Friday, September 30, 2011

School Culture Considerations

Our RTI goals and enhanced PLC organization and meeting time are fostering culture shift within my school community.  As I think about our culture shift towards greater collaboration, I am wondering about the following questions:
  1. How do we prioritize students' needs and efforts?  Do we share similar prioritizing strategies and beliefs or do we differ? 
  2. What is our sense of urgency with respect to student needs and services?
  3. Where do we believe we are strong as a learning community?
  4. Where do we believe we have room for growth?
  5. What are the stresses--the events and actions that hinder our best work?
  6. How much time are people spending at home preparing for the learning program?  Is that time consistent or do the at-home demands differ greatly from position to position?
  7. What are the overarching goals and vision of our learning community--do we all agree, or are we operating with different ideas about this?
  8. What is our collective ideal of an optimal learning community?  Currently do we share similar ideals or do we differ?
  9. What are our perceptions of our roles in the learning community?  Do we understand each others' primary roles and responsibilities?  How do our roles overlap and support each other?
I will probably add questions to this list as the year moves along.  I will think about these questions and use them as a guide as I collaborate with colleagues.  I've always thought our answers to the questions above would be quite similar, but it's been a long time since we talked about those questions and there have been many changes in the community, our school and the world in general since we engaged in those discussions.

A collaborative school culture based on common vision, goals and decision making practices is currently a goal we're reaching for, and working towards.  Greater attention to the questions above will help me and possibly others reach our collaborative goals with the lens of providing an optimal educational program for all students.  Do you agree?  What questions would you add?  I welcome your feedback and thoughts.

Educators: Child Advocates

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” 
                                                                                    - Martin Luther King, Jr.

I wake up in the wee hours of the morning with a student in mind.  Teachers know that feeling.  The child creeps into your dreams and an issue you've been observing, thinking about and avoiding to some degree becomes clear and apparent.

Initially you want it to go away.  The reason you avoided it in the first place is that you hoped it would go away or your initial observations were incorrect.  You also know, after years of teaching, that issues like this are difficult, up-hill battles, and complicated situations requiring after hours meetings, collaboration of many, strong emotions and differences of viewpoint.

But then, early in the dark hours of the morning when all is quiet, the child creeps into your dreams and looks you in the eye with the message, Are you going to help me or not?  Then you roll out of bed, reach for your glasses and head to books, your journal and/or computer to write about, problem solve and research the situation. What are the child's rights?  How are situations like this remedied?  What can a teacher do to help?  Is a teacher's free speech protected?

A plan is created, and you begin down a controversial path reminding yourself that keeping the child's needs and interests as the focal point is the key and the reason you're willing to travel that rocky road.

You question yourself, Am I right?  Then you remind yourself that it's okay to be wrong as long as you walk this path with respect and care--your intentions are well founded or else that child would not have creeped into your dreams.

Like teachers everywhere, I joined this profession to make a difference.  I've never been able to look the other way when a child is in need, and many might say that I push too hard and dream too big, but in the end I have to advocate for the child who wakes me in the night.  Wouldn't you?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Prioritizing in The Tech-Ed Age

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I'm like a kid in a candy store when it comes to the technology available for learning today.  There are so many wonderful venues at my fingertips--awe-inspiring paths to knowledge acquisition, skill development and concept attainment.  But, I can't do it all and furthermore my students would be utterly confused if I tried to bring them down all those paths.  Hence, prioritizing is essential.

I have many guides available to help me prioritize including grade-level texts, workbooks, system curriculum guides, State guides and the Common Core.  I can also pull from my experiences and education as a teacher of 26 years, a parent for 20 years and a family member and sibling in a very large family all my life.  I remember veteran colleagues telling me that the job gets harder simply because you know more and there's more to choose from.  Now I understand what they were saying.

Nevertheless, I will prioritize to meet the essential needs of my fourth grade students.  I'll prioritize with their future learning and success in mind.  Here's my short list.

Systems for Independent Learning and Growth
I began the year with a heavy emphasis on introducing systems that will foster students' independence with regard to essential skills.  Those systems included the following:
  • ePortfolios: A venue for student writing across many genres.
  • Computation Ladders: A system to grow and develop essential math knowledge and computation skill.
  • NING: A closed classroom social network to develop community, writing skill and classroom sharing.
  • Team 15 Website: The classroom information center: a resource website for classroom links and information related to all learning units and activities.  
  • Content Blogs: The use of blogs to share and practice writing related to specific content areas.
  • The Learning Action Table: A chart that organizes and communicates our essential learning goals and processes to guide student learning in class and at home.
Intellectual Habits and Attitudes
In class we have spent a lot of time talking about how we learn.  We've shared strategies for optimal learning and goals for success.  These conversations will continue throughout the year.

Essential Knowledge, Skills and Content
Now, as we move from routine building to greater content knowledge and development, I find myself prioritizing our classroom efforts with the following emphasis.
  • Reading: It's essential that fourth graders develop optimal reading fluency, stamina and comprehension.  Hence a significant amount of time will be devoted to independent reading, interactive read aloud and guided reading.  Students are also expected to read each night at home.
  • Writing:  Students will write daily in class and at home.  Like reading, we will focus on writing stamina, skill and fluency.  We'll also focus on genre and craft.  
  • Math: The math focus will include computation, vocabulary, problem solving and knowledge/concept units.  All three areas will overlap as students develop math knowledge, concept and skill in a multitude of learning venues including project based learning, online practice, web models, games, Math Talk and more.
  • Social Studies and Science:  Our grade-level employs rotations for social studies and science concepts.  Each teacher specializes in one aspect of the overall curriculum topic.  We teach the knowledge and concepts in cooperative, creative ways including video, crafts, and problem solving. Classroom centered teaching in this area is integrated with reading, writing and math skills.
Essentially fourth grade is a foundation year solidifying the learning from the grades before and preparing students for the independence, positive attitude and foundation they will need in the grades ahead.

Are these priorities similar to yours?  If you teach a level before fourth grade, what would you add?  If you teach a level after fourth grade, what do you wish for?  Thanks for your feedback, and thanks for listening to me as I try to prioritize my efforts in this exciting tech age of education.

6/12 Note:  The one missing piece to this list is project/problem base learning.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Homework: A Letter to Parents and Family Members

Dear Parents and Family Members,

I've been reading a lot about homework lately.  There are many points of view related to the subject.  The one point that almost everyone agrees with is that homework needs to be tailored to the individual student.  Now that's difficult for a teacher to do if he or she is working with a large number of students each day, but if teachers, parents and students work as a team, it's doable.

Let's think about your child for a minute.  How does he or she come home from school each day?  Is he really tired or is she raring for more academic work? Does she immediately want to go outside and play or does he find a cozy nook and read a book?  Every family member's answer to these questions will differ as every child meets school with his or her unique perspective, stamina, interest and skill.

So with respect to homework, I say, let's work together.  I'll post a learning list that's updated regularly.  It will include the main, independent practice skills students need to master as well as projects that can be worked on in and out of class.  I'll leave it up to you to make your child's schedule, and to modify as you see appropriate.  If you're not quite sure or have some other ideas for me and/or your child, let's meet to discuss it.

Studies show that math practice homework makes a difference, but most other homework doesn't make a significant difference.  Yet, we all know that those that read often do better on most tests and acquire tremendous knowledge building a strong foundation for future learning.  Therefore reading and math practice should top the list.  Keyboarding is another must-have and I believe fourth grade is a good time to master that skill.  You might need to reward your developing typist with an incentive here and there to foster nightly practice.  We also know that those that write often develop as better writers, and that's why I expect students to post comments on classroom blogs and write regularly as part of their classroom/project work.  There's room for additional writing on the ePortfolio free write page, NING forum discussions and bonus work too.

Some of you have budding dancers, athletes, artists, and other specialty skills--those matter too, and should count as "homework."  If your child is passionate about the violin and he/she practices every night a week for thirty minutes--that should be considered as part of their overall effort and study.  The goal for parents is to find a just right balance of play, learning, passions, family and other important aspects of a child's life.

The overall goal is engagement, love of learning and enthusiasm.  Enthusiastic, self confident, positive students will go much further than overworked, frustrated, exhausted and defeated students.  Learning, whether it's at home, in school or in other venues, like parenting is a dance, a give-and-take, a set of stepping stones to life long learning, happiness and success.

This is a start to a much bigger conversation.  I welcome your comments and ideas.  Don't hesitate to contact me or comment below.

Maureen Devlin
Your Child's Teacher

Excellent Article about the Homework Balance

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Making Schools Better: Parents Make a Difference

We all know that parents make a difference.  We know that from our experiences in life--experiences as children, neighbors, relatives, and educators.  Everyone knows that parents make a difference, but not every parent knows what it takes to make a difference for their child.

No parent is perfect.  It's a huge job particularly in a society that often disregards what's best for children and families.  Despite the challenges, it's our responsibility as parents to put ourselves second and focus on what's best for our children.

I've created a list of actions that I believe make a difference for children:
  • Time: time to talk, play, question and explore with trusting, caring adults.
  • Nutrition: healthy food makes everyone feel better thus creating greater happiness.
  • Rest: seems so simple, but a good night's sleep for children and other family members matters.
  • Reading: A book a night, simple or complex, will nurture your child's mind.
  • Shared entertainment and activity: visit a museum, picnic in the park, climb a mountain, take a bike ride, swim at the beach, watch a movie, play a board game, camp. . .
  • Family Meetings: meet and talk together about what's important for each member of the family, and as a team set priorities and schedule.
  • Honesty: share your challenges and struggles with your children, and talk about injustice and weakness in developmentally appropriate ways as that will prepare your children for life's realities.
  • Take Charge: children are the responsibility of parents--set limits, be observant.
  • Engage your children in activities that interest them. Stand on the sidelines, converse with other parents, and learn all you can about your children and the programs they are involved in.
  • Spend your money wisely on quality toys and objects that support learning and fun.
  • Find out about and take advantage of public programs at the local library, parks, museums, and recreation facilities.
  • Dream: create dreams together, work for them and plan--then enjoy.
Our country can do a better job to support families.  We need to vote for leaders that understand that.  Today, many families are compromised because parents are working so hard to support their families that they run out of time to do the things on the list above.  I'd like to see our country encourage work places to give their employees greater time and support for family needs and relationships such as days off to volunteer at your child's school, optimal day care, a shorter work week and more vacation time.

In summary, as parents, we make a difference for our children, and as parents we have to work together to advocate for laws and actions that support children and families well.

Making Schools Better: Nurturing Families and Children

Today I read a Boston Globe article about the score disparity between low income students and others. I was not surprised.  Low income students face many challenges that middle and high income students do not face.

Bridging the gap is not rocket science--it's about creating conditions for excellence in low income schools so that children have a chance.  Creating conditions for excellence for children in the early years, as we all know, will save our country from despair and dollars spent related to poverty and crime.

What are the conditions for excellence that will turn the tide in low income schools?  These are some that I'd like to see employed.
  • Inspiring school facilities/campuses--architectural inspiration and natural beauty.
  • A focus on community building and quality child-care from birth onward.
  • Multi-service facilities that provide health, nutrition, and education.
  • Optimal physical fitness facilities and daily sports programs.
  • Well paid and trained professional staff.
  • Summer exploration.
  • Ongoing parent interaction and education programs.
  • Engaging, empowering curriculum.
  • Low student-teacher ratio in a restructured school program that targets the needs of students and the community.
  • Solid tech infrastructure and accessibility.
Standardized tests have demonstrated the gaps in American education.  In part, these standards have outlined academic goals.  At the elementary level the goals are foundation skills in reading, writing and math--worthy goals.  It's important to recognize that these tests relate to a fraction of the overall learning program needs and efforts related to student success.  Now it's time to think with a broader lens, and to provide conditions for excellence in every American school.

Making Schools Better: Responsibility and The Privilege to Parent

The ability to create and raise a child is a great gift, and one that should be met with responsibility.  As soon as young women and men reach child-creating ages, they need to be well aware of the responsibility their actions hold for their own lives and the lives of the children they create.

I tell my own children, once you have a child--you come second, and that child comes first.  I encourage them to take care of their own needs and desires before embarking on creating a family, and I urge them to create a situation that will be optimal for a family before starting one.

In our country, I've read about and noticed many situations where young people jump into parenthood before preparing the "nest" or fulfilling their own needs and desires.  Some are able to put themselves aside and focus on the child, but others are not, and the children suffer.

As a nation, we don't want to tell people when to have children and how many to have, but we need to find a way to educate young people about their responsibility and potential with respect to the privilege of parenting.

For some, I believe that parenting becomes a way out--a purpose.  If you're young and have nowhere to turn for hope or promise, having a child might seem to be an answer.  Pregnancy and birth are celebrations, and babies are so cute.  It's a way to be a part of something and to be recognized, but rarely do we see the same celebrations when a parent is raising a challenging 13-year old in a climate with few supports.  For others, it's an act without thought or responsibility, and that's really sad.

As we think about our nation's schools and our desire for every child to succeed, we have to look deeper.  We have to look at every aspect of child care from prebirth onward.

How can we foster a sense of responsibility towards parenthood?  How can we help young people to see parenthood as a privilege and a gift, a time in life to look forward to and prepare for?  Should we educate young people about what children need, and how to create a home that will nurture children well?  Should this be a part of education in the early years, before the challenges of adolescence begin?

This is not my area of expertise, but I know it's an area that needs attention and holds potential for a stronger, more educated population.  What do you think?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tying Student Scores to Individual Teacher Performance Hinders Collaboration and School Success

I've been reading the news.  I've been listening to the fact that school funding is tied in part to rating individual teachers by students' scores.  I can't believe it.

Latest research points to the advantages of collaboration.  Rating individual teachers by students' scores hinders collaboration.  Rating individual teachers by students' scores sends the message that one teacher affects a student's performance, rather than the reality that the entire school (and family) community contributes to a child's success and challenge.  During a child's year at school, he/she is affected by the leadership, administrative staff, therapists, special educators, ELL teachers, classroom teachers, recess and cafeteria staff, teaching assistants, specialist teachers and others.

I actually enjoy getting scores.  I see it as part of the whole when it comes to evaluating my work with students and students' progress.  I analyze the scores and respond by tweaking areas I hope to enhance and researching questions I'm left with.  I see the scores as part of the entire child profile; one glimpse into the child's academic performance.  We will also use the scores as a team this year--analyzing the numbers together to organize our collaborative teaching approach to best support all learners.

I continue to be a fan of streamlined academic testing as one vehicle for analyzing and informing instruction with optimal student growth as the focus.  I believe the Federal and state governments should use scores as one measure to analyze school systems--which school systems are performing well, and which ones struggle.  Then, they can use those scores to determine what separates high performance districts and low performing districts.  Once they distinguish the factors, they can work to provide conditions for excellence in every school district--to level the playing field as some suggest.

I can imagine that "leveling the playing field" would include actions like these:
  • Developing better technology infrastructures and student access.
  • Building optimal playgrounds and structures for student play.
  • Creating multi-mile "safe zones" around schools that are plagued by violence and despair.
  • Restructuring the day and increasing staff to support students who require greater care with respect to basic needs such as food, clothing, the opportunity to talk, health and comfort.
  • Increasing salaries so that it's advantageous to lead or teach in challenged schools.
  • Updating buildings and brightening structures.
  • Providing social support systems with sufficient guidance, social workers and community /health services.
  • Time for optimal professional development.
  • Business-university-college school partnerships.
  • After school enrichment opportunities including sports, arts and academic clubs.
  • Homework clubs and mentors.
  • Internships.
The Federal government and states should identify exemplar school systems, and responsively replicate the notable infrastructure, supports and opportunities in systems that face challenge and need.

As far as students' scores and individual teachers, those scores should be used to inform instruction and professional development as well as to strengthen the research-based collaborative efforts at the school/district level.  

Too much potential is wasted on debating issues and practices that do not promote optimal academic opportunity for all students.  Identifying and replicating conditions for excellence in every school in America should be the focus of the Federal and state governments.  

Friday, September 23, 2011

Tech Workshop

Each week I pose a blog question on our classroom NING that every student has to answer.  This week I asked, "How is the year going so far?  What do you like?  What do you hope for?  As I plan the learning for the weeks ahead, I want to include your thoughts and ideas."  There were a variety of responses from my twenty-two fourth graders, and several mentioned that they liked "Tech Workshop."

Like most teachers today, I'm infusing more and more technology into our daily learning.  I'm learning about ways to do this that engage and empower learners while meeting System, State and Federal standards.

This is the model I'm using for Tech Workshop.
  • Focus Lesson and Student Share:  I facilitate a brief skill, concept and/or knowledge focus lesson as students sit at desks or gather on the rug. Students share tech exemplars and/or work they need help on utilizing a document camera, white board and computer.  
  • The Tech Menu is introduced.  The Tech Menu is a list that begins with "have-to" tasks ordered by priority, then choices.  
  • Students work at desks and in small groups at tables or other classroom learning nooks.
  • Teachers target instruction and respond to student needs one-to-one and in small groups.
  • At the end of tech workshop, classical music* is played as a signal to clean up, put away the computers, and prepare for the next event.
  • Later during a class meeting, we'll use our Google Learning Action Table to review the learning efforts and target follow-up activity for both in-school and at-home learning.
Children are engaged throughout tech workshop. There are lots of questions as well as terrific creativity, problem solving and learning. At this point, I'm observing carefully how individuals and the whole class respond to this learning effort.  As we move forward, the students, teachers and I will finesse the system so it best meets the learning interests and needs of the class.

Do you employ tech workshop?  If so, how does it differ from this model?  What do you find most effective and why does it work well?  I look forward to your feedback.

* Soon, I am going to make a web page of optimal, transition music.  If you have links to offer, please do.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Research and Practice Balance

For classroom teachers, time on task is tremendous.

And, research is essential to keep practices timely and engaging

My father always said, "A little for today and a little for tomorrow."

Hence, each day I focus on practice while with the children, and research on my own time.

It's a good balance; one that moves me forward with knowledge and understanding, and a balance that makes the job more successful and meaningful.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Self Portrait Poetry Anthologies

Some teachers at my grade level begin the year with the student creation of Self Portrait Poetry Anthologies.  A colleague and I designed the unit based on Georgia Heard's Book, Awakening the Heart.  I think it's a great start of the year fourth grade unit for the following reasons:
  • Short text.
  • It's a "get to know yourself and each other" project.
  • It's a nice first step to our goal of developing reading response writing.
  • It has many avenues for success and presentation.
Today I introduced the project guidelines and modeled one poetry response.  In the next few days and weeks, the lessons will introduce students to the process of finding a poem that "speaks to you," copying and reading a poem, understanding a poem, poetry craft and vocabulary.  The project will end with students' podcasts and other creative projects.

If you decide to try this project, let me know how it goes.  Also, please share any revisions or new ideas you have for the process.  I've added a few links below that may help.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Essential Skills, Concepts and Knowledge

As an elementary school teacher, I have a responsibility to develop learners and teach essential skills, concepts and knowledge in a dynamic, child-centered, 21st century classroom that promotes life-long learning.

I also have the responsibility to stay abreast of current research, and to readily embed that research into the learning program.  Further, it's our aim to work collaboratively to serve all students well, targeting instruction so that every child reaches mastery with essential standards.

What are essential standards--the skills, concepts and knowledge that every child needs to learn?  That will differ from grade to grade, year to year and student to student.  It's important to keep the essential skills, concepts and knowledge at the forefront of your teaching efforts so that children have a strong academic foundation.  Hence, I've created an initial short-listed of essential standards for fourth graders, my focus group.

Essential Standards: Skills, Concepts and Knowledge
Note: The curriculum is founded on the Common Core and Massachusetts State Standards.  This list represents the essential standards culled from that list.
Essential Skills
  • Reading fluency and comprehension
    • Across many genres, text styles
    • Regular independent, small group, interactive reading opportunities.
  • Computation Skill
  • Typing (keyboarding)
  • Writing: fluency, craft, voice, organization, tools, genre and response to reading.
  • Speaking, Presentation
  • Research
  • Social Skills i.e. class meetings, patterns of thoughts/action, "cloud" classroom, student voice and roles.
Essential Concepts/Knowledge
  • Math Standards as outlined in Common Core/State Standards
    • Taught through a variety of methods: paper/pencil, online games and activities, project based learning, Math Talk, and problem solving.
  • Science/Social Studies Standards/Units as defined through our System/State/Common Core Standards.
    • Includes many methods of instruction: field studies, hands-on activities, project based learning, integration of reading, writing and math instruction.
  • Reading Comprehension Strategies/Cognitive Markers, Story Elements, Genre.
  • Writing Craft, Genre, Tools, Response to Reading and Presentation.
Developing essential skills, knowledge and concepts takes time and practice.  Creating a weekly pattern  helps to meet that teaching focus in a meaningful, varied way.  Hence, I've created a weekly plan sketch for students' learning experiences.

Weekly Learning "Diet"
  • Reading
    • Interactive read aloud 4-5 times a week.
    • Reading Workshop 4-5 times a week.
    • Reading Response Writing 2 times a week in class, once a week at home (reading letter)
    • Reading instruction/practice integrated into all other subject areas.
    • Reading at home 4 or more times a week (20 minutes a night standard)
  • Writing
    • Craft, genre focus, lessons, writing 5 or more times a week in class.
    • Blogs, social network, ePortfolio letters 3-5 times a week at home.
    • ePals about once or twice a month.
    • Typing 4 times a week at home until mastery, in-class choice during tech workshop.
    • Integrated in throughout all subject areas.
  • Math
    • Computation 2-3 times a week in class, 4 or more times a week at home.
    • Concept/Knowledge 5 times a week in class, 1-2 at home related to project/practice.
    • Problem Solving, in-class once or twice a week. (possibly at home?)
    • Integrated into all other subjects often.
  • Social Studies/Science
    • Unit Rotations approximately twice a week (students rotate among classrooms for project-focused learning)
    • Big Projects 2-3 per year, students work in school and at home.
    • Social skills-daily, reenforced through "cloud" classroom activities (online).
    • Field studies and special presentations about once a month.
I will revisit this list as the year goes on and make necessary updates and changes.  This list will help me to create a manageable, inviting weekly learning pattern that fosters the essential skills, knowledge and concepts fourth graders need to succeed.  

What am I missing?  What would you add or take away?  How would you prioritize?  Your feedback is always welcome.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Changing School Culture to Better Serve Students

During a summer RTI institute, our system was challenged to shift culture to better serve students.  Essentially we were encouraged to work with greater collaboration to target teaching specifically to the essential skills, concepts and knowledge each student needs to succeed.

Now we are embarking on this culture shift.  With the initial steps in place, I'm inspired to write about the actions and reflections related to shifting culture from a predominately classroom-based, teacher-directed learning environment to a collaborative, student-centered, targeted teaching approach.

  • Language Shift: So far we have decided to talk about students utilizing the descriptors developing, progressing, meeting and exceeding related to expectations.  This is much better than descriptors often used.  One area of this shift I need greater clarification on is the difference between developing and progressing.
  • Scheduling: A Team of teachers met to organize the schedule to accommodate the culture shift.  Times for PLCs (professional learning communities) and targeted interventions were created.  As time goes on, scheduling will continue to play a large role in our culture shift in order to accommodate changing teaching practices.
  • Data Collection: Our curriculum directors led efforts to collect data in timely, efficient and child-friendly ways.  The next step will be the organization of that data in ways that will help collaborative teams to identify student needs and target intervention.
  • Professional Learning Communities (PLCs): PLCs have been created, and time for weekly meetings during the school day have been set.  A memo was sent outlining record keeping documents, norm setting, and meeting protocols. Having recently read Pink's book, Drive, and other articles related to motivation and success, I am wondering what protocols will best serve the group and effort.
The stage is set for this endeavor and the next steps will greatly impact the success of the initiative.  With that in mind, I am reflecting on the following points:
  • There are many leaders involved in this initiative--how will their time be split among the teaching teams, and what roles will they play? If Pink's research is heeded, teaching teams will have a strong voice and lead with autonomy, purpose and a focus on mastery.
  • What system will we use to determine essential skills, knowledge and concepts?  Once essential standards are set, how will those standards be communicated, taught and evaluated?
  • Will 21st century and life-long learning efforts and goals be a consideration during this process? Since it's elementary school and skills are involved, there will be a temptation to revert to linear methods that don't include technology or 21stC goals of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication.  It will be important to think about the pedagogy we want to employ to both develop essential skills and motivate life-long learners in multi-dimensional ways. This is a great article that suggests a cognitive process approach is a desirable path for education.
  • There will also be a temptation for quick-fix, too-much data, and too much flexibility.  Hopefully we'll find a good balance with respect to teaching and data collection, and with respect to flexibility, it's important that leaders who do not provide direct service, understand the planning time and efforts that go into direct instruction thus allowing teachers steady groups and time to make progress effectively and realistically.
  • I wonder about one-size-fits-all approaches to teaching.  Same approaches make it easier to collect data, but does it create more responsive, motivating, engaging and empowering teaching and student experiences?  
  • How will we evaluate the effectiveness of the process?
  • Will honesty be valued as teachers embark on this new endeavor, or will challenging comments be frowned upon?  Will there be a protocol for peaceful exchange of differences of opinion?
  • What is our vision for the end of this year, next year and the future--what are we moving towards and what does it look like?
I write today as I want to be ready to embark on this new initiative with understanding and a positive outlook.  I am excited about RTI because I want schools to teach each child well--giving them a multi-dimensional, motivating, engaging and beneficial educational experience.  

I look forward to your comments and thoughts.  I'm ready for step two of this system-wide endeavor.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Developing Learners

My classroom focus this year is to develop learners.

Developing learners takes time.

Standardized tests demand that children are proficient in a large number of skills and knowledge points.  That tempts me to jump right into the mode of pouring information, concepts and skills into their heads.

Teachers everywhere know that's superficial teaching--it doesn't stick.  True teaching demands that educators develop learners--making the time to strengthen students' intellectual habits and practices.  By doing this, we are developing life-long learners--people who will know how to access, create, communicate and think deeply about knowledge independently and collaboratively.

What happens in a classroom devoted to developing learners?  I'm reading a lot about this, and here's what I understand so far.
  1. Children have a voice, and that voice is respected.  Children, parents and educators work as a team. Children have active decision making, leadership and facilitation roles in the classroom.
  2. Children are prompted to think about and learn about their individual learning style*, interests, strengths and challenges.
  3. Children are introduced to cognitive research in a developmentally appropriate way--learning how the brain works, and how they use that knowledge to learn in more meaningful ways.
  4. Children have access to many teaching tools and methods.  They learn how those tools and methods work, and they are given the opportunity to choose tools and methods that best support their individual learning.
  5. Essential skills, knowledge and concepts are identified.  Mastery of skill, concept and knowledge is the goal, and children are part of the decision making when it comes to goal setting, evaluation and content.
  6. Children's passions and interests are embedded into the curriculum program in meaningful ways.
  7. Educators work collaboratively to best facilitate student learning. Educators serve as facilitators, coaches, consultants, guides and mentors to students.
The standards tempt us to rush into the curriculum; teaching so that most children access knowledge points with mastery. However, we know that children who develop as life-long learners will be more successful and happy in life.  While standards don't prompt facilitation of life-long learning skills, habits and investment, they do provide a strong foundation for future learning.   Therefore, we need to teach the standards and facilitate life long learning--a mighty, but important task.

I write this to keep my focus directed.  I look forward to your comments and thoughts related to developing learners.  The science of learning is ever changing and growing which is encouraging and positive--the more we understand how people learn, the better we'll be able to develop learners in successful, meaningful and life-enhancing ways.

Note: I just read this article which examines teaching focus with greater depth.  It's a thought-provoking read.

*I realize that recent articles have challenged learning style research, yet as educators we know students  choose different kinds of learning actions, methods and content--it's clear from the very first day of school.  It's important that students understand cognitive research as it develops which may impact their future choices, but it's also important that they understand their current learning style, choices and interests.

Growing Computation Skill

As I understand it, children who are facile with computation skill have a greater ability to access and work with higher level math concepts.

Hence, developing computation skill is essential at the elementary level.

I also realize that developing computation skill is an algorithmic task, an area of mastery that is often dull, repetitive and laborious--the type of skill that Daniel Pink's book, Drive, suggests profits from letting the learner know it can be dull, and allowing the learner (worker) to determine his/her own path to mastery.

That understanding leads me to wonder about the amount of independence fourth graders can handle when it comes to algorithmic tasks?  What is the best way to create an environment that supports this learning with motivation and success?

Currently, I'm employing the following efforts.

1.  I started this learning effort by applying a "Motivation/Interest Criteria Chart."
  • First, I asked, "What is computation?" and we discussed the definition
  • Next, we discussed, "Why study computation?"
  • After that we told stories from our lives related to computation challenge, study and mastery.
  • I introduced the grow-at-your-own-rate computation ladders and our road map to mastery.
  • I also introduced the evaluation or "move up" system.
  • Finally, today we'll create "Kids' Choice" list of favorite tools and actions for reaching computation mastery.
2.  I organized many tools for student computation mastery.
3.  Next week, I'm giving the GMADE and another paper/pencil computation assessment. 
  • I'll review data and create computation teams.
  • I'll make time to meet with those teams to determine best paths to mastery.
  • Teams will meet to practice and learn computation skill.
This is the way I'm starting this year.  I teach two threads in math: a computation thread and a concept/knowledge thread.  I know this is a challenging area of classroom teaching since students come to school with all different rates and ability levels related to computation. For some, it's so easy to learn, and for others it's so difficult--even Einstein, I've heard, had trouble with initial computation facts.

Please send me your thoughts, feedback and resources.  How do you help students master computation in a differentiated, motivating, engaging and successful ways?  I hope this becomes a topic for an upcoming #4thchat discussion.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Developing Student Interest and Motivation: Criteria Chart for Lesson Planning

Last night I read "Reaching Their Full Potential: Motivating Learners and Building Interest," by Michael Ebeling, Head of Summit School, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The article lends educators research-based information related to developing student interest and motivation.  I want to employ the points Ebeling describes in my fourth grade units.  In order to do this, I created a simple table (see below) to guide unit revision and planning.  I'll first use this table with our current emphasis on computation and mastering keyboarding (an algorithmic task), then with our Self Portrait Poetry Anthologies (a much deeper learning experience) and hopefully each unit after that.

I'm motivated to do this as I like teaching a class that's interested and motivated--there's little to no behavioral concerns in those classes and there's awesome collaboration.  Motivated, interested classrooms hum, create and innovate.

Take a look at the article and table? Would you change it in any way?  What would you add?  Did I miss any essential points?  I look forward to your feedback.
       Criteria                                    Practice
Add caption

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Parent-Student Tech Mornings

At elementary school, our best allies when it comes to tech infusion are our students' parents.  Often, it's the case, that parents are unfamiliar with the tech language, systems and venues we use at school.  Hence, it's a good idea to host a number of informal student-parent tech workshops.

Today, I hosted the first workshop for 2011-2012.  I opened the classroom up from 7:30-8:30 a.m. prior to school.  I stipulated that adult family members must attend with a child.  Children were their family members' teachers.  I walked around and consulted.

I put a menu up on the white board to guide student-family member teams.  Only a few families were represented today, but each family was able to access and learn about new venues related to classroom learning.  I'll host the next tech morning in October.

Do you host family member-student tech workshops?  If so, how do they differ from this one.  Do you have ideas to share.

Today's event helped to foster our team focus this year: parents-students-teachers working together to foster optimal learning endeavors.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Culture Flags

Our fourth grade curriculum, in part, is focused on culture.  We begin the year with "What's Your Culture?," a mini unit.  Then we move forward to the study of Native American culture, Immigration and Family History, and finally our study of endangered species and adaptation include studies of cultural patterns and traditions that impact endangered species.

The Culture Flag activity is a chance for children to proudly display their culture related to this definition of culture:  Anthropologists study culture.  Culture is the study of the materials, social groups, beliefs, and arts of groups of people.  No two people share exactly the same culture because people belong to many different groups possibly including school, religion, club, team, country of origin, ancestry, neighborhood, city/town, state, country, continent, hemisphere and more.

I begin the lesson by reading People by Peter Spier to awaken their minds to the great diversity of people and cultures that inhabit Earth.  Then I hand out a definition sheet (see below) and we discuss the definition of culture and create an anchor chart of events, objects and experiences related to culture categories:  beliefs, traditions, ceremonies, hobbies/recreation, customs, community, symbols, language, arts, celebrations, heroes, food/clothing/shelter, values and family.

Then, the fun part, creating our flags.  I model the assignment with my own culture flag (see below). Then, students choose a triangular piece of colored paper. I give them a categories sheet (see below) so they can cut out the categories they want to represent on their flag.  After that students use photos, magazine cut-outs and other images to decorate their flag.  It may be a good idea to have students bring in a baggie of images and words related to their culture prior to the flag activity. We hang up the flags in the classroom to proudly display our varied, dynamic collective class culture.

This is a simple activity that creates a broad lens for students' understanding, respect and acceptance of each others' cultures, and the cultures we will learn about throughout the year.  I'm interested in learning about the ways you teach culture in your school--what activities and units support optimal education in this realm?  I look forward to reading about your ideas as well as the feedback you have for me related to this activity.

Related Lessons:
What's Your Culture: The History of Skin Shade
The Museum Project

Monday, September 12, 2011

Applying Pink's Research to Keyboarding Instruction

Keyboarding Proficiency

Part One

In a recent article, keyboarding was named one of the top ten skills students in the 21st century need to learn.

Keyboarding is considered an algorithmic task, and when it comes to keyboarding, Daniel Pink, author of Drive, states, “Only routine, algorithmic tasks benefit to a degree from "if-then," "carrot/stick" rewards.  Those tasks also profit when people understand the "rationale for the task," "acknowledge that the task is boring," and are allowed to complete the task in their own way.”

Hence, when it comes to proficiency in keyboarding, we need to consider the following questions:

1.     What’s the best way for you to master this task?

Student Ideas:
Go to typing school, play typing games.
Do something you enjoy while keyboarding like playing games.
Find a fun game.
Find a words you like and practice typing those.
To get better do your own level; then if you get better you can move up.

2.     Is the BBC program the best program for you?

Student Ideas:
The finish line comes too soon.
I like "All the Right Type" better.
If you're flying through it, it's too easy--do something just right for you.
Try "Microsoft Word" to practice typing words you like.
Try "Typing Pal" if it's online
Look for programs that are just right for you online.

3.     What do we consider mastery?

Student Ideas:
You passed all levels, and you're really fast.
Your "fluent" in typing.
You're typing the same speed as you read, think and write on paper.
You don't make many mistakes.
When you get to write an essay easily and quickly.

4.     When do we decide that you’ve mastered the task, and it’s time to move on to something else (what will that something else be)?

Student Ideas:
Write two paragraphs with getting three or less wrong.
Writing an essay without any help.
Spell words online.
Copy a list on Word.
30-45 words per minute with five or less mistakes (45 wpm seems like min. standard)
Look for online tests.

5.     How can teachers, parents and other students help you to master this task?

6.     What are the best “carrot-stick” rewards for this task?

We’ll talk about these questions tomorrow.

Part Two (to be continued. . .)
  1. Practice every night 10-20 minutes.
  2. Using tips from notes above.
  3. We'll talk about this again next week, and make some decisions related to the questions above.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

911 Remembered: Moving Forward

When tragedy strikes, I always tell young children, "Bad things happen, but most often good things happen.  So when bad things happen, we have to help each other, learn from the event and move forward."

As I think back to 9-11, my heart breaks for all who lost those they loved on that day, and for the great pain those who died experienced.  I am struck by the powerful devastation, hurt, pain and loss a few people caused for so many.

As a teacher, I will keep 9-11 alive in my heart as a reminder of the importance to teach the knowledge, skills and concepts that help children move forward in life with positive action.  I will give students more time to talk to me and to each other so they have a chance to express their needs, questions and desires--an opportunity to foster a positive direction and philosophy for living.

I will also continue to support child-centered, peaceful, positive school communities for young children, and work towards equity and opportunity for all of the world's children because often hate, destruction and crime are the result of childhood neglect and harm.

Again, my prayers and thoughts go to all who suffered personal loss and pain related to 9-11.  I am grateful for the heroic, selfless acts of so many fire fighters, police, government officials, family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and others.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Student Quotes

I'm going to keep a collection of student quotes.  It's students' own words that are often most revealing and rewarding.  So, far this year there have been a few quotes that made my day.

"I like writing when it's on the computer." spoken after an ePortfolio lesson

"I'm just like Tomie DePaola, I keep all my Lego creations all over the house."  said after watching an video about Tomie DePaola's life as an author.

"It's just like the movie, the man laughed at the kids, but the kids had a good idea."  student making a great connection between a collaboration film and our "Math Talk" protocol discussion.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Student ePortfolios

Rather than paper/pencil reading response books and/or journals, students have created their own ePortfolios this year.  ePortfolios will house students' weekly reading response letters, self portrait poetry anthology, free writes, personal narratives, multi media compositions, mini research reports and more.

There are many benefits to ePortfolios:
  • Students are essentially creating their own book of stories, poems, reading response letters, and eventually multi-media compositions.
  • Students are motivated--they eagerly add text and images to their ePortfolio.
  • The ePortfolios are easy to update anywhere there is a computer since they're on the Internet.
  • The ePortfolio system facilitates regular teacher commenting and updates.
  • It's easy to differentiate as there are many entry points with this exercise and room for unlimited reading, writing, research and presentation growth and creativity.
  • Unlike paper/pencil, it's much easier to edit and write with skill and depth in real time.
  • Family members and friends far and near can easily access students' work with permission.
I must say, I was a bit nervous about the task of facilitating the creation of 22 student ePortfolios with my class.  As I always do, I created one for myself first.  Doing the project myself always gives me an inside view of what it takes for project creation. 

Then I transfered my process into a number of steps for student creation.

Students created their ePortfolios similar to the ePortfolio I developed this summer. 
  • Students logged into their student Google account, opened a site, picked a template, chose privacy settings, uploaded a photo (taken just minutes before on PhotoBooth) and saved the site.
  • Next, they added text to their home page: All About the Author.  Students also added the following pages: Free Write, Self Portrait Poetry Anthology, and Reading Response Letters (I like the announcement template best as it allows a new post for each entry). Later in the year students will add more pages and images.
  • Then students shared their site with me.  We updated page settings to include comments and updates so that each time a student updates his/her site, I receive an email about it.  I respond to students' writing regularly.
Originally, I was going to add writer's craft to the ePortfolios, but I decided to use a blog for that so that students could read each others' craft practice.  Students will be able to access each others' ePortfolios at a later date to read and view longer compositions (written and multimedia).

This is a new project for my class and me.  The students' enthusiasm, creativity, sharing and writing has been amazing.  To date, this is an empowering and engaging project. One that requires plenty of time upfront to practice using the site as it takes time to remember how to log in, edit pages, write and add new pages.

Let me know if you have further suggestions or ideas related to ePortfolios.  I've added a few technical notes, teaching tips and templates to guide your work should you decide to embark on this endeavor. 

Google ePortfolio Technical Notes: Creating and Editing Pages
  1. Log into computer, Log into student Google docs.
  2. Open Google Sites.
  3. Open your ePortfolio. 
  4. Click create Page.  Use an announcement page.  Name it. Save page.
  5. Go to Other Options. Click Share...  Add teacher email. Save.
ePortfolio Teaching Tips
  • Adding images to entries enhances students' comprehension and inspires better writing.
  • Allowing students to share exemplars prior to tech workshop and ePortfolio work inspires enthusiasm and high quality work.
  • Adding comments that include descriptive praise and writing tips effects better writing and responses.
  • Make the time to teach spellcheck techniques as well as word definition and thesauri tools.  Snappy Words is a fun and useful thesaurus/dictionary to use.
  • Create a table or chart to monitor students' ePortfolio work.  On the chart you can list names, notes and teaching targets.
  • Get into the habit of monitoring the ePortfolios daily.  Add comments to students' pages and note students' needs and progress on the monitoring chart for classroom conferences and teaching.
ePortfolio Guiding Templates and Instructions

Math Talk

"Mathematics is a Language" - Josiah Willard Gibbs

Today I introduced the idea of "Math Talk" to my students.  I've read, discussed and heard about many initiatives related to giving students the opportunity to talk about and share math concepts.  Like every teaching venue, it's important to personalize the approach for your students and your overall classroom goals and style.

We started by transitioning to math by listening to a YouTube math song.  Then, using the strategies I'm employing with the daily 5, I started by engaging students in a discussion about the purpose of Math Talk.  Together we came up with many ideas including the following:
  • to understand.
  • to learn.
  • to "know how to do it."
  • to come up with strategies.
  • to feel more comfortable
  • to teach others
  • to practice math language.
Then we discussed "Math Talk" protocols:
  • Time: we agreed on 18 minutes and had a time keeper.
  • Sharing Ideas:
    • respect all ideas - no "making fun" of ideas.
    • don't think anyone's idea is "stupid."
    • be open minded to ideas.
    • raise hand when you have an idea as we can't all talk at once.
  • Pay Attention
    • no side talk--write it down if you think you're going to forget.
    • look at speaker (now and then, sometimes you may need to look elsewhere).
    • try to stay focused; don't do other things.
After that, we tried our first "Math Talk."  Ms. Phipps, the student teacher was our time keeper.  I sat in the front of the room and scribed the notes related to our "Patterns for Counting to 1,000" discussion on a Google doc which students could view on the big screen.  At the end of the discussion, I published the notes and put the link on our closed NING network for students and parents to revisit at home.  

I'm excited to think about the journey ahead related to "Math Talk."  I'm also open to your thoughts, suggestions and ideas as we travel this road to deeper math understanding.  Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Starting the Year with a New Perspective

Sometimes new learning is painful because it awakens you to past practices that you no longer believe in or support. At times like these, you have to give yourself the opportunity to change without too much despair.  After all, that's what life is about--growing and changing.

So, after a summer of lots of reading and PLN idea exchange, I find myself returning the classroom with a new perspective.  It's like traveling to a foreign land; I have to keep reminding myself of my new priorities and lens so I don't lapse back into the old ways--ways I've now deemed less desirable.

First, by nature, I like to get the job done--create the list, check off the boxes and move forward.  Now, rather than quickly moving down the list, I want to take the time to stop each day and discuss the list with my students asking, "What are we doing? Why are we doing it? How can I help you?  Do you have new ideas?  Putting students at the center is my goal; the standards take second place to that.

Also, I'm deskless this year.  You wouldn't think that such a small change would make such a big difference, but it does. In a sense, it levels the playing field.  I'm not longer the "monarch with the big desk," now I'm one of the team sharing spaces for learning and interaction around the classroom. Going deskless has changed the feel of  my room--it's much more of a workshop than a traditional classroom.

And, I'm letting children talk more. Yesterday, rather than hushing or changing the lesson, I let the exuberance happen.  I listened to the noisy, emotional voices and realized they were sharing their ideas with excitement and enthusiasm.  Adults wouldn't react any differently.  I want to make more time for student voices.

Then, when a few somewhat sarcastic remarks were shared, I surprised them by saying, "Hey, that's a great idea! Would you like to take charge of that."  Students were surprised as they expected to rattle me a bit.  They didn't think I'd take their thoughts seriously.

I delegated much more.  Rather than putting up the self portrait gallery in a perfectly uniform, organized way, I let the students lead the creation.  It's not exactly how I would do it, but it has a lot more spunk and child-like spirit to it.  It makes one smile to look at it.

We'll still meet the standards, but I'm letting students take a lot more responsibility in the process.  I'm slowing down and listening to their ideas.  I'm putting them in the "driver's seat" of their education and I'm playing the role of coach, mentor and guide.   I'm writing this today as I don't want to revert back to the ways of old--I like this new way of teaching, one supported by my PLN and research.  I wonder what challenges, triumphs and new learning this journey will bring as the year progresses.

Have you shifted your perspective?  How has that changed your daily teaching repertoire, classroom set-up and student-teacher-parent collaboration?  It's a revolutionary time in education, and I'm happy to be part of it.  I'm also looking forward to reading about your new perspectives too.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Daily 5 Personalized

the daily 5 by the "sisters," Gail Boushey and Joan Moser is a teacher-friendly book.  As noted in an earlier post, I prepped the room for the launch. Tomorrow, I'll embark on their "First Five Weeks Launch" in a way that fits my classroom schedule, goals and routines.  I'll post my steps here so interested colleagues can follow, and to create a list I can revisit next year when I employ the launch again.  My rationale for this detailed launch is to build a more engaging and empowering readers' workshop format in my class that will develop flexible, versatile readers who read with fluency and deep comprehension.

Day One (First Day of School)
  • Introduce students to classroom library areas, and briefly review choosing "just right books" and library protocols.   Also introduce students to gathering signal, YouTube Classical Music.
  • Give students time to choose a couple books they'd like to read.
  • Use signal and gather on big green rug.
  • Discuss how we sit on the rug.
  • Set Purpose:  Reading with Purpose, Understanding and Fluency.
  • Discuss there are "three ways to read a book" and I'm going to model two of them.  One is to read the images, diagrams and charts, and the other is to read the text.  I'll model both ways for you.  Read The Art Lesson by Tomie DePaolo (which relates to later social studies lesson).
  • Tell students, next you'll read to self.  First let's brainstorm behaviors for read-to-self.  Teacher brainstorms behaviors on T-chart, then students brainstorm.
  • Ask a student to model appropriate read-to-self behaviors, then ask a student to model inappropriate behavior.
  • Build stamina by giving students 10 minutes to practice in a place of choice.
  • Signal, meet on big green rug.  Discuss how it went.  Model again.
  • Students read for another 10 minutes.
  • Meet, review T-chart, and discuss what we learned.
Day One Notes:  Super start, modified process a bit. Noted who was engaged and who will need greater support with finding just right books and places to read.

Day Two
Teacher Prep: Create a log to keep track of daily 5 events, students needs.

  • Gather on rug, review the two ways to read a story we discussed yesterday.  Introduce third way - retelling.  Retell the The Art Lesson using pictures and word.  Talk a bit about it.
  • Review and add to read-to-self t-chart.
  • Independent read-to-self, return w/classical music signal (above), discuss how it went.  Observe during independent reading, help out the few who noted that they needed specific help yesterday.
  • Review muscle memory steps related to read-to-self.  Create an anchor chart.  
Day Two Notes:  Slowing down makes a difference.  The lesson went well--students sustained independent reading for about 40 minutes.  I was able to confer with several children.  I like the structure daily 5 is giving me for introducing an engaging reading workshop model.

Day Three
Teacher Prep: Collect Animal Adaptation Books #1

  • Gather on rug with classical music.
  • Pass out Animal Adaptation Books #1.  Review 3 ways to read a book.  Practice the 3 ways with these short books altogether.
  • Make a T-chart about where to sit in the room when reading.
  • Children are invited to read-to-self animal adaptation books and/or their own books
  • Observe, confer if there's time.
  • Gather again with classical music.  Follow up on reading place choices and ways children read their books today.  Also inquire about what students need to make reading workshop successful.
Day Three Note:  We ran out of time for the last three steps, so day four will be the remainder of day 3.

Day Four
  • Gather with classical music.
  • Reread anchor charts about reading workshop protocols and three ways to read a book.
  • Retell "Blue Whales and Buttercups" by Megan Goss, Jonathan Curley, and Ashley Chase.
  • Independent reading.  Teacher conferring and observation if there's time.
  • Gather again to share thoughts about how reading workshop went during the first week of school.  Discuss what went well; what they need; and plans for next week.
Day Four Note:  Observation demonstrates that this class needs to think more broadly about choosing books--they don't have an open mind to the many wonderful genres and reading possibilities available. Some sit with a book that's obviously dull, and don't think to find what they really want.  Some are trapped in thinking that they have to read a long book, rather than many short books about a topic they like.  That will be next week's reading workshop focus as well as Daily Five.

Week Two

  • Mainly filled with reading assessment and a focus on finding just right books.
Week Three
We're a bit stalled on making the routines work for all. Almost everyone is reading for a steady 30-40 minutes independently. A few still need help with finding just right books or reading venues. Ell students will "independently" read using an interactive online reading program and I'm working with a few challenged readers to find a collection of just right books.  Hopefully, next week I'll get back to the Daily 5 book.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

What's Your Culture? The History of Skin Shade

"We can take a topic that has caused so much disagreement, so much suffering, and so much misunderstanding, and completely disarm it." - Nina Jablonski, author of Skin: A Natural History

I begin the fourth grade social studies year with the the unit, What's Your Culture? The unit gives students the opportunity to examine their differences and similarities with respect to the history of humankind and culture. I start the unit with the premise that our differences make us unique and special, and the world would be a dull place if we were all the same. The unit also serves to build knowledge and class community.

Our first activity is creating self portraits. Prior to drawing our self portraits, I tell students the latest scientific information about the history of mankind. As part of this discussion, I remind children that scientific knowledge is always changing. When cultural and religious stories are shared, I confirm that religions and cultures throughout the world have stories about the origin of humans, and that's a great topic to discuss with family members or to examine more carefully through reading. I then tell them that the study of human origin is an exciting area of work that will continually evolve and change as new evidence is discovered and tools created. I encourage those who are intrigued to think about entering this scientific field in the future.

While sharing the concept of human origin, I introduce the idea of adaptation--that all species adapt for one reason: survival, and the same is true for humans. Over time, humans have adapted for survival, and that's why our skin shades vary. Our skin shades and other physical features give us clues about the history of our family going back many, many, many generations and millions of years. I remind them that each of us needs to be proud of our unique features and appearance.

Then we look at our skin. I question the notion of "black" or "white" or "yellow" as we study our hands. I remark that no one in the class is any of those colors--instead we're a mix of shades from very light to very dark. I tell them how my husband's coloring is much darker than mine, and that's because his most recent relatives came from the Mediterranean area, and that my ancestors all came from the north, and that's why I'm lighter. I happily poke fun at my freckles, and call myself spotted. Then tell them that freckles are actually pigment cells that contain color, and the reason people have freckles is a mixture of their genes and sun exposure.

I talk about the fact that our skin shades adapted over time for survival. I tell them that dark skin has more melanin which protects the folate levels in their body, a chemical that's important for healthy babies, and that light skin has less melanin, therefore allowing more vitamin D into the body which was necessary as people migrated to colder climates and had to wear more clothes, stay indoors more often and expose less skin to the sun. I also remind them that when we look at our overall genetic make-up, our biology--the gene that determines skin is only a very tiny fraction of our overall genetic make-up.

I further share the notion that many scientists believe that between 4.5 million and 2 million years ago humans moved from the rain forest to the East African savanna creating a need for greater foraging hence greater exposure to the sun, and since the human brain is vulnerable to overheating, humans also had to develop more sweat glands and a better cooling system. Now we have about two million sweat glands spread out all over our body protecting us since our human skin with little hair dries out so quickly. Again, I remind them that this is some of what we know now, and the science of evolution is always changing with new and frequent discoveries.

After that, I draw my own self portrait modeling my thinking about my face shape, eye color, hair color, and skin color. I examine the crayons to choose and blend in order to get just right colors. I don't worry about being a perfect artist and remind them of Tomie DePaolo's story, The Art Lesson, which supports the idea that there's not one way to create art.

Then children happily begin drawing. As I walk around the room, I listen to their conversations as they share specific details about their amazing looks, shades and shapes. I marvel at their art and reassure those reluctant illustrators to just do their best--it's a chance to try out drawing; there's no grade or "have-to's" with this assignment.

Finally, at the end of the lesson, I marvel again at their work. I remark at the wonder and beauty of our class diversity. I also acknowledge that over time people have been judged about their skin shade, body size or other aspects of their appearance, and that's not right as we're all unique and special and have a right to be proud of who we are. I wonder aloud about the possibility of meeting a group of people from another planet or place in space--the green people. I ask students what their reaction would be, and how would they treat those people. That question puts race into a whole new light.

As we move forward to our future cultural topics: Native America culture, Immigration and United States Regions, we will talk more deeply about culture and race using related stories and nonfiction to support our study. We'll look at the relationship of culture and geography as well as the effects of important historical events. During these units, I'll also keep in mind the quote posed by Gina Kirchweger, "The evolution of race was as simple as the politics of race is complex."

The study of human evolution, race and culture are controversial subjects met with a diversity of opinions and actions. Giving students an early start to learn about human history, culture and race gives them a chance to develop a strong self concept, an awareness of the impact of history, geography, culture and race, and an opportunity to move forward in their diverse world with respect and knowledge.