A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Reflection on a week in classrooms

During the past week, I worked in multiple grades as a resource teacher, in Kindergarten, 5th grade GT, and in 1st grade. Throughout the week, I've been reading Endangered Minds, by Jane M. Healy, PH.d., which cites a troubling trend:

For the vast majority of American youngsters, declines in math and science achievement as well as in verbal skills are a source of national alarm. Recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEPP have shown particular deficiencies in higher-order reasoning skills, including those necessary for advanced reading comprehension, math, and science. Although younger students, in the wake of a clamor for educational reform, seem to have improved test scores slightly, "most of the progress has occurred in the domain of lower order skills." (Healy, p. 20)
As someone who hasn't exactly enjoyed a smooth upward rise in the field of education, I've continually refined my craft by carefully reading professional literature, co-planning and co-teaching with master teachers,  seeking help from specialists in difficult situations, and by simply not letting go.  Over time, I've developed a repertoire of best practices that were on full display this week, keeping my flickering chances of remaining in education alive as I approach a fork in my destiny.

My Dilemma:
After clawing my way into the field of education, against long odds having done whatever it has taken to become an effective teacher, as well as an inspired teacher, once again I'm feeling the need for a little divine intervention.  Soon, I will need to respond to a request for interviews with a retail lumber chain, because I must face up to cash flow realities -- I'm an expert in the lumber business. This week, I also submitted my application to a local graduate school, to complete a 1-year program to earn a K-12 license in Special Education. This is my "hail mary" pass.

My uphill battle to remain in education was boosted by what a good friend and colleague had to say about me in her recommendation letter:
Daniel really got know each one of his 21 kindergarten students.  He guided them, taught them, and learned WITH them throughout his experience.  He learned about their strengths, their needs, and their individual learning styles.  Many students often enter *** with behavioral and academic challenges, but Daniel faced these challenges head on and did everything in his capability to ensure each student got what he/she needed.  Every afternoon, when parents arrived to pick up their children, Daniel could be seen talking with parents, sometimes offering suggestions for how to help at home or sharing a story of success that made his face light up just as much as the parent's face did! Daniel showed much pride in the accomplishments of his students  and it was evident that he was enjoying what he was doing -- teaching!
My good friend and colleague, who happens to be the best teacher I have ever worked with, proved to me what I had known all along; I've always known that I need to be working with the right people.

What I enjoyed:
Here are 7 great classroom management practices that worked for me this week:
  1. Begin in a friendly way (Dale Carnegie).
  2. Invite student talk.
  3. Encourage movement (Brain Gym).
  4. Coordinate every transition because timing and pacing matter.
  5. Model not only learning strategies but also core beliefs.
  6. Celebrate learner successes instead of seeking fault.
  7. Use gestures, eye contact, and other non-verbal cues that remind, rather than threaten.
Warming up a 3rd grade reading group:
As a resource teacher, I guided three 3rd graders in Language Arts in a rear corner of a school's library.  I wrote a simple two sentence Interactive Morning Message on the white board, which included a capitalization error and a missing period that children needed to find. My interactive question was, what did you do in the snow (an open-ended question)?

I noticed that one of the children, the same child who in the classroom had trouble locating his Language Arts File, didn't seem to be visually tracking, so I asked my question in different ways. Recently, a Special Education teacher had stressed to me the importance of getting a particular child talking -- that child, who had seemed depressed, revealed to me in our conversation that her mother had gone away to her home country, El Salvador, because some bad men had shot her uncle. I thought a similar strategy might work with my group of 3rd graders. To begin in a friendly way and invite student talk, I prompted for discussion:

What are some things you did over the holiday and on your snow days? Who went outside? Who made a snowman? What did your snowman look like? Who threw snowballs? Who walked in the snow? What sound did it make when you were waking? These questions broke the ice, and got the children talking. After a while, since everybody was having so much fun talking about what they had done in the snow, one of the children asked, "when are we going to start working?"

I replied, "we are working; talking about what you know helps get your mind ready for reading and writing." Next, children shared stories from their writing notebooks. The children had written about the 3 little pigs and the big bad wolf. All were about a sentence or two long. One of the children had drawn a picture of the wolf in boiling water. Another had shown the houses.  The third had forgotten his writing folder and seemed totally ashamed because he didn't have his writing notebook in his folder.

I asked the child with the picture of the wolf in the boiling pot, "how did the wolf get in the boiling pot?" I asked what details the children remembered about the other houses in the stories. The child who had forgotten his writing notebook felt invited to join in. His eyes lit up as he remembered details, "no, the first house was made of straw, not sticks."

Then, I connected to a different version of the story written by John Scieszka entitled, The True Story of The 3 Little Pigs, which they all had read. The children enjoyed sharing what they remembered about that version.

To transition to reading, I had the students stand up and quickly led them in doing Brain Buttons, a Brain Gym routine. Students scooted over to the Fountas and Pinnell leveled reading basket and they carried the books over to the table. I gave the children a choice of three books from a selection of leveled readers. They chose The Pool.

We began with a picture walk and I asked the children to make a prediction. Doesn't this remind you of The Mitten? I asked.

The children's eyes lit up as they noticed the connection.  I had each of them read The Pool, and I sidled next to each of them as they read to offer guidance on word solving and to prompt for comprehension.

Since we finished a little early, we asked the librarian to help us find the John Scieszka version of the 3 little pigs. I read with expression to model fluency, using voices, as we emotionally connected with a hilarious story.

Brain Gym in the Computer Lab:
I worked with classes in the Computer Lab as they worked on SOL Pass. Each of the classes worked on social studies, science, and a "fun" site. The Technology Specialist set me up on the SmartBoard, and suggested that I use PowerPoint to communicate the agenda, since the whiteboard was covered by the SmartBoard. That came as a surprise, because I didn't realize that my log in carried over from school to school. The Resource Teacher had included a stretch in her plans, so I incorporated a link to a Brain Gym Video. We used Brain Gym to encourage movement and coordinate every transition! My experience working across grade levels enabled me to make appropriate curriculum matching decisions, so that students were never asked to practice using activities for which they weren't ready.

Kindergarten Writer's and Readers:
In Kindergarten Writing Workshop, I taught an inference lesson using Cookie's Week, written by Cindy Ward, and illustrated by Tomie dePaula.  We began with a picture walk and made predictions.

Students then drew a "what happened next" picture and wrote about it. Having launched a Kindergarten Class earlier in the year, which used the Lucy Caulkins model, I incorrectly assumed that the procedure in the class was that children would start with their drawings, then do their writing. Apparently, that isn't normally the case in that classroom, but we went forward in the Lucy Caulkins mode anyway. Allowing the students to draw pictures first gave me a chance to have children explain their thinking, which allowed me to check to see if they knew what to do and redirect students as needed.  By the time we began writing, I was comfortable that every student had thought first before writing sentences.  As children wrote, I encouraged individual students to stretch out sounds and use invented spelling. In this way, I was able to model not only strategies but also core beliefs about learning, especially my belief that their ideas truly mattered.

After we transitioned to literacy stations, my role was to manage the transitions and redirect students who were working independently while other students worked in guided literacy groups. One of the independent activities was Writing the Room; students didn't seem to understand it as an invitation to walk around the room, so I modeled the process. Instead of blaming the children for being lazy, I saw they needed a little guidance.  My manner of intervention allowed me to celebrate learner successes instead of finding fault. Thus, my decision got children excited about learning a new procedure instead of shutting them down.

Since children were in the mood, I was able to extend with a follow-up activity involving alphabetizing the 10 words they had found while Writing the Room. Two Kindergarten students explained the rule.  How cool is that?!!!

5th Grade GT Problem Solving:
Since I caught up with the 5th grade class in the lunchroom, my first encounter with the class, which numbered about 25 students, was in lining them up and walking back to the classroom. To facilitate appropriate line up and hall behavior, I use gestures, eye contact, and other non-verbal cues that remind, rather than threaten. I had them at hello.

After going over their math homework, in our first lesson, 5th graders were learning how to use constants and variables in mathematical expressions. The book's lesson involved a discussion of key terms (constant, variable, expression, and various operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). In their homework, children solved expressions in a chart at various values of the variable. In the lesson examples, story problems required students to apply what they had practiced the night before to set up appropriate mathematical expressions. To practice, I gave the students only the odd problems in the first section, but all the story problems. During natural transitions, and when I noticed students losing focus, we did a few Brain Gym routines.

During indoor recess (we didn't stay outside because there was too much ice and not enough space on the playground) one young lady asked for help solving a paper folding problem.  That was a blast!

We set up a China video for Social Studies.  Students used an interactive notebook, and glued in a Dynasties Chart as the RAP (Review and Preview -left side), and a 321 as the WOW (Words of Wisdom -right side). I paused the video in regular interviews to facilitate discussion, questions, and response.

Responses to My Blog:
Last week, Poetic License was honored with a response with the illustrious Max Weismann, "President/Director and Co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas in Chicago with Mortimer Adler, and the founder and chairman of the Great Books Academy (over 3000 students)." He alerted me to a recently rediscovered classic footage of Mortimer Adler discussing How to Read a Book. I received a copy of the video for the price of a small donation.***(post corrected, thanks to Max Weismann). 

I was also honored with a response from K. P. Kollenborn, a writer from Kansas, who enjoyed my post about The Art of Gaman and chose to follow my blog.  Thanks for publicly following my blog!

My post about The Art of Gaman struck a raw nerve and stirred up my family's phone lines. I look forward to my mom's response, to posting additional parts from Rising Son in The West, and to future responses.