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.