Saturday, June 28, 2014

Saturday Sayings: Artificial

So far this summer has been about running and reading, which is exactly what my little life needed.  Besides the professional reading pile that needs my attention, I hadn't planned on thinking too much about school until I had to.  That all changed when I was asked to give a 90-minute presentation next week on my elementary perspective of narrative writing.  Between books, naps, a half-marathon, and a recovery trip to the ocean, I've been ruminating and planning how to squeeze all I want to say and do into an hour and a half.  That's easier said than done for someone who has a plethora of opinions about writing in the classroom.

The whole experience brought up an issue I have that most likely won't make the cut.  Besides not having the time to fit it in, I'm not sure I'm courageous enough to share these particular strong opinions with a room of K-12 teachers.  The poor audience will experience plenty of my other soap box issues anyway.  The topic has been on my list of things to post about for a long time though, so you all are the lucky ones who will get an earful.

The truth is I have an issue with graphic organizers, specifically in writing.  My worry is that they can feel inauthentic and steal precious time from real writing.  Two years ago I taught a unit on writing realistic fiction.  In preparation, I looked at a few resources available online written by other elementary teachers.  I was taken back with the excessive use of graphic organizers.  Day after day the beginning of the unit was bombarded with them.  I wanted to ask, "Now, when do the kids actually get to write?"  Needless to say, I didn't go that route.  After a bit of preparation and planning on day one, my kids were giving their best approximations at realistic fiction on day two and it only got better from there.  

Do real writers use an abundance of graphic organizers?  That's the main question here.  I'd like to consider myself a real writer, and even though I can't speak for us all, I personally don't break out a slew of graphic organizers before I write.  I recognize that I plan as a writer; it's an essential part of the process.  I keep it pretty simple though, and that's the way I approach the planning stages in my classroom.  Quick conversations and sketches are typical for us.  I want my writers to spend most of their time writing, not planning for it in artificial ways.  

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Saturday Sayings: It's a Non-Negotiable

My life is full of non-negotiables.  I make my bed as soon as my feet hit the floor each morning.  I never put in contacts or remove them without washing my hands first.  I don't eat in my car.  I could seriously go on and on.  My school life is full of non-negotiables as well, and one of them is writing.  I don't mean writing in other subject areas or in response to reading.  I don't mean self-selected writing activities.  Filling in blanks on worksheets, which I don't promote, doesn't count either.  Grammar activities don't even come close.  I mean a planned, daily, sustained writing time with a mini-lesson, followed by time to write and then share.  That kind of writing is non-negotiable for our students.  The craft of writing must be taught and practiced.  It is an essential pathway to both reading and thinking.

A handful of years ago, a new basal series and a call to implement it arrived on my doorstep.   Teachers were admonished and trained to use it with fidelity.  I didn't quite jump on the bandwagon.  Okay, I didn't even hop or budge.  (But I had permission from my administrator.  Insert smile.)  From what I could tell and from what teachers were saying, following it with fidelity meant there wasn't much time for anything else.  Something had to go.  Unfortunately, for many, it was writing workshop.  I don't know how many times I heard something to this effect.  "I just don't have time for writing anymore."  My internal response was, "How can that even be possible?"  Prior to this, there had been a welcomed push to get Lucy Calkins and writing workshop into classrooms. When the basal moved in, Lucy moved to a spot on the shelf, and many writers spent their time with a scripted basal program instead.  The good news is that the grip on fidelity (one of my least favorite educational words) has been loosened and addressing the importance of writing is back at the top of the list where it belongs.  

All classrooms experience the give and take of new curriculum and programs.  It's impossible to completely avoid the effects of such mandates, but one thing we should never hear ourselves say is, "I just don't have time for writing anymore."  It's a non-negotiable.

P.S.  I'm off to run 13.1 miles in downtown Seattle with my best friend and 20 to 30,000 strangers.  Wish me luck!  

(Look who we saw at our race expo yesterday.)

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Monday, June 16, 2014

What's Under Your Cape?

I just finished my first teachery book of the summer, and I must say I picked a great one to start things off with.  My blogging friend, Barbara, just released her book What's Under Your Cape?  It's based on the principles of character that she lives out and teaches as a counselor at an elementary school in Texas.  I love the idea that character is a super power and our students are superheroes when they not only know about character but show it in all the many facets she so skillfully explains.  

Children are naturally drawn to superheroes in their make-believe worlds.  Why not draw on that interest to teach what real-live superheroes are like?  Not to mention the fact, and this is the point of the book, they can be superheroes too.  Barbara addresses the characteristics of a superhero and provides many practical and engaging ways to teach and instill those qualities in our students.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in teaching not only to the head, but to the heart.  

Click on the book to order your own copy at Amazon.  You can also find it online at Barnes & Noble.

Click on the above graphic to visit Barbara's blog.  It's a wonderful thing.

Thank you Barbara for sharing your love for kids and character.  I feel like my toolbox for finding and bringing out the greatness in my students is overflowing after reading your book.  I'm a better teacher because of you.

Thank you Deanna Jump for the linky.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Saturday Sayings: Camouflaged

When I decided to use this quote for today's post, I immediately had what I thought was a grand idea. "I should make a list of school-type tasks that Smith might be referring to."  This was immediately followed with, "Hmm, not sure I want to do that.  What if some idea or activity from my room lands on the list?"  My response was all the confirmation I needed.  The list must happen.  The odds are drastically high that there are school-type tasks in my own practice that seem useful and enjoyable but in the end are really just chores that lack meaning and application to the real world.  

The unfortunate thing is that my list will be missing all of your input.  I'm predicting that not everyone will like my list, and likely as not, I might not like everyone else's.  If only we could all meet and share.  I can just imagine the dialogue we could have as we question certain practices and advocate for others.  It sounds like a challenging, but I believe, profitable professional development opportunity, much more beneficial than my isolated ideas.  So as you read the remainder of this post, keep in mind that I'm not expecting complete agreement.  This is just an opportunity to reflect on classroom practice and take instruction to the real-world level as much as possible.

DOL (Daily Oral Language)
isolated grammar exercises
weekly spelling tests
copying from the board
writing only to topics
behavior charts
round robin reading
homework packets
an abundance of craftivities
isolated phonics activities or games
book reports
AR (that one might hurt)

I suppose that's a good enough place to stop.  What I don't want to do is stop analyzing my practice.  I know all too well how school-type tasks can camouflage themselves as useful and enjoyable.  As a reflective teacher, it's my duty to look honestly and critically at what takes place day in and day out in that classroom of mine, even if it hurts a little.

P.S.  Feel free to question or advocate when you comment. :)

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Classroom Books Galore (freebie)

By the end of the year, our tub of classroom books is overflowing, and the kids still love reading them.  I've been working on a document that highlights each one.  I've been posting them a few pages at a time.  (Go here, here, here, here to get copies of previous pages.)  Click each picture to get your own copies.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Gary Hogg and Spencer

Thanks Deanna Jump for the linky today.

My kids love Gary Hogg's chapter book series called Spencer's Adventures.  Every year I think, "I really need to find some new chapter books to read," and then I always come right back to these books.  (I do need to branch out.  This year I added The BFG to my list.) Anyway, they're so very entertaining with just the right amount of dialogue and action.  They're kid-friendly and invite kids to visualize.  The characters, especially Spencer, are likable and easy to relate to.  The one thing they are missing is rich language, but that makes them more accessible on an independent level for both boys and girls who are ready for chapter books and need a good series to grab their attention.  

(This is the first of six in the series.  Click on the picture to visit Gary's site.)

For those of you who have extra money floating around at your school, you can even invite Gary Hogg for a visit.  I've had the privilege of hearing seeing him twice.  He's a grand storyteller and has the kids in stitches.  He also puts on small workshops for writers.  Either way, you should grab his series.  Your readers will eat them up.

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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Saturday Sayings: Outstanding

"What are the qualities of an outstanding teacher?"  That was the first question asked as I sat in on a few interviews this week.  Being in the hot seat, the interviewees only had a few seconds to think about their answers, but I heard some great responses.  I came up with my own list.  I cheated since I had way more time to think about it and didn't have 6 people staring at me like they did.  I probably left off several qualities.  Feel free to add them to my list when you comment.  By the way, they are in no special order.

* An outstanding teacher inspires.  They don't simply convey information.  They grow greatness in each student academically, socially, and personally.

* An outstanding teacher has great classroom management.  The culture and atmosphere of their classroom environment allows for more learning and less managing.  

* An outstanding teacher is organized.  There are so many balls to juggle as a teacher.  If balls are falling everywhere from disorganization, it has the potential to interfere with student learning.

* An outstanding teacher constantly reflects.  They can verbalize what they can improve upon, as well as what they're doing well.  They also know why they're doing what they're doing.

* An outstanding teacher is a gatekeeper.  They stand at the door of their classroom and protect their students from unhealthy practices.  They don't allow something in the door simply because everyone else is doing it.

* An outstanding teacher never stops growing.  They don't allow themselves the satisfaction of thinking they know it all.  They pursue their own professional development.

* An outstanding teacher has high expectations.  They know what their students have the potential to do both academically and behaviorally and teach their students from day one the habits of reaching those expectations.

* An outstanding teacher strives for real-world instruction.  There's authenticity, meaning, and purpose to what they ask of their students. 

Again, what are the qualities of an outstanding teacher?  It's a perfect question to ask possible new additions to a school staff, especially considering the correlation between teacher quality and student achievement.  It's also a great question to ponder as someone who's been doing this job for 20 years.  There are days, weeks, or maybe even months when being outstanding seems like a lofty goal, but these qualities remind me that several little people are counting on me to strive to be at the top of my game at all times. 

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