Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Have You Seen My Mother (spider plant)

As I am on a constant search to integrate my lessons as fully as possible, I took Mother's Day and science and mixed them together.  We started with a discussion of how animals have babies, and those babies look like their parents.  For instance a beagle puppy looks like its beagle mother.  We then started talking about plants and how baby plants or plants from seeds look like the parent plants.  We compared seeds and seed packets, observing how one seed will create a plant that looks like the plant which created the seed.  Then we took a spider plant baby and searched the school to find its mother.  We looked at beautiful geraniums, silk flowers, paper daisies, and then went outside and compared our baby to the leaves of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths.  The kids compared not just the shape of the leaves, but the colors on the outside and inside, how the leaves stood up straight or curled, and the textures.  There were several close comparisons, but nothing quite matched enough.  Then a student spotted a strategically placed plant in the window of the hallway outside our classroom.  They *walked* inside and checked out the final plant to confirm that we indeed had found the mother plant.  Then everyone took a baby spider plant to care for and secure in soil.  These plants will be placed in gift bags the students decorate tomorrow to take home to a person in their life who nurtures them.  We have loosened the idea of Mother's Day, as many students are cared for by grandparents, relatives, or foster parents.  We want to honor all those who love us, regardless of the biological ties.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Back to the Grind

It's Monday.  The one after April vacation.  I have to leave for work in fifteen minutes.  As I sip my coffee I am wondering; which students had a great time, who is going to need extra hugs, who had a breakthrough in literacy, who is hungry, who is happy?  There are a whole lot of standards I need to cover between now and the end of June.  The final assessments for the SLO must be administered in a few weeks, and there are still a few kids I need to "fix up."  The end of year madness, as well as the impending move to a new school loom over me.

But today, I shall embrace "love shows up."  I'm just going to adore all my kinders.  We will sing, and laugh, and tell stories and dance and have fun.  And yes, somewhere in the middle of all that joy, I'll sneak in the standards.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Why Wacky Wednesday?

It isn't easy being five.  You enter kindergarten with enthusiasm and energy, lots and lots of energy.  Then you are told to find your name at a table and to sit in the chair by your name.  Or perhaps you are directed to sit in a circle.  How long do you have to sit there?  And why does your body have to be "criss cross applesauce?"  Your teacher is nice. She smiles a lot, but she has a full agenda for you.  Whether she agrees or not, she is expected to get you reading by the end of the year. You might not even know what a letter is.  You need to be adding and subtracting numbers within ten.  You also need to write your opinion of a book and defend your reasons.  So there is sitting.  There is listening.  There are papers for you to complete.  Is this what you signed on for?  No?  Guess what, it isn't what your teacher signed on for either.

It's not that your teacher doesn't believe you can or should be able to accomplish the goals of kindergarten.  She just doesn't want to crush your spirit in your first year of school.  So she gets creative.  You have lessons each day, but you never have to sit for too long.  You learn many things by singing songs.  You get to act out the stories you hear, and you learn to subtract as you eat a few goldfish crackers at a time while you count the total after each bite.  You learn to write your letters first by building them with blocks, then by painting them with water on a chalkboard.  You have some worksheets to complete, but they are right next to the games you play and the bricks you use to build.

And then there is Wacky Wednesday.  You look forward to it all week.  Each morning when you enter the classroom you ask the teacher, "Is it Wacky Wednesday?"    This is the day when you decide how you will learn.  The teacher has set out options for you designed to let you extend what you have been learning. You can work on a project all day and the teacher checks with you to ask questions or offer suggestions.  You get to create a play, or build a city, or explore new materials.  You can talk with your friends and share your work. If you are learning about "how humans can reduce their impact on the Earth," you might recycle an old sweater to turn it into a puppet or a pouch.  If you have been "retelling familiar stories including details" you may recreate the story of the "Three Little Pigs," by turning the classroom into the setting of this fairy tale so that you can act it out.........

Wacky Wednesday began last year.  My partner teacher and I noticed how the kids were taking charge of their learning one morning.  Here is the blog entry for that day:
Today the kids came in and grabbed some construction paper.  Then all our plans went out the window.  They came up with such great ideas we let them take charge of their own learning.  The results included complex patterned necklaces, everyone's foot being traced, compared, and hung as a foot garland, a tower of blocks we read about being reproduced in the classroom, secret books being written, and cooperation everywhere. 

We realized that sometimes, we teachers need to simply set the stage for learning and then get out of the way.  We are purposeful in how we set up the classroom before the students come in for a Wacky Wednesday.  We have loosely planned events for the day.  However, our plans are fluid and respond to the direction the students take us.  The students take over with "What if..."  "Can we try..." and "Let's find out..."  We are still covering standards. The difference is that we are letting the students chart the course.  As a result we have students who are self directed, excited to come to school, and yes, also meeting the standards set before them.

Wacky Wednesday isn't just favored by the students.  We love watching what the kids create and learn.  They problem solve and cooperate as new learning takes place.  Given the high expectations of where kindergarten students should "be" by the end of the year, Wacky Wednesday provides some respite from the urgency of "fitting it all in."  This day respects the innate ability of our children to be self directed, lifelong learners.  It's quite simply the best day of the week.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Sneaky Teaching

While my students are at school I love them up, do my best to protect them, and yes, I even throw in some teaching.  It is a frustration that I can't protect them from the grief that accompanies the loss of a beloved family member.  One of my cherubs recently lost an important person in her life.  She continued to come to school, happy to play with her friends and create her artwork.  An outside observer would not be able to determine she had just lost someone close.

That is, until I call her aside to work with her individually.  The adorable and happy go lucky kiddo who once bounced up and down waiting for me to work with her suddenly and sullenly refuses to work with me.  She holds her ground and tells me, "NO! I don't WANT to."

I'm looking at the data I've been collecting on this child.  She is close to meeting her growth target, but not there yet.  I have just over a month to get her to the goal I set for her; the goal attached to my evaluation.  At her first refusal I try to cajole, using humor.  At the second refusal, I become impatient, telling her "We can do it now, or during your choice time."  Then I step back to think.

What is more important?  Protecting this child's fragile emotional state, or meeting my growth target?
I watch her, see her play with her friends and realize these other kiddos were her support.  She doesn't want to be called away from them.  The next day I enlist a child she enjoys working with to join us as we worked together.  He listens to her read her books, he reviews her sight words with her, and when it is time to write a mini book, she writes about him and he writes about her.  She  is delighted to work with him.  I sit back, marveling at the power of peer helpers.

As I drive home from work I congratulate myself on the success of my sneaky plan.  Even though this kiddo could balk at working with her friend in the future, it worked for the day.  I won't do this child any favors by excusing her from the work of learning.  Yet I could do more harm than good by pushing her beyond what is kind.  I will still work with this kiddo, gently pushing her to know a little bit more than she did the day before.  The trick will be to use creativity and compassion to respect where she is emotionally. When she looks back on kindergarten I want her to remember the experience happily.  It's up to me to help her create that memory.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Putting the *Ass* in Assessment

This is how I felt at school yesterday.  The last two weeks have brought snow measured by the foot.  We have had four snow days and two late starts in the last ten days of school.  Oh, and I fell on the ice, and had to take a day to get cleared to work.  Add it up and that gives me about four full school days to impart all my wisdom to the kinders in my classroom.

Those who teach might be familiar with the acronym, SLO.  It stands for Student Learning Objective.  In my district we all had to create a SLO with "rigor" that was measurable and included content and process standards. Yeah, it's a bit demanding.  I'll save my SLO opinions for another post titled "How Do You Measure 'Doesn't Spend Entire Day Crying Anymore'?"  But I digress.  It's that magical time of year where we do a mid-year assessment of student progress on the SLO.  Remember, I teach KINDERGARTEN.  Our assessments are oral and 1:1.  We wanted to keep the "rigor" rolling so we assessed five points of literacy.  I had finished most before the winter apocalypse began, but the Phonological Awareness piece still needed to be completed.  Of course, that was the most time intensive piece.  These were due the end of January, but, well, winter threw a monkey wrench in that plan.

Remember, I had four days to complete these assessments.  And teach math, writing, reading, science, and social skills.  You'll probably hear teachers bemoan how too many assessments take away from the time we have to TEACH what we should be assessing.  It's true.  I was grabbing kids during snack, as they walked through the door, when they were finished getting ready to go home. Yet I still had to steal from my instruction time to complete these assessments.  I do hold some culpability here.  I chose this SLO with my work wife.  We added the Phonological Awareness piece to our SLO to include "process" standards in kindergarten.  It has shed great insight into how my kids are learning to read, when matched with the other components of our SLO.  But the time!!!!

I started this post as a reflection of how my energy sets the tone for my students, but explaining the SLO  seems to have taken over.  It is important to assess the progress of students.  Lawmakers demand it to hold the '"lazy" teachers accountable.  Truth be told, I'd assess kids anyway.  That's how I know where to go next with my instruction.

My conflict is with who I become while assessing my little ones.  This mad rush to complete the assessing turned me into an ogre, and not the lovable Shrek type either.  I was harried and irritable.  I was expecting children who hadn't been able to play outside, due to the unsafe conditions, to be quiet while I gave all my attention to only one student.  The fun-loving, singing, dancing teacher was put in a closet while Ms. Trunchbull took over.  Then, with five minutes remaining in the day and three assessments left to complete, one of my favorite staff members walked through the door holding the hand of one of my former students.  He was in a fragile place and needed some of my attention. She came in looking for a little redirection from me, then saw my furrowed brow and focused expression and nodded with understanding as she walked one of my kids (once I teach you, you're always my kid) out the door.  Ripped. My. Heart. Out.

After my students were safely on the bus, I sought out the other staff member.  I had to make amends.  We talked about what the student had needed; she tried to assure me that it was okay.  But I'm not convinced.  One of "my kids" needed me.  I let an assessment trump him.  I'd like to tell you "never again,"  but I'm not sure I can.  SLO's, NWEA's, and now Smarter Balance for the older kids are here. My value as a teacher is tied to some of these assessments.  My school is judged by the growth children make.  This creates a real pressure and sense of urgency.  Hopefully, the next time a child needs me I'll at least have the presence of mind to say, "I see you.  You are important.  And even though I can't give you my time right now, you will have me as soon as I'm able."  I entered teaching to grow children, not build test scores.  This afternoon was a good reminder.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Notebook

Kindergarten.  When parents hand their babies over to be taught be a stranger.  I know, most children have been attending a daycare or preschool for a few years already, but that doesn't negate the tears falling from mama's and papa's eyes as they leave their charges with me that first day, week, or month of school.  As the first teacher parents hand their children to, I work diligently to forge a positive relationship.  If all goes well, I set the way for smooth sailing in the following years of a child's education.  

There are many paths to creating a good relationship between school and home.  The spring time registration, letters home during the summer,  as well as an Open House just before school starts have been in place at every school where I've taught.  Yet when a parent wants to know what happens in their child's day to day experience I have found no greater tool than the Home-School notebook.

The notebooks started about seven years ago.  Each child was given a notebook at the Open House just before school started.  I explained to parents that the purpose was to keep communication flowing between us.  Every day I would write in the notebooks and parents could respond, or simply initial what I'd written.  These notebooks quickly took on an individual feel for each child, depending on the needs/interests of the families.  For the shy child, it tracked who she was interacting with, and documenting triumphs at recess.  For the picky eater, it told parents how much snack and lunch was eaten.  For the child with challenges of any sort, it held strategies, plans, and results. As children were given formative assessments I would share the data in the notebook with a quick strategy to work on a few specific goals at home.  Parents would write back how the work at home was going and share what was working for them.  Every notebook was used to record the priceless moments that make a teacher and parent burst with pride.  Together we cheered for the child in the notebook.   

Some parents relished this notebook, writing back every day.  Others would go a few days, then initial all the entries so I knew they'd read each one.  There were times I'd read the notebooks in the mornings to find warnings like, "He didn't sleep at all last night, good luck!" or "She complained of a tummy ache, give me a call if it continues."  Parents would also tell me about the swimming lessons, grandparent's birthday, or book they were reading.  Every morning I looked forward to my ongoing conversations with parents.

The notebooks were a hit, yet they were time consuming.  They were lacking a bit of structure.  My partner teacher isn't as taken with writing as I am and we brainstormed how to streamline the notebooks but still keep the relationship with parents.  The picture at the top of the page shows what we came up with.  Each day we report out to parents how their child did with our Four Expectations.  There is room for a sentence or two to give specific information about the day, and then room for the parent response.  It's tidier and quicker.  It forces me to be succinct. 

When the time comes to provide evidence  of how I work with parents this is my go-to.  With their permission I share pages that highlight our teamwork and how student growth improves through the information shared in the notebook.  My greatest indicator of success with the notebooks is hearing from parents years later that the notebook is a treasured keepsake.  Knowing the value parents give these books keeps me at it, building the partnership one entry at a time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

My Three Ring Circus

That's how I feel these days in my classroom.  Without the megaphone.  After months of working with this kindergarten I have been reduced to the role of ringmaster.  And I couldn't be prouder.  These children have become independent learners.  They can move from one "ring" to the other, taking charge of their learning as I facilitate small groups.

I've taught reading groups for years.  One small group would get my attention while other children were kept "busy."  The kids were quiet and yes, they learned.  Yet, I felt exhausted after reading groups, tense from trying to keep order.

Enter my partner teacher and her introduction of "The Daily Five."   She turned me onto the idea of teaching the class to become independent through guided practice in reading to self, writing to self, working with words, and reading with a partner.  The kids started practicing each of these for three minutes, gradually building up to 20 minutes.  It was amazing! My little kinders were able to sustain quiet work with an activity for 20 minutes, allowing me time to work with small groups.

Now that I had a reading time that was secure, I wondered if I could also use this format in math and writing.  My partner teacher and I were already sharing kids during our reading time, grouping them based on like abilities.  We gave all our kids a pre-assessment for our next unit in math and grouped them by like abilities as well.  Our math time is now divided into three sections.  Work with the teacher, practice time, and choice time.  My time with each group can now be tailored to meet the needs of different abilities, the practice time is specific to what each group needs, and we squeezed in choice time, allowing us more time in our day to give a shout out to science.  The best part of this time is the kids go to the math board, look for their name and go to the correct area for red, blue or green time.  I no longer have to direct them where to go, saving instruction time.

I was on such a role, I divided my kids into writing groups.  Once again, I had a diverse group of abilities so I divided them into three groups.  After a mini-lesson for everyone the kids go off to write while I work with two groups a day.  This gives me time to deliver instruction just right for my non-writers as well as my novelists.

If you walked into my room, you would likely hear a quiet, healthy buzz of kids working.  Look over to my table and you'll see me with a small group of kids.  It's not a perfect system, we need reminders to be quiet or get back on task.  Yet the expectations are clear.  With a reminder to "check and adjust," students know what they need to do.  I am proud of how my kinders can work in their own ring of our classroom circus.