Saturday, October 8, 2016

Even introverts can enjoy cooperative learning!

The first conference I've ever attended as a Common Core Demonstration Teacher was Kagan Engagement and Cooperative Learning.  My job entails attending a variety of Common Core conferences throughout the year and then applying the strategies in my own 4th grade classroom.  I had never heard of Kagan and the only reason I went was because other Common Core Demo Teachers had signed up.  It was also in Pasadena, California, which is somewhat close to my house and it was on a Saturday and I wouldn't have to miss any school.  So at 7:30 in the morning my friend Hortencia and I roll up to the high school where the conference is scheduled.

We walk in and I'm impressed with the environment at once.  Although we are in a high school cafeteria, it looks comfortably set up and they have a spread of breakfast danishes and bagels from Panera including fruit plates and coffee.  I am already feeling at ease and ready to learn.

I sit down at a table of four with other fellow Common Core Demonstration Teachers.  We all begin to chit chat and catch up with each other when the conference begins.  I am feeling very comfortable in our small group and I'm ready to learn something new.  Our presenter is hilarious right from the beginning and makes everyone feel right at home.  He is wearing a little bow tie and looks like the biggest nerd, but he is so cool!  You just love to listen to him and then you discover that he has a lot of knowledge!  I learn that Kagan presenters have been educators and even administrators and have thoroughly utilized Kagan strategies in their classrooms and became Kagan fanatics long before making the transition to Kagan presenter.

Right away we begin getting acquainted with engagement strategies.  We learn how to share with a partner, giving each party equal talking and listening time.  We learn how to team build and class build by telling our face neighbor what we ate last night with lots of elaboration.  We list ice cream flavors, taking turns with our shoulder partner.   Then we take turns, again everyone with the same amount of talking time sharing with the four members of our table what is our favorite food with descriptions and sensory details.  We learn how to greet each other, praise each other, and say goodbye to each other.  Kagan really stresses the social component in their lessons.

By now I'm getting really comfy and self assured with my group when the music starts.  We are told to get up and walk around.  I don't want to get up and walk around.  I am a happy introvert and I really like to learn in my little area of known variables.  But I get up and walk around with the music just like everyone else.  Some people begin to dance, but that is definitely not me.  When the music stops, we are to find the closest partner to us, someone we don't know.  We are to shake hands with them and introduce ourselves.   Kagan stresses the fact that our students do not know how to greet or introduce their selves so they must practice, like we are practicing now.   We then have to tell each other why we chose to get in the teaching profession, practicing the strategies we learned in our comfy, risk free group.  Now we don't say goodbye to our partner but are told to take him to find another pair of partners.  We greet each other again and go through the routine of meet and greet.  Now my original partner has to introduce me to the new pair.  This teaches him and trains him to be a good listener.  When it is my turn I realize that I was so nervous that I forgot why my "new friend" wanted to become a teacher.  I have to ask him again, which is embarrassing, but it teaches me to get over my fears and listen and pay attention to others when they share something with you.  I guess adults need these lessons in social etiquette also unfortunately.  Now that the new group of four knows each other we are told to grab our things and move to a table with our new group.  My heart drops!  I was so happy before in my little risk free group of fellow teachers and peers.  Now I have to get social and talk to new people??!!  I was not happy anymore.

Well the day went on and it wasn't so bad.  The presenter remained as entertaining and knowledgeable throughout the day.  I learned so much as to the why of student engagement.  I learned that getting students out of their comfort zone helps develop their minds.   I learned that standing up, dancing around, any type of movement are types of brain breaks that young minds (an old ones) need so desperately if they are going to learn and retain information.  I learned that equal time sharing gives the introverts, like me, practice sharing and prepares them for life that you can't always sit back with a cozy group of four.  I also learned that equal time listening gave extroverts time to learn that listening is just as important as speaking.  I also learned that my new group of four were great people and I spent a very fun day learning amazing new strategies and philosophies with them.

The day went so well that I am now a complete Kagan fanatic.  Everything I do in my classroom has some type of Kagan engagement strategy behind it.  My students absolutely loved my new teaching style also.  Throughout the year I returned to a Kagan conference seven separate times.   If you continue to read my blogs you will probably see elements of Kagan engagement and cooperative learning woven throughout my lessons and my rationale for designing them.  I would encourage anyone to personally check out a Kagan conference.  They have them all over the world actually.  My favorite spot is in San Clemente, California because it is their headquarters and situated besides the beach in a comfortable two story building.  (I still can't get away from wanting to be in a comfy and riskfree zone.)  What is wierd is that now Kagan headquarters the place for cooperative learning and engagement kind of feels like home to such huge introvert like me.     Here is their website in case you are interested.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Why am I lovin my teaching job?

I just read an article titled  "The Disproportionate Stress Plaguing American Teachers"  by the Atlantic. It discussed how teachers are overly stressed by their job and it is becoming a huge problem.  I thought of myself as an educator and thought, 'I am not stressed at all.  I am actually so happy at my job that I come home and blog about it every night!'  So I felt it was my duty to explain why I am lovin my Common Core job and why I think others are not.  Hopefully by opening the dialogue up to different points of view and bantering a bit, we can go outside the box to solve some of our education problems and be happy again in our profession.  So here is my story:

 My district has created the job of "Common Core Demonstration Teacher or CCDT."  I was hired in the second year of the program.  The population of CCDTs began with 12, then at year two doubled to 24, then at year three doubled to 48.  The initial plan was to continue doubling the amount of CCDTs every year until all teachers in our district had the title, the knowledge, and the salary, but the program got too expensive so we didn't hire anymore this year. 

CCDTs are expected to work 27 additional days in the year and two additional hours per day.  We get paid our daily rate so it is a decent sized pay increase.  During these hours we are expected to attend Common Core conferences of our choice (paid by our district), educate ourselves with Common Core books and Webinars, and bring this valuable knowledge back to our classrooms to incorporate true Common Core practices.  We share this knowledge by creating Common Core videos, presenting at school and district functions, and inviting teachers to visit and observe our Common Core practices in our classrooms.  

Common Core Demonstration Teachers are not stressed or burned out.  We love Common Core because we understand it.  But the only reason we understand it is because we have been given the luxury of time to explore it, to practice it, to fail with it, and to learn from it.  We have been given the resources needed to understand it and the time to reflect on it.  We have been given the support by our school district to take risks with new 21st Century ideas, and learn and grow.  We have been given the money that makes all this extra time spent out of the contract time worth it.  We feel valued and honored actually, the way a teacher is supposed to feel. 

I'm definitely not saying that all teachers should do this.  This is my time of life when I want to do this.  But what I'm saying is that valuing the teacher, honoring her, showing her respect, giving the time, resources, and support to learn the Common Core properly is what needs to be done to make the education system thrive again.  Most importantly, pay us what we are worth!  Teachers are working so many inconceivable hours just to understand Common Core practices that that is causing the stress.  They are expected to know so much, but receive so little paid time to learn it and put it into practice.   No wonder the majority of us are basket cases!  So in conclusion, the easy fix to eliminate teacher stress, make them all Common Core Demonstration Teachers!  Train them, give them time, let them take risks, let them present to others to better their craft,  honor them, and... pay them what they are worth!

Anyone else have a solution to teacher stress?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Project Solar System with nine planets

My son, who is in eighth grade was assigned a project in his Science class this week.  He was to create a three dimensional model of the nine, yes nine planets of the Solar System.  That was the assignment.  He was then to write a short description of every planet.  He and I were both very disillusioned by the assignment.  I have been a third grade teacher in the past and this was the exact replica of the project I had assigned, before I was a Common Core teacher every year (well I had only assigned eight planets, but that's beside the point).  So my son and I both thought the same thing, "Really?  Five years later, the same basic art project?"  But I got over my negativity quickly.  I was told before my son entered kindergarten some very wise advice.  A mother from a Mom's group I was involved in said, "School is just icing on the cake.  The real education happens at home."  I have believed in that advice from day one of kindergarten, and nine years later I am happy to say that my son is thriving academically in school.

So I couldn't let this rudimentary assignment go to waste.  I took my son to JoAnn's and I let him walk the aisles, getting ideas for how he was going to design his Solar System.  I didn't say a word, no matter how badly I wanted to.  I decided then and there that since this project was so very easy, he would do every part of it.   He liked this freedom of creativity.  He was excited about picking out the  art supplies.  He was never really into art before so this was something new for him.  He chose clay, ceramic paint, Crazy Glue, and a lot of other materials that I never would have chose if I were to help him.  We went home and he got to work immediately.  He made nine planets (yes, the assignment said nine) out of clay.  He made them a little, or actually a lot bigger than I would have, but true to my word, I didn't say anything.  I gave no advice whatsoever.

  The planets came out beautifully!  Then he researched the planets and wrote up their descriptions and posted them near the planets.  He put on some finishing touches such as the many moons and rings that the planets had.  He was extremely proud of his creation.

Tonight is the night before he has to turn his project into class.  He has this idea that the project must be propped up vertically, he can't deliver it horizontally.  It doesn't say this on the instructions, but he has it in his head that that is how his project will be.  So he lifts it up vertically.  You know what will happen.  We all do.    Well actually that doesn't happen.  Only one planet, Jupiter falls hard to the floor.  Luckily it doesn't shatter into pieces.  My son takes it well.  He decides he needs to add more glue.  Once it is dry, he props it up again, and down it comes, pounding to the floor.  So he analyzes the situation and decides that Jupiter's rings, which are pipe cleaners can be used to sustain the heavy clay ball from falling.  He makes some calculations, finds some duct tape, and Voila! he solves his problem.  When he props up the poster board, Jupiter doesn't fall.  I am so proud of him!  I even begin to change my mind about this project that I deep down inside feel is not worthy of an eighth grader.  I see my son solving problems, working with gravity, and even thinking like an engineer.   I think, "Wow!  He's using 21st Century Skills now!

By now its late at night.  We're both tired and ready to go to bed.  He props up the poster board again, and, yes, you now guessed right, all the planets fall to the ground.  My son gets so upset!  Three days of work come crashing to the ground.  He is completely ready to lose it.  Now is when I see it is time for me to step in.  I have been hands off for this whole project.  Now it is my time to be a mom.  But I don't help with the project.  I help his state of mind.  I realize now since I have become a Common Core Demonstration Teacher, and have done so much research, that I have given him the Fixed Mindset.  He is the typical super smart child that has never had a challenge in his life.  He's feeling it for the first time tonight.  Here is my chance to make up for all the times I encouraged that Fixed Mindset.  I tell him to take a break, and then I tell him that he can persevere.  He can overcome this obstacle, even though he is dead tired and wants to give up.  He can solve this one last problem.

So he does!  He gets up, glues all the planets back on and tells me that this is now a horizontal project.  I am so proud!  I learned a lesson too right along with my son.  Every project, every assignment, can encourage 21st Century Learning.  You just have to be open to the possibility.  Here is the finished horizontal project, Our Solar System with nine planets. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Are our tests really CCSS approved?

Today my class took a district benchmark test in math.  Yesterday we took one in English Language Arts.  They both took up half the day of instruction time.  I have very mixed feelings about this test.  I am a Common Core Demonstration Teacher for the district and part of my job is to spread joy and positivity towards anything Common Core.  The problem is that I truly am joyful and positive about anything Common Core so when other educators bad mouth it, I vehemently disagree.  For so long I had to go through the hoops and obstacles presented to me by the phonics only era, then Balanced Literacy, and finally the  scripted teaching period.  I was so happy when along came a philosophy that I believed in.

So they, and they are the people who told us to teach in scripted vocabulary, tell us we must formally test the students on Common Core Standards every trimester.  We must do this to prepare for the CAASPP test that comes next spring.  They also tell us this is the "Common Core" way.  The problem for me is that I don't get all giddy for taking this test the way I get giddy for teaching Common Core Standards.   I actually do feel like testing is good.  I have worked really hard this first two months of school and I do expect my students to show what they know.  I know that some will excel and some need a lot more practice in order to get it.  If this test were valid, I believe that it would show me those very results, and I would actually not be surprised.  For example, "Fernanda" who reads very fluently, and can answer questions by referring to text and inferring should really have no problem on test questions that deal with inferencing.  While, "Julie" who cannot yet read grade level text should not even remotely pass the test.  Well, today I was surprised when both "Fernanda" and "Julie" both scored the same on the inferencing portion of the test.  They both scored at far below basic.

Of  course I won't use these test results for anything of importance.  I can't use it for future differentiation strategies or small group instruction because the whole class did poorly.  I won't use it for grades because I don't believe in its validity.  Maybe it has a little importance because it get the students familiar with technology and test taking strategies.  Maybe.   But the problem I have is because I am a Common Core Demonstration Teacher, representing CCSS, do I have to support this benchmark test that I don't agree with?  It makes me wonder if the district/state/country may be unsure of what CCSSs really are.

When I look at the State Framework I don't see any mention of extremely difficult tests.  When I review the CCSS for my grade level, I also don't see mandates that say that teacher must give tests that are super hard and make students (and teachers) doubt themselves and their skills and hard work they put into learning the skills.  I also don't see any reference to multiple choice tests when discussing the importance of real world application in the College and Career Ready (CCR) section of the standards.  So why are we still giving these tests?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Retelling Stories using Nonlinguistic Representations in a Dual Language Classroom

My students did a fun lesson today on retelling stories.  We are reading the novel The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White in Spanish (we are a dual immersion classroom), and it is much more difficult in Spanish than in English.  I have a lot of Spanish learners in my class so I had to find a way to scaffold and differentiate to make the story meaningful for all learners.

I began with a read aloud while my students followed along.  I had divided the chapter of 8 pages up into fourths, so every two pages we stopped and represented the plot in a nonlinguistical manner.  We drew the image we saw in our minds.  This activity created a lot of discussion within table groups as the students drew their pictures.  Students were asking for vocabulary, plot, character analysis, everything I try to teach and they don't listen to easily, they were now asking for freely from their peers.  As I walked by table groups I heard joy and academic laughter.  One student said, "QuĂ© divertido!" which means how fun!  Students that I have to pull teeth from to get any work out of were freely working and actually understanding the text.  After about five minutes for each section I would place student examples on the overhead projector for the whole class to admire and copy if missing prime examples of the plot.  I also made a word list that I wanted to be added to the sketch to be used further on in the lesson.

Next I had the students close the lesson with a quick write on the journal page beside the non-linguistical representation of the chapter.  I assign a quickwrite so students can organize the ideas in their brains, especially the students learning the language.  Students use the word lists I had previously given them and the organization of the four square with the images to retell the story.  Quick writes have also been proven to improve intelligence because the recalling of information and applying it to the written work gets the brain's dendrites firing up and that is an excellent accomplishment in the     classroom for any teacher.

 The above example is done by native Spanish speaker.  Here is an example of a Spanish Learner's work.  This is a great activity for differentiation.  Everybody works and grows at their level.

 Next week I will build on all this great work the students have accomplished.  I will build on the vocabulary, plot, and character development the non-linguistical drawings promoted when I ask the students to reread the chapter with their shoulder partner.  Shoulder partners are strategically chosen to be high/medium or medium/high.  This promotes learning from both students.  One gets one on one tutoring, and the other gets to explain their ideas which cements knowledge into the brain and again, gets those dendrites firing.   So one partner will begin reading while the other will listen and assist if necessary.  Then after the reader has read half the page, that same readers  will ask the listener a question.  This will put added rigor to the reader to not only read for phonics but for comprehension since they know that they will be responsible for asking a question.  The listener then will answer the question and  will begin reading the second half of the page.  If they don't know the answer the reader must show them where to find it, and the question must be text based.

After the rereading of the chapter is when the fun begins.  The students will be ready to collaborate to realize the big idea objective of retelling stories.  Collaboration is only legit when everyone in the group participates.  This next activity is a true example of that.   There are four students in each pod in my classroom and they are numbered off between #1 - #4.  Student number #1 will begin with a sentence that represents box #1 of the day before's non-linguistic representation.  He will use his best vocabulary and grammar to retell that one scene.  When he has finished his teammates will add to it, delete from it, or completely renovate it.  This will open up a valuable team discussion of vocabulary, plot, character, and much more.  It is the perfect environment for language learners!  Once the team has come to a decision, they will all write the same one sentence to represent scene #1 of the chapter.  The activity will be repeated with all four scenes, and thus all four team members will get a chance to express their opinions and use their vocabulary to retell a story.

Finally we get to the presentation component of the lesson.  The students will have read, written, listened, and now they will get a chance to speak in front of their peers.  This is a great way to practice public speaking, something that all students have to learn to excel in in the 21st Century.  I will give the students five minutes to practice reading their story summaries.  I will then choose a random number between one and four.  Whose ever number is chosen, they will be representing their table.  They will go to another table to present their summary.  The three members at the other table will listen and then give three responses.  They will give one praise, one item of confusion, and one piece of advice.  Then the representative will return back to their table to deliver the news of what was praiseworthy, what was confusing, and what needed to be changed.  The goal is the teams will improve upon their writing style the next time I assign this activity.

This is the plan for next week, with my goal of retelling a story using a variety of language learner scaffolding and strategies tailored for success.  I'll let you know how it goes.  Being an educator I know that you know that I may have a completely different story to tell... Planning a lesson and experiencing it are two different entities.  :)

Monday, October 3, 2016

Don't Raise your Hand! Reaching All Students in a Cooperative Classroom

 Over the summer I presented my first EDTalk at the California Teacher's Summit, Better Together at Cal State University San Bernardino.  It was a fantastic experience.  I'd like to present the message I spoke on in my speech here, in word form.  I hope you enjoy!

  Every year I set a personal goal for myself, something that I can work on to better my teaching skills and thus better my students.  Last year I decided to focus on Reaching all students through Cooperative Learning.

I am a 4th grade dual immersion teacher.  What that means is that I teach all Common Core Standards in two languages.  Half of my day I teach these standards in English, and the other half I teach them in Spanish.  50% of my students are English learners, and the other 50%  are Spanish learners.  That means that at any time during the day, whether it be Science, Math, Language Arts, or any other subject, half of my students are learning in their 2nd language. 
So return with me to the first day of the last school year.  I’m all ready and excited to begin working on my goal of reaching All students.  I began my day in English and I had normal first day participation.  Most students walked in very shy and weren’t ready to show me their true colors yet.  I noticed this boy Isaiah.  He was not shy, rather the opposite, ready to participate, a firecracker actually with lots of energy and drive.   But what I noticed most was his award winning smile.   Then came the switch to the Spanish language, remember, I teach Common Core Standards in Spanish half the day.   Isaiah’s whole demeanor changed when the class began speaking in Spanish.  He did not want to participate and he completely shut down.   This happened every day.  
I’m sure you all have students like this in your class.  If you teach Science, you may have those students who show no interest.  Or maybe if you’re a math teacher you’ve seen the students who have been unsuccessful in the past so they come to your class already defeated and unwilling to try.   Many of these “unreachables” become our behavior problems.  Of course, educating in California, we all have a good number of English Language Learners.  No matter what the subject matter we teach, or the assignment we hold in the education field, I think we can all relate to our desire to want to reach all students and the struggles we encounter as we try.
So I focused on reaching Isaiah.  I wanted to make sure he felt seen and important in the classroom.  I called on him, often.  He of course never raised his hand.  Those raising their hands were the students who didn’t need my attention.  You know the students, the extroverts, “I know the answer!”   The native language speakers,  “I know how to say the answer!”  And the high achievers, “The answer is so easy!”    But when I called on Isaiah, he shut down even more!  I could see it in his eyes, like a deer caught in headlights.    His stress level increased exponentially and made it impossible for him to focus and have success.  
I tried to ensure that he had easy access to the information.  I made graphic organizers, used manipulatives and realia.    I held 10:2 discussions where I talked for ten minutes, and then let the students talk among themselves for two minutes to process information.  After the student discussions I would call on Isaiah, really trying to give him a question that would bring definite success for him, but I got the same result.  He would not participate, or even try, he acted as if he were defeated, and that winning smile of his never appeared during Spanish time.  
I realized that I had to research Cooperative Learning strategies quickly if I was going to be able to reach him before his grades and self-esteem plummeted.  So I read articles and books, I attended conferences, I observed other teachers.     And then I had a realization!  I was teaching Cooperative Learning all wrong!
First of all, I found that you must strategically plan for diverse grouping.  Diverse grouping, it’s all over the Common Core Standards.  I initially thought, “Easy, I group students all the time.  Their desks are grouped in pods of four and I encourage communication and group tasks daily”.  But I learned that that is not diverse grouping.  I needed to really plan and think about my students.  I had to analyze every one of them and decide where they fit best in the classroom.  Who were my language learners?  My high and low achievers?  My extroverts and introverts?  Who were possible behavior issues?  Who were Friends? Who were enemies?  What ethnic and cultural groups were represented in my class?  Gifted?  Special Education Students?  And after analyzing everyone, I had to strategically place them in groups that were the most beneficial for every student.   I needed truly diverse groups.  
Next I had to look at time equity.  Did I really give everyone equal time to share and practice the language and standard orally?  Well, when I asked a question and looked for raised hands, this was definitely not equitable.  Again, only the extroverts, “I know the answer!”  The native language speakers,  “I know how to say the answer!” The high achievers, “The answer is so easy!” were participating.  This was not equitable.  Then I thought about the 10:2 discussions and thought, “No , the same student populations are still dominating the conversations.”  What about random cold calling… No, remember Isaiah who would freeze up if his name were called.  
No my time equity was horrible!!   Luckily, I learned a new strategy to ensure that I was reaching ALL students.   I assigned seat partners letters, seated side by side letter A and B.   I taught my lesson say, lecturing on Rain Forest ecosystems, for 10 minutes and then instead of asking for a volunteer or cold calling, or saying discuss in groups!  I said, “Partner A, talk to Partner B for 30 seconds about Rain Forests.”  After 30 seconds, Partner B would say, “ I really like what you said about …”  and then paraphrase what his partner had said.  This ensures that he is actively listening while his partner shares.  Then Partner B will share.  The whole class responds in this manner, thus reaching ALL Students. 
Now I know you’re probably thinking about Isaiah, or maybe your own hard to reach students, and you ask, “What about them?  What happens to someone like Isaiah, who can’t yet form a sentence about the topic, let alone speak for 30 seconds.   Well that’s when planning for diverse grouping comes in.   I had seated Isaiah next to a very patient student who was trained to encourage him to elaborate so he could access his 30 second time slot.  If Isaiah responded to the rain forest question with, “I like rain forests.”  Then his partner would ask, “Do you like rain?” Or “What types of rain forest animals do you like?”  Thus Isaiah gets his time to practice the subject and language, while his partner gets to model and teach, which is also proven to be great for the brain and cognitive development.  It’s a win, win situation!
Lastly, I learned to truly make this type of cooperative classroom work, I needed to team build.  I needed to create opportunities for these students to find similarities and respect for each other so they would be willing to help those in need.  I planned short fun, non-academic activities for them.  For example, in a group of four, I would ask, “What is your favorite ice cream flavor?”  Say that one student responded, “Chocolate”.  And another said, “vanilla”.   And then the remaining two said strawberry and chocolate.  Well, now we just built a bridge.  They know that two members of their group like chocolate and they begin to see similarities, rather than differences. You can also ask a more open ended question like, “What is your dream house?”  Give them each 30 seconds to share, time equity, and again, and you have built another bridge.
 Also for team building I like to do dance activities.  Everyone in the class stands, I put on fun music, and a chosen member of each team dances in front of their own teammates, crazily most likely, while her team mirrors or mimics her.   If you look out at the whole class, you see 8 groups of four students dancing different dances together.  The whole team has fun being silly and dancing with each other.   If you take the time to encourage them to have fun together, they will be more likely to want to work together in the future.
So it’s the end of the year and I receive this letter from Isaiah.

Dear Ms. Richardson,
You’re personally my best teacher because you motivate me to learn as much Spanish as I can, and also thank you for everything you taught me.  Also you are really fun because you play music and do activities with us.  

 I’m happy to tell you that Isaiah was reached this year!  By mid-year, he was fully participating in all classroom activities no matter the subject or language.  His self-esteem had skyrocketed and his famous smile had returned.   With help from his strategically placed table partners, he learned the vocabulary and grammar necessary to voice his opinions.  He was able to access Common Core Standards in his second language.  And more importantly, by placing him in a safe environment created by team building activities, he was able to learn that mistakes are good, and something to be learned from.  He did not have the fear of failure anymore.  
 And I know Isaiah wasn’t the only one who benefited from the application of true Cooperative Learning Strategies.  By not letting my students raise their hands to answer questions, but rather direct them to partner or group discussions allowing for time equity, all students were reached at their own differentiated level.  All students were teachers and models for others.  All students were pushed to a higher level of thinking due to peer interaction and the processing of new information.   And all students had a safe environment to practice and learn.
As you begin your new school year, I want to encourage you to plan how you will reach all students.  I hope that you will rethink the common practice of cold calling or asking students to raise their hands to respond.  Imagine the change we could bring about if we multiplied all of you reading today’s blog on Multilingual Mania, and we multiplied that number by the amount of students we teach, and we were able to reach every single one of them! Let’s do some miraculous things in our classrooms!   Come on educators of the future generation!  Encourage your students to stop raising their hands and instead actively communicate with each other!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

After the math test

All educators want their students to succeed.  They teach to the Common Core Standards, differentiate instruction so all students get what they need at their own levels, reflect on how the lesson went and decide how to move forward.  They give the students the test, and then either do the happy dance or fall into a deep depression.  Then the next day they move on to the next chapter of the math book, or whatever scope and sequence their district has decided to follow.

I like to add one more step to this merry go round.  I think that the day after the test is extremely important, maybe just as important as all the other steps a student, and teacher have to take to successful learn and retain the material necessary to grasp Common Core math problems.  This step is actually a bit hard on me.  Some nights when I'm working on this step I ask myself, "Why are you killing yourself for this job?"  But I really believe in this step, and if I didn't do, I would kind of feel like all the other hard work that I had put into that particular math standard would be pointless.

You ask what is this ridiculously tiring extra step?  Well, after the students take the test I take them all home and correct and grade them.  Then I record the grades in my grade book.   By this time I am tired and want to stop but I know I can't.  I must write a nice growth mindset message on every test, "I see you've practiced your multiplication facts!"  or "I think if you took extra time and used your notes you would see better results."  I then go through all their tests and make a spreadsheet that tells me how each student did on each question.  This way I can pull small groups throughout the upcoming week to reteach the concepts not yet grasped.

Now you are probably thinking, "Why does this have to be done all in one day?"  Well, I have read research by Dr. Marzano that proves a correlation between the time a student takes a test and the time he receives the results.  The closer the time frame, the more meaningful the test, and the more successful the student will be when taking the test and retaining the material.  The more time that passes, the less powerful the test and thus, the concepts taught by me.  I don't want my hard earned time used teaching the students to go to waste!  I want to get the most bang for my buck!  I want to give my students their tests back as soon as humanly possible!  And if that means that I work late one night so I can give the students back their tests the next morning, then that is what will happen.

So the next morning I give the students back their tests.  I have them write a refection on them in their interactive math journals.  They must write about something they did well, something they still need to learn, and something they question.   Then the next step I feel may be one of the most powerful steps.  I send the students out to mingle with their classmates.  Their assignment is either to explain something, or have something explained to them.  This is how it works.  They look for a peer that got the answer they got wrong, right.  Then that peer must explain how to do the problem.  If the student understands how to compete the problem after the explanation, they ask the student to sign their problem for them.  If they still don't understand, then they look for another tutor.  Both students win in this activity because the person being tutored, gets tutored, and the tutor gets practice explaining a problem, which is fantastic practice to help take him to the next level in their math capabilities.  Lastly, I tell the students to take their math tests home to be reviewed and signed by their parents.   Any home-school collaboration is a welcome addition to my math problem, and parent involvement is an extremely powerful tool in any subject.  Plus, there are fewer surprises at parent-teacher conference time.

You may think I am a workaholic, and you are probably right.  But out of all the extra activities I do off the clock I feel most strongly about this one.  I do feel that if even one of these steps were taken out of my "after test day routine" that my students would be harmed a bit educationally.  I do believe that what we as teachers do after a test is just as important as what we do before the test.  And if we don't have the time to do all the steps, why even take the test?

Friday, September 30, 2016

Close Reading with Shakira

My class population consists of 10 Spanish Learners and 20 English Learners.  We are a 50:50 Dual Immersion class which means we value the 21st Century skill of biliteracy.   Whatever level I teach in English, I teach the same level in Spanish, although I will scaffold as necessary to ensure everyone learns and grows.

So the objective today was to have the students Close Read a song, working on the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard of interpreting and analyzing how word choices shape meaning.  Basically, we were looking at how the author of the song used clear images from word choice to give the central idea.  This lesson was done in Spanish.

So to begin with I found a super fun, current Spanish song with a good message.  It is called "La bicicleta" and its written by Shakira and Carlos Vives.    I played the song and had the students read the lyrics as they listened.  They were shocked and giddy that they got to listen to music for a lesson.  A huge qualification of a Close Reading lesson is that it has to be fun!   La bicicleta song and lyrics

So after reading (and listening to) the song for fluency I had the students annotate.  They took a pencil and reread the lyrics during which they circled the key words and phrases and underlined important ideas.  Then they interacted with the text by writing down questions and comments that the text prompted.   This is the basic first step of any Close Read activity.  The difference is, it is done with a fun song!  After this dual immersion class annotated and analyzed the text, I instructed them to write down what they thought was the central idea of the song.  I told them to not worry about being right, but interpret the song the best they could with the information they had.  Below is an example.   #1 is the student's initial analysis of the central idea.  

Next I told students to reread the text (Close Reading involves multiple readings of the same text), and create a list of all the words that created a clear image in their heads.  I modeled a short list of my own words, and then gave them 10 minutes to create their own list.  Then I told them to buddy up with their neighbor (who is strategically placed beside them to either help or receive help in the second language), and share their lists.  I wanted them to negotiate the clarity of the word choices and create one working list to share among both students.  This discussion is so valuable, especially among second language learners.  After the lists were made, I showed them my list.  I explained that my list was my interpretation of the song and no better or worse than their lists, just different.  Below is my list.  
  Next we find patterns, and we will use them to further analyze the central idea.  I explain patterns using three colored markers.  I model how I group "hurt, heart, beating for you, and happy" together.  I ask students to think, pair, share what they think a good title for this category would be.  Then I tell them that I will choose "emotions" and I think aloud my reasoning.  I then tell them to figure out their pattern and title and use a colored pencil to identify the categories.  I do the same with the rest of the word choice list until I get the titles "emotions, an easy life, childhood".   I then encourage them to analyze and revise their central idea of the song and label it #2, as seen above on the student work.   AFterwards I show them my revision and explain the rationale behind it through a think aloud.  I also re-explain that all interpretations are good.  Any problems I will address in a future lesson, not now.  Here is my interpretation using the word choice and patterns to analyze the central idea.  "The author wants to return to the era of her childhood when life was easier." 
The students LOVED this Close Reading activity!  It was different and relevant and adding the element of music and poetry increased engagement by leaps and bounds!  Differentiation was evident in that the strong Spanish speakers really analyzed the word choice profoundly, and the struggling Spanish learner found enjoyment and success in finding known words and being able to pattern them together in categories.  Below are some examples of student work. 

By the way,  I got this Close Reading variation from a fantastic conference I went to titled, "Falling in Love with Close Reading" by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Building Powerful Teams in Cooperative Learning Groups

To have a collaborative classroom you must have a safe environment.  To have a safe environment, you must have team building activities, and often.  My students began the week seated in new teams.  The teams are strategically chosen by me.  There are many components to how the teams are grouped,  but one of the requirements is that great friends are not at the same table.

So how do you create a safe environment when the students in your class are strangers in the first months of school?  You must team build and often!  So day 1 of the first week in new teams I had the students do an icebreaker activity.  They just had to answer get to know you questions and have a good time together.  Day 2 is today.  Today we set our boundaries regarding what type of behavior and character traits were to be accepted and promoted. 

To begin with I put a large sheet of butcher paper on the table and had the team captain draw a rectangle in the middle and four diagonal lines to create a middle section and four personal spaces for each team member.  Then each group member quietly, without sharing, wrote team rules that were important to them.  This is what is shown in the picture above. 
Next is time for team collaboration.  One member shares their most important team rule. One of the rules this team chose is "Don't laugh at each other."  Each teammate  then shows with a thumbs up if they think this is a good rule for the team or a thumb to the side if it is not a good rule.  If there is not group agreement then the captain opens up a short discussion to express their opinions on the rule and negotiate.  Then the captain holds one last vote.  If everyone says yes, then the rule gets written in the center rectangular area.  As you can see from the picture the team decided that the rule "Don't laugh at each other" was a keeper. 

For this team building activity to work you need to have complete buy in from the members and everyone needs to feel equally important.  If you can get the team rules created at the beginning, then it will be easier to manage team blow ups when they occur.  You sit the team down and show them the agreement they made together regarding team expectations.  It is harder for them to argue against a rule they themselves agreed upon.  Students feel safer in an environment when they have created the rules and expectations. 

Common Core Conversations within the Community

Every Wednesday my son takes music lessons at a studio.  I love these Wednesday evenings because I wait for him in the cozy diner next door.  It is the perfect kind of hole in the wall establishment where everyone is a regular and everyone knows your name.  It is the perfect place to get a coffee and dessert and do some blogging.

Today I just wrote the entry titled "Socratic Seminar".   Right when I finished it, my son came up to the table, just having finished his lesson.  While settling in, he asked to see what I had wrote about.  I noticed that while he was reading, our waitress was looking over his shoulder to take a look also.  She did not know that I had just wrote it, and because I have not yet posted my picture, it is pretty anonymous looking.  When I look at it from her point of view,  and distance, what she sees is "Loving Common Core".

This is where the story starts.  She exclaims, "You people love Common Core?"  Oh my gosh!  My son and I were about to fall out of our seats laughing!  Little did she know that not only are we reading about Lovin Common Core, I am the author!  But what happened next is the reason I write my blog.  She began talking about how her son is struggling right now with Common Core math.  All three of us started dialoguing about our experiences with Common Core.  It was an interesting conversation because we got three different view points.  She represented the parent, my son the student, and myself the teacher.  We only spoke for about 10 minutes and none of us really agreed on anything, but it felt so good to discuss and hear other sides of the Common Core Coin.   Getting more people to talk about education, whether it is in our schools, in our homes, or even in restaurants with our waitress, is a huge step to ensure a successful future for our children. 

Socratic Seminar

My 4th graders participated in a Socratic Seminar today.  It was really fun!  We had been learning about writing opinions for the past two months and this was our cumulative activity to end the unit.  The assignment was to first decide whether it would be better for the principal to use his LCAP money given to the school by the government to purchase computers for the class or provide more field trips for the students. 

After the students chose a side, they were given two articles to read and use for research so they could talk knowledgably about the subject.  Two articles were on the benefits of using computers in the classroom and two were on the educational benefits of field trips.  I explained how all opinions are good as long as they are backed up with good details and examples.   We also practiced using citations and paraphrasing.  Then came the day of the Socratic Seminar.

I asked my principal if he would join us for the activity.  I, like most teachers don't make it a habit of inviting the administration to a lesson.  No matter how well you plan and prepare, you really never know how a lesson will turn out, and sometimes its best to find out in the privacy of your own classroom.  But I felt that for this activity to as successful as I foresaw it being, I needed student buy in.  If they were discussing what the principal should use money on, he needed to be present to hear their arguments.  I needed to apply it to real life and make it applicable to them. 

Our principal was scheduled to come into the classroom at 2:30.  At 2:15 my students were a nervous wreck!  Every time the door opened, whether it be the custodian, a random student, or the secretary, they all jumped on account of their nerves.  They were so excited and nervous that he was coming in to hear what they had to say, their opinions! 

We took these extra 15 minutes to prepare the class for Socratic Seminar.  We moved desks and situated chairs in a circle in the middle of the room.  Half the students sat in the circle while the others sat near a buddy that they were going to evaluate with a listening/speaking checklist.  We cleaned the room extra well and then he entered!

The students were so adorable!  They spoke their opinions.  They used details and examples.  They cited articles and reasoned.  But what I was most impressed with was their courtesy.  They let each other talk and praised good ideas.  When there was a disagreement, they used sentence stems such as, "I see your point but..."  or "I have another idea..."  As my students used their voices powerfully, with fantastic structure and academic vocabulary, I just sat back and was amazed!  These are our future leaders.  These students are our next scientists, politicians, doctors, educators, and so much more.  For them to learn to talk to someone in authority to express themselves is priceless.  It was a really good day.  And by the way, the principal decided to use the LCAP money for both of their causes.  Today we got more computers and field trips.  Again, it was a great day!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Planting Baby Trees

My first entry on this blog is titled "Staff Meeting".  In this entry I talk about a presentation I gave on a Common Core topic to my peers at a staff meeting.  The short version of this event is that I felt very excited and passionate about sharing my hard earned Common Core knowledge, but let down when it looked as if I was unable to communicate my ideas well at the meeting.

Well today, two weeks after the meeting someone brought it up.  It was actually the teacher from which I felt the highest resistance.  She told me that she was trying out my strategy!  She confided that she felt a little nervous about teaching something so new to her students, yet very excited about trailblazing forward with the Common Core Standards.

After this conversation I was amazed.  The teacher and friend who never said a comment to me after my presentation about what I presented was secretly trying the strategy out on her students!   It made me wonder if this teacher was pondering my Common Core strategies, maybe others are privately considering them also.  It made me think of an article I just read today by Elena Aguilar, "20 Tips for New Instructional Coaches".  Step #18 said to be patient and to "imagine each conversation as a baby tree you plant."   I realized today that I need to trust the process.  If I have something to share, than I need to share it and not worry about the outcomes.  If it is good advice, it will be taken, if not at the moment, then later after it has had time to be processed.

Writer's Workshop - The Facilitator Role

If you've read previous entries of mine, you will know that I am a big fan of Writer's Workshop and use it as one of the major components of my writing program.  Every year I try to grow the program and add components to it that will enhance student learning and independence, while teaching the Common Core Standards.

I run my Writer's Workshop in steps, always building on the other.  The first month of school I actually didn't run the Writer's Workshop program at all.  I actually only modeled and gave guided writing lessons.  I really wanted students to see what a good piece of writing looked like, and all the steps required to get to the finished product.  As far as the genre, I started with the opinion and I showed all the components needed in a good opinion text according to the CCSS.  I taught how to choose a topic and develop an opinionated topic sentence.  I showed how to use a graphic organizer to add details and examples to back up the opinion.  I showed how to write a conclusion as well as transitions, citations, and complete sentences and vocabulary.  I modeled this and as a class we practiced this for the first month of school.

The second month of school I was ready to begin Writer's Workshop.   I showed students some of the Writing Process steps (plan and organize and write the rough draft).  I knew that if I bombarded them with the whole writing process that they would get lost and the whole workshop would be lost.  So we took baby steps.   After they finished they signed up to conference with me and I showed them how to revise, edit and rewrite.  I guided them in this process until they could do it independently.  Then I added on.

Today.  Today I added all the parts of Writer's Workshop.  I knew there would be lots of questions about steps, after all, I did assign Planning, Writing, Revising and editing with a rubric, conferencing with a peer, rewriting, and finally publishing.  That's a lot to remember for a fourth grader for the first time.  Also, during the first step of planning, I told them that they had to choose and read one of the articles from Newsela in order to make their opinion and have lots of details and examples to cite.  This was a huge process!

Jonathon.  Jonathon is one of those students who rush to finish their work.  The work is rarely done correctly, but they are done first!  Well, while I am walking around, monitoring, directing, and making sure everyone is on task, I see Jonathon's hand pop up.  When I walk over to see where he is at I see a very short paragraph, obviously copied from text.  He has finished so quickly that I know there is no way he read the provided article, let alone use it for research.  But I bite my tongue.  I didn't say, "NOOOO! This is not what I've been teaching you for the past two months!  Haven't you been listening?!"  No, even though I thought that,  I didn't voice that.   I say nothing and ask him what he thinks his next step is.  Remember, I want to teach for future independence.  He figures out that he needs to go grab a rubric to check his work.  So I look over his shoulder as he reads the rubric, and I got so excited!  He says, "Oh, I don't have a topic sentence."  And he proceeds to write a decent topic sentence on top of his paragraph.  Then he says, "Oh, I don't have any details, let me read this article."  And again, read the article and writes adequate details.  He continues in this manner with the rubric and at the end, he has a decent opinion.

I could not believe it!  Throughout all my years teaching I have always been the teacher who will not let a student struggle.  If they need help, I'm there to assist.  This year I wanted to take the facilitator role.  I wanted to let the students struggle a bit and figure out their own solutions.  I was a bit skeptical of this position as a teacher, after all, I'm there so why don't I share my knowledge?  But the more I take a step back and make my students work their brains and figure out solutions, the more I'm made into a believer that my job as a teacher is to let them struggle.  I'm seeing more and more that their struggles often lead to success.  And even if they do lead to failures, I'm learning that the best learning comes out of failures.

I'm so proud of both Jonathon and myself today.  We both learned powerful lessons.  Jonathon learned how to write an opinion paragraph ON HIS OWN!  I learned that students learn on their own when their teachers step back and empower them.  It was a good day.

Building trust side by side

There is always at least one needy student in every classroom.  I think that every year when the school year begins, the teacher has all the best intentions to seek out, and shower that student with so much attention that, voila!, problem solved.  But as the school year progresses, she realizes that helping the needy student is a lot more easier said than done. 

The problem that I notice is that a cycle begins, that is extremely difficult to break and then correct.  The problem is that when the needy student starts looking for attention,  her behavior begins to push the teacher away.  The teacher has already given so much of her attention away to this student, that she doesn't have the energy needed to continue trying to fill her needs.   Then the teacher begins to get tired, grumpy, stressed and probably many other emotions that further work to make her want to alienate herself from the needy student.  When the student feels this negative energy, she needs more, and begins to act out and worse to get it because the teacher is too exhausted to give the attention on an every day basis.

So what can is the teacher to do?  Well, there is a strategy called Side by Side.  What the teacher does is take the student for a walk.  It must be a walk.  Walking is known to decrease stress and get the blood and glucose flowing as it should so both teacher and student can have a stress free conversation.   The teacher gives her time to the student and the student receives the attention she so desperately needs.  There is no guidelines of rules to this conversation, only the pair must walk side by side, shoulder to shoulder.   It is a natural conversation that lets the student know a little about the teacher, and the teacher can gain very powerful insight into what makes this student tick.

You'd be surprised as to what these conversations will produce.  The teacher can learn so much about the family life,  hobbies and sports, friends,  dreams, and so much more!  But most importantly, the teacher is building a powerful bond between student and teacher that will benefit both.  Because the teacher is giving up special, undivided quality time with the student, the student's needs are being met.  She will become less needy and the cycle explained above will be broken.  The teacher will also gain from this interaction.   Aside from of course, calming the unwanted behavior that comes from neediness, the teacher will most likely, truly like this student after taking the time to get to know her. 

Side by side is not a miracle strategy.  Like anything, results come from hard work and the teacher is going to have to schedule time each week for these Side by Side chats, but the results are completely worth every second of time spent.   Plus, the teacher gets to accomplish her beginning of the year goal of being there for all students.   She has broken the chain that prevents this needy student from getting the attention she needs, and gets a chance to watch her blossom and grow first hand.

Diverse grouping for collaborative conversations

The Common Core Standards states that students need to express their ideas, collaborate, and build on each others' ideas in diverse groups.  A lot of people think that diverse groups means just don't seat students with their friends, but there's a lot more to it than that.  A teacher has to be very strategic when devising these diverse groupings.   The categories could be endless.  For example there are gender, race, social, language, and academic categories.  There is also friendships, enemies, chatterboxes, and  introverts.   There are also students that fall into the Gifted or Special Education category.   And I'm sure there are categories that I'm forgetting that you're thinking of right now when you review your classroom.

During the second of week of school, every year after I somewhat get an idea of who my students are, I arrange my students' seats in pods of four for easy collaboration.   I stratagize over these grouping the night before.   I write all students' names on index cards and then list any relevant information about them that could help me break the into diverse groups.   I then lay them out on my bed in pods of four, just like my class would appear in the morning  I arrange and study them.  I really analyze them to make sure they are the perfect fit because once I put the students in these pods, there should be no seat switching.   It is ideal for the students to remain i these teams because I am going to be doing a lot of team building, and if someone gets moved, someone gets left out.  For collaboration in diverse groupings to function, the students need to feel safe in their teams.  For that reason I do fun team building get to know you activities and team empowerment assignments.   It is very detrimental to a team and the individual student, if she gets moved after she has been placed.   And these teams must last for 6-8 weeks.

Well, tonight I just arranged my second group of index cards for the year.  We made it through the first 6-8 weeks of school.  The groupings I created the second week were interesting to say the least.  They were definitely a good mix of diverse students.   I could tell that most of the students had not been grouped like that before.  When a student is forced to sit in a close group and collaborate and solve problems, if they have any issues I guarantee they will come out.   We had a few heavy arguments between members, and at times the group would become dysfunctional.   Most teachers may think that the solution would be to move the students, but not me.  The more problems that arise, the more team building activities I propose.   One group really couldn't stand each other and had their mother talk with me and demand that they be moved.  Another mother came in for the same reason because their child was unhappy in her placement also.  But after I explained to the parents the purpose of diverse groups and team building and how it creates socialization with the end result of the kind of career skills  everyone dreams about, they said they would give it a chance.  And you know what?  After a week of intense icebreakers and get to know you activities, all students involved did not want to move away from their teams.

Now I plan for the great experiment again.  I have all my cards planned out, and all students divvied out in diverse, strategically grouped pods of four.   When the students enter the classroom Monday, they'll be in for a surprise when they say goodbye to their old table mates and hello to the new ones.  I'll let you know how this group socializes and if my  hopes of them learning character skills that will last a lifetime is plausible.

Differentiation through Writer's Workshop

Here is a video I recorded to show how I teach Common Core Standards through the Writing Process.  Hope you enjoy!

Differentiaton through Writer's Workshop

Writer's Workshop

I began student teaching 25 years ago.  Surprisingly, if you look at my teaching style today and back then, not a lot has changed.  I'm not saying that I haven't evolved as a teacher, nothing is farther from the truth, but there are a great many similarities.  If you were to take a bird's eye view of my room from both eras, and you didn't look very closely, besides the style of dress and hair, and let's not mention age, there would be very few differences.

Let's look at my writing program.  During student teaching, my master taught me two strategies.  In her class she explicitly modeled the writing process and gave guided writing practice when she assigned similar writing assignments and monitored the students by being available and  walking the room.  The second strategy she insisted on was Writer's Workshop.  Through this program she was able to give students independent practice by allowing them to follow the model she initially taught in the modeled direct instruction lesson while differentiating her instruction by conferencing with the students individually.

When I opened my own class in 1996, I also used these to strategies to instruct writing.   I found success in both reading and writing due to this type of instruction, and I found the students to really enjoy themselves and be engaged during these lessons.  Well, eventually as the years went by, this writing style fell out of favor with the powers that may be.  My world of education began cycling through the policies and politics of the state as I taught through the phonics era, the balanced reading era, and probably many other educational time periods that I don't even remember.   The one time period I do remember is the scripted era.    The writing program I began with in college was slowly chiseled away by all the different programs that were "proven" to produce educated adults, but the final nail  came from the scripted programs.  There was no way to promote independent thinking and writing through Writer's Workshop when all lessons were to be read from a book at a specific point of time in the day determined by your boss, or most likely her boss.

Well, I'm happy to say that Writer's Workshop instruction has come back into educational style full circle.  I am now fully encouraged to provide students time and most importantly allow the creativity to flow during writing sessions.  My Writer's Workshop program is back full steam.  But I will proudly say, that if you were to go closer than a bird's eye view, you would see a very different Writer's Workshop program.  I now teach completely to the Common Core Standards when I model that ideal lesson that I want students to learn.  Now I don't just say, "Let's write a great story!"  I now am very deliberate with the vocabulary I utilize to teach a lesson.  Now I may say something like, "Let's begin to write a great narration that introduces a character, follows with a climaxing middle,  and ends with a resolution."   I would also lay out my expectations such as the story must have some dialogue, use appropriate transitions, and use concrete vocabulary to explain yourself.   I also wouldn't just teach how to write narratives, but all genres  mandated by Common Core Standards including opinions and expository text.

If you listened in to my student teacher conferences you would see a big difference also.   Instead of telling the students how to write a perfect paper so it is easily published and wall perfect,  our conferences are student driven.  I don't revise the student's work for them, but am there only as a guide, as a facilitator.  When a student comes to my conference table, they tell me what they want to work on.  They know where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and sometimes they want a review lesson and sometimes they want to take their writing a step further with a challenge lesson.  It is their choice, and being their choice,  they are so much more engaged!  They come to my conference table excited to revise and edit with me.  They can't wait for their turn and they can't wait to return back to their desk to try and apply their newfound knowledge.  It's wonderful to see!

The last difference you would see between 1995 and now is the student conversations.  The old--fashioned Writer's Workshop did not call for peer collaboration.  Today, probably at least a fourth of the time spend during Writer's Workshop is spent sharing and discussing ideas and asking for feedback and help.  I have added another step in the process where students take their rough drafts to a peer to share positive and corrective feedback.  They also work on a rubric together to analyze whether their writing piece is addressing all the Common Core Standards correctly.  Students also look to challenge themselves and push  their abilities to the fullest.

So yes, my Writer's Workshop has evolved and changed with the times.  During the time of Whole Language it was fully welcomed into my class. During the Phonics and Balanced Literacy times, it was utilized but by only parts and pieces.  Then it was completely scratched unfortunately during the Scripted Periods, but now its back and running full force with my students and me leading the way.  This program I love is so very different from the way I taught it when I was a first year teacher and that is a very good thing.  It shows that it is strong enough to last through the winds of change thrown about by the "educational experts", and that means that so am I.   Because I have never given up, because I have looked to the positive side and learned from whatever educational program I was thrown, I have become a much better teacher.  My Writer's Workshop program is 100 times more powerful than it was 25 years ago when I was a spring chick.  We both have adapted, evolved, and become better!

Reflect, Reflect, Reflect part 2

I have always wanted to become a wise person.   I view wise people as respected, knowledgeable, and most importantly, at peace.  I've always strived, though very often unsuccessfully, for peace.   Now that I'm not a spring chicken, I'm looking forward to that wisdom I've always assumed comes with "older" or more mature age.   But I've just come across some new information that changes my whole philosophy on wisdom.

Not all old people are wise!  As I observe others at the upper spectrum of the age continuum I see a lot of people less wise, and with definitely less peace than I have.  As I researched this dilemma, I found I believe, the answer to all my questions.  The answer I really wish I would've discovered many, many years ago.   Wisdom comes with experiences and reflection on those experiences.  It also comes with a lot of trial and error.  But when you make a mistake, you must take time to reflect.  You must think about what caused the mistake and what can be done next time to avoid that same mistake.  You must analyze the situation and look at all the variables.  This is the formula for wisdom.  Now I know I didn't come up with these "words of wisdom" on my own.  I have been reading a lot of books lately and at the moment I can't recall where I read and reflected to become so wise sounding, but it could have come from the Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck,  Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen, or maybe even the Bible.   When I figure it out, I will let you know.

But as of now, I know why I am so happy in my classroom.  I have peace and I am definitely increasing my wisdom.   These past three years during my employ as a Common Core Demonstration Teacher I have been given the luxury of time.   Because I am paid extra days and hours, I have time to analyze and reflect on all aspects of my teaching.  I carefully look at my students, their needs, their abilities, their wants.  I analyze the Common Core standards and discover what exactly a fourth grade student should come to class knowing and what they need to learn.  Then I reflect on this information and create lessons specifically tailored to these students.  After the lessons I again reflect, just like in the previous post on what went well, and what needs to be changed and how.  This I realize, as I reflect in this entry, is why I have so much peace in my classroom.  I am becoming wise!   Or maybe more appropriately said, wiser... Too bad I didn't gain this valuable insight when I was a 25 year old teacher!

Reflect! Reflect! Reflect!

My school district subscribes to the RCD model for curriculum planning.  RCD means Rigorous Curriculum Design, I have to say it not only for my readers, but so that I remember the meaning also.  Basically the idea is that a group of high level administrators and experienced teachers backward map the Common Core Standards and develop an entire yearly plan for all the classes in the district.  The RCD team will use the standards to develop formative tests and projects for the teachers to best teach to the State Framework.  A good majority of teachers in my district do not  care for this plan, but I actually really like using it.

The reason that I like this planning model is that us teachers have the freedom to decide how to teach the Common Core Standards.   We get to use our teacher judgement to decide which books we will use.  We choose the writing system/program that works best with our philosophies.  We can decide how to teach grammar, spelling, and punctuation,  whether with worksheets (hopefully not too much) or within text and writing application.  We decide how to teach listening and speaking, whether through Socratic Seminars, Literature Circles, or whatever fun and engaging way that works best for our teaching style.  We have the freedom under the RCD model, as long as we teach the Common Core state standards within the time frame (Scope and Sequence) mandated by the district.

Well, today I gave a project task written by the RCD planners as a cumulative activity to tie all standards together in a meaningful application.   I put a lot of thought and planning into how I would present this task to my students to ensure optimal success.  Last year I had given this same project task and it was a huge flop.   The students just didn't understand what was being asked of them and they were not prepared to complete all components simultaneously.  That was my reflection after reviewing these week long projects last year.

So this year, I was determined not to make the same mistakes!  I decided I would make a list of all the activities that had to be done to complete the task.  I also added activities such as article annotation, gist writing and 3 column notes to better understand the articles they were reading.   The gist of the project is that students would read two articles and integrate the information to write an opinionated essay.

Well, today was indeed a disaster.  We were in the third day of working on this project and I realized half the class was completely lost and off task.   All I could think of was ,"Three lost days of instruction!!"  And it was completely my fault!  As I reflected, I knew that I had asked too much of them.  I had over explained the task and the requirements.  So when I turned the assignment over to them to complete individually they were overwhelmed with too many instructions.

Well, good news is that its the beginning of the year and I can be sure not to over plan next time...  Bad news, I wasted a really good task and will have to improvise to provide the students what they need to integrate and apply all the skills and knowledge gained during this RCD unit.  I do know that next year I will try to find the happy medium between too much and too little instruction!

Cooperative Learning - Four heads are better than one!

I like to do an activity for math called 'Four Heads are Better than One'.  I use it for problem solving in math class, after I have taught the students the content and they have practiced and wrestled a bit with the ideas presented.  I have my students seated in pods of four for easy collaboration.  The materials they need are small whiteboards, markers, erasers, and any notes that can help them jog their memories on the day's lesson.   I present a word problem on the overhead projector and the students are to read the problem and solve it on their whiteboards.  This is an individual activity so no help is allowed (that will come later).  Once they have completed the problem, they are to flip over their boards, thus showing me that they are ready.  For those that do not know the answer, I give encouragement to try to put a least one thing on their board, anything that will help the group come up with a solution.

Student B's answer
Student A's answer

 The question was:  Write whether each statement is true or false.  Explain your answer.  The product of 1 and 34,654 is 34,654.


Once the majority of the class has finished, I assign a Captain of each pod.  This captain tells her group to stand up (this movement gets the blood and needed glucose flowing to the brain for added brain activity).   Then she proceeds to tell each group member to reveal and explain their answer.  The team then listens, thinks and negotiates the correct answer.  Like I said, even if a student cannot assess the correct answer yet in the first step, he can participate in the discussion because he has at some type of answer or idea to contribute.  The big idea of this second step is collaboration.  By getting all members to debate, explain, and negotiate answers, you are encouraging highly valued discussions that not only engage students mentally, but create benefits that cross over into all areas of curriculum.  In addition, you are promoting 21st Century Learning by assigning a leader to lead a group that must be flexible and adaptable.

The last piece of this activity is the presentation of the answer.  I assign a member from each group to be the representative.  The representative stands up (so you have multiple students standing up at once).   I randomly choose one of the representatives to share and explain the team's answer.  Besides giving the student a chance to practice speaking in front of others, they are practicing using the academic math vocabulary inadvertently practiced in the second step during team discussion.  Plus it's great for English Language Learners!  After he has shared his answer, the other representatives critique by placing a thumb up, or to the side.  Thumbs to the side mean that he is missing something, and thumbs never are pointed down.  As a class, we then discuss and/or work through the problem.  Lastly, teams celebrate either their success, or their effort, with a team handshake.

This math problem solving activity is fun and no matter how many times my fourth grade students practice it, I still hear cheers when I say, "Ok everyone!  Prepare for 'Four Heads are Better than One!'

Staff Meeting

Today I presented at our school's staff meeting.   My principal asked me to help him explain how to use the new program we're using, AVID, and how to apply it to a Common Core lesson.  I was initially excited to present.   For the past three years I have held an extra title besides my classroom teacher title of Common Core Demonstration Teacher.  I will explain in later posts what this job entails, but for now I'll tell you that I get the perk of going to any conference, anywhere in the United States that interests me.  It has been a great three years!

So I was very excited to be trusted to share my hard earned knowledge and experience with my peers.  I chose to demonstrate a lesson on Close Reading which focuses on the conference "Falling in Love with Close Reading" by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts.  I spent a weekend gathering my thoughts, rereading the book I got at the conference, and making a really great PowerPoint.

And today I presented my lesson.  It was actually a bit of a let down.  If you continue to read my entries, you will easily find that I am a huge introvert.  Presentations are very hard for me, but I do them to overcome my fears and grow.  I figure that if I am asking my students to subscribe to the Growth Mindset, that I must do the same.  I also present because I think I have some great knowledge within me and if I want to help educate the future generation it doesn't stop within my classroom.  If I can influence a few teachers, than my influence and knowledge multiplies exponentially.

But I am off topic... back to the presentation today.  It went fine.  Everyone present was respectful.  The teacher who always sleeps at meetings was awake so that's a good thing.  The principal loved the lesson and what it represented, although he did leave for a portion of the meeting.  It is hard to put my finger on the problem but I think I just get so excited about teaching a lesson that I feel let down if I cannot successful transfer this passion to other educators.

I wonder if it is the presentation.  I sometimes feel that I talk over their heads.  But when I plan for the discussion, I don't want to bore them or insult their intelligence with ideas that are too basic.   It is hard to ask for true feedback also.  No one wants to hurt my feelings by telling me what I really need to know.  I hear, "That was a great presentation!" and "Good job!"  But I know something is missing...  It is lonely sometimes being in this position but I know it will be worth it in the end.  I just have to remember that my goal is to share my knowledge with other educators.  The more times I practice presenting, the more I can reflect, and the more I grow! Thank you for helping me reflect!