Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Power of a Theme

Even though I'm excited to have a break in a few weeks, I am loving summer school.

I have a class of 7 kids. I can work individually on something with every kid, every day. I can call on them each probably at least 10 times a day. They each get a worthwhile classroom job every week. Our line in the hallway and our time spent going on bathroom breaks are wonderfully short. When I walk around the room, I can check every paper every time. When students turn in a quiz, it is easy for me to meet with each one to go over the answers. Every student does fluency practice every day. We can do hands-on, materials-intensive projects. I can assess students while they play games much easier, so we do less worksheets. I feel like we can do so much! In some ways, I wish school was like this year-round.

The opportunities for differentiation are fantastic, too, but I think my very favorite thing about summer school is that we have a theme in the curriculum for each week.

Besides our reading choices being focused on the same theme, we also have a designated time (30 minutes per day) for thematic science or social studies instruction. When possible, we connect math and writing to that theme, too. There is a focus, and I love it!

Having that theme gives me somewhere to start, especially for science and social studies. It gives me ideas for better lessons. Last week, we learned about giants. Our standards were measurement of length in centimeters and inches; writing a brief description of a familiar person, place, or thing; and identifying synonyms and antonyms. Here were some of our activities:
  • Reading aloud a rhyming fiction story about a giant
  • Reading non-fiction about giant animals, a legend about a giant, and two poems about giants
  • Giants readers' theater (a fairy tale)
  • Reading about redwoods and experimenting to see how stems move water up a plant
  • Discussing perspective and drawing from the perspective of a giant

  • Creating a "giant" out of straws and measuring its body parts
  • Writing a description of the straws giant
  • Brainstorming synonyms and antonyms for the word giant
  • Created giant ants with antonyms on them
  • Folding an icosahedron model of the Earth
  • Using our models and flashlights to simulate the movement of Earth around the sun

Obviously, we did other activities that weren't tied into the theme, too. This was actually one of the harder themes to integrate, I felt, but we still did all of these things related to Giants in five days.

I can't wait to try more of this during the regular school year, because it makes the planning and teaching more fun for me, and- most importantly- the kids are SO EXCITED to learn! And I'll post more about this later, but I think that's half the battle.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Looooong day.

Most of the teachers who read this are probably on summer vacation, or darn close at this point.

Well, I am in the 'summer,' but I'm not on vacation yet. Those of you who are- this will be one of those posts that makes you go, "Ahhhhh," and cherish the fact that you're reading this from a beach chair out in the sun or whatever.

I have a blessedly small class of 7 children for summer school, and 1 was absent today. Six kids- easy day, right?

Not when one of your students forgets to take her medicine. I understand that it happens, especially when the responsibility for taking it lies completely in the hands of an 8-year-old, but this is not a child for whom medicine just kind of helps.

Most days, the early morning is rough until about 9:30, when suddenly she is much more relaxed and her demeanor softens. Some days, it feels like a different student is in the classroom at 10:00. She is extremely bright and pleasant. She works hard and generally listens to direction. Her work is neat and precise, because she wants to do well and loves to please her teachers.

I take special care to give her extra attention and responsibilites in the morning, and while it's not always easy, we usually make it to 9:30 and then the day improves drastically. It is believed that this is when her medicine kicks in, and I think it truly makes it easier for her to behave.

Well, today 9:30 never seemed to come. Her erratic behavior continued, then escalated. By the afternoon, she was singing in the hallway, flipping her body over her desk to do a headstand, buzzing her lips like she was playing a brass instrument, and throwing her belongings around the room. At one point, I called her mom and she claimed she was leaving. Walked right out the door. I let her spend a few minutes working in the back of another classroom, but as soon as she came back in ours, she was off the walls again and threw a ball of paper at another student. After whining and crying on the floor (her, not me, though I considered it), I escorted her to the office. On the way, she tried to run away. By the end of the day, we'd tried positive motivation and praise, a private teacher-student talk, time-out, discipline writing, calling home, removal from the room, a write-up, and going to the office. I'm not even sure what else was left.

Late in the day, I found out the probable culprit- no medicine today.

I don't advocate medicine in most cases. A lot of the time, it's better for students to be taught skills that help them learn to use a disorder like ADHD as an advantage (and handle when it's not). There are a few students, though, who are truly missing out on vital learning because of a disorder that is out of control. These students need some sort of treatment, whether it be medicine or diet or therapy of some kind.

This is a student who refuses to do work, consistently makes noise to purposely distract everyone else, climbs or crawls on anything in the room, and sticks things in her mouth like a toddler. But given treatment, she is a model student who always volunteers an answer because she loves learning.

Yes, her medicine makes my job a billion times easier. Yes, her medicine makes the classroom a much better learning environment for the other students. But that's not why I believe it is good for her right now.

I believe that the medicine is good for her because it allows HER to do her job at all. Without it, she would hardly spend time in a classroom, much less learn anything while she was there. She might be a social outcast. She might hate math, because it is so hard for her. She might never get a chance to feel smart. She might never learn the social behaviors expected of her in the real world. She would get behind in school, for sure.

There are downsides to medicating, too. I think some of the effect of this girl's medicine is placebo. She has her medicine, so she believes she can behave and she does. When she doesn't have her medicine, it's harder to behave and she doesn't believe she can do it, so she doesn't. It's sad that she believes the medicine is what makes her good.

I don't know if she'll need this medicine forever, but I do know that if I only saw her on days like the first day of school and today, it would be a pity. She is not an exhausting or frustrating child- she is sweet and lovable- and I'm glad that her medicine allows that personality to come out, and allows her to learn so much.

Anyway... time to go home, relax, and pretend I'm on summer vacation for a few hours. It was a loooong day.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


The relationship between education and politics is like the blind leading those with excellent vision.
I have seen no one sum it up better than in this quote by "Ms. Understood," although the rants of so many teachers on my bloglist, especially the epic ones of Mrs. Mimi, make me want to start a slow clap sometimes. It's amazing to me that so many teachers across the entire country have the same opinions and complaints and worries- and yet, somehow, no one asks the teachers what to do.

People want to believe that teachers are the problem. People want to believe that teaching methodologies must be wrong. People want to believe that teachers don't know what needs to be done.

Here's what I see: teachers who want the best for kids but often can't provide it because of a lack of resources, strict sanctions on how we spend our time, and a litany of responsibilities besides teaching. While I certainly agree there are some bad teachers, the overwhelming majority contributes significant amounts of their time, energy, and money to a classroom. But, although it breaks our hearts, we can't do it all for every child.

So people assume that teachers don't know what students need, even though we generally spend at least 30 hours a week with our students. Instead, let's ask politicians or economists or businesspeople or other "experts" who are no doubt incredible in their field but may not have set foot in an elementary school since they were 10. And they've never even met my students!

Before people get upset, I recognize that statisticians and CEO's can have some great ideas for education. I don't have a problem with involving those people in our brainstorming sessions and think-tanks. My problem is that, often, teachers aren't invited.

Just include us too! That's all I ask.

To all you who want to make sweeping prophecies about school solutions:
  • Go to schools that are working, and figure out why by asking the teachers what makes them able to be better teachers and what they see making the biggest difference for students. 
  • Talk directly to teachers, not just unions, to discuss reforms. Not all of us agree with the unions completely. I know quite a few teachers in the major union here who are in it for the support and liability just in case- but don't agree with all of their actions.
  • Spend a day or two with a highly qualified teacher in a generally low-performing school to see what the challenges are even when someone is succeeding, and brainstorm with those teachers for solutions. 
  • Substitute teach, and try it yourself. And not just in the suburbs or charter schools.
  • Spend days in classrooms of highly effective teachers in all kinds of schools with all sorts of styles, considering your plan. Would your plan strip these teachers of the very strategies and personality that make their lessons successful?
  • If you think that a common curriculum and required lesson plans are the answer, give at least 5 teachers the same lesson plan and observe the success of that lesson.
  • Visit charter schools and public schools and private schools, but not just the famous and infamous. There are great and poor examples of each type.
  • Try your plan in a small sample, such as a single school or corporation, before suggesting it to states and the country as a surefire solution to education.
 I am in agreement with some of the things in education right now. I do believe that ineffective teachers should be fired with more ease than is currently possible. I agree that many schools are not working and need significant change of some kind. I think it is unfair for states to have unequal standards. I believe that social promotion can go overboard. I agree that data can be used in a way to drive success for a school and also to discover when a student needs extra intervention.

I do not agree, though, with the current pattern of everyone but those who spend each day in a school deciding how to go about those issues and then drafting policy that we will have to follow. This doesn't happen in any other business.

As Mrs. Mimi put here,

Hess says that so many other organizations have accepted cut backs and laid off people due to our current economic distress.  And he's right, a lot of people have lost their jobs...people in my family and probably in yours too.  BUT (and there's always a but with me, isn't there), those people weren't blamed for the downfall of their business, portrayed as lazy by the media and villainized by the general public.  They were just quietly let go.  Why is this guy acting like what is happening to teachers is the same thing?

Teachers are not perfect, but we are being almost universally blamed for failing schools by people who don't spend 7 hours a day in them. It's like me trying to tell BP how to fix the oil spill. The fact that I have used gasoline before doesn't make me an oil expert, just as attending schools doesn't make someone an education expert.

Ask the people that have spent 4 years in school studying to become a teacher, required hours of professional development to remain a teacher, and countless hours of experience becoming a better teacher. Those are the experts.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Using Computers for Differentiation

I have worked with Renaissance Learning's Accelerated Math program before, and I have to say I like it much better than its reading counterpart.

Accelerated Reading is meant to differentiate reading by giving students points for reading books "at their level" and then taking quizzes on them. Time and time again, I see students frustrated by the lack of choice in their books, or motivated only by the prospect of points. Sometimes, these students seem to discover more things they enjoy reading- but usually, they just want to Silly String the principal at the end of the year. The program seems, to me, to actively kill a love for reading and make quiz scores the reason for reading. I can appreciate that it levels students and promotes choosing books at instructional level, but I firmly believe that a student who learns to enjoy reading for intrinsic rewards will become a better reader than one who is in it "for the points."

Accelerated Math, though, is a little different. It would not work as your entire math program, at least not without constant small group lessons, but I think it works as a nice supplement, and here's why:

Annie's class has just finished learning about fractions, but she hasn't quite gotten it yet. Unfortunately, the class mostly got it and is moving on to learning about telling time. Annie's math learning and math practice will focus mostly on telling time, and she won't really spend time on fractions anymore, meaning that she probably won't learn the skills she needs.

With Accelerated Math as a supplement, Annie's teacher could assign her the objectives she needs to still work on, such as fractions. Accelerated Math will then print an individualized practice page for Annie based on what she needs to work on. Her answers are scored on a ScanTron style sheet and scored through a little scanner right here in our room so that the computer program can determine if Annie has done well enough to take a test, or if she needs more practice. The teacher also gets a report of how all students are doing, so that any students who need extra help can be worked with in small groups for re-teaching while everyone else works on practicing skills.

I find it works very well for reviewing through the year, too, so that a student doesn't forget information by the end of the year. You can also include standards above grade level for benchmark students' enrichment.

The options for differentiated math practice are great, and my students last year found the scanning process extremely motivating. There are challenges, though; for 2nd graders, transferring your answer to a score sheet without any mistakes takes a lot of practice. Students also need one scanning sheet for Practice pages and one scanning sheet for Tests, which can get confusing. Some students will rush through the pages to get to the scanning part. Finally, it takes a ton of paper (and time) to constantly print out the practice pages needed for each individual.

This is the first time I will be running Accelerated Math 'on my own,' so I'll try to let you know how it goes this summer. It's a bit of a complicated process, but I'm hoping I'll be able to match each student with what they truly need to practice the most!

P.S.- Accelerated Math's reviews have been mixed, and I think success probably depends on how it is used.
P.P.S.- If you have Accelerated Math but have trouble figuring out how to use it, this may be a helpful resource.

Monday, June 07, 2010

"Something smells funny..."

Today the kids in my class were making a model of groundwater. They actually sparked the idea- I wasn't planning to do it- but they asked why there was clay in the ground. To them, clay is something you play with- not something you'd dig up underground.

I realized I had some clay leftover from our sink/float exercise, so I pressed it into the middle of a clear plastic cup, and then poured water on the top so they could see what happened. They kept asking questions, and- well, I realized that we had almost all of the materials to make a model of the underground layers and aquifers. So the students read the book an extra time and used the pictures to make a plan of their model. After they built it, I tried to "pollute" it with some water and food coloring, but the aquifers stayed pretty clean.

While we were building, one of the kids commented that something smelled funny. I explained that it was probably the soil I'd picked up from the store. "No," they told me, "I think it's the clay." One boy sniffed it and told me, "It smells like something... not school" and I didn't know what he meant until the next boy said, "It smells like," (in a whisper) "weed."

Wonderful. Glad to know our 8 year old kids recognize the smell of marijuana.

Anyway, I seem to have more teaching followers lately. I'm not great at every aspect of teaching, but I ROCKED the science lessons for the Water unit this summer. It's about a week's worth of awesome, thanks in large part to a Project WET workshop I attended, and if anyone's interested, I'll share. All of the lessons were pretty easy to implement, very hands-on, lasted 30 minutes or less, and while they might have cost a little at first- most of the materials could be used again from year to year.

A highlight I'm definitely interested in sharing is an experiment in mixing oil and water, and then tying it to the recent oil disaster in the Gulf. Let me know if you'd like me to post it!