Sunday, November 20, 2016

Knowing your weakness can be your strength

Exploring the concept of repelation and attraction

I have never been very good at Science.  As a Dual Immersion fourth grade teacher I have relied on my strengths of languages and language arts to make lessons fun and rewarding for students.  I teach Science, but I teach it from the point of view of a language teacher in that I encourage a lot of vocabulary, grammar, and reading and writing.  Now that the Next Generation Science Standards need to be included in my teaching repetoir I realize that I have some learning to do.  (Growth Mindset is not only for students!)

I just finished up a unit on electricity for fourth grade.  Like every year, I taught students the vocabulary needed to access the concepts I needed to teach.  I taught about static electricity, protons, electrons, and neutrons and how to construct a series and parallel circuit, all the while focusing on using complete sentences and verb tense correctly.  It has always been a good unit for the students but I knew that this year I wanted to take it a step further, I just had to figure out how.

So I went to work to study electricity and its components further.  I checked out books on it from the library and researched it on the internet.  I know that a person gets shocked from a transfer of electrons, but how does that happen?  Why does it happen?  I read about it but it just doens't sink in.  Even though I have taught my students what the fourth grade Science text tells me, I still don't understand it, and if I don't get it, they won't get it.  That's definite.

So this is where I realize my weakness.  I completely subscribe to the Growth Mindset, but I'm still not getting it...YET.  Maybe next year will be the year that it finally sinks in.   But for now, I need to take care of my current students, and how do I do that when I only have a basic working knowledge of this subject?

The solution is brilliant.  We have a community college within a 10 minute walk from our school site.  I contacted the Dean of Science who put me in contact with the most brilliant and generous professor,  Ms. Ana.  She invited us to her classroom to participate in a real college level Science lesson.  My students felt so special and thus, particularly motivated to learn.  Above is a picture of us walking to Ms. Ana's classroom.

Ms. Ana had so many Science realia, tools, and manipulatives.  It was wonderful to see my 2nd language learners seeing, touching,  and hearing all the concepts we had learned about from lessons in the book.  This field trip to the college had brought all the lessons to life.  The students experienced electricity and all of its components in a real world situation.  They constructed and connected series and parallel circuits, they themselves became conductors and demonstrated how electricity moves, they created situations that demonstrated the laws of attraction and repelation.

Now, even though I still don't understand how electricity works...YET... many of my students do.  They understand because I knew my weakness well enough to search for help from the experts at the Community College.  That is why I say that knowing your weakness can be your strength because my students got the best education possible all because I knew to seek help. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What will become of Common Core?

I haven't been inspired to write lately since the election.  I actually try to stay away from what is reported on the news and social media because I know that both sides tend to exaggerate and that only works to raise public hysteria.   I would rather wait and see what time will bring and go from there.  One issue I can't mentally escape from is our president elect's stance on education.   My principal just announced at our School Site Council meeting that Common Core will most likely be eliminated.  I don't all together trust or believe this insight because as I said, I like to wait to see what is hype and propaganda so as not to be swayed by it and thus react in a way that is not beneficial to my cause.  I also was told by a member of the school district's teacher preparation team that our boss would be changing my position title from "Common Core Demonstration Teacher" to "Demonstration Teacher".    This piece of news could be considered gossip since I did not hear it directly from my boss, but I assume since it is from a very good source, it is extremely possible that the title change is in the works at this very moment.  With all this talk and assumptions going on about education and Common Core, it is inevitable that I would reflect and possibly worry about the fate of the educational philosophy that I am Lovin.

Most everyone has an opinion on Common Core State Standards.   I feel as though my situation makes mine extremely valid and reliable.  I have been a teacher for over 20 years and have seen politics change the education landscape multiple times.   When I was a young teacher I trusted the powers that may be that ruled above me.  I did what they said, figuring that they were more educated than I was, more experienced than I was, and that everything they did were for the interests of the children and our futures.  I am definitely not naive anymore.  Everyone has an agenda, and usually the students, our future, are at the bottom of it.   New teachers, I'm sorry if this offends you or blows up your idealized idea of teaching, but as you age and gain experience, you inevitably open your eyes and see what is really happening behind the scenes of your classroom.  Twenty-five years have passed and I see a generation, a generation I tried to educate by blindly following the winds of educational change and policy who cannot think for themselves.

After all these years of teaching,  all these years of being told to either "only teach phonics" "only teach sight words" "only read from the script in your Teacher's Edition",   I have found a system of education that works.  A lot of people say that Common Core doesn't work for students.  I believe they say it because they don't understand it.    I believe that they don't understand it because they are not able to understand it.  Parents come to me upset because they can't help their children with their homework because they don't understand Common Core.  When they see it as a detriment, I see it as a positive move in the right direction.  My people, my fellow United States of Americans, are in the lower register of knowledge and intelligence when compared with the rest of the world.  If we are teaching our students something that their parents don't understand I say that is progress!

Four years ago when I began taking an interest in CCSS I struggled with its value.  I thought along with my peer teachers that this was just another wind of change and that if I didn't like it, it would not be a problem because like all educational policies, the government would replace it with "something better" before it was actually allowed to be enacted.   But as I began to review it, to read about it, I was surprised with myself.  I actually agreed with it.  For the first time in all my teaching career, I saw an educational policy that worked.   I began reading heavily about it.  I read books like 21st Century Skills by Bellanca and Brandt and anything by the author and education researcher  Dr. Robert Marzano.   I became fascinated by the idea of making education meaningful for the students.  I have always been the type of person that hated to waste her time, and with Common Core I saw that students' time was not being wasted either.  They were not being babysat anymore or taught only what mattered to get a good grade on the state test.  I saw that through Common Core there was a purpose for everything and that everything built on the previous lesson.   I became inspired by this revolutionary approach to education and I saw that if teachers could buy into it, that year after year, working together we could actually close the achievement gap, that mythological idea that most people wish for, but truly don't believe in. 

So I have researched Common Core philosophies, I have enacted them in my classroom, and I have seen huge success with my group of students.  I have become a Common Core Demonstration Teacher so that I could promote the Common Core ideology and show fellow teachers that it does work and that it is our dream come true!  I am a seed that is trying to sprout and spread the amazing news of Common Core.  But change takes time.  Teachers need time to digest this change.  After they digest it, they have to research it and apply it.  Administrators need to buy into it also.  They need to buy into it so much that they let their teachers leave the class to learn about it and observe others to see how it works.  Teachers need time and freedom to try these strategies.  They will fail, no doubt about it.  I have failed many lessons also, but you know what, I reflect and learn from my mistakes and become a better teacher for it.  My next lesson after the failure is league years better than the mediocrity I was teaching before Common Core.

Why am I writing this post?  Well, one to plead that the United States of America gives Common Core the time it deserves as a good, valid, well researched revolutionary educational philosophy that it can be.  Two, I hope that parents, teachers, and administrators can see its worth to continue to use and allow it to best reach our students and give it time to gain the momentum it needs to flourish and meet the needs of our developing and up and coming generation of diverse students.  Third, I want to get out of this writing funk that has gripped me since the election and made me second guess all the great work I am doing with Common Core.   I'm going to move on with my life and teach in the way I know best serves my students.  I will not be swayed by the winds of change anymore, and I hope you will do the same. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Mannequin Challenge as a Scaffold for Language Learners

I teach a fourth grade dual immersion class.  The majority of the students are Spanish Learners so at times it gets challenging to reach all students especially during Language Arts hour.  We are currently reading the book La trompeta del cisne or The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B.White.  In English the book is rated at a high fourth grade level, but in Spanish I would say it could be an eighth grade level book due to the high academic vocabulary and the fact that it was published in Spain and uses verbs and grammar with which my mostly Mexican and Central American student population are not familiar. 
Even though this novel is a much higher educational  level than what my students are accustomed to, I choose to use it every year due to its high interest level.  After the third chapter, all students, even the beginning Spanish Learners are hooked.  My secret... Scaffolding... Continuous, not stop and fun scaffolding.  It is so necessary when you are teaching a second language, no matter what the language is.  In previous blogs I have shown and discussed a few of my scaffolding and differentiating strategies.  Retelling Stories using Nonlinguistic Representations in a Dual Language Classroom and Retelling Stories using Nonlinguistic Representations in a Dual Language Classroom - day 2 discusses a lesson where I used sketches and illustrations to ensure comprehension for all.  

Lately, though, these types of scaffolding strategies have become boring and repetitive for the students.  So I have decided to change the lesson up a bit.  Lately I have been facilitating skits to illustrate in a multiple intelligence type of style plot summary.  After these skits we get into the grit of the lesson with inferencing, using citations, and dialogue analysis. 

Today as we were reading a chapter called "Serena" I asked my students to get in their diverse groups to discuss, reread,  and refer to text to create a short skit to act out the chapter.  As I walked around and observed, I discovered that the students were not being very successful in their creativity.  And as I reflected on the reason why, I realized that the chapter was much more descriptive than it was active.  It was mainly about the time that Louis, the swan decided to declare his love for Serena by playing her a love ballad with a trumpet.  These two swans were living at the zoo and the chapter was mostly about all the other animals in the zoo and how they reacted to the beautiful music played by Louis.

Now, I know that most, if not all administrators tell their staff that the best lessons come from preplanning, but at this moment, I came up with the best lesson that I could ever have planned.  I remember that I had seen this new phenomenon on Twitter called the Mannequin Challenge where people create a scene and stand like a mannequin to illustrate it.  I thought to myself as I saw the students struggle with recreating the scene through actions that this would be the perfect Mannequin Challenge activity.

As I struggled with the idea, debating on whether it was "Common Core" worthy or not, I thought the following thoughts.  What is my purpose?  Well, I wanted the students to understand the chapter so we could go further with it in the next lesson.  I thought, yes, the Mannequin Challenge would accomplish comprehension on text.  Next I thought, I wanted lots of conversation among students being that this is a Dual Immersion classroom and one of the best ways to learn a language is through speaking and listening.  I thought, well, the statues don't talk, but the students have to plan together to create the scene of the statues, so yes, this would also accomplish my goal.  So we did it!  And we got an added bonus of the students LOVIN the activity and wanting to read even more of the chapter.  What more could a Common Core teacher want?

I'm noticing that at times the video is not functioning, sorry about that.  Here is a photo that can help you envision the lesson if the video doesn't play for you.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

How does an introvert successfully collaborate?

If I were to give myself a teacher nickname I would be the "Queen of Collaboration".  I completely buy into the idea of using collaboration and student engagement activities to promote the learning of all students.  If you would walk into my classroom at any random time during the day there would be a good chance that you would walk in to see students discussing concepts together, working together or peer coaching each other. 

The juxtaposition is that I am a huge introvert.  I personally don't enjoy collaborating with others.  If I am asked to plan with my grade level team, I will, but truthfully, nothing really good comes out of it.  I just can't think straight when I have other people talking and lots of extra stimuli going on around me.  I do my best work alone, where I can think, and plan, and reflect without distractions.  I'm not saying that I don't listen or want the ideas of others, but I just am unable to assimilate their ideas into mine until I've had some quiet time to reflect on how to go about doing it. 

So that is the dilemma I am in.  Last night my son, who also is a huge introvert, and I were reading the book Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  The topic we were reading touched on how the classroom in the 21st Century highly subscribes and depends upon heavy collaboration and interaction in order to prepare students for their futures.  My son, who is an academically advanced GATE or gifted student told me that he hated collaboration times, and asked me if I insisted on them in my classroom.  That was when I realized that I didn't practice what I preached.  

I do completely believe in the power of collaboration.  The following picture is a common, every day occurrence in my classroom.  I believe in letting the students who have shown mastery in a subject benefit by "teaching" the students who have not yet learned the subject by having to organize their thoughts enough to be able to voice it logically to another.   I also believe that a student who does not yet get a lesson, will listen to their peer and value how their peer explains it, maybe even better than the teacher.  

So again the question my introverted son brought up, do I differentiate for introverts?   With all this collaborative discussions and student engagement going on in my classroom, where do my introverts stand?  What type of scaffolding and special attention and instruction do they receive?  If my son was in my classroom, would he be serviced adequately by me?  I realized sadly, that the answer was not really.  I do allow time to work individually during a five minute quick-write after an hour of high student engagement and collaborative activities.  I do allow 10 minutes of individual math work after and hour of direct instruction and peer coaching.  So no, my son would not be adequately serviced in my room.  

So that leads to some reflection and problem solving on my part.  I know that about half of my class has not learned the Common Core State Standards to mastery and I really feel that collaboration is the best strategy to reach all students.  But now I am also realizing that in addition to differentiating instruction for English, Special Education Students, GATE or Gifted Students, I should add introverts to the mix.   

Today I tried out a new strategy.  The class was reading a page from the Science book that we had really prepared well for.  Preparation is actually discussed in my previous blog posts "The Perfect English Language Lesson, Part 1-3".    Because of this preparation I felt comfortable giving the following instructions.  I told the students they could work with a partner, their team, or.... alone!  This seems simple, but if you knew me, it is revolutionary!  As I walked around to monitor, assist, and now observe this new class dynamic I had created, I noticed that four students chose to work alone.  As I checked their work, I saw that it was the same quality as the others who had chosen to work together.  

So for today, letting students choose to work alone or with someone was functional in fulfilling my Common Core Objectives.  I am still not fully convinced, even though I am an introvert and if I were in my classroom would also choose to work alone.  This is a subject that is worth more reflection and research.  I want to do what's best for my students and it seems like I have two strong educational philosophies playing tug of war for my attention.   If anyone has advice or comments I'd appreciate them!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Perfect English Language Learners Lesson - Part 3

Welcome back!  I am continuing my 3 Part post on "The Perfect English Language Learner Lesson".  What had happened is that my school district's English Language Learner Department had asked me to model a lesson for them that included the standard GLAD or Guided Language Acquisition Development and student engagement strategies.  I have previously discussed my intense planning for the lesson and the motivational and vocabulary piece.  I now continue the lesson description with a progression along the Depth of Knowledge ladder to reach higher levels of knowledge, while preparing all learners to have the ability to assess the lesson.

The next step of this "perfectly" planned out lesson was to teach the sentence structure that I wanted the student to master when they finally wrote an expository paragraph at the end of the lesson.  The class brainstormed words that could be used to compare and contrast two themes or concepts.  They gave me words like similar, unlike, and difference.  I used the graphic organizer of the Venn Diagram to organize these words.   They then used the when they responded to questions I had strategically created, using DOK level 4 questions.

Because the English Language Development Department was visiting me,  I strategically added sentence stems, which you can see listed below the question.   I actually don't usually use sentence stems.  I have always felt that my students need to learn to be independent and that they should not be encouraged to develop the habit of relying on outside interventions.  I usually go about lessons with letting them struggle with what they already know to find within themselves the correct way to word an answer.  Then if/when they fail, I swoop in and give them hints to move them in the right direction.  But reflecting upon today, and especially the sentence stem portion,  I now see why the ELL Department insists on them.  As I walked around the room to monitor and assist students, I found that no one needed assistance.  Everyone had been successful the first time writing their response to this high DOK level question.  And their answers were insightful and actually the best I had ever seen!  Little did these district officials know that not all my lessons went this well, and it was all because I had stopped being stubborn about using this new found strategy of sentence stems!

Here are some examples of student responses to the question "How are series and parallel circuits similar?"  They are not perfect, and there are definitely opportunities to pull small groups to differentiate according to their responses, but the sentence structure is fantastic and the vocabulary is coming along, which were two of the main focuses of my lesson!

To close my lesson on collaborative conversations and electrical circuits I asked my students to write a quickwrite.  I gave them five minutes to write anything they wanted on the topic of electrical circuits.  Besides being a time for them for them to organize their thoughts on all the new concepts and vocabulary they had learned today, this would be an informal assessment for my eyes only.  This was not used to grade or evaluate them, but for me.  I wanted to see how they learned.  I wanted to see what strategies worked and which ones didn't.  If they used academic vocabulary then I knew that the pictorial and Quiz Quiz Trade had been successful. If the sentence structure was good, especially when writing sentences that compared, then using the Venn Diagram to introduce comparison words as well as the DOK level 4 questions combined with sentence stems were compatible.  This is an example of a student's quickwrite, an activity of pure uninterrupted, ungraded writing for five minutes.

Again, I was happy with the results.  The concepts I had taught were evident in the writing.  Granted, there are mistakes, but I see these mistakes as new lessons to be taught.  If most everyone is making these mistakes, then I will teach the whole class.  If it is only a few, I will take note of it and teach them in a small group, differentiating instruction while the rest of the class does their next quickwrite.

So this concludes my description of the "Perfect English Language Learner" Lesson.  I hope you realize, especially if you have read all four posts that no lesson is perfect, never.  But what can make it close to perfection is the planning and reflection that goes along with it.  I was only able to plan a good lesson, worthy of the ELD Department's visit because I had reflected on all previous English Language Lessons in the past.  But the planning and previous reflection wasn't what made this particular lesson perfect.  It was the fact that I am always open to change.  I am always ready to see a new way to teach my students.  I never teach within the box, but always question if this strategy, this book, this method is best for my students.  Just like today I changed my mind about using sentence stems.  I had always thought they were a waste of time and a detriment to students.  But today I see different.   That is why this was the perfect lesson.  Because not only did my students learn something new, I did too.