Friday, December 19, 2008

Tis the Season

In this season of holiday celebration, as I wandered from classroom to classroom, it was inspiring to see students truly enjoying themselves. The teachers of CCE, to build long lasting memories for children, celebrated traditions with their students including putting on musicals, creating ornaments, reading holiday books, having feasts, writing holiday cards, and playing games. The principal, or should I say Auntie Claus, even captivated audiences as she read aloud to all 1,250 students and served milk and cookies. The Creek overflowed with warmth, and the atmosphere was so magical for children and adults alike. I'm sure this is not an uncommon climate in December in many elementary schools, but what I think is quite unique is the level of enthusiasm and pure joy of the adult learning leaders at CCE.

December ushered in many of our annual traditions for the adults including our faculty Christmas party, the 12 days of cookies and homemade goodies, the faculty breakfast, Secret Santa exchange, and grade level staff celebrations. Those times of fellowship were just as special this year. I think because our staff truly enjoys each other's company. And, sprinkled amongst these annual traditions where impromptu times of laughter when teachers simply acted more like children than adults. It is rumored that the PE coach rivaled the children's enthusiasm with a ho ho ho ride through the hallways on a flat bed.

Don't get me wrong, by the end of the day Friday, I saw more than one exhausted teacher inching their way toward freedom, but the sheer exhaustion came from the diligent energy put forth to make this season a magical one for children. I am honored and blessed to be following my passion in this great community where we value and nurture the relationships with our students, parents, community stakeholders, and colleagues. I really couldn't imagine working anywhere else.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Most Likely to Succeed

I just finished reading, "Most Likely to Succeed" by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. Gladwell's underlying question, "How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job?" caught my attention because as an instructional coach I sit on the school's interview team, I assist new hires both in and out of the classroom, and I am responsible for the more formal Teacher Induction Program. I also observe regularly in classrooms across the building. I have often reflected on a teacher's interview and on their performance in the actual classroom. I've been right about some of my predictions and far off on others. So, what characteristics do you look for as you hire and what do you do if the teacher doesn't live up to your expectations? Also, how do you know that you are not overlooking a stellar teacher because they don't have the best interview or the highest test scores or grades?

In the article, Gladwell points out,

"With enough data, it is possible to identify who the very good teachers are and who the very poor teachers are. What's more--and this is the finding that galvanized the educational world--the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast." He continues, "Eric Hanuskek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material. That difference amounts to a year's worth of learning in a single year."

So, it boils down to the teacher, not the class size or other variables, which is no surprise to me. But it brings me back to Gladwell's question--How can we predict, sitting at the interview table, which teachers will turn out to be successful? Gladwell states, "No one knows what a person with potential to be a great teacher looks like." That is hard for me to grasp or accept, because each year we are asked to do just that. In fact with the rigidity of the educational hierarchy, we have to be stellar predictors so our students don't end up paying a very high price. The article points out that a teacher's degrees, grades, and test scores don't make a difference in predicting success. So, if Gladwell is right, where does that leave us?

Let's look at what Gladwell says we do know. We know what a good teacher looks like when we observe in their classroom. They have students who are engaged and active. They have classroom control without being rigid. They have the ability to ask the right questions, listen attentively to the student's response, and give the student immediate individualized feedback. They have teacher withitness. So, how do we predict, at the interview table, which candidates will hold these qualities inside a classroom with a group of 25 students? Gladwell, says quite simply--we don't with any level of certainty. Check Spelling

Ideally, in my opinion, we would hire candidates who complete an internship in our school. Who we've had an extended time to see plan and deliver instruction. Some who works well with teammates, embraces feedback, and who we see as a hungry learner and avid reader. But, when we don't get this luxury and we are sitting at an interview table trying to select the next great teacher what do we use to predict their future success? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Skills Block

Our literacy block, in Kindergarten and First Grade, consists of an uninterrupted 2 1/2 hour block. Sixty minutes each for Readers' and Writers' Workshop and 30 minutes for Skills Block. The collective goal in Readers' Workshop and Skills Block is to teach phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary.

The Skills Block portion focuses on phonemic awareness and phonics so students have the necessary tools to read with fluency and are able to move beyond the distractions and mechanics of decoding words. Then, during Readers' Workshop students can focus on the goal of reading--comprehension. In addition, vocabulary is embedded in Readers' Workshop with read aloud texts, and we use the Text Talk curriculum tool, as well.
Skills Block consists of several fast paced activities that teach students phonemic awareness and phonics. On Friday, Maria Mallon and Cheryl Dillard used video conferencing to stream a live lesson into the Literacy Lap Leader training taking place at our Professional Development site. The audience of 180 participants watched the Mallard's Morning Skills Block and then debriefed with the teachers.

The Skills Block began with a song as students sang along and gathered in their meeting area at the front of the room. Next, lead by a student with a pointer in hand, the class went over their Class Promise, sang a song on Letter Combinations, and went over their beginning blends and digraphs chart. Then, the first graders, seamlessly transitioned into their Morning Message. The message was prewritten on the board and students, one by one, as their name cards were drawn collected in a line to fix or highlight part of the Morning Message. Items needing fixing included spelling and punctuation, and items needing circled, underlined, or written included vocabulary words, antonyms, and word families. I was impressed by the level of sophistication in the message and the students understanding of the elements being covered including dialogue. (There would be a picture here of the Morning Message, but I got distracted by the video taping I was doing. Sorry!) So far, by my observation, the students had run this Morning Skills Block, and you could tell from the established rituals and routines that the high expectations were made clear by the teachers early on and that this is a daily activity in Room 104.

After Morning Message, students quickly stood up and took a stretch, as the teachers hung the sight word chart. The teachers reminded students that they would be singing the chart to the tune Jingle Bells. A student used the pointer to point to each sight word as the class belted out the tune, and then the teachers pulled a name card and had a student try it on their own. A brave soul, I must admit, because you wouldn't catch me belting out a tune in front of an audience of 180 teachers! :) A two minute whole group word sort game followed and then a quick antonym match. Lastly, the teachers introduced an antonym game and thoroughly explained the directions. They strategically paired the students and set students off to play this game.
All in all, I think you'd agree, that this fast paced 30 minute Skills Block is certainly preparing students for mastery in phonemic awareness and phonics.

Stay tuned, because this session was videotaped and as soon as the film is rendered and uploaded, I'll be posting it here.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Am I Paying It Forward?

As holiday break rapidly approaches, I find myself in a state of reflection. Perhaps, it is because we are at the half way point, and there is so much more I want to accomplish before this school year fades into the next. This morning, as I was listening to my pastor's sermon, I found myself making many connections to my school life. His message was about hanging out with the right crowd, surrounding yourself with people that challenge you to get better and think deeper, to assist you in raising the bar. Immediately, I connected with his message because at Chets I am surrounded by these individuals. They are continually reading professional literature, having collegial dialogue, trying cutting edge ideas, observing each other in action, thinking beyond what others may find possible, and producing remarkable results. Every time I think I know where the bar has been set, they have a new idea or share a new student product, and raise the bar yet again. To me, working among these passionate committed professionals is priceless.

That is not to say at times it is not difficult. This type of crowd is not the Yes Crowd. They are the crowd that challenges you, questions you, and has difficult conversations in order to make you think deeper and try new things. They will not allow you to stand idle. They will not tolerate the status quo. And, for that I am thankful. I have these people in my professional life--in fact, I have dozens of them.

I was also left wondering... Am I paying this forward to those teachers that I coach? Do I challenge them to read, reflect, and refine their work? Am I willing to have the difficult conversations so they think more deeply, even when it is not guaranteed to change their thinking? Am I taking steps to ensure that they are self-directed learners able to reflect on their practice? At the end of the year, will those I coach look back and say, "Suzanne helped me change my practice?"

I'm going to spend the next couple of weeks reflecting on these questions. I'm going to take a list of those I coach and go one by one through each of their names and ask myself what else I can do for them this year. In turn, I hope that my own mentors will do the same for me.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Wordle Meme

So, my friend, Melanie, tagged me with a meme. I'm usually not one that follows through with this sort of thing, and to be quite honest with you, I rarely give it a second thought. But, I share an office with Melanie and today I overheard her and Jenny talking, and realized not only did Jenny not ignore the meme, but she had the nerve to actually do her own last night! Good grief, now I knew I had to reread Melanie's post and at least give the meme another thought. The Wordle meme really did look quite cool, so without really committing, I decided to check out the site. Of course, only minutes later my meme was complete, I had saved the code, and pasted it here in my blog to share with you. I guess my competitive edge got the best of me and now that it is done, I can say, it really is quite unique.

What are my reflections? I feel relieved that shopping is not top on my list--sorry Melanie--but that students, student, teacher, work, working, and classroom are. After all, students and teachers are at the core and heart of my work. In addition, I'm sure that my math friends will be quite pleased--notice in the middle of the meme that math and reading are side by side, and math is so much bigger than reading! (My math friends have teased often that I've crossed over to the dark side, so maybe now they won't make that claim.) I'm wondering why writing isn't bigger so I'm going back to take a look at my blog titles to see if my math passion really has me blogging about math so much more than reading, writing, and science. And, I'm curious about the wordle meme shape, looks a bit like a space shuttle, doesn't it? I like Melanie's idea that this Wordle Meme would be a great tool for students to use on their blogs to identify their word choices. I also think teachers may find it helpful to analyze their topics. Do their passions shine through without them knowing about it, like my math passion did?

I am tagging the following people to join in by contributing Wordle uses in the classroom and getting into the habit of “wordling” to document their “Zeitgeist”:
1. Melissa Ross and Carrie McLeod
2. Jessica Lipsky
3, Debbie Harbour
4. Maria Mallon and Cheryl Dillard
5. Thomas Ruark

I think this group will really appreciate this quick and easy meme and I can't wait to see which words appear most often in their blogs. So here goes my tagged friends...

Wordle Meme:
1. Create a Wordle from our blog's RSS feed.
2. Blog it and describe your reaction. Any surprises?
3. Tag others to do the same.
4. Be sure to link back here and to where you were first tagged.
5. Create different Wordle clouds of your blog's RSS over a period of time. Do it once a month for the next year.
6. Save your Wordle screenshots in a special folder on your computer or even better create a set on Flickr to store your archived clouds. See what story your Wordle clouds tell as you compare them to each other. Start documenting your “Zeitgeist” (Spirit of the Times) as mentioned by Chris Betcher in his K-12 Online Conference presentation I like Delicious Things. An Intoduction to Tagging and Folksonomies
7. Share other uses (at least one) you have found for Wordle (for your students or personally) to your blog post.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

What can a Christmas list tell you about your child's education?

Like so many children, my seven year old, first grader, sat down to create his Christmas list this week. He didn't have any trouble coming up with ideas, as you can tell when you click on the picture and zoom in on his writing. He wrote feverishly for about 15 minutes to write the front page early in the week, and then this morning, he sat and reread his list. After rereading, he flipped his paper over and wrote feverishly for another 15 minutes. He presented his paper to me with a big grin and high hopes. I laughed out loud as I read each item. I could have stopped there, but the teacher in me wouldn't allow it, so here I sit creating a post to answer the question-- What can a Christmas list tell you about your child's education?
Here goes...

1) He's been taught to THINK BIG, the sky is the limit and he will reach it, all things are possible. Do you notice that he put on his list a laptop computer, baby brother/sister, female toy "yourkey" dog? And, that even though he has a PS 2, Wii, and PSP, he still adds another gaming system--the XBOX 360. (Maybe that should be my clue that I should examine the word...spoiled.)
2) He's been taught to WRITE FLUENTLY, hence two pages in about half an hour. He doesn't hesitate to pick up a pencil and write independently, and share his writing with others. He's been taught that writing is a way to express yourself and sell your ideas to others. He's also been taught to reread his writing and add to it. Lucky me that he came up with page two. How will I chose which hopes I dash?

3) He's been taught to SPELL, and writes almost all high frequency words correctly, and those that are not high frequency words, he spells following phonetic rules. He also spells higher level words correctly. Notice that alien, force, suit, computer, memory, clone, life sized, light, female, world, picture frame, book mark, brother, sister, and motorcycle are all spelled correctly. And, notice that you can still read his misspelled words-machen, sighn, ultmate, sliipers, gersey, glassess, and hellmet. I find it extremely sweet that he spells words from his studies this year correctly like Australia. I guess it is time that I taught him how to spell his middle name, since he spelled it incorrectly on his paper--Christtopher. :) He's even taken a good stab at the proper nouns. He spelled Rothlisberger, a football player, "Roflessburger," and Polamalu, another player, "Pulomulu," not a bad attempt.
More importantly,
4) He's been taught to love learning. Thank you to Maria and Cheryl. He's added world map and a world ball to his list because they've turned him on to geography. He's constantly looking for countries they mention in their classroom. He's added books to his list including "The Mixed-up Chamilyon" by Eric Carle and a book mark.
Your child's Christmas list can teach you a lot about your child's education and I'm so glad I took a few minutes to reflect on my child's list.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Response to Literature, Grade 2

I often walk classrooms. Sometimes, I ask students questions like, "What are you working on?" "What did you learn in your mini-lesson today?" and sometimes, I simply rummage through portfolios looking at student work. The work itself answers these types of questions for me without even talking to the kids. I can clearly see which lessons have been taught that were internalized by students and applied to their work.

In addition, I often have teachers simply drop by my desk at the end of a busy day with student work in hand. They are there to celebrate the accomplishments of a particular student or show me work that impressed them. I really enjoy when teachers invite me into their celebration of student work and it is quite evident the focused instruction that goes into the production of quality student work.
Today, at the end of the day, when I returned to my desk, I had a pleasant surprise. Mrs. McLeod, a second grade teacher, left a few Response to Literature student papers on my desk. The pieces clearly met the standard for Grade 2 writers. I thought you may enjoy reading one of the student samples she shared with me. You may notice the student's introduction, detailed retelling, use of dialogue, ability to give the moral of the story, developed vocabulary use, or the closing of his piece. I think, after you read his piece, you'll understand why I love teachers including me in their celebration of student work. If you would like a closer look, please click on the picture to zoom in. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The In-Between Game, Grade 5

On Friday, we streamed our first live videoconferenced math lessons of the year into our district's professional development site, the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership. Approximately 100 Academy of Math participants from around the district gathered at the site for a day of PD. And, one component of the day was watching and debriefing a math lesson from the grade level you teach. Our live streams, from CCE, came from Kindergarten and Grade 5.

As a coach, I attend as many of the live lesson streams as possible, because classroom observation and classroom supporter is part of my role. And, on Friday, I must say that I was right at home, having taught on the Grade 5 Math/Science Team for four years myself.

The Grade 5 lesson was live from Bridget O'Connor's classroom. Bridget's students are currently in a unit of study focusing on fractions, decimals, and percents. Her mini-lesson focused on introducing students to a new game, In-Between. In the game players take turns placing a card next to another card. The card can be placed to the right of 10%, to the left or right of 50%, and to the left of 90% (think it like a number line), or under a percentage card if it is an equivalent fraction. As students place the cards, they explain their reasoning by stating the fraction and the equivalent percentage. The cards, as you look from left to right, must be in correct numerical order. They cannot place a card between two cards that are already touching. For example, if 1/6 was played touching 10% card, then 1/8 could not be played. The goal of the game is to try and place more cards than your competition. The student voluneer and Ms. O played a practice round, from the board in the front of the room, so students would be ready to tackle the game in pairs.

As the class transitioned from their mini-lesson to Work Period, Bridget pulled a small guided math group. She reexplain the directions and got the students started. She observed during their first round to make sure they understood and then began circulating the room conferring with pairs of students. She listened in on student's conversations, asked them probing questions, took their strategy in the game to the next level, and took notes if she wished to share their strategy, question, or conversation in Closing Session.
As I watched Bridget in action, I stayed as far out of site from the video camera as possible, but sat with pairs of students to listen in on their conversation and strategy. I was enamored with the depth of their thinking. I overhead one student say to another, "Why are you placing 3/8 next to 1/4?" And, the other replied, "I know 3/8 is 37 1/2% because 1/8= 12 1/2% and 2/8 is equivalent to 1/4, which equals 25%, so 3/8 is 12 1/2% + 25%." She went on to say, "I placed 3/8 there because I am blocking you from begin able to play your 2/6 card." She giggles, "You will get stuck with that card!" In another conversation, I heard one young man say to another, "I'm saving all my equivalent fraction cards for last (1/10, 1/2, 9/10), because I can always play them under the percentage cards." He continued, "I am wasting a turn if I place them any sooner."

After about 25 minutes of Work Period, Ms. O'Connor had students return to their seats for Closing Session. Once again she used the giant sized magnetic game board she had created at the front of her classroom to demonstrate. She focused on a few relevant conversations and strategies to move student thinking forward.
1) "One student moved the percentage cards further apart even after fraction cards were placed. Why did he do this?", she asked.
2) She presented a comment that was asked of her as she circulated, "Ms. O, we need to think fast, don't cut ourselves off, and look at my partner's cards before I make a play." She asked the students, "What does this mean?"
3) Ms. O asked a student to come to the front and present a strategy she saw him use, because he had formed a misconception. After working it out in front of the class, he discovered his error, corrected it, and decided he was leaving his equivalent fractions for last.
4) She asked, "Why did it take you longer to place the cards like 1/6, 5/6, 1/8, and 3/8?"

The Closing was interactive dialogue between the students and teacher. I think you'll agree it is a powerful part of the workshop model, one that should never be missed. And, one in which the student learning is deepened and where they build powerful connections.

This game, the In-Between Game, is one of student thinking, understanding, and connecting. It is also a game of strategy with the added element of a little luck--the students quickly figured out that they loved the equivalent fraction cards. And, there are many variations. I'm sure you'll agree that this is a game students should revisit frequently during Choice Time, and one in which they will become very strategic. Now, that is the way to develop young mathematicians!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Grade 3 Snapshot

I took a stroll through Grade 3 today. The grade level consists of 4 co-teach classrooms and 2 departmentalized teams--eight classrooms in all.

Math Workshop Work Period was in full swing in three of the rooms, and it was evident that the Grade 3 team is on the same page when it comes to math instruction. They were all working in the MI unit, Landmarks in the Hundreds, and were all teaching about factors of a number. One classroom was working on a student sheet solving factors of 36, and another classroom was solving for factors of 24. In the classroom where students were solving for factors of 24, the teacher had a small guided math group pulled to a corner of the room working with them to solve their factors. The rituals and routines were well established because the students remaining at the tables continued to work diligently although the teacher was working with a small group.

As I entered the third math classroom, soft music was playing, and there was a slight hum of students at work. They were diligently working on using 100 beads or macaroni to decide how to break 100 up into equal groups. The guiding questions/statements glued to the bottom of their sheet were:

  • How to break 100 up into equal groups.

  • What are the factors of 100?

  • Write an equation to represent this picture of 100.

The teacher had also provided them with a very helpful tool, a Self-Assessment Rubric, to ensure that each student had the elements the teacher expected in the assignment.

In the fourth room, students were gathered on the floor participating in EDC, Every Day Counts Calendar Math. The students were working with the teacher to build coordinates on a graph.

Not only did I focus on instruction, but I also looked for evidence of current teaching charts, word walls, and portfolios. These specific artifacts are important evidence of math learning and extremely helpful for student reference. In some of the classrooms the artifacts were in place, and in others my hope is that the teachers are moving toward this goal.

Below you will find a slide show of the photographs I captured while in these math classrooms. You will notice that some of the teaching charts are an excellent reference for students.

Two classrooms were in Readers' Workshop. In the first room, Opening Session of Readers' Workshop included a read aloud from our October Book of the Month, Grace for President. The students were gathered on the floor, their Reader's Notebooks in hand, feverishly taking two column notes comparing the characters of Grace and Thomas, when the teacher paused in her reading. During the read aloud the teacher also stopped appropriately to question students on unknown vocabulary and to ask questions that offered students a chance to infer. It appeared that this was not the students' first introduction to this text.

In the other classroom, the students were taking a Reading Comprehension Assessment, and soft music played in the background. This cold assessment was a non-fiction article on Native Americas. Both teachers in this classroom were working with a small group of students. The mood in this room was calm and relaxed, and students each worked at their own pace to complete the assessment. Teachers use these cold assessments to assess student's progress with all reading standards, and to prescribe whole group and small groups instruction.

The other ELA classroom was in Writers' Workshop Work Period. I sat down next to one student and asked her to explain to me what she was doing. She eagerly pulled her Author Study folder from underneath her Writers' Sourcebook and explained that all her material was keep together in this folder. She explained, "First, the teacher did a read aloud of two Allen Say books, Music for Alice and Kamishibai Man." "Then, I completed a venn diagram comparing and contrasting the two books." "Now, I have to write a Response to Literature." She explained that her Response to Literature Rubric helped her to make sure she included all the standards in her writing. She told me that she would write some of her paper, reread it, and then check her rubric to make sure it was "all there", as she described it, before she moved on. The rubric included the elements of the RtL standards, an I think... column, and a My peer thinks... column. I can't wait to return after she finishes so I can read her Response--I am confident that it will meet the standard with the tools the teacher has given her! As I conferred with the student, the teacher continued conferring with students throughout the room about their writing.

In the ELA rooms I also looked for specific artifacts including reading and writing portfolios, word walls, and current teaching charts. Again, some of the teachers showed ample evidence in their classrooms, while others were working toward this goal.

Unlike the math instruction, the alignment between ELA instruction in each classroom was not clear to me. I'll have to check the pacing guide tomorrow to try and get a clear picture of the genre study currently occurring. Having teachers within the same genre of study, though their lessons may vary, is important to compare work across the grade level, and offer consistent instruction between classrooms.

In the eighth room I visited, I caught the tail end of a Science Workshop lesson on condensation. The teacher was holding a jar, previously dry, over a hot plate with a boiling pot of water. As the steam rose from the boiling water, it collected in the jar, and began slowly raining back into the pan. This demonstration had students predicting why the jar had previously gone from dry to wet, and why the water then began to drip back into the pan. The co-teacher and I spoke briefly and she said I should have come in a few minutes before--I would have walked into the middle of an ice tossing contest. Why? Because the teacher was showing that a solid form of water could become a liquid quickly. I'm sure students appreciated this demonstration much more than simply reading it from a science textbook. :) The slideshow below shows this lesson. Enjoy!