of them established the connection necessary to help Kyra navigate her troubled waters. And none of them really took the time to get to know her, to understand exactly what she was going through, to find a way to show their compassion for her loss other than through looks of pity. Kyra would be a hard student to like. But as a teacher, I need to remember that every student has a back story that I don't know. Every student, whether their actions are positive or negative, is acting to fill a need. Thank you, Barry, for making me remember that. For reminding me that I need to look at every student as an individual. That every student wants to be known and understood. Every student is a soul to be nurtured, not just a vessel to fill.

But, Barry, where your story affected me the most was through the final stages of Kyra's relationship with her mom. When you finally revealed the last words Kyra spoke to her mom, I lost my breath. That is not just a euphemism; I very honestly could not breathe. The guilt and anger that Kyra had been carrying became so clear in those four words. And then I cried. I am not talking a couple of tears spilling out of my eyes. I mean a full-blown-put-the-book-down-and-sob-out-loud cry. I was crying for Kyra's mom, who wasn't able to be the kind of mother I know she wanted to be. I was crying for the whole future of what Kyra lost when she lost her mother. I cried because life is so fragile that Kyra's world could be any child's world--could be MY child's world. And so, Barry, you taught me another lesson through Kyra: I have to give my daughters the skills, knowledge, and courage to face this world without me. I have to make sure EVERY DAY that they know how much they are loved. I have to give them a support system outside myself that they can rely on in times that I can't be there for them. I am hoping that that day is long into the future, but the actions I take today will help them grow into the kind, strong women I hope they become.

Kyra will get there too, I know. Her support system just took longer to establish itself. Thank you so much for her story.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Music as Motivation

Connecting instruction to student interest is a crucial component in motivating students to learn. Music is one way to create that connection and there are many songs that the classroom teacher can use to introduce concepts in all content areas. This post will focus on social studies, sharing some bibliographies that came from a MAMSE conference (Michigan Association of Middle School Educators) many years ago. These songs were shared by Vincent Calcaterra, an educator at L'Anse Creuse Public Schools in Macomb County, Michigan.

Anything You Want-Roy Orbison (Unlimited wants, needs)
Did You Ever Have to Make up Your Mind-The Lovin' Spoonful (choice, opportunity cost)
The Road Not Taken-Bruce Hornsby and the Range (trade-offs, opportunity cost) talks about the result of choices made by both the singer and object of his disappointment
Paper in Fire-John Mellencamp (trade-offs, choice)
Look Out Any Window- Bruce Hornsby and the Range (externalities, trade-offs) As we seek new products or increased quantities of existing products, our own desire to satisfy our unlimited wants lead to the production of wastes and residues that, themselves, impose costs.
Please, Please Me-The Beatles (utility, exchange, markets, prices)
Baby, You Can Drive My Car-The Beatles (complimentary goods)
Money for Nothin'-Dire Straits (labor, factor markets, exchange)
Workin' for a Livin'-Huey Lewis and the News (labor, factor markets, exchange)
The Way that You Use it-Eric Clapton (productivity, entrepreneurship, risk)
Money-Barrett Strong or The Beatles (money, scarcity, monetary policy)
If I Ever Lose my Faith in You-Sting (money) The value of fiat money is people's confidence or faith. When people loose their faith or confidence in money, its value and usefulness collapse.
M.T.A.-The Kingston Trio (role of government, fiscal policy, representative government, place, movement, individual rights, historical events, freedom of speech, assembly, petition)
Tax Man-The Beatles (fiscal policy, role of government)
Satisfaction-The Rolling Stones (utility)
You Can't Always Get What you Want-The Rolling Stones (scarcity, wants, needs)
Candy Everybody Wants-10,000 Maniacs (supply, markets, demand, wants)
All or Nothing At All-Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (scarcity, wants, risks)
Takin' Care of Business-Bachman Turner Overdrive (wants, scarcity, trade-offs)
Everybody Wants to Rule the World-Tears for Fears (wants, scarcity, trade-offs, utility, decision-making) We want it all and are sometimes upset by the decisions we make to get there. The Problem is, there's always a cost.
Shop Around-The Miracles (choice)

My Sweet Lord-George Harrison (freedom of religion)
Amazing Grace-Judy Collins (freedom of religion)
Tom Dooley-The Kingston Trio (justice)
The Times They are A-Changin'-Bob Dylan (representative government, popular sovereignty)
Contract on Love-Stevie Wonder (rule of law)
This Is My Country-The Impressions (equality, pursuit of happiness)
Keep on Pushing-The Impressions (equality, pursuit of happiness, black pride, civil rights)
Amen & People Get Ready-The Impressions (freedom of religion)
Ohio-Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (individual rights)
Freddie's Dead-Curtis Mayfield (justice)
Gangsta's Paradise-Coolio (justice)
Everyday People-Sly and the Family Stone (equality, diversity)
Someday We'll All be Free-Alicia Keys (individual rights, equality)
Abraham, Martin and John-Dion (equality, justice, truth, diversity)
Cuttin' Heads-John Mellencamp (equality, justice)

Dancing in the Streets-Martha and the Vandella's (location, place)
New York State of Mind-Billy Joel (place)
Chicago-Frank Sinatra (place, location)
My City of Ruin-Bruce Springsteen (place)
This Land is Your Land-Pete Seeger (place, location)
Mercy, Mercy Me-Marvin Gaye (human/environment interaction)
Drive My Car-The Beatles (movement)
American Pie-Don McLean (history, chronology, movement, place)

Foreign policy: Washington Bullets-The Clash; Civil War-Guns-n-Roses; Political Science-Randy Newman
The environment: Big Yellow Taxi-Joni Mitchell or Counting Crows; What's Goin' On-Marvin Gaye; Bogusflow-Beck
Homelessness: Man in the Mirror-Michael Jackson; He Call Home-Candlebox
Child Abuse: Luca-Suzanne Vega; What's the Matter Here?-10,000 Maniacs
Social change: At Seventeen-Janis Ian; Revolution-The Beatles; Smells Like Teen Spirit-Nirvana
Apartheid: Biko-Peter Gabriel; Talk to the People and The Waiting-Johnny Clegg and Savuka
Suicide: Richard Cory-Peter, Paul and Mary; Jeremy-Pearl Jam
Native Americans: After the Buffalo are Gone-Buffy St. Marie; Freedom-Rage Against the Machine

The Battle of New Orleans, Sink the Bismark-Johnny Horton
Auld Lang Syne from Kenny G's "Faith" album
Route 66-Nat King Cole
Alamo-Marty Robbins
The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti and Joe Hill-Joan Baez
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald-Gordon Lightfoot
Allentown-Billy Joel
Youngstown-Bruce Springsteen
Wind of Change-Scorpion
Yellow Rose of Texas-Mitch Miller

So those are the ones included in Mr. Calcaterra's list. I would also add a few:

We Didn't Start the Fire-Billy Joel
Sweet Home Alabama-Lynrd Skynrd
Sunday, Bloody Sunday-U2
Pride in the Name of Love-U2
(Can you sense my love of anything U2? So many of their songs deal with issues of social justice.)
The album Deisel and Dust-Midnight Oil (struggles of the Australian Aborigines)

What songs do you use to connect content to student interest?

Monday, September 20, 2010

We Must Speak Loudly

Here we are, approaching another Banned Books Week (9/25-10/2), and the haters are already crawling out of their dank, dismal crevices to wreak their havoc. The current threat against our freedom to read what we choose, and to offer quality literature to students is one Wesley Scroggins. You can read his rant here. He has attacked several books in his letter to the editor, but the one that is causing the troops to rally the most is Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. Laurie has responded to this newest crisis in censorship at her blog: Mad Woman in the Forest. It is a much more satisfying read than Mr. Scroggins'.

Across the virtual world, people are sharing their experiences with Speak to give support to Halse Anderson and to speak out against censorship. I am joining them, because I think Speak is such an important book. Many people can share how this book touched them personally, allowed them to find their own voice and speak out about the problems in their lives that, before reading Speak, had remained buried. That is the power of the written word.

But one does not need to have shared the experiences of the main character in Speak to have a powerful reaction to the book. I used this book the last two years that I taught 8th grade, at the end of the school year when the students' excitement and trepidation for entering high school was beginning to grow. I framed the unit around essential questions of decision-making and consequences. Students examined the multitude of relationships present in the book to see that the problems experienced by the main character were compounded by the decisions, inaction, and apathy of others around her. More than any other book I used in the classroom, students connected to this book. It made them evaluate their own relationships with friends, parents, peers, and teachers. As a teacher, it made me look more closely at every student.

Two instances illustrate the fact that this book truly touches readers. Because I used it at the end of the year, I had students working on their final projects right up until and including ON the last day of school. They did not complain, they worked with great zeal and put forth such effort to create a collage that would capture the theme of the book:

or to write a "letter in a bottle," in a theme-decorated bottle, to tell someone else why they should read the book:

or to create their own piece of art:

Their work showed their depth of thinking and understanding.

The second instance occurred a year or two later. Speak was made into a movie after I used it in the classroom. After it was broadcast, I couldn't even count how many students made a special trip back to the middle school to leave notes in my mailbox. They wanted to make sure I had seen it. Some of them wanted to thank me for "making" them read it, and many of them wanted to tell me that the movie could in no way, shape, or form, compete with the book. Laurie Halse Anderson's writing showed them that a good book can outshine a movie like a thousand suns. She has created many readers with her book.

I ran into my own problems with censorship and Speak. I had a mother who requested her daughter not read it. I had no problem with that (other than the fact that I personally felt she was robbing her daughter of a valuable reading experience...even if she believed it couldn't happen to her child, who's to say it couldn't happen to her daughter's best friend?) But parents have a right to decide if there is something they do not want their child to read. What they should not have the right to do is to attempt to enforce that censorship on other students. This mother tried, taking her complaints to the principal.

Thankfully, he had faith in my abilities to take a tough topic and to make it relevant and appropriate for my students. Many administrators don't have the backbone to stand up to vocal parents. I am proud of the fact that my administrator and the students I taught using this novel have the tools they need to Speak Loudly.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Literacy Coach: My Evolving Job Description

In the past couple of weeks, I've seen some folks on twitter and on the EC Ning asking about job descriptions for Literacy Coaches. I decided to reflect on my work as a middle school literacy coach and open the door to my world a little bit.

I came into this role seven years ago, and it was a new position in the district where I'd been an 8th grade language arts teacher for nine years. The administration didn't really know what they wanted me to do, so I had to figure it out for myself. It certainly feels like, over the years, more tasks have been added yet none taken away. I find myself kept very busy...and that's a good thing!

I work in a middle school that is grades 5 through 8. In the fall of every school year, I administer the Gates-McGinitie reading test to all 5th graders and new 6th graders. I then score, record, and analyze this data (along with DIBELS and STAR information from 4th grade) to set up Literacy Groups. These Literacy Groups consist of 4 or 5 struggling readers who work in small groups with a paraprofessional for 30 minutes a day to boost their reading skills.

After groups and schedules are established, I work with the paraprofessionals to make sure the Literacy Group students are receiving the appropriate interventions. I provide the parapros with professional development through modeling and book and article studies. Once the literacy groups are established, I also administer an Individual Reading Inventory (IRI) to each student. This helps me to target more specifically the areas they are struggling in the most. Teachers will often request IRIs for other students that they have questions or concerns about and I administer these as well. Also, after groups are established, I meet with parapros weekly and between them and me, the students are given the IRI four times through the year. I often step in and lead literacy groups when a parapro is absent.

Throughout the year I organize special literacy events for staff and students. This includes Reading Month/Week, World Read Aloud Day, Poem in Your Pocket Day, Scripps Spelling Bee, Modern Woodmen Oration Contest, author visits, and strategy days for staff development. I like to stay on the look-out for other opportunities to open up the world of literacy for my staff and students. This year I am attempting to establish a writing club for our authors who would like to tackle National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.)

In my building, teachers are on grade level teams and each grade level team has common planning time. This makes it easy for me to get to team meetings to share the latest research and literacy strategies on a monthly basis. From this sharing, teachers will often request model lessons in their classrooms. Monthly, the 5th grade team gathers to use the Tuning Protocol for Looking At Student Work. I come to their meetings to facilitate this process.

I also meet individually with teachers by request to help them plan lessons, to share resources, to be a sounding board, and to schedule model lessons (which also includes a planning meeting and a debriefing meeting.) I analyze our state testing data to determine which literacy skills may cause struggles for students in our building/district. Strategies to meet these deficit areas are often the focus of my model lessons.

I have set up a literacy closet in one part of my room. This closet has over 800 picture books which I have in a database. In the database they are categorized by genre, reading strategy, writing strategy and theme. They are shelved in numbered boxes by genre for ease in locating. All teachers have a copy of the database and access to the closet. Most of the time, however, they stop in to see me or send an email detailing what they need and I deliver it to them.

I am often seen as the resident techie and I try to encourage the use of technology in the classroom. Last year I ran Tech Thursdays where I invited teachers to come in after school one Thursday a month to learn about integrating technology in the classroom and using it for their own professional development. Unfortunately, people seemed too busy and the project fizzled after a couple of months.

It is my job, in the spring, along with the Literacy Coaches in our two elementary feeder schools, to organize summer school. Last summer we provided learning experiences for approximately 140 students in grades 2 through 9. The other literacy coaches and I also plan Parent Nights throughout the year to help parents understand how to help their children with literacy skills at home. We've given out over 300 books at our literacy nights in the last few years. One year we held a family game night. Families came in to play board games and then got to take a game home with them at the end of the night.

Last year, in an initiative through the Michigan Department of Education and Measured Progress, I led a team in the Formative Assessment Process. This team was made up of three high school and three middle school teachers. This year, the high school put together their own team and I added five new members to the middle school team. Our plan is to meet monthly for a couple of hours to learn/discuss/share formative assessment strategies used in the classroom. I am thrilled at the number of my staff members who were interested in joining this group!

I am a member of the data team for our Intermediate School District and I attend monthly meetings for this.

I think that exhausts the list of my current job responsibilities. I have been asked by my superintendent to consider taking on some of the responsibilities of Curriculum Director or Instructional Services Director. It is not something I am excited about, but he definitely has more on his plate than he can handle right now! But at this point I am waiting for him to make a final decision on exactly what it is he wants me to do.

As the financial outlook for schools looks more grim every year, this is a job that I take from year to year. I fully expect that if things don't turn around for our state soon, I will be back in the classroom in the next couple of years. That won't be a bad thing either (for me!)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August 10 for 10

Several bloggers today are celebrating August 10th by answering the question: If you were stranded on an island and had to teach, what 10 picture books would you hope to have in your bag?

I love picture books and it was hard to choose just ten, but here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Ghost Eye Tree by Bill Martin Jr. and Jon Archambault and illustrated by Ted Rand. This book is great for making connections as two young children have to face their fear of a scary tree in the dark to run an errand for their mother. Students at any age can relate to having childhood fears and often like to write about them after reading The Ghost Eye Tree. I also use this book as a model for sentence fluency in writing.

2. Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems. This is another book that all students can make connections with. I love this story because little Trixie's attachment to her Knuffle Bunny reminds me so much of my daughter, currently 10 years old and still attached to her blanket, Pinkie. Of course her situation also creates connections with Kevin Henkes' Owen and his blanket, Fuzzy. Knuffle Bunny makes a great mentor text for teaching voice in writing as well.

3. The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant. I guess I must love using books that I know students can connect with! The language in this book is lyrical and beautiful.

4. HooWay for Wodney Wat by Helen Lester. The topic of this book is bullying and dealing with a personal trait that others make fun of, so once again, students of all ages can connect with this book where the little guy is the hero in the end. This book is also great for teaching voice in writing.

5. Airmail to the Moon by Tom Birdseye. I love, love, love reading this book out loud with a nice thick southern accent! This is another book that kids can connect to. But I like to pull it out when the accusations of theft start running rampant: "Someone stole my pencil." "Someone took my book!" Airmail to the Moon opens up a nice conversation about blaming other people before we check all options.

6. Terrible Things by Eve Bunting. This book, an allegory to the Holocaust, is one that I used when I taught 8th grade as an opener to a unit on the Holocaust. The message really sticks with students and they remember it through the unit. I used it during the unit, paired with a poem titled The Hangman by Maurice Ogden.

7. Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco. I love being able to recommend picture books to content teachers. Pink and Say is one of my favorite, which I share with the 8th grade social studies teacher when he is teaching about the Civil War. It is another that I enjoy reading aloud, even though I can't get through without shedding some tears. I use many of Patricia Polacco's books as mentor texts for writing personal narratives, and the fact that I have met her in person and had some books signed always awes my students!

8. Hello Ocean by Pam Munoz Ryan. This versatile title is one I use often. It is fantastic for helping readers learn to visualize. The imagery in the book makes it an excellent mentor text for writers wanting to add more imagery to their writing, and the organization of the information around the five senses makes it easily understandable and imitable. Using the bilingual version opens this title up to being used in Spanish class as well!

9. Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner. How much do I love this book! Skippyjon is my favorite little Siamese-cat-pretending-to-be-a-chihuahua. This book is silly but also sophisticated, making it great to teach clarifying and inferring to students. I also use this book as a mentor text when I do an "instead-of-said" lesson when writing dialogue.

10. Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi by Cindy Neuschwander. Math is the toughest subject for me to assist teachers in integrating reading strategies. The Sir Cumference series of picture books makes my job a little easier.

Those are my picks! I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments about these and others that you like as well.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Need Advice About Troubled Student

I've been spending the last couple of days at school giving Informal Reading Inventories (also known as Individual Reading Inventory or Qualitative Reading Inventory) to my 5th grade Literacy Group students. For the most part, the test is straightforward and takes between 10 and 15 minutes per student. However, Beth (not her real name) is not my typical test-taker and I spent over an hour testing her. I am very perplexed by her mannerisms and I am hoping that my readers may have some insights to share about this student.

Beth is a victim of abuse, but I have no details about the particulars. She has seen a therapist in the past, though I don't know if she is still. She was tested/assessed for autism, but was not diagnosed as autistic.

When I begin the IRI testing, I try to put the students at ease, letting them know that the test isn't for a grade and it just helps me and their classroom teacher be better at teaching them to become successful readers. The students are instructed that if they don't know the answer to any question, it is ok to say that they don't know.

The particular behavior that makes Beth hard to assess are that she takes a long time to process before she answers a question and she won't say when she doesn't know an answer. She uses silence as avoidance. This makes it very difficult for me when testing her because I do not know how long to wait for her to give me an answer. With some of the questions on the IRI, I waited up to five minutes for her to say anything before I finally asked her if she would like me to repeat the question. She immediately answered, "No." Then I asked if she had an answer and again she replied, "No." But she won't say that she doesn't have an answer. She was very obviously frustrated and cried during the testing. This was distressing to me as I am NOT testing students to cause them fear and frustration. I tried to keep things light and kept telling her it was ok not to know answers. During the portion of the IRI where she can look back at the reading for the answers, she chose not to. I spent some time at the end of the test going over the answers with her; she seemed frustrated because she did not believe that the answers were in the text and I wanted her to see that they were, and to explain to her how she could find them.

The length of time it takes her to answer a question or complete a task is a detriment to her in classroom as well. A classroom teacher with 30 students does not have the time to wait for 5 minutes for a student to answer a question. It is difficult for her to participate in discussions because it takes her so long to formulate what she wants to say. This time conflict also manifested on the standardized Gates McGinitie Reading test that we give to all students at the end of each school year. Taking the test as a timed test (35 minutes), as it is supposed to be administered, shows that Beth has a comprehension grade equivalency of 4.1, but when given the time to complete the test (which took her three hours) her grade equivalency is 9.3.

Both the Gates test and the IRI are just tools we use to assess where our students are. They help us to determine which students need more attention and they help us to individualize instruction. The bigger question I have is not how to assess Beth, but how to address her needs so that she is not overlooked in the classroom. As she moves through the grade levels, I have serious concerns that she is going to slip through the cracks.

I'm hoping that someone out there has worked with a student like Beth and can offer some strategies that will help us (her teachers) be more successful with her.