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.
IMG_7739
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?

Smile

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.

Connect

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. 

Share

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.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The 1st Week: Building a Foundation

My simple reflection from the first week back in the classroom is this:

Building a foundation for learning takes time.

The pressure to "start _______ (fill in the blank yourself)" is great. And yet, in order for the learning community to function smoothly, the foundation must be carefully built. The way I explained it to my students is that you don't build a house on the dirt; you first pour a foundation that will support it.
I spent this first week with my students building the foundation that will support our learning community and help us thrive. I'm amazed (always!) how much time everything takes.

This is the FOURTH blog post I've written today (!) as we reflect weekly on a faculty Ning, and I update both the 4th and 5th grade classroom blogs. In each of those posts, I reflected from a different vantage point (and for a different audience) on this creation of the foundation for learning.

From the 4th Grade Classroom Blog (parent audience)

One main difference between learning in school and learning outside of school is that in most schools, students are consistently grouped with their same-aged peers. Imagine having the same eighteen people come to your house every weekday! The opportunity to learn together extends beyond academic subjects and into developing the important life skills necessary to be a positive member of a community. Building a foundation for social learning is one of my main teaching goals for the first weeks of school.
To this end, we did many activities this week including introducing classroom norms, mentor sentence of the week and “read to self” which is the first component of the Daily 3.

From the Faculty Ning (colleague audience)

I will confess that I am a notorious "step-skipper" meaning I have little patience for detailed procedures and drawn-out step-by-step plans. My mind works creatively and I am very non-linear, which can be a blessing or a curse. So, it may seem odd that I am such an advocate of the Daily 5, which is nothing (in the beginning) if not detailed, linear and repetitive. 
I know that this is good teaching, and I know it because I have seen how well it works. If we had time to teach and model everything this thoroughly it would be great, but the truth is that teaching is a constant process of deciding what is worth the time. As I am beginning the process of building the Daily 5 foundation with my students, I am again seeing for myself how well this series of lessons works to create a structure for personalized literacy instruction. 


I also asked my students to reflect on the week.








Saturday, August 9, 2014

How Summer Yoga Inspires My Teaching

This summer, my friend, Rina, and I decided to take weekly yoga "field trips." I have been practicing yoga for….well, forever, and have practiced at the same studio for many years. As a result of taking a few classes this summer with new teachers in new places, I found myself growing in my practice in ways that I have not grown in years. At my usual studio there is a sameness from one practice to the next. While I find each class challenging and enjoyable, I had become too accustomed to the routine.



What can I learn from this that I can bring into my own classroom? How can I create the daily rituals and predictability my students need to feel comfortable without creating an environment that is slightly stagnant? Too much routine creates too much of a comfort zone and can stifle learning.

Here are some thoughts...

Change it up!
Predictable routines are a necessity in classrooms, and both students and teachers rely on them. Bringing an element of fun or surprise, though, will keep everyone on their toes. Beautiful day? Why not hold class outside? I remember one day last year spontaneously holding a plank contest with my 4th graders. A small thing, but it brought smiles, laughter and requests to do it again.

Set the bar REALLY high
One of the hardest things for me is to push kids just the right amount. I tend to set a high standard and to know that everyone is capable of achieving it through hard work. However, some kids have not internalized habits like persistence. It is my job to push them just enough that they see their own potential, but not so much that they go over the edge. Because I am dealing with unique individuals, this point is different for everyone, and everyone responds differently to being challenged.

What I don't agree with is setting the bar low so as not to make anyone feel bad. I would much rather see kids strive and fall short of the goal than to see them make the goal easily and be cheated of working hard. Learning to challenge oneself, try, fail, get back up, try harder…that is the essence of learning to learn.

Remember that growth isn't always a linear process
In yoga practice it's normal to be stronger on one side of the body or to be able to do different things from one day to the next depending on how you're feeling, what else has been going on, the frequency of the practice. With school learning, everyone expects a linear progression. But there may be reasons why the 4th grader who knows the rules of capitalization, messes up on a particular day. Teachers know this, but it is very hard not to feel disheartened sometimes when it seems that progress is not being made in a straight line with students moving right along mastering concept after concept.

Create a space for practice
Deep, lasting growth is developmental, with some steps forward and some steps back. I like my classroom to be a place of practice (like my "regular" yoga studio) but with opportunities to try new skills (like my yoga field trips). Once you've experienced what you are capable of, it changes future practice, giving opportunities to integrate the new learning into the established practice.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

App List for Year 2 of 1:1

Last year, as I headed into teaching in a new 1:1 iPad learning environment, I shared our app list. Now, heading into year two, we have revised the list, based on what we actually used, as well as adding some new apps that we discovered throughout the year.

App Advice-
My best advice is to keep it simple.
It's not how many apps you have that make the program successful. Really, how many apps does anyone use on a regular basis? The idea is to model the use of the tool to create, connect, communicate, organize, document, collaborate and share. Once students understand the process, they can continue to use the suggested apps or can explore new apps. As teachers, we are able to focus on content and skills or whatever else we are teaching.

I feel that my 1:1 year was a great success. The students and I really enjoyed the freedom, versatility and creativity afforded by 1:1 iPads.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

My Life as a Reader Infographics

Reflection
Visual Communication
Thinking of oneself as a reader
New forms of writing
Presentation skills

These were some of the goals Karin Hallett and I had in mind when we decided to end the school year by having 4th graders create "My Life as a Reader" infographics. The process was simple and engaging, and the results were beautiful. Even my most vocally negative-about-reading student was talking happily about his earliest reading memories as he created his graphic.

We used Piktochart. It didn't work on our iPads, so we had to check out laptops which students enjoyed as a novelty since we have used iPads all year. I had them create accounts with school email so that they could save their work.

Although I feel like I already know my students really well as readers, I learned new things about each child and those books and experiences that define their reading lives.







Friday, May 30, 2014

#eduawesome #eduwin

Teaching is a lot of things. 
It's hard fun. 
It's a meaningful life's work. 
It's frustrating and uplifting, discouraging and encouraging all at the same time. It is quality that can't be quantified (but that everyone feels a great need to quantify). 
What matters most can not be tested with #2 pencils and fill-in-the-bubbles. 
That's why educators use #hashtags like #eduawesome and #eduwin to share those positive moments that are worth sharing. 

My 4th and 5th grade language arts classes have really enjoyed read-alouds this year. The last book I read to my 4th graders was Chris Grabenstein's new book, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library.
We enjoyed this book a LOT (many of my students said it was their favorite or one of their favorite books ever).  With all of the puzzles and games, it was an especially fun book to read together as a class.

A few days after we finished the book, one of my students, Allie, came to me to tell me that she was checking out Chris Grabenstein's website and,
"LOOK what I found! Chris Grabenstein Skypes with classes for free!"
She asked if she could email his assistant to set up a Skype for our class.

Let me repeat that.
My excited 4th grade student asked me IF SHE COULD EMAIL CHRIS GRABENSTEIN'S ASSISTANT TO SET UP A SKYPE VISIT FOR OUR CLASS.
And that is what she did. She wrote a beautiful email. I love how her voice, personality and enthusiasm shine through her words.

As a language arts teacher, I also happen to notice how much Allie's writing has improved over the year. But what delights me most is her choice to include information like, "Our class loves to read books and write." 
If you are wondering what is meant by students "owning their own learning," this is it. 

PS- I don't quite know how to thank amazing authors such as Chris Grabenstein who care about helping to create the next generation of readers and give generously of their time. We have already scheduled our Skype visit for early in the fall, and my students can not wait!

Monday, May 19, 2014

MEROS Academy: Innovation From the Ground Up

Today is a professional development day at MJGDS. Our assignment was to visit another school and reflect afterwards on our faculty NING. I tried reaching out to several local schools, but was told that today wasn't a good day. So I reached out, via Twitter, to MEROS Academy.


I didn't know much about this new, innovative private school, but I follow, as best as I can, whatever new things are happening that challenge the business-as-usual model that has, for too long, passed as education.

What I found out was that MEROS is not yet an up-and-running school. MEROS Founder, James Smith, and I met at a coffee shop in Riverside where he shared his passion and vision for innovative design, relevant learning, a "structure that is wide and open enough to give kids growing room," and real-world models and mentors. As we spoke, I was reminded of Ron Berger and his craftsmanship culture outlined in An Ethic of Excellence, which remains one of my go-to thought models for teaching.

MEROS vision is built upon these 8 Elements:
I find myself becoming more and more drawn to the idea of building innovation from the ground up, as opposed to working to transform more "traditional" (for lack of a better word) models. There is a lot happening right now, and a few schools that have captured my interest are Avenues School in NYC, Academy of Global Citizenship in Chicago, and, closer to home, Seaside Community Charter School, a new Waldorf-based charter school in Jax Beach.

Education is becoming much more market-driven, and I believe that is a good and necessary thing. Education is the transmission of values, and I'm pretty sure that we all have different values. Is it easier and more truthful to take a non-compromising attitude right from the start? Starting a school is anything but easy. I have so much respect and admiration for those, like James Smith, whose mission it is to go forward and try.

So what do I bring back to MJGDS? I feel a little more energized (and it's not just the super-strong coffee), a little more courageous. It is important to get out of my routine once in a while, to look around, to open my eyes to the choices and alternatives that exist, even in Jacksonville. I feel that for all my experience, I still have so much to learn. But I love learning, and it is that love of learning that I feel should be what is shared in a learning community.

I urge anyone local to learn more about and to support MEROS Academy's crowdfunding campaign to get their summer program up and running. The more choices there are for students to be educated in different ways, the more we all will benefit.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Teacher-Led Evaluations: Do They Help Build Reflective School Culture?

I wrote last year, at this time, about our school's move to teacher-led evaluations. This year there was a committee who designed the parameters and made it "official." No more administrator watching a carefully prepared lesson, twice a year, for a high-stakes write-up. If we are to truly become a culture that values self-reflection and the habits of mind that are part of a reflective culture (goal setting, prioritizing, lifelong learning), it is time for teachers to take ownership of our strengths as well as those areas we believe are a work in progress.

Using our school's Target for Teaching and Learning as my guide, I created a slideshow of artifacts documenting my journey of growth throughout this year.


Teacher-Led Evaluation, Spring 2014 from Andrea Hernandez

I summed up my reflections on the process on one of my final slides:


Certain artifacts fit obviously into certain domains on the target, but others were less clear. It became glaringly obvious how much learning environment overlaps with task which overlaps with role of teacher, etc.

You can't really tweak one part of your instructional process without it affecting the big picture.





I also tend to be a "half-empty" reflective practitioner (when it comes to my own practice), and I am always focused on what I need to improve. It was impossible to complete this reflective task, reviewing my entire year, without being able to recognize how much was accomplished.

What now? 
My own "next steps" are rather broad strokes, like "document more and be more organized." I need to create more specific goals and figure out the appropriate structure in which to achieve those teaching goals.

But what about the next steps for the reflective process of the teacher-led evaluation?
How can this process be elevated to help all teachers become more reflective, connected and collaborative
Is one teacher sharing his or her process only with an administrator truly transparent or growth-minded? 
I am curious to know what my colleagues gleaned from going through this process. Was it more an act of self-promotion or a true and honest look at practice through the lens of the target? What about sharing? What about connecting our own goals with those of others. Who, for instance, on our faculty might help me achieve my goals? 

Is this part of a growth process?
How can teacher-led evaluation lead to better teaching?




Thursday, March 20, 2014

Personalized Learning in a 1:1 Classroom: A Tour Through My Inbox


I know there is a lot of buzz about personalized learning these days. Lots of it comes at a cost where some service will assess your students and provide just-in-time learning. It is tempting to purchase one of those and feel comfortable that the curriculum is being covered at a pace that is right for each student. Although I do use many tools and apps,  that's really not what personalized learning looks like in my 1:1 language arts classroom.

So, what does it look like?

I don't think I can answer that question in a short post. However, I believe that a little tour through my email inbox may provide a glimpse. It hit me last night when I opened my school email.
Literacy= communication, and I do use email as one tool for communicating with my students. 

We read. We write. We edit.  We discuss. We think. We reflect. We create. Why would this look identical in a group of unique individuals?

What follows represents a sample from my current inbox. These are waiting for my reply, feedback or next steps. I have not chosen anything on purpose. I'm just sharing the process. This represents the ongoing learning conversation between my students and me. 
A 5th grader emails to tell me what salary he would like for the documentarian job. He also suggests two new jobs.
A 5th grader shares his updated narrative writing with me. Below is a short snippet of  an 8 page story

Another  5th grade narrative
a 4th grader shares a link to the book quiz he wrote on Goodreads
A 4th grader wrote an epilogue to Wonderstruck using Book Creator

5th grade character trading card
4th grade "visual vocab"
This conversation and creation, this journey, is why I love my 1:1 iPad classroom. 


Sunday, March 16, 2014

5 Things I Wish Everyone Understood About Educational Technology


1. The technology isn't the point
Still….STILL….all these years later (it's 2014 and the internet is 25 years old) when we all know that technology isn't the point in education, there is still so much talk about the technology, the apps, the devices, the new shiny stuff. True, if it's new and shiny and cool it might enable me to redefine a task, that is if it's not too expensive or too difficult to learn or to manage.

2. The technology isn't the lesson
The students in my 4th/5th 1:1 iPad class do not need lessons on using their iPads. They are faster and more adept than I am at using most of the apps. However, they are young and still have a lot of learning to do when it comes to using these devices in a balanced, useful way. They have a lot to learn to become literate users of these powerful tools. They need guidance in understanding and creating work that represents quality in a time of anything goes.

3. The technology isn't the problem
When the kids use social media or chats in ways that hurt others, the technology is not the cause of their mean spirited behavior.

4. The technology isn't the answer
Technology is wonderful and amazing. I love my digital devices and appreciate all the ways they have changed my life for the better.  It's hard to imagine teaching without Google, Pinterest, Twitter, Wordpress, iPads, etc., and I believe that being a connected educator has helped me grow into a better teacher.
However, technology has its dark side. Many people are becoming distracted and unbalanced, spending less real time with real people. There are some serious human health, safety and environmental consequences caused by the manufacture, use and disposal of these devices we love so much.

5. The technology isn't going away
Whether you or I love or hate technology matters not one iota. The world is changing in ways we can barely imagine. Hang on for a wild ride!

Book Whisperer Wannabe

Once in a while I read a book that I wish I'd written. It's like seeing myself in the mirror and thinking, "Hey, I look alright." This was the gift of reading Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer. I am so grateful for this wonderful book. It should be required reading for anyone who teaches or will teach reading.

There are plenty of reviews of the book (see Karin Hallet's great review and infographic). My purpose for writing is to reflect on what this book made me think about and the changes I might make as a result.

I am a lifelong reader who reads any time, any place. Literacy is my biggest educational interest and the desire to share my love of reading was the motivation that brought me to this career in the first place. I believe so strongly in authentic literacy and learning through practice.

I am doing everything in my power to make reading real and enjoyable, to match readers with that perfect book, to lead the way by modeling and sharing my own reading experiences. I still have those few students who view reading as a school thing, not a life thing. Reading Miller's book, I wonder if all of her students truly found pleasure in reading. It certainly sounds as if she created an amazing reading community.


Reading in the Morning
One thing I have already adapted is to use that time first thing in the morning, when students are still arriving, for reading. I used to allow conversations and other activities. I only have my students first thing in the morning twice a week, and I love having that as reading time.

AR
There are so many things I dislike about AR and just a few things I like. Our school uses AR school wide, and compared to other practices I think it's not the worst. It uses real books, and it gives me a type of numeric data that many parents seem to really want. What the various numbers actually mean is a whole other blog post and something I have spent quite a bit of time trying to understand this year. What I dislike about AR in a nutshell is the low-level recall questions that determine comprehension and the fact that kids (and parents) sometimes become overly focused on the levels and points.

Goodreads
Using Goodreads instead of reader's notebooks is another whole blog post. I have struggled to get everyone to make Goodreads a habit, but I am going to stick with it. It is authentic, serves the same purposes as Miller's notebooks, and I like it.

Book Projects Vs. Reflection Letters
I love the weekly, written reflections! Stealing this! We may still do book talks and reviews and such, but I am going to rethink the structure.



Friday, March 7, 2014

A Teacher's Ode to Read-Alouds

One of my main goals this year as a language arts teacher is to build a community of readers, writers and thinkers. I am employing several different strategies in pursuit of this aim. One of the most exciting and pleasurable is class read-alouds. A few months back, I read Principal Joey's post "Stop Trying to Make Your Kids Read." It really struck a chord with me, and I left this comment (which I am only partially sharing here because it was SO LONG)
I completely agree with you about reading aloud. In fact, I devote a LOT of time to read aloud with both my 4th and 5th grade classes, and that time is probably having the biggest impact of anything I am doing in my quest to create a true community of readers.
Some of the reasons I think that read aloud is so powerful in my classroom are:
•I give the students choice. I keep an ongoing list of recommended middle grade books that I am interested in reading. I choose about 5 of those and have the students privately vote via Google form. This way, each student can choose the one they really want, and no one knows who voted for what. This creates a feeling of ownership and excitement before we even begin reading.
•I am an avid, lifelong reader. Not only do I read very fluently, but I know where, when and how to stop and teach. I do not pre-plan my read aloud “lessons.” However, I use read-aloud to teach almost everything, from literary devices to vocabulary to reading strategies. I am able to do this because of the confidence I possess from being a real reader.
•The more we read together, the more shared history we have as a reading community. We naturally make text-to-text connections, and no one is left out.
I ended that comment with:
I have much more to say on this subject…I think I will write a post about read aloud!
I have so much to say about this I don't know where to begin!!!!

As a Teaching/Learning Tool
In my experience, reading aloud is a vital tool for teaching everything and anything about reading. I recommend reading the classic Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Keene to understand how the act of making our thinking transparent during reading aloud helps children become better thinkers and readers. I also like the book Constructing Meaning by Nancy Boyles. These signs, which hang on the wall all year long, are from that book and we refer to them frequently during discussions.

We also have great opportunity to discuss vocabulary strategies, and often students will request to add an interesting new word to our growing word wall. 

My Non-Lesson Plan How-To
I do not write lesson plans for my read alouds. They evolve spontaneously. I attribute this to the fact that I do not "teach" reading so much as I share a genuine love of reading with my students. We choose, together as a class, books that no one (including me) has already read. I get recommendations from our fabulous school librarian, as well as some amazing members of my PLN who are avid readers and reviewers of books for this age group. 
The student librarians for each grade add the book to our read-alouds wall, and tag it "currently reading." After we finish the book, we go around the circle, and each student rates the book 1-5 stars, saying why they gave it the rating they did. The librarian keeps notes of each rating, figures out the class average and adds it to the wall. 

Most activities during or immediately after reading are focused around discussions and written responses. 
We have Skyped with other classes who are reading the same book, which has been a really fun experience. We have taken visual notes, written blog posts from the point of view of a particular character, written reviews on Goodreads, watched the movie and compared/contrasted book and movie, and in two weeks we will be Skyping with Holly Goldberg Sloan, the author of our latest read-aloud, Counting By 7's
We have discussed author's purpose, genre, metaphor, symbolism, word roots, and how authors sometimes "break the rules" of formal writing (which they are allowed to do because, presumably, they know the rules really well). 
We use these books as "mentor texts" for our own writing, which is getting better and better as we grow our understanding of and appreciation for the craft.  

What Do the Kids Say?
As much as I adore read-alouds, they do take time. And, like every teacher, I worry that there is never enough time to do everything. As a student-centered teacher, I value the input and opinions of my students, and I use surveys to gather this data. So I recently surveyed my classes to find out THEIR opinions of read-alouds.







Of my 30 students, I had one student say no and one say yes, after a short break. I also asked them to explain, in writing, their choice. Here are some of their responses:

I love read-alouds! I don't even want to think about stopping them, even for a short period of time. When you read aloud, you and other classmates help me understand things that I wouldn't understand if I read that book on my own. - Julia, 4th grade

I love the fact that I have been exposed to different genres that I wouldn't even think of checking. I think we should keep it going and read more. GO READALOUDS!!!!!!! - Jagger, 5th grade

I want to continue read alouds because when we finish a book, we want to read more books that are related to that book. I think it really helps people find the right books for them. -Nahila, 4th grade

I think we should keep doing read-alouds because it's a chance for everyone to settle down and get comfortable. For me, it helps write in different types of ways. -Arin, 5th grade

I would like to continue because they are fun to listen to and the story is always good. -Evan, 5th grade

Communities Share Stories
If you are still reading....you may be as passionate as I am about this topic. So you may enjoy this story that illustrates how reading aloud connects us as a community in special ways. I just finished reading Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick with 4th grade.  This incredible story is told partly through illustrations and partly through words. Towards the end of the book, the characters in the two stories meet up and the words and illustrations combine to tell the rest of the story.

When we got to this picture, I stopped reading for the day.


I challenged my students to use their iPads and what they knew to see if they could find out where the characters were. Several of them were excited that they were able to figure out that the characters were at the Queens Museum.

A few days later, I flew to New York for a conference. As the plane was landing at LaGuardia, I looked out the window to see that we were directly over this sight! My seatmate must have thought I was crazy as I scrambled to find my phone so I could take this photo for my students.


Further Reading


How a Reading Promise Can Forge Families and Shape Lives

Read Aloud: Why 15 Minutes a Day Matters

Matt Renwick's Top 10 Takeaways From the Read Aloud Handbook

The Warmth of a Shared Experience 




Monday, February 3, 2014

Authentic Literacy: What is it, Why Does it Matter & What Does it Have to Do With Soup?

From "Ed Tech" to Literacy…
Although I continue present my work under the brand of "edtechworkshop," my professional interests are moving away from "ed tech." Job-wise I have transitioned from (all titles in quotes because that is how I think of them) "technology coordinator" to "21st century learning specialist" to "Director of Teaching & Learning (as titles go, I like that one best) to my current job title of "4th/5th grade language arts teacher" (as the actual work goes, I like this one best).

When I was working with Silvia Tolisano to transform school culture, we recognized the importance of parent education and responded with monthly "Parent Connect" sessions.  We had a small but dedicated group who joined with us to discuss a variety of topics related to changes in learning and how our school was responding to those changes. It was of huge importance to the success of many initiatives, as that small group of parents acted as "ambassadors" spreading vital positivity and understanding throughout the parent community.

So, it was natural for me to turn back to the Parent Connect model as a way to build support and understanding for my non-traditional LA classroom. 
There is a great deal of fear that goes along with letting go and allowing learning communities to flourish without many of the trappings of the box known as school.

I am lucky to have a great partner in librarian Karin Hallett, and I have really enjoyed preparing for and presenting the sessions.
Our most recent session was, "Authentic Literacy: What is it and why does it matter?"
Here are the slides from that session:
Authentic literacy from Andrea Hernandez

If you're interested in some slide details or related articles, you can find that here.
But what I wanted to share here was the "soup analogy" that I described on slide #4. So many people commented afterwards how this idea really spoke to them.


I realize that at one time, processed, canned food was all the rage and seemed like the answer to all the problems of feeding the people. However, it didn't take long to figure out that an authentic, hand-crafted soup was not only more delicious but was healthier and generally the better all-around option. 

I imagine that many kids who grew up eating salty, tinny, canned soup decided that they didn't really like soup. Just like many kids who are growing up on a canned, uniform, pre-packaged reading curriculum believe that they don't really like reading. How sad that they have never tasted the real thing. 





Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Our 1:1 iPad Learning Showcase

This past week culminated in a student-led "learning showcase." We had a wonderful, authentic audience of parents, grandparents and assorted others who came to find out how the 1:1 iPads are being used for learning in 4th/5th grade.

Our current 4th grade graphic designer created an invitation flyer.




4th and 5th graders, working in groups of three, shared the following apps or groups of apps: 

Word Work Apps (the students chose to show Free Rice and Words With Friends)
Notes and Sketchbook 
Hachtavah (an app used for learning Hebrew spelling)

Using a "speed-geeking" format, each group of student experts had five minutes present to a small audience. After five minutes the audience rotated to another table. The goal was to keep the focus on how the app was used for learning. 

As part of the student's preparation, each group of three was responsible for:
  • a learning flyer explaining how the app is used for learning
  • a "how-to" flyer, showing some basic steps for 
  • using the tool
  • quality examples from the classroom




The Tellegami team created this Tellegami-







Learning Showcase from Andrea Hernandez on Vimeo.

Feedback and Reflection
The feedback on the learning showcase was tremendously positive.
Some comments from teachers who attended:
"Experiencing our students teaching the apps to their parents and to others, like me, made me want to learn more about the subject that they were teaching.  It shows how much they know and how much confidence they have in their skills.  It was so impressive that some of the participants were asking for more. "

"...it was really impressive . The students were well prepared, enthusiastic, respectful and joyful."

Parents loved learning from their children. One grandmother said it was the best "program" she has ever been to at the school and that she is now planning to buy an iPad for her younger grandson. It was requested that we give a repeat performance for other classes and adults.

As for me, I love seeing the students doing this kind of work that feels real and meaningful. I always have super-high expectations, so I always see room for growth and improvement. I felt that we spent a little more energy focused on the apps than on the learning. However, that was not entirely the fault of the students. The adults tended to ask a lot of technical questions which, of course, the students were happy to answer. The students are also still learning to reflect on learning, so that part is a little harder for them.
There were some really wonderful examples of partnership and teamwork with the students, although some worked better than others. Overall, the students shined. Even the shy students seemed comfortable with the format.