Monday, February 2, 2015

Parent Connect: Reading Lives Vs. Reading Levels

These are the slides from a recent Parent Connect session I led with Karin Hallett. We use AR at our school as a tool to help us in our choice literacy efforts. AR is far from a perfect tool, but it is what we have, and I find that it does help me acquire data that parents want. The problem is that parents can become overly attached to the numbers AR and STAR Reading provide. As a teacher, I assess my students' reading growth in a wide variety of ways, these tools (AR, STAR) being only one piece of the puzzle.

Karin and I have noticed with dismay how many parents are pushing their students to read higher AR book levels. I have had several students tell me, "I can't read that book (a book I have suggested I think they would really like). It's below my AR level, and my mom doesn't allow me to read books below my level." Karin has had parents come into the library demanding to know why their child isn't reading at a higher level.

Sadly, many parents seem to have the schooly belief that the whole point of reading is achievement and that pushing children to read higher-level books will equate to "better" readers. There is so much wrong with this I don't know where to start dismantling the argument. It's yet another symptom of the disease of schooliness we are suffer from here in the US (I can't speak for other countries, but I postulate that it is the same or worse in many other places in the world).

Parent Connect: Reading Lives vs. Reading Levels from Andrea Hernandez

Note: The carrot picture on the last slide. I really wanted to include that, as I love what it communicates. However, I've not been able to find a source for attribution. You can see that it is posted all over the web without attribution. If anyone can share a source, please do! In the meantime, I am going to leave it in my slides. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

School or Learning?

It's been such a long time since I have blogged here. There's no time. I'm too busy planning, teaching, grading, blogging on my classroom blogs, responding to student blogs, and the email....don't even get me started on the burden of the email!

The more I don't write, the more I have to write. I miss writing for my own reflection, to look into the mirror of my mind and see what I see there! I decided today just to write. Of the many possibilities, this is what bubbled up to the surface.

Passion Can Not Be Boxed
After 25 years of working in this field I have moved beyond the confines of schooliness. This is not to say that I don't feel tremendous pressure from the outside nor that I don't have to do tasks, such as giving grades, in which I see little value.  I have moved to a new place in my own mind where I trust my instincts more, where passion has triumphed over fear, where playing small no longer serves me (if it ever did). This perspective has been attained only through years and years of incredibly hard work. This is the view from the top of a mountain that has taken my whole adult life to climb.

I think about schooliness a lot. As far as I know, that word was coined by Clay Burell, whose blog, Beyond School, I used to read regularly for inspiration. Although we work mostly in schools, the most passionate educators I know believe that schools need to evolve completely in order to become places that nurture learning and learners, that value joy and curiosity. What does it mean to be educated? Why don't we ask this question more often, of ourselves, of our society?

Why School?
Schools in America have become assembly lines of preparation for more schools which are supposed to be preparation for a good life. Are we asking ourselves if we are, indeed, creating a good life for all? What is a good life?

Here is Florida, the public schools are rated and graded. Parents, naturally, want their children to attend schools that are "A-Rated." What does it mean? It is all based on tests and more tests. AP classes and tests. Rigor. Homework. More homework. These have become the signposts people use to identify "good schools." Joy, curiosity, questioning, thinking....we KNOW these are important, but where is the time? Teachers are demoralized, and many of the best and brightest are leaving schools in order to teach.

Teaching is, at its core, not a job. Teaching is not the sum of the parts of managing a classroom, planning lessons, giving grades. Teaching is a relationship. The teacher-student relationship is archetypal and not in any way dependent on the thing we know as school. Sadly, many people with the job of teacher lack understanding of this truth.

Having an educated populace is more important than ever. Our planet is not in good shape (to put it mildly). We need amazing, educated, thinking people who want to share passion for life and learning with the young. We need to not try to shut those people down. We need to stop trying to measure the unmeasurable.

I suggest a new measurement we can use for if our education is working. Instead of the bubble tests that measure, among other things, ability to guess the best answer out of four, why don't we look around at our society. Are there less school shootings? Are there less suicides? Is the growth of the giant pile of garbage in the ocean slowing or reversing? I could go on and on.... 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

"It's not hard, it's just uncomfortable."
Ilisa Cappell said this to me this morning as we were discussing the future of edJEWcon and raising the bar on professional development. She was referring to the mind shift involved in being an information-age educator.

It's so true!
My colleague Karin Hallett has this quote as her email signature:
I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it. (attributed to Vincent Van Gogh)

This, to me, is the essence of what it means to "learn, reflect, share."
This is what it means to be a lead learner.
This is what is means to be a teacher.

When Ilisa said that to me, I immediately thought of my upcoming (in about an hour) Mystery Skype session with one of my classes. I planned it on the spur of the moment, and I didn't feel I had properly prepared the students. I knew it could go well or...not so well. I also know that it doesn't have to go "well" (or what I perceive as success) in order for it to qualify as learning.

I am always doing that which I can not do. I am reasonably comfortable working on the edge of my comfort zone. I may not have prepared the students as thoroughly as I would have liked for the process of the Mystery Skype BUT I know how to lead my students in trying something new and reflecting on the process.

I gave them a little pep talk, answered a few final questions, and stepped out of the way (or mostly out of the way). And I was pleasantly surprised by their teamwork and enthusiasm for their task.
When we finished the Skype call, we reflected on the process. Truly, this was the most interesting part for me. I was so pleased by their ability to be thoughtful about what went well and what we could do better.

Learning has changed. I can learn online by reading about others experiences. I can try something new with my students, reflect and revise. I can model my thinking and process.
But the only way to do this is to make a habit of being a little uncomfortable. Things don't always go well. The more we practice doing that which we can not do, the better we learn. And the best learners are the best teachers.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Practice: The Heart & Soul of Learning

In yoga, there is a famous quote, “Practice and all is coming.” The heart and soul of yoga is the practice. It’s about showing up on the mat, day in and day out, knowing that on some days everything flows, other days not so much.
The yoga teacher’s job is to guide the practice, making small adjustments based on what each student needs, offering challenge and examples of possibility.
It is the same with literacy. Reading and writing are big-picture practices comprised of many smaller skills. Practice reading and all is coming. Practice writing and all is coming.
I see this so clearly with my 5th graders. In our second year together as readers and writers I see amazing growth. This growth looks different for each student, as it should, but it is undeniably evident. As they practice independent reading (with teacher guidance), their self-selected reading choices are naturally growing toward increasingly challenging material. They are independent and self-motivated.
They love writing! In our individual conferences I see growth in every aspect of each student’s writing. They are practicing skills of punctuation, grammar, spelling and  vocabulary where it truly matters, not on a test or worksheet, but in a creative work of their own self-expression.
Note: These thoughts were originally shared on my classroom blog as the intro to an update for parents. One of my students read the post and left this comment:

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Parent Connect: Quality Commenting

Karin Hallett and I run a parent/community education program at our school. We call it "Parent Connect" and it focuses on a variety of topics relate to the evolution of learning and literacy. Yesterday's session topic was quality commenting.

In preparation for the session, Karin worked with our 5th graders to create this fabulous video, which we used to set the tone.

Quality Commenting from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.

Next, we used the following slides to structure our discussion about how blogging and commenting fit into a framework that uses blogging as one of the primary platforms for literacy instruction.

Some of the slides have corresponding blog posts.  Slide 5, "Creating for an Audience" relates to a post I wrote called, "I Hope You Like It." Slide 7, "Student Commenting Policies" showcases student examples which can be viewed at the post: "Writing Commenting Policies for Student Blogs."

Finally, we showed some examples of comment screenshots from some of our student blogs and discussed/evaluated in terms of quality.

I would love to get more quality comments on my blog as well as see more quality interaction on my students' blogs. What is it that I am missing or lacking? I am very open to and appreciative of feedback on this topic.

Monday, November 24, 2014

edJEWcon Cleveland: After-Thoughts

Last Sunday, edJEWcon hit the road to "Learn, Reflect, Share" at the Gross Schechter Day School in snowy Cleveland.

A lot of learning took place, as well as some mostly "local" sharing via Twitter (hashtag #edjewcon), Today's Meet and a shared Google doc during Silvia Tolisano's brilliant keynote, The 5 C's in Jewish Education.

The day was great. We had hoped for a larger crowd, but the 10-4 timeline on a (snowy) Sunday may have deterred people. We also need to work more on branding. It seems clear that there is a lack of understanding. What IS edJEWcon? Is it a technology conference? (No!)
I did put together a trailer to try to explain, in general, what edJEWcon is about.

edJEWcon from edJEWcon on Vimeo.

Afterwards, we had what I thought was an excellent selection of "breakout sessions" with some really great educators sharing their ideas. For my session, I wanted to lead a conversation called "Learning is Messy." I blogged recently about some of my thoughts and feelings about all of the boxes in education, and it is something I've really been struggling with in my own teaching practice. My goal, as it always is, was to have the session be very interactive. I structured it using the "What? So what? Now what?" protocol.

It felt like a successful session but not a conversation. One thing I really love about going to share my work at other schools or conferences is the perspective it affords me. In my day-to-day reality, I am motivated to work hard by an awareness of how much better I can be, how much more there is to learn and do. It is like climbing a huge mountain without stopping, only focused on how far there still is left to climb.
Sharing my work elsewhere is akin to taking the time to stop and review how much I've already done, to look back and appreciate that I've actually come a long way. It's something I never take time to do unless I find myself sharing the process with others who are interested.

It felt gratifying to share our student blogfolios and student-led conferences with the teachers in Cleveland. They were impressed by our students' capacity for reflective self-evaluation, as well as the evidence of digital literacy (hyperlinked persuasive blog posts; Creative Commons images, properly cited) they saw on the student blogs.

I am left with these questions, needing more thought and discussion:
Why is it so challenging to get the whole learn-reflect-share cycle happening? Is it worth the effort? How can we create a structure that supports the entire process?

How do we continue to grow these experiences for maximum impact on the learning culture at our schools? How do we build and sustain a network that exists beyond the in-person experience?

Monday, November 3, 2014

Personalized Learning: Will American Schools Ever Get There?

Personalized learning is a hot topic in education right now, emerging as one of the "new forms" of the modern era.
How could learning NOT get more personalized, what with all of the apps, devices, search engines, maker spaces, genius hours, contests, global projects and authentic opportunities for learning, prevalent in the modern world?

Yet the old forms stick like glue, holding us back from exploring ideas of what education could and should look like. Structures like grades, schedules, age-groupings, testing, even school itself must be critically examined. Do they still make sense?

It may be cliche, but the saying "out of the box" really speaks to me. I feel that the old forms gained popularity and still hang on because they represent the alluring idea that education can be boxed, measured, and standardized. [We thought the same thing could be done with nutrition, and look at what we are learning about the unhealthfulness of factory foods.]
Why do we love boxes?

Chris Lehman says that students should never be the implied object of their own education. Do you teach subject content or do you teach kids? Kids are not standardized. We need to stop pretending and start speaking truth.
TruthMy students, despite being born in a roughly 365-day span, have vastly different abilities, needs, interests and motivations. They come to me at varying stages of physical, emotional and academic development. This impacts what they are able to do in my language arts classroom. 

You wouldn't know it by looking at most schools, but acknowledging and accepting this is the easy part. Once we accept that learning is developmental and students have different needs, what are we going to do about it?

How do we get from point A (think rows of desks, worksheets. teacher-centered, everyone doing the same thing, compliance, grades, etc.) to these "new forms" that so many of us are envisioning and working to create? How does personalized learning work within the old-school constructs within which most of us are forced to work?

The key is embracing and creating environments where open-ended, unboxed constructs provide students opportunity for "choice and voice as opposed to chore and bore, documenting growth (which we do at my school through student blogfolios), formative assessment, and trying things to see what works for each child. The role of the teacher has totally changed to more individual coaching and conferencing.

Many people say that they want students to be able to learn according to their passions, personalities, abilities and interests, yet they are terrified to let go enough to allow this. Many of us, parents and educators alike, want it all. We want our students to be able to learn out of the box, but we want to keep the box, too. We are so afraid of what will happen without it. Will our children be prepared for college? How often do we stop and ask ourselves what it even means to be educated?

We can not have it both ways. We must decide where we stand and what we believe. If we believe  in a student-centered, personalized approach, we have to let go of some of the old ways of doing things. We have to understand that learning is developmental, that we learn through practice. We have to allow the roles of both teacher and students to evolve and change.

Learning is messy, messy, messy. Any attempt to make it un-messy squeezes kids into unnatural confines that work for some, but not all, students.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

3 Tips to Help You Survive as an Innovative Teacher

Recently I saw the fantastic movie Chef.

I am not a big movie-person, but this was my kind of upbeat, feel-good movie (with a super-cute kid).
I would have liked it no matter what, but it especially touched me because I really identified with the chef.

He was passionate and creative, but not everyone appreciated his passion and creativity.
He had innovative ideas about food, but his boss (Dustin Hoffman) wanted the same old, same old. Ultimately, chef realized that he could not be true to himself while cooking someone else's menu.

I am the chef. My beliefs about learning and literacy are strong and passionate. I can not, in good conscience, serve up the chocolate lava cake just because it has always been on the menu. But I realize that, while I was rooting for the chef,  this was not a battle of good and evil. The chef was not right. He simply had to follow his passion. The people who wanted the boring, traditional food were not wrong. They wanted what they knew would give them comfort.

Everyone got something to eat, and everyone was satisfied. As a diner, I would never eat the exotic food the chef cooked, no matter how beautiful it looked or smelled, no matter how many rave reviews it got. That kind of food is out of my comfort zone;  I'm not going to try squid tentacles or animal innards. This perspective helps me have compassion and understanding for the parents and colleagues who want learning to be served up as worksheets and spelling tests. It's familiar. It's comfortable. It may even, for some students, get the job done.

As a teacher, I want everyone to be excited about my "cooking." Like the chef, I work hard to create fresh, innovative and delicious learning opportunities for my students. Like the chef, I pour my heart and soul into my work and feel devastated when the haters hate.

How do we, who believe in kids over content, stay strong despite the fact that teaching is one of the most disrespected professions of all time?


I've been advised to smile more. I am pretty serious! I'm working on smiling, even if it is fake, because I believe in fake it til you make it. I think of it as a yoga pose. Turn corners of mouth upward. Breathe. Calm the mind. When I have to deal with difficult people, it does no good to argue with them. They want chocolate lava cake! I am not going to change everyone. I can smile and try to stay calm inside even when people are rude.


It's bizarre how I can feel so crazy in one setting and so normal in another setting. It's all context. When I am talking to the chocolate lava people I start to question myself. Give kids a wide selection of books and time to read? Try to meet individual learning needs? Am I insane?  It would be so much easier to have closed-ended, easy-to-measure goals. I could "cover" what's in the book (created by someone who doesn't know MY students!) and call it a day. I could go home and have a normal life. It wouldn't matter that my students would wait passively for me to tell them what to learn. It wouldn't matter that some students wouldn't be challenged. Life would be simple. 

It is only when I connect with other educators that I feel that what I am doing is right. Twitter chats are an amazing place to find your people. Critics call it the echo-chamber. Maybe,  but there is something fortifying about spending time with people I respect tremendously and seeing my work reflected in their ideas. It gives me the strength to go back to my "real world" (which is NOT the echo chamber and where I feel like #1 freak) and carry on. 


We know so much about why we do what we do. Most innovative teachers spend hours and hours (and hours and hours and hours) reading, writing, listening, learning, presenting and connecting with other teachers in the never-ending honing of our craft. It is frustrating when people who know little about education have strong opinions based on nothing substantial. I have started parent education sessions at my school, and I believe they are as important as the work I do with kids in the classroom. Most parents are interested in learning more, as well as experiencing the type of learning their children are experiencing. 

Being a teacher will never be easy. Being a teacher who thinks, questions and pushes against the status quo requires great perseverance. Never will we all agree on the best way to educate or the purpose and meaning of an education. Remember, we all eat differently. As long as the food is healthy, it's ok. Education is as basic as nutrition; it's a building block of human life. 
Do your best, keep learning, and stay true to you. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Daily 5: Implementation Checklist & Other Resources

Use of The Daily 5 for literacy learning continues to evolve at my school. Like anything new, there are questions and concerns, pushback from various stakeholders. As a leader who brought the Daily 5 to the school and a teacher who believes in choice literacy and meeting the needs of individual learners, my response has been to create resources that might help.

I share some of those resources here, with hopes that other teachers and schools might find them useful. For more resources, follow my Literacy board on Pinterest.

I also just made this video showing a little of the intro to read to self with my 5th graders.

This infographic can be used as part of parent education.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mentor Sentences: Teaching Language as an Art

We are very fortunate to have an amazing art teacher at our school, Shana Gutterman. There are many reasons why she is amazing, but one of the most easily noticeable is that she gets all of the kids to create impressive artwork. I have been able to observe her teaching process, and she often uses a "mentor piece" (I don't know if she calls it that though) to inspire the students.
image used with permission: Shana Gutterman
For example, in this lesson students look at self-portraits created by Van Gogh and Rembrandt, with attention drawn to what makes those mentor pieces exceptional. Then, they are invited to create their own self-portraits, using the same technique used by the masters. 

Many teachers of writing also use mentor texts to inspire students' writing. I have some favorite mentor texts that I use for certain types of writing, and sharing quality examples is always part of my process for teaching writing. However, I became more interested last year in the idea of using mentor sentences for the teaching of writing conventions, as well as writing style. 

I tried having students search for wonderful sentences during their reading, but it didn't catch on. I don't think I set it up properly, and the idea just didn't make sense to 4th and 5th graders. But the idea still had a grip on my mind. So when I discovered this video of Jivey using mentor sentences to teach grammar and writing to her 4th grade students, I purchased her mentor sentence lessons, and I began using the lessons and notebooks on the first day of school this year.

What I like about this approach:

  • I love that it focuses on what is right instead of what is wrong with writing.
  • I like that it is a holistic approach that explicitly connects grammar to writing and, specifically, to sentence structure.
  • I like that the notebooks give students some practice with note-taking, as well as handwriting. Last year, with the iPads, my students got very little handwriting practice, and I felt that they needed a bit more of that. 
  • I love the way that this elevates grammar lessons to the critical-thinking exercises that they truly are instead of the memorization of series of rules.
What I am wondering/worrying about:
  • I am spending a lot of time right now on the daily mentor sentence activities. I am always worried about the best use of time. I am hopeful that, with practice, the process will become more routine and will take less time. 
  • Some students are struggling, which is ok. This is thinking-intensive, and I find that thinking is stressful for many students. They look for a work-around such as one student who, for Monday's "invitation to notice" what makes the sentence exceptional wrote, "I don't think this should be a mentor sentence." 
  • I am wondering if it is too much whole-class, frontal teaching. Again, I hope that with more practice, it will become quicker and more student-centered. 
  • I am wondering how to reinforce the practice of particular concepts for students who need more work. I have been looking at different tools, and I think that noredink holds great potential. You easily create assignments and quizzes focusing on specific concepts. Students are guided with hints as needed, and teachers can easily see who has mastered the skill. I am excited to start using this.