Saturday, October 27, 2018

Old Teacher, New Tricks

I am currently in my 25th year of teaching.  Years ago, I would be only 5 years from retirement.  That is not the case anymore.  I have ten years before I can even consider retiring.  I am tired.  I am trying to keep up with all of the new ways of teaching.  It's exhausting.  I genuinely feel bad for all of the new teachers coming in.  There have been so many new things that they need to learn stat!  I hope that they give themselves the gift of time.  You would think that after 25 years, and a gradual introduction to all the new ways of teaching, I would have it all nailed.  Well, I don't.  I'm trying.  I read books, blogs and anything I can get my hands on.  I want to to the very best that I can for my students.  
So it's time to take a step back and take stock of everything that is in my wheelhouse.  What do I believe about teaching?  What do I know about children?  What do I know about my students?  
My beliefs haven't changed.  I believe in making learning exciting and attainable for every single little one in my class.  I believe that everyone can and will learn.  I believe in joy.  I believe in a balanced literacy approach to teaching.  It has to be balanced because the kids are all so different.  I believe in reading aloud to children.  They get so excited about the characters and what is happening in the story!  It's amazing to get to be a part of that.  I believe in shared reading, hanging back with my own voice so that the kids can construct meaning and work together to figure out the tricky words.  I believe in guided reading so that the children have an opportunity to practice everything I am teaching them with prompting and praise for their efforts.  I believe that children need to feel productive discomfort so that they work hard to solve problems using a variety of strategies.  I believe that science is important so that kids never stop asking questions.  I believe kids need to learn about the world around them and work hard to make their mark for a better place.  
I know that kids are kids.  They want to play and they want to learn and explore.  I know that learning is harder for some and easier for others.  Some kids excel at math and struggle to read.  Some kids make a lot of friends and some are lonely.  Introverts are not always shy and extroverts aren't always happy.  Families are different and kids come from so many different backgrounds and experiences.  I know that I will show up for them as often as I can.  I genuinely love my students and want the very best experience for them.  
I study hard to know what my students know and what they need next.  I listen when they are reading and ask myself what they do when they come to a tricky word and what they need to learn next.  In math, I observe their work and listen in to the conversations they are engaging in... or if they aren't getting involved in the conversation at all.  I know my students as writers because we are all part of the same writing community.  Some write and write and write.  Other kids finish one book every few weeks.  They struggle, for a variety of reasons.  I know these things so that I can teach them what they need.  
So why "Old teacher, new tricks"?  Knowing my students and teaching them what they need doesn't seem like enough anymore.  It seems like I have to teach so much more than I used to.  This digital age makes me feel inadequate at times.  I really don't like that feeling.  So I work harder.  I learn the new things and I think about my kids and what they will get excited about.  I think about how they can use digital tools and make them meaningful to the kids and their work.  It's exhausting.  Sometimes there's too much.  I just want to go back to the simplicity of learning what they need next and teaching that to them.  
I have to teach differently.  I'm just not sure how.  I think about it all the time.  I wonder what I can do to increase their level of engagement.  And then it happens...  they are excited to read and write and problem solve.  I never really know exactly what did it.  I just know that it happens and it's so wonderful for the children and for me.  I will keep plugging away.  I will keep learning and I will continue to grow as an educator.  I will learn the new tricks.  
One thing I'm sure of though... I will hold on to the good stuff.  I will continue to strive to know my students and to help them to figure out how they need to learn.  

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Err in Favor of the Child

When I was in Reading Recovery training, I was always so stressed about whether or not I was properly analyzing the running records.  I knew that it was very important to get it right so that I could properly discern the strengths and needs of the child.  I wanted my instruction to be just what the child needed.
One day, my teacher leader came to visit me.  She was such a kind, understanding, supportive teacher leader.  I told her how stressed I was and she told me with no hesitation that when I was in doubt, I should always err in favor of the child.  I had never heard that before and it made perfect sense.
This is very different than giving the child more credit than is due.  We should always make sure that children are solid in their understandings, but when in doubt about coding or analyzing a running record, err in favor of the child.
This concept came from Marie Clay.  Marie studied children who read well to understand what reading behaviors children should have under control.  She used this research to help millions (maybe even billions) of reading teachers understand reading strategies.  So many of the strategies are "in the head behaviors".  We can not know for sure what they are thinking, but most of the time, based on their reading behaviors, we can tell which strategies they are using.  But if not, err in favor of the child.
Remember that we take many running records on our students.  If we are mistaken when we give a child the benefit of the doubt, it will show up on the other running records as we code and analyze their reading and behaviors.
I love Marie Clay for so many reasons.  The BEST thing about her is that she always put the child first.  She always believed that every child could read and when in doubt, she would always err in favor of the child.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Listening to Readers Away from the Guided Reading Table

Teachers work hard every day to know their readers.  They carefully craft guided reading plans based on what they know about the strengths and needs of the children.  They look through the guided reading books to find just the right one at the right time.  They find a word or two that might be hard to figure out using meaning, structure and visual information, planning on having the kids predict and locate those words during the introduction, along with an explanation of the vocabulary or the strange way that the word looks.  We want the children to have the just right amount of words to figure out with the just right amount of support.  
Most kids are very successful when reading at the guided reading table because of all of the best laid plans of the teacher.  When they can't solve a word, we are right there to prompt them for the reading behaviors that we have introduced to them.  It's a beautiful thing.  When a child comes to an unknown word and he or she uses the known strategies and rereads to gather more meaning, but can't get it, we give them a told.  After the reading, we might take them back to the word to show them what they could have done to figure it out.  If they couldn't have figured it out with what they know, we let it go, noting the things that the child tried.  
But what happens when they are reading on their own?  Sometimes, without intending to, teachers become codependent to the needs of the children.  I like to compare it to swimming.  When children first enter the water, we hold onto them and make sure they don't go under for too long (read aloud).  Then, as they are beginning to have a foothold on the technique we are teaching them, we let them do more and more of the work (shared reading).  Then, when it becomes evident that they are almost there and we know they can do it, we let them, standing close enough just in case (guided reading).  The goal is for them to do it all on their own (independent reading).  Sometimes we are so afraid that they can't do it we stand too close and jump in too much so that they don't have the opportunity (in swimming and in reading).  
We won't know what the children have a firm grasp on unless we watch them while they are independently reading.  No one has shown them the front cover or taken them to a few places in the book.  They haven't given them an introduction or set them up for the just right amount of work.  It's a fresh book that they have never seen before and no one has made sure that it is at the right instructional level.  The teacher has already taught them how to pick a just right book so we need to see if they can and what they do with the words that trick them.  
I have been able to get so much valuable information from watching children independently read.  I had assumed that they would be doing the same things in their independent books that they had done at the guided reading table under my watchful eye.  Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't.  My point is that we really need to make sure that we take the time to listen in when they are working on their own.  We need to just listen.  No prompting allowed right away.  You want to see what they can do.  
I remember Adam.  He was my star reader of the day in that he had nailed all of the tricky words at the guided reading table on his own.  I told him what he did and how it helped him as a reader.  He beamed with pride and walked off to read independently.  My coach, having watched the lesson told me how great it was to see Adam do so well after he had struggled for so long.  It felt great!  
My coach asked me how Adam did on his own.  I looked at him as if he had gone daft and told him that I listened to him every day and that he did very well.  Then he said, "No.  I mean how does Adam do in his independent reading books?"  Honestly, I had no idea.  I was pulling reading groups while he was reading those books.  My coach went over and sat next to Adam on the carpet and motioned me over.  He told me to just listen to Adam read aloud.  I did and what I heard almost made me gasp aloud.  Every time he came to an unknown word, Adam would mumble something and read on!  
I looked at my coach, dumbfounded.  
We stood up and moved away from Adam.  He asked me what I thought and I told him that I noticed that Adam was a different reader with me than he was on his own.  I knew Adam could do it, but he just didn't make the effort without being at my guided reading table.  It was as if he knew the expectations at the table but he thought that they were there for the purpose of reading at the table.  
I can tell you that my mini-lessons stayed pretty much the same after that.  I did know what my kids needed and how they needed it taught (level of support).  What did change in my mini-lessons was that I now included the connection that some of them weren't making in their independent reading.  I listened in when they were reading every day as part of my routine and I took notes and shared examples.  The difference in their reading was almost instant.  
If you are reading this post, I hope it has challenged you to think about how you listen to your students read and what you are looking for.  It can't just be at the guided reading table.  There is so much more to our readers.  We need to know what they do when they choose the book, when the book is nonfiction or poetry, fantasy or science fiction.  Oh, and try not to jump in when they are reading independently.  Just listen.  

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Create, Build, Wonder

I have a new job this year.  I didn't ask for the job.  I was asked to do the job.  I think the world of my principal, so how could I say no?  I am always up for an adventure or a challenge, depending on how you look at it.  :)
The most exciting (and terrifying) thing about my job is that I was able to create it.  There wasn't an existing curriculum.  No one had ever done it before.  It was up to me.  When I took the job I had no idea what I would do with it.  I decided that I wanted to incorporate passion projects, technology and stem.
As the year began and I tried to sit down to do some planning, I just couldn't think of what the children might love.  I had some ideas of course, but planning for 520 kids ages 5 through 11 made it quite a challenge.  I was used to knowing my students, their likes, interests, strengths and needs.  I didn't know how to teach children that I didn't know.  So the plan became just to begin and see where it went.
The kids were able to choose any passion project that they wanted.  The buzz in the room was amazing!  Some kids were sewing, while others were learning magic tricks, guitar, keyboard, diy projects and coding to name a few.  I didn't have to know everything that they were doing.  I only needed the desire to learn, which I did.  I became very clever about how to get materials too.  Once people hear about what you are doing, and that the kids are excited, people in the community are very willing to donate materials.  I didn't get any corporate sponsors.  I just had to put it out into the universe and things would show up in my classroom.
At some point, some of the kids were ready to move on to something else.  After talking to several kids, I decided to start JW Wonders.  They all loved Wonderopolis so we decided to put out our own website to share what we were learning.  You can check it out at
Now I am at the point where some kids want to wonder while others are ready for something else.  I decided not to throw the baby out with the bath water, so we continue our wondering, but we also have a creativity challenge and a stem challenge.
I am so happy with the things that the children are doing.  I think that creating and stem and time to wonder are all important parts of a child's life.  I was observing a student building the other day for the stem challenge.  He told me that he feels like stem is so cool because he loves physics and he loves to think about all the things that could effect his structure as he builds.  I love what I do and my cup is full every day.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Slice of Life 2017!

This is my third year participating in the Slice of Life Challenge.  I didn't do a very good job of posting every day last year.  My goal this year is to actually post every single day.
I love participating in the Slice of Life.  I love putting my stories to "paper".  They are fun to remember and I love to share them.  I also have to admit that I love when people comment on them as well.  To begin, I am going to write about what writing means to me.

Writing is... opening into my soul, allowing me to squeeze out both the joy and the pain.
...  a reminder - I can't seem to remember anything on my own anymore.
...  a list - I love to write lists and then cross things off as I finish them.
...  a keepsake - I have a trunk full of writing from my own children.
... a memory - My grandma's message forever on a canvas on my wall.
...  a promise - to have and to hold, to honor and cherish.
...  a message - to think upon and to ponder.

The truth is that writing is a gift in so many ways.  I am so glad that I can write and that I can share my writing with you.  I am blessed that you share your writing too.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thankful for Making

When I started this adventure of teaching creativity and innovation I thought that I would be guiding young children in passion projects in grades 2-5 and providing a maker space for the little ones in k-1. I thought that the maker space made so much sense in the younger grades because I suspected that the little ones needed that time to explore and make. I was right and wrong. The little ones love to make. It's actually a bit comical to watch them as they work. They have to, and I mean have to get EVERYTHING out at the creation station. I tried to get them to take out only what they need (because clean up is a nightmare - at least it was). They quickly let me know that they need it all.

When I look at the things that they make, I have to sometimes fight the "wow that is craptastic" urge that fights to overcome me. The things they make look like they aren't anything meaningful until you talk to them. When I ask them to tell me about what they are working on, their sweet, precious voices tell me what they are working on and they never, ever disappoint. They are so stinking creative, I think that it is something that I could never ever teach.

So that got me thinking about that. Kids are so creative... in so many different ways. The more I get out of their way and let them create, the more they are willing to try. They sometimes ask if they can do certain things, with a look like they know that I will say no. Then I say yes and they light up.  

I was wrong when I thought that the 2-5 kiddos would be better off with passion projects.  Don't get me wrong, they love to learn about whatever they want to when they come to my class.  The thing is that they also love to make.  They come in with ideas and sometimes materials because they just aren't sure that I will have it in my room.  They love to sew.  It's very rudimentary since my skills are very limited, but they try.  When their lines aren't straight, they comment their concern, but I tell them that it is a perfect first try.  I tell them to celebrate that they did it all by themselves and that they should be very proud.  :)  

I'm so thankful for making for several reasons.  The two biggest reasons in my life are that I love to make myself.  Making helps you to see things in different ways and it makes you feel so empowered to do things yourself, whether perfect or not.  The second reason is that I get to watch a whole new world open up to all of the kids in my school.  I get to share my passion with them and to help them to find their own.  

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving week everyone!  I hope you find yourselves feeling thankful.  :)  

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Passionate about Passion Projects

I have been teaching children about what it means to be creative and to follow their passions.  I facilitate discovery, wonder, creation, imagining.  It is amazing to me day after day after day that the children come into my room for a scant 45 minutes every four days and they practically burst through the door.  When I started this journey in August I didn't know what it would turn into.  I opened myself and my time with them to the wide open possibilities that they could come up with.  I believe in childhood, and while I deeply respect the teaching of content, I find that the children are in desperate need for discovery.
On any given day, the children might be building with legos, experimenting with paint, or wax and water (no joke), creating something from nothing.  Tinker boxes in the creation station are full of materials that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and yet the children put them together in a variety of ways to create something new.
One little girl used a tissue box, a tape box, four toilet paper rolls, yarn, paper, ribbon, tape, a glue gun and a HUGE dose of imagination to create the cutest puppy!  She worked on it for weeks, putting a "please do not touch" sign on it.  She originally asked me for puffs for the dog's fur, but I didn't have any.  I asked her if she could use yarn instead.  She took the yarn, wrapped it around her fingers, tied it in the middle and trimmed the ends to make the fur.  I watched her lovingly construct this little friend.  When she was done, she shared it with the class and talked about her process.  We all marveled at her ability to take all of the things she used to make something so cute and so special.
Two fifth graders are building a life sized car out of cardboard right now.  They showed me a picture and asked me if they could do it.  I talked to them about how they were thinking about constructing it, made sure that they could get it home when they were done and cut a TON of cardboard for them.  I am so proud of them for taking this on!  They want to try to make it work and I say go for it!  I can't wait until they are done and I will definitely add pictures to my blog.
My point is not only to share my tales of amazing kids and the things they are doing, but to marinade in wonder myself.  I have learned so much about kids and the things that they can do just from letting it happen.  I'm wondering how this can impact their lives in school.  They always tell me that they love Discovery and when I see them in the hall they share when they will be coming to me.  So... why do they love it so much?  It's not me.  It's the opportunity.  Two little girls stopped me in the hall and told me that they are discovering at home too.
I have always wanted my students to love reading and writing as much as I do and I have always had some that do.  I am going to continue to watch and guide and foster a love of exploring and while I do, I am going to be thinking about how I can help kids to love everything that they are doing as much as they love their 45 minutes in room 4.  I wonder where that will lead and I look forward to it.