Thursday, July 31, 2014

Social Media: The Global Intersection of Thought and Effort

One reasons I like the Twitter and Google+ share is the intersection of thought and effort it brings. Via Twitter and Google+ I get to entertain the thoughts and work of people in multiple disciplines, geographic locations, age, and lifestyle.

This intersection broadens my work, outlook, and vision, and enables me to step into the lives of many which in turn helps me to serve the broad array of students I teach each day.

As I move forward with social media share, I want to be on the lookout for those voices across discipline that strengthen my skills, abilities, and vision, voices that challenge me to learn more, understand better, and develop so that I can do my best work and live a good life.

Like never before, we have the opportunity to share in global speak and decision making, an opportunity well outlined in this Boston Globe editorial, "Five Principals for an Open Itnernet," yesterday.

A New Year: Teaching 2014-2015

In his post, How Life Works, Greg Richardson writes, "We harvest what we plant. Long before the summer growing season, we sow the seeds that determine the crops we will produce. We put our values into practice, and our lives bear fruit."

When we use these words to think about the school year, I wonder what seeds I will plant and grow, what values will I practice, and what fruits will I produce in the new school year?

The school year is the growing season for educators and students, it's when we invest our energy and time into growing minds, learning communities, skills, concept, and knowledge.

Each year is a new year, and that is one of the great advantages of our jobs as educators--in a sense, we get to start anew bringing forth the best of the old (the heirloom seeds) and planting new seeds that we've learned about, created, or discovered.

As school year 2014-2015 begins, what do you hope to harvest by the spring?

The list for me remains similar to the past yet there is more depth with regard to classroom efforts and less depth with regard to whole school efforts as I want to invest myself into serving the children well--what will they need, what will they call me to be, where will I take them, and where will they lead me?

The plan is to first set the stage with an inviting, student-centered learning environment, and then to begin the year with curriculum that will entice them, invigorate their minds, and make them confident about their readiness and ability to learn.  After that we'll dig in to the standards, units, and lessons that exist, areas of study that will be fitted to my learners' needs and interest through assessment, revision, and enrichment.

Step-by-step students, colleagues, and I will nurture the learning with our eyes on the main areas of focus:
  • Confident readiness for learning.
  • Self discipline, hard work, collaboration, and care.
  • A solid foundation related to fifth-grade math skill, concept, and knowledge as outlined in the standards.
  • A solid foundation of fifth grade science skill, concept, and knowledge as outlined in the standards.
  • Continued development of reading comprehension and responsive writing skills related to the biographies of STEAM stars and notable leaders in multiple disciplines.

At the start of the year, we'll establish the patterns, focus on mindsets and disposition, create protocols, and learn to coach one another so that everyone has a successful, fulfilling year.

As Greg reminds us in his post, the seeds we sow well in advance of the harvest matter, and the way we nurture those seeds through diligence, care, and attention makes a difference.  What seeds will you sow and nurture in the school year ahead? Giving this some thought in the quiet days of summer will support the school year growth and development you seek.

Related Posts

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Ten Square Yards: A Schoolyard Ecosystem

Our ten square yards is a wooded area that contains
a small brook, trees, plants, and wildlife.

  • How big is ten square yards? 
  • What could possibly grow in an ecosystem that size? 
  • If we divide the plot up evenly how much space should each student study and manage? 
  • Is it reasonable to divide the plot up evenly to understand this ecosystem better?  
  • How else might we divide up the tasks to study the land well?  
  • What questions should we ask? 
  • What should we look for? 
  • When should we visit? 
  • How might we mark the land?

Once students have shared their favorite places in nature, studied the vocabulary of ecosystems, and are introduced to ecosystems concepts, they'll begin their exploration of an area that's 10-square yards in size near our school playground.

Students will lead the exploration by answering the questions above, adding their own questions, and developing a study plan that takes us through a full year meeting state and system-wide standards, students' curiosity, needs, and interests, and even MCAS science test prep.

The local conservation director has agreed to supply GIS images and maps for the study. He's also agreed to come in and introduce the mapping and GIS process to students. I also hope to host a local naturalist and environmental expert who has come highly recommended by the conservation commission. Continued coordination with the SUASCO River Days grant will also feed the study.

As winter months approach, we'll add the mystery seed activity, and hopefully spring will find us planting in our new grade-level, grant-supported classroom area raised beds, a place to plant, nurture, and harvest our mystery seed results.

All the while we'll stay inspired by ongoing biography study of naturalists and other STEAM stars, write in our science notebooks and STEAM journals, and personalize the exploration in ways that we're sure to discover along the way.

Ecosystem Study
6/2015 Note:
Much of what was planned occurred this past year, but some projects did not happen. I plan to continue this effort in the year ahead, but I'm thinking of minimizing our ten square yards to one square yard. I'd like students to make a one-square yard frame to use for their study--this will help us study the ecosystem and learn about measurement too. 

Numbers That Matter: Providing a Mathematical Context

Students need to understand where they stand with respect to numbers that matter, numbers such as population, size, and measurement.

Further, students enjoy working with numbers that matter, numbers that describe their environment. Working with numbers like that make the learning meaningful and relevant.

So to prepare for the math year ahead you can begin to make a collection of numbers that matter, numbers such as school population statistics, state statistics, height figures, distance amounts, land area, and more.

Have students illustrate and write about those numbers and keep a chart of those numbers handy online and offline so students can use those numbers as they write word problems, craft mathematical arguments, and discuss relationships amongst and between values.

Here's a draft of my Numbers that Matter list. I'll add to this list in the days to come prior to the start to the school year. What numbers will you include on your list?

Do You Ever Feel This Way?

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."
--Steve Jobs

Narrow the Teaching Path?

This year as a fifth grade teacher, I will focus mainly on two subjects rather than all the subjects. This year my main charge is science and math.

Already I feel less pressure and the advantage of more time to dig in and think deeply about these two subjects, subjects I hope to teach with an interdisciplinary program.

As a fourth grade teacher, I felt stretched beyond the time and energy in a day--stretched to include so many teaching points and subjects with depth. I also felt stretched with regard to support since teaching all subjects meant interfacing with a large number of leaders. Now cutting the number of topics in half also reduces the number of leaders I report to.

The generalist teacher's role is massive, and I'm wondering when is it best to narrow that path to make the teaching/learning schedule, expectations, and role more manageable, targeted, and successful. When do we narrow the teaching path for best effect?

Related Post
Elementary School Teacher: "Jack of All Trades, Master of None"

Stepping into the Life of a Naturalist: Ecosystem Study

Book Link
Intrigued by the bee problem and prepping for students' initial science unit related to the ecosystem, I'm making the time to step into the life of a naturalist as I learn about bees with Dave Goulson's book, A Sting in the Tale.  One of my Twitter PLN members recommended the book, and generally I can trust recommendations from that hand picked, creative, thought provoking, and invested professional group.

Goulson begins the story with many detailed vignettes about his life in nature as a young boy. I am looking forward to learning how his youthful explorations lead to expertise about bees. I'm also looking forward to understanding bees more. On our school playground, bees are a nemesis, hence it will be helpful to understand their significant and integral role in nature better.

In addition to the biography of George Washington Carver and biographies of other naturalists and scientists, Goulson's story will give me a personal example of what naturalists do and how their work positively affects our environment. This is a story that I suspect some children will see themselves in, and even more students will relate to as they explore, collect data, make connections, hypothesize, interact, affect, and report on our local environment.

As I read, I'll collect the following information:
  • Goulson's Boyhood Days and Exploration: An example of how youthful passion, exploration, and learning leads to lifelong study and contribution.
  • Goulson's Learning Journey: The steps and actions that led to Goulson's expertise, work, and effect.
  • Bees: What are they, how do they work, what's the current problem with bees, and how can we interact and support these critical creatures in our environment (and stay safe from their sting as well)?
  • Environmental study: In what ways can I use this story to instill a sense of students' ownership, care, and responsibility for natural environment?
  • Shared learning: How can I inspire students with this story and promote greater learning and share?
  • Telling Your Story in Nature: What excerpts from this story will I share with students as an example of writing about nature, science, exploration, and learning--examples they can replicate in their own journal work and science writing?
Goulson's book is not the first book I pick up when I've got an hour to read, but by setting the stage with the questions above, I build my enthusiasm, urgency, and will to read the story. By explicitly providing ourselves with the rationale, roadmap, and questions for a quest, we develop a framework that creates interest, need, and desire to learn what's important for us to know.

Have you read a book like Goulson's? If so, what was the title. What stories of childhood explorations in nature have excited and developed your own love and learning of the natural world?  I look forward to your share. 

Ecosystem Study

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Consider Supporting the Stars Around Us

A compassionate and talented alumni of WPS,
Misha Chowdhury, rehearses for his upcoming musical,
Before and After
How do we support the stars in our midst?

What can we do to forward the mission and vision of our students past and present?

Increasingly I'm becoming involved in organizations like DonorsChoose and Kickstarter--organizations that promote innovators' dreams.

While I'm not wealthy like a venture capitalist, I like this simple way of being part of someone's dream. I enjoy supporting ideas and people that I believe in--ideas and people who are change agents in our world.

My donations won't extend that far, but in the past year I had the chance to support two artists from my school system--students who have moved on and are in the midst of writing plays and musicals. I'm happy to be part of their continued growth.

Next weekend, one student will present his musical. If you'd like to support him, here's the link.

Crowdsource funding sites like Kickstarter and DonorsChoose give ordinary individuals a chance to help decide our world's direction in small, but important ways. If you have a few extra dollars, I suggest you give these sites and others like them a try.

Related Post
Consider Supporting My Sister's School

Does Your Teaching/Learning Year Reflect Your Priorities?

The way we use time in schools reflect our teaching/learning priorities.

Soon educators will be met with school year schedules, system-wide goals, and students' needs and interests. Educators will use that information and their own professional teaching/learning priorities to craft weekly routines.

Educators in the United States recognize that a carefully crafted routine is essential to a successful teaching/learning year mostly because once the year gets rolling there's little time to think deeply, research, and reflect.

With that in mind, how does one craft this routine in a way that truly supports optimal learning.

First, determine priorities.

I've been thinking about that with respect to my own practice and have come up with the following list:
Next, consider the time available and the teaching priorities. 

This is tricky since the standards tend to outweigh both the time available and some students' daily stamina for learning which means you have to prioritize within each area. Which standards will you meet with strength and which will be considered secondary with respect to mastery? Since children come to us with a wide range of skills and abilities, it's difficult to bring all to the same level of mastery.

Note that our school day has the following structure:
  • Approximately 1 hour of lunch and recess time
  • Approximately 45 minutes a day for specials: art, music, tech, library, physical education
  • 15 minutes of organization
  • 90 Minutes ELA/SS
  • 90 Minutes Math/Science
  • 30 Minutes for Interactive Read Aloud
  • 30 Minutes Project Base Learning (Science/Social Studies focused)
  • Weekly Events: School Assembly (45 minutes), special events and programs from time to time
With that said, I hope to fit in the following lessons during the year.

First Six Weeks
  • 30 minutes of Learning to Learn lessons and activity a day: setting the stage for optimal learning. 
  • 30 minutes of interactive read aloud and/or responsive writing a day
  • 60 minutes of math a day for all.
  • 30 minutes of PBL: Science and Social Studies
  • 90 minutes ELA/SS
  • 120 minutes special, organization, lunch, and recess

Rest of the Year
  • 90 Minutes Math/Science: 60 minutes math learning experience for all, 30 minutes of teacher directed time devoted to those who need extra support. (Other students work from a science/math menu during that time). Weekly assessment on Wednesdays.
  • 90 minutes ELA/SS
  • 30 minutes Science/SS PBL
  • 30 minutes Interactive Read Aloud
  • 120 minutes specials, organization, lunch, and recess. 
Next, consider priorities and patterns related to the learning community.
  • Newsletters: approximately once a week hosted on a website
  • Special events: approximately three a year.
  • Student response: daily, written comments returned approximately once a week, probably Thursdays
  • Learning Design: daily
  • Home Study lists: Online study list updated every Thursday
  • Time to coordinate schedules and efforts at the start of the year, and regular time to collaborate with regards to learning assessments, unit design, and student response. 
After that, determine your professional learning schedule.
  • Time to read, research, reflect, and respond to student work.
  • Time for system-wide committee work, efforts if chosen or required.
Finally, and perhaps this should be first, carve out time for personal health, family, friends, and fun.
  • "All work and no fun, dulls an educator's potential."

Now, I have a pattern in place that prioritizes my main expectations and efforts for the year ahead. This pattern will likely undergo some changes when I hear of the system-wide goals, focus, and schedule in the first days of the school year. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Consider a Donation: Students in Need

My sister has been a challenging and profitable education coach for me. I talk to her almost daily, and most often our conversations turn to education consult, debate, and stories.

Over the past few years I have been disappointed to hear about her students lack of access to technology. When she tells me stories, I recognize that if she had a set of computers, her students' access to learning would be greater.

What makes me even more interested in this need is the fact that many of her students represent families where the parents have not had the privilege of a college education or access to the kinds of tech tools that could support their children's education well.

With this in mind, my sister wrote a Donor's Choose grant proposal to fund computers for her classroom. Therefore, if you have a few extra dollars or know of a foundation or group that's looking to support high quality education at the student level, please take a look at her proposal and fund her grant. If you don't have the money at this time, it would be great if you'd retweet this request.

I know her students will be delighted to get these tools, and I know she'll be similarly pleased to be able to offer her students regular access to the great online tools available.  Thank you for your consideration.

When is an Idea Original? Thoughts about Plagiarism

There's been a rash of plagiarism accusations, acknowledgements, and articles in local newspapers.

These articles have me wondering about the topic.

With such tremendous content share going on via Twitter, blogs, articles, books, videos, and more, how many ideas are truly original? I suppose you could even think about this mathematically by dividing the numbers of word combinations available by the numbers of people who write and the frequency with which they write or something similar to that--there's probably a plagiarism quotient out there.

Often you'll see a topic infiltrate Twitter with strength--an idea takes hold and hundreds of people enrich, revise, modify, and restate the idea. By the end of the surge, you wonder about the specificity of the original idea, and the idea as it stands now repeated hundreds of times.

One idea in question recently was the idea related to the fact that Internet exchanges on Twitter had led to revolution in some places. The idea as stated resembled a speech by a government official closely yet the idea itself is not original since its been restated thousands of times (or more) in multiple contexts in the past couple of years.

So while I agree it's not right to copy someone's ideas and text into your own blog, speech, paper, or report, I am also questioning how we truly can expect that people won't use similar ideas and language today, an age of extensive share.

What is your rule of thumb when it comes to plagiarizing?

For myself, I rarely, if ever, look at another article before publishing my ideas--they come from me. Yet, sometimes I'll read a similar idea after I've published, and I'll think, "Did that come from me, or were we on the same train of thought?" I have no real way of knowing.

Yet, if there are lines and lines copied, such as a copy of my blog that's published in another country word-for-word without my name, then we know there's no question about it, that's plagiarism.

In the end, it's good ideas that matter--ideas that make a difference and foster positive growth and change in our world.

And as for plagiarism, I'll continue to teach my students to read, think, synthesize, and write in their own words, not someone else's. And for the 100's of repeated ideas out there, how do you handle that situation?

After writing this I read Jennifer Graham's column about the same topic, and she meets the issue with far more eloquence. I recommend.

Students and Self Discipline

"We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes a awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort."
--Jesse Owens

Almost anything you read about with regard to reaching your dreams and fulfilling your expectations includes discussion about self discipline. How is your own self discipline visible in your daily routine? How do you teach and encourage self discipline with your children and students? Is there a developmental curve to the way we foster self discipline in the classroom?

I've noticed that those who learn a good amount of self discipline as young people, carry that forth, and those that grew up with little self discipline seem to struggle more. Finding that loose-tight pattern of discipline, spontaneity, organization, and openness is a good goal with respect to reaching your potential and meeting the goals and dreams you have for your work and life.  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Good Educators Take Care of Themselves

"Women in particular need to keep an eye on their physical and mental health, because if we're scurrying to and from appointments and errands, we don't have a lot of time to take care of ourselves. We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own 'to do' list."
--Michelle Obama

Many caretakers are selfless people. They spend lots of time caring for others, and less time caring for themselves.

As a young child, this was often true for my own mom and the mothers all around me. They waited on their husbands, children, neighbors, and family members--they spent almost all the hours of the day caring for others. Similarly it was often expected that the girls in the family would do the same.

Sometime during my young adult years, a shift began to happen. A shift that was already in place in some families and communities. The shift was towards taking better care of oneself and the broadening of women's roles--a mindset that recognized that if you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of others.

If you didn't grow up with that mindset or coaching, it's a difficult change to embrace. When you're so used to gaining your identify through your care of others, it's difficult to switch to making more time for yourself and your own care. Yet, it's imperative.

You probably notice this in the organizations where you work. Those who take good care of themselves are better able to serve others--they bring a healthy, optimistic, can-do attitude to schools and children. It's a win-win attitude when the balance is right.

Therefore as school starts near, how do you take care of yourself now? What routines do you have in place to develop your physical, emotional, social, and intellectual health? How do you make sure you get enough rest, support, and care so that you can do your best by your family and students? When do you make time for play?

Taking care of yourself means that you can take care of others. Unlike many mindsets of old, taking care of yourself is not a selfish act, but actually a selfless event with respect to teaching children well since teachers who are well cared for have more to give.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Straight Talk

My sons worked for an organization that values "Straight Talk."

At that organization, the employees meet regularly to address the mission and work with "Straight Talk" protocols and routines. My sons would come home and discuss the productive talks that led to team and growth.

Recently I read a number of sad stories in the newspaper of individuals accused of wrongdoing.

I wondered if these situations would have occurred if there had been an expectation and practice of straight talk. I wondered if these situations occurred because people didn't speak up or confront the issues when they first started.

Also, in my own world, there were a couple of statements made to me last year that were vague and seemingly negative. In one case, I asked for clarification and received none, and in the other case, I was afraid to ask for clarification so I am still confused about the statement. I'm curious what the people meant by what they said, and it seems like they may think I understand their words when I actually don't. Neither statement was that critical or big, but nevertheless the statements stayed with me so they were not that small either.

So, as I think about straight talk today, I realize that it's best to confront issues while they are small, to speak up and ask questions before matters become big. Often the greatest issues occur because we don't make the time to understand each other, clarify situations, and ask questions when needed.

Similarly, we need to use straight talk with our students too. It's best to confront issues and questions with respect and care when they are small. This is a good way to help children grow and understand. If we wait until issues are big, we run the risk of creating issues that are less manageable or repairable.

Do you practice straight talk in your organizations? If so, what protocols and routines lead your efforts. This is an area of work and home life, I want to consider more.

Managing Your Professional Work: Teaching Children Well

Including videos on your ePortfolio is a
colorful way to share your professional work. 
Change is a constant for educators today. Changes in position, changes in leadership, changes in standards, changes in expectations, and changes in the available resources abound. This is why it is more important than ever that educators manage their own professional work.

With this in mind, I recommend that preservice teachers and current educators create an ePortfolio of their work and efforts. The ePortfolio is essentially an online file cabinet of an educator's professional story including some or all of the following elements:
  • A personal statement.
  • A resume.
  • Professional goals and evidence.
  • Publications, presentations, and videos.
The summer months provide educators the time to pull together these resources. This guide to creating an ePortfolio using Google sites may be helpful.  Also, this is an example of my ePortfolio if interested. 

There are many advantages to creating an open, easy-to-access ePortfolio including the following:
  • The ePortfolio is an easy-to-share professional snapshot which is helpful for evaluation meetings.
  • The ePortfolio is easy to update, publish, and share regularly.
  • If you're interested in presenting at a conference or applying for a new job, the ePortfolio is easy to share and/or include in your proposal.
  • The ePortfolio serves as a reflection piece, a place that you can turn to as you assess your professional accomplishments, goals, and challenges.
When we make the time to review our professional work during the summer months, it leaves us better prepared to engage in the new school year with focus and direction.  

Also, as always, please let me know if you have thoughts to improve and develop this work. 

The First Six Weeks: Character in the Classroom

There's a temptation to jump into the curriculum without taking the time to set the stage for successful learning. Setting the stage for successful learning means that you make the time to develop a learning community that demonstrates good character, collaboration, optimal learning dispositions, and effective effort. As Ruth Charney suggests in her book, Teaching Children to Care, we can't expect students to fully understand what it means to display good character, collaboration, optimal learning dispositions, and effective effort. Instead, we have to take the time to teach these attributes and actions at the start of the year, the first six weeks.

With that in mind, I created a "Learning to Learn" unit of study. This unit reflects current cognitive science and other research. Today, I updated the character lessons  I'll use at the start of the year. While "Learning to Learn" will be a main topic at the start of the year,  it will also be a unit we return to throughout the year as we coach students toward personal and collective success.

As you review the character lessons, what would you add or change? Would you add other units to the Learning to Learn unit?  How do you make the time for these important, essential units during the first six weeks on top of subject-area curriculum work? These are questions I'm thinking about during the quiet days of summer.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


I left the course.

Generally I like to finish what I start even if the work is tough and challenging.

I like to be a part of the team to the end.

Yet as I looked at the expectations ahead, the time it would take to fulfill those expectations, the missed events due to the schedule, and the knowledge gain, I decided that I had received what I had intended to learn and more of the course would mean less of other areas of life--areas that matter right now such as family, personal pursuits, and the work needed for the school year ahead.

I gained a lot from three days of study. I gathered the following important learning points:
  • Affirmation and exemplars of the role of visual literacy with regard to math learning.
  • Review of the fraction, ratio, and proportion standards.
  • A deeper look at the expectations with regard to math teaching.
  • Multiple project/problem types, online resources, and pedagogical models.
The rest of the course would mean digging into these learning points with greater depth and I will do that as the school year starts on my school schedule rather than the course schedule. Hence, I used the edcamp rule of voting with your feet and left the course about half way along.

This isn't the first time I've quit. Way back, I left an online course that didn't fit my family schedule at that time, and early in my career I left the doctoral program because again I felt I couldn't meet the doctoral responsibilities on top of my family and school responsibilities.

For me, family is always first when it comes to the big decisions and my classroom has always come second. Other matters and decisions typically take place behind those two priorities. 

My family might argue that the classroom beats them out at times, and I will agree that does occur. 

When you make decisions to join, stay, or leave who comes first? Do you ever just stick with an event because you joined in the first place, or do you sometimes make the decision to quit?  

Quitting is not an easy choice, but sometimes it's the right choice. Do you agree? 

A Quiet Day

At last :)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Learner's Point of View

Today I learned a lot about empathy during my math class.

It seemed like whichever decision, comment, or idea I had, no one could connect. I was seeing the activities, problems, and process in a much different way than my classmates. And on a couple of occasions, my team members were not that patient with me. I was a bit impatient myself at times.

I was cognizant of all of this as it happened. I wondered, "How can I see this so differently?" and thought about what was going on.

First, speed of processing and problem solving was at play. In some cases, I was too fast, and in other cases, I was too slow. Rate of work plays a role in collaboration.

Next, process. I had a very different way of attacking the problems and a very different mindset about context. This was not surprising since the educators at the course represented a wide variety of school districts throughout the state. It was also not surprising because most of the teachers teach at the Middle School level where they teach class for about an hour and teach approximately 100 or more students a day. They are highly focused on the math standards too, while I've been focused on standards across curriculum and often an interdisciplinary approach as well.

After that was precision. Many times, as soon as I had the broad idea of the activity, I was satisfied, but my classmates, in some cases, were reaching for lots of detail with their answers, responses, and decisions. How much detail to include is an issue that impacts collaboration and teamwork.

In addition was the area of commitment. In some cases, school teams were at the course. It was evident that those teams were committed to working together and growing their school level programs. On the other hand, those of us just there for a few days, did not have that much commitment to each other as we know the course is fleeting.

Also, patience and preconceived notions. Some bring preconceived notions about teachers in particular districts, schools, and levels which can impact the share and work. Patience or lack of it can also impact the collaboration.

Finally, we ended the day with a test. I could not think clearly and was struggling not to notice those finishing, getting up, and leaving before me. I wondered why I couldn't think through the problem, and the more I worried, the less I could do. Later, on the car ride home, I grasped the problem, once the worry was over.

As I experienced this tough day of learning, I thought about my learners. I thought about the outliers who come to school with few connections and little common focus to the other children. I thought about those that work really fast or really slow and how to best accommodate them. I thought about the children who worry and are blocked during a test rather than have the confidence to take the test slowly and with confidence.

In the end, I realize once again just how much care, empathy, and support we must bring to our student learners every day. We must make sure that students feel like they belong. We need to group students carefully and leave room for grouping changes when needed. We need to stand by our learners with strength because the way our learners feel about their learning and the way they're able to access the work and complete the projects matters a lot when it comes to teaching children well.

Sometimes the best lessons are the lessons we didn't expect to learn.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Empower Your Teaching Year: Read Meenoo Rami's Thrive

Thrive by Meenoo Rami
Meenoo Rami's book, Thrive, provides rationale, learning paths, and personal stories to invigorate educators' professional network, study, and efforts. This is the perfect book to read as you reflect on your past work and set new goals for the year ahead. While reading you'll feel like Meenoo is talking to you as she shares story after story and research related to mentors, professional connections, intellectual challenge, trusting your voice, and empowering your students. Throughout the book, she poses thought provoking questions which will prompt you to stop and think deeply about your own practice as an educator.

Rami's intimate look at education reveals the important details of what it means to teach well today. She highlights classic learning avenues such as apprenticeship and mentoring as well as modern day methods of collaboration via Twitter, Google docs, and edcamps.

Personally I found that Rami's book encouraged me to focus more deliberately on the areas of my professional network, mentors, and listening to myself.  In addition, her words affirmed the changes and efforts I employ with regard to classroom teaching, student relationships, and learning design.

Although I read through Rami's book in one sitting, I will surely revisit the chapters throughout the summer days and in the year ahead as I look to her words for encouragement, direction, and details. Then I'm sure I'll reread the book again next summer to assess which goals I met, and what new goals I'll create.

Meenoo Rami encourages all of us to share our good work and ideas in order to build strong schools for all students, and she models that share well in her book, Thrive, a book that will surely empower your craft, vision, and effect in the year ahead. Thanks Meenoo!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Proportional Thinking: Prepping for the Math Year

Thanks to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, I am taking a math course focused on proportional thinking. Each summer the state offers a number of courses to educators, and if you take part in about one per summer, you'll fulfill your recertification requirements and prep for the school year at no extra cost. The DESE STEM page also offers a number of helpful resources for the math year ahead.

Activity Link
Similar to the RETELL course I took this spring, this course is a well designed blended learning opportunity with online and offline elements. The course not only shares valuable information, but the way it is presented models terrific teaching strategies as well--strategies I can take back to the classroom in the fall.

As I learned today, I thought a lot about how I would begin the math year. There's many ways to begin a year of math teaching, and the most important factor related to starting the math year is engagement.

I like to start with a concept that's relatively new to everyone, and I like to review old concepts and skills through the new concept.

With that in mind, I'll start the year by teaching students coordinate grids using number fact information to start with. Students will fill in tables and plot multiples up to 45 on these activity sheets. We'll talk about the way that multiples of 1, 2, and 3 look very different than the multiples of 5, 6, and 7. Later students will practice plotting numbers with picture practice sheets and Khan Math's 5th grade standards-based coordinate grids algebra activity.

After that, students will create a 1-100 board with number cards that review the multiple/fact focused numeracy skills they learned in fourth grade. Meanwhile for homework students will start practice facts using activities from a Khan Academy, That Quiz, Xtra Math, and other sites menu.

We'll round out the first week's activities with review of all the problem solving strategies using algebraic expressions and multiple models as we systematically work together to solve the problems, argue process, and share solutions. We'll also practice all large number computation skills.

By the end of the first month, all students should be past or well on their way to solidifying math facts, establishing a math menu practice routine, adept at plotting coordinate grids, familiar with the most popular problem solving strategies, and re-familiarized with 4th grade fact-based numeracy standards.

I like to start the year with lots of dynamic, vigorous learning. At no other time of the year are students more eager and energetic so it's a good time to take advantage of their zest and teach well.

How Do You Tackle Learning Struggles?

New learning is challenging.

If you're truly reflective and willing to take the time to look at your strengths and challenges with depth, you will find areas of need that are indeed challenging, thought provoking, and perhaps even embarrassing to develop.

True learning takes that kind of analysis and honesty, and more often than not learners turn away from that deep, targeted learning--the kind of learning that will transform and elevate their work.

How can we as learners embrace these challenges to best effect our work and intent to teach children well?

First, we have to be compassionate to ourselves. No learner has all skills and strengths--we are all learning no matter our age, position, or expectations.

Next, we have to research, reflect, think and learn deeply about the goal. What does this learning challenge entail?

After that, it's time to break down the big goals into smaller goals--take it one step at a time.

Then, look for a mentor, coach, or peer group to help you achieve your goal. We learn much better if we have others to support our learning.

Educators who embrace deep and challenging learning not only gain skill and perspective, but they also become more empathetic and effective coaches to their students because they know what it's like to embrace and meet a challenging learning goal. These educators understand the hilly path that real learning takes, and know the kinds of support and coaching that makes a difference.

Organizations that want to develop their teams with strength will take on a learner's mindset as well. Instead of quickly punishing errors, these organizations will make the time to teach and coach with empathy, skill, and strength. Leaders in these organizations will see their role as teachers and coaches who can make a difference by supporting educators' growth and skill in compassionate, kind, knowing, and targeted ways.

Today many tout the phrase, "Learn from your mistakes," but far fewer truly embrace the important efforts that support this phrase, and the time and care that goes along with learning from one's own mistakes and coaching others who have erred.

True learning includes struggle, and when we help each other along the road to learning we make that path more accessible and profitable, and we also develop our teaching-learning organizations with strength and care.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"This Is Not A Test" by Jose Vilson: I Recommend

"Teachers must develop a tough exterior--not just to withstand our students' temperaments, but also to support each other as we navigate the political and economic whims of those who set the policies that affect us most. . . we have to strengthen our voices, speak from our experiences and those of our students, assume and defend our autonomy, and kick butt at every turn."
                                                                                                    --Jose Vilson

Haymarket Books
In the Afterward of Jose Vilson's book, This Is Not a Test, Pedro Noguera clearly explains why every educator should read this book when he writes, ". .  this book will be a reminder of what can be achieved when educators act with the courage of their convictions to speak out and write about what is occurring in our schools today." Not only does the story tell the story of Jose's educational path, but the story also provides inspiration, direction, and context for today's educators.

I have been following Jose's work for a few years now. I look to him for inspiration, challenge, and growth as an educator. I saw him speak at the Save Our Students March in Washington, at Educon 2.7 and on YouTube as he gave his TedTalk.  I subscribe to his blog, read his tweets and even tweet him if I have a question I feel he'll be able to help me with. Jose is an education thought leader and sought after educator whose work inspires educators and learners all over the globe. Today as I read his book, I was challenged, inspired, and informed.

I really enjoyed learning about Jose's boyhood experiences through his wonderful choice of words and storytelling ability. The start of the book reminded me of Fletcher's Fig Pudding and Milton Meltzer's Starting from Home because like Fletcher and Meltzer, Vilson gives us an inside look at his childhood. In fact, when reading this section I found myself wanting to read these pages to my students, students who would be very interested in Vilson's experiences. I also found myself comparing my childhood experiences to his. Even though Vilson started school the same year I started teaching, I found similarities with our vivid memories of early school life, dedicated teachers, the impact of Jesuit traditions and teaching, and the effect parents' cultures and the neighborhood had on our lives. Dissimilar and so important for a teacher like me to read about and understand were Vilson's experiences growing up as a Dominican-Haitian male in New York City. His words brought me into his world in ways that will positively affect my teaching and learning in the days to come.

Vilson's book not only tells his story, but the book also inspires educators with many, many points to ponder and words to follow. Jose is a classroom educator who clearly understands the challenges and strengths classroom teaching present. I gained lots of inspiration from his insights and experience-- inspiration illustrated in these quotes:

"Education should be the set of actions and processes by which educators, students, and parents work together to help future citizens succeed and contribute to general society."

". . .our most disaffected students don't see themselves in the curriculum. . ."

"Teachers need to support the language that students bring to school, provide them input from an additional code, and give them the opportunities to use the new code in a nonthreatening, real communicative context." --Lisa Delpit, Other People's Children

"Teachers who related to their students on a cultural level can teach their students in important ways."

"In the end what I found was this: When I took off my mask and invested myself in a group of kids, the homeroom became a home. For all of us."

"The disconnect between the problem and the solution persists." -

"We also have to believe in ourselves as powerful change agents or else we perpetuate the same power structures we say we're against."

"The education blogging world needs someone who can ask the hard questions about inequity, race, and class."

"My vision for my students should last far beyond my own existence as their teacher."

Vilson illustrates what it means to teach with honesty when he writes the following words, "Yes, I've had things stolen. Yes, I've gotten upset, furious, enraged in front of my students. Yes, I still have to work within the dimensions given to me. Yes, I've learned to work with other adults I don't agree with. Yes, some of my kids didn't do well academically. Yes, I still want to teach."

"How do we as educators recognize each person's humanity?"

"But we cannot allow the most vulnerable kids to freeze themselves to the point where they don't share their pain."

". . .establish a direct and strong rapport in their first few months in class. . ."

"Courageous are those who can stand in the conversation with a spirit of collaboration and understanding. It's important for us to critique, but just as important to find solutions."

"When we teach, we don't just teach them the subjects; we implicitly teach them customs, rituals, and character traits that they either emulate or admire in their own right."

"I don't have a choice in how people perceive me before I speak or act, but I do have a choice in how I react and how I identify and share my own experiences."

The book also offers us details about today's schools. Vilson decries the lack of Black/Latino teachers, and notes that "It is clearly important for my students to see an authority figure who looks like them, understands what they're going through, challenges them, and provides a model for how to act."

He also speaks up against structures in school and outside of school that don't include teacher voice in the critical work and decisions teachers make every day. He further speaks of the expectations for teachers to ". . .obey, obey, obey."  Vilson states, "Our jobs discourage vocalizing dissent, both through individual administrators' intimidation tactics and through formal Internet policies. The hours teachers spend in class and on paperwork also leave little energy for advocacy or political action."

Jose defines teacher voice as "the collective and individual expression of meaningful professional opinion based on classroom experience and expertise." He tells the story of the development of his own voice, a story that will inspire every educator to think about his or her voice and professional responsibilities. With regard to voice, Vilson lends praise to his rap hero, Rakim. In speaking of Rakim, Vilson writes, "He had this supreme confidence in his performance even while remaining humble in his interviews. Through his lyrics, he inspired hundreds of writers--not just rappers--to consider the inner workings of every line, not just the ends." Vilson outlines three main elements of teacher voice: "balance between emotion and reason; expert confidence; and a specific audience in mind."

I cannot capture Vilson's wonderful prose, thought provoking and challenging words, and powerful storytelling ability in this post. This is only a small snapshot of his book, This is Not a Test, a book I highly recommend every educator read.

Thank you for sharing your story, words, inspiration, and dream with us, Jose. Your work impacts my work in dynamic ways. I appreciate.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Study Shelves: The Learning Kitchen

My kitchen shelves are mostly organized by type of food. There's a place for spices, canned goods, cereal, cups and dishes, and more.

Similarly, my learning/teaching websites are organized by topic, pedagogy, skill, and concept.

When I shop, I put food away on the matching shelf, and when I read and research, I put the information on the matching website or page.

Then when it's time to cook, I pull together all the necessary ingredients from the kitchen shelves, and when it's time to teach, I gather the right information from the website pages.

A kitchen is set up for good nutrition, cooking, and family meals. An educator's online sites are created for worthy learning design, teaching, and the learning community share.

What is your kitchen design like? Does your kitchen lend itself to happy, healthy family meals?What are your online "rooms" (websites) like? Do they invite dynamic, joyful learning?

What Is Your Favorite Place in Nature? Global Share Invitation

My brother-in-law, David Gorrill, took this picture of one of my
favorite places, The Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts, USA.
As a global community, it is important that we teach students about the natural environment. One inroad to that study is to pay attention to the places in nature that students enjoy--their favorite places in nature. With this in mind, I invite the global community to take part in this simple, introductory life science activity, an activity that will introduce students to each other, environmental study language and mindsets, and the awareness that we are part of a greater global community.

The project starts with an emphasis on students' favorite places in nature. At the start of the year, students will create models, illustrations, paintings, or photo collages of their favorite places in nature. Then they will write descriptions of those places and make a 30 seconds to one-minute video describing their special place and showing their model. The project will give students a chance to work together in a friendly way, practice using the life science unit vocabulary, and get to know each other through the share of their favorite places.

To give this a global dimension, I invite other classrooms to join our project.

To join, simply follow these steps:
  1. Engage students in the "Favorite Place in Nature" activity.
  2. Have students create models, write scripts, and create short films of their favorite places, then combine the films into one class film. 
  3. Send the YouTube link to your class film to me at and I'll post the films on the Favorite Places in Nature website
This is a simple way to develop global connections for your classroom. Let me know if you have questions. I look forward to your share. 

Unit vocabulary and Massachusetts science standards are located on this page if interested. 

Preparing for the Math Year with Khan Academy

Last night I began my effort to prepare for the math year. I used Khan Academy as the starting point.

Over the last few years, I've employed Khan Academy more and more into my school program. I started with using the videos to inform my lessons and refresh my understanding of specific math concepts. After that I used the videos with students. Then last year, I used Khan a lot for enrichment to begin with, and then for whole class review. Most students embraced the activites with interest and success. I noted, however, that to use the program with greatest effect I had to try it out myself and think of the best ways to teach the platform's use for greatest gain. I've also read that Khan Academy is helping out with some of the PARCC questioning so this should help my students do well on standardized tests too.

Therefore, now I'm using Khan to review the fifth grade standards. Last night I signed on to Khan using my Google address. Then I chose the fifth grade standards list and began practicing the algebra activities. I liked the way that the activities really made me think about the meaning of the standards and gave me plenty of practice so that I could solidify understanding as well as practice systematic ways to apply the skill. In addition, the activities use the standards-base math vocabulary with precision which will help me to use the correct vocabulary while teaching too.

I look forward to employing Khan with my students in the fall, and I'll do a better job this year because I'll know first-hand what it's like to learn with Khan's activities and videos.

Let me know if you're using Khan Academy to learn and review for the school year ahead. How will you introduce Khan to students, colleagues, and family members in the fall?  How will you weave Khan's activities into your overall program--what role will it play?  Another advantage to Khan Academy is that students can use it anytime, anywhere, and you can see what those students are doing. I know that several of my students have been practicing their math with Khan Academy this summer, and Khan's charts show me what they've been doing and how many minutes they've practiced.

While there's debate about the use of Khan Academy, I can't figure out why anyone would ignore this free, standards-based, practice platform that is well supported, eager to serve, and multidimensional with respect to how it is able to serve students' learning.

Several of my students learned to code using Khan last year. Also, one of my colleagues, used the coding as a privilege after the practice was done. Her students delighted in that choice.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Science: Fifth Grade Focus

If you read my blog you know I'm prepping for a new grade level and part of that grade level focus is a heavy emphasis on science. Led by Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School?, I understand that its the background knowledge that will lead to greater knowledge in all curriculum areas, and I believe this is particularly important with regard to science.

Therefore, as I tackle the new units of study, I am laying a path of study and investigation that includes the following.
  1. Create a Sensational Science website to host all the information.
  2. Read a number of science and science education summary articles to create framework for learning. 
  3. Carefully read the Massachusetts' Science Frameworks and related information. Place K-5 Standards for each strand on the website. 
  4. Study and read the Next Generation Science Standards.
  5. Write a grant for tech/engineering supplies for Lego Mindstorms or a related unit. 
  6. Research and potentially plan a three-part Museum field study experience for teachers and students to inform all of us about specific science standards in a dynamic learning space. 
  7. Take the past science MCAS tests and attend to the specific kinds of questions and responses necessary to do well on those tests (see below).
  8. Research what good science writing looks like and how it is organized. 
  9. Studying the lives and work of famous scientists today and in the past with a biography framework
  10. Set up the classroom with a student-friendly maker station and STEAM supplies, science bulletin boards, book area, and other useful science supplies. 
  11. Begin the year with a get-to-know-each-other science unit focused on vocabulary and the environment. 
  12. Create a routine for science study and meet the challenge of trying to fit all the science and math standards and teaching points. 
  13. Incorporate expected newly designed science units, software, and strategies introduced early in the year. 
Sample Science MCAS Questions

Teaching is a Profession

As I reflect on all 33 of Massachusetts' identified elements for excellence in education, I am humbled and challenged. To teach well is a comprehensive, multi-dimensional activity that far outpaces the simple model of a teacher handing out papers that many think of when they hear the title teacher.

Teaching well is not light work--it is work that includes multiple details, a professional attitude and demeanor, and an ability to develop, learn, and change throughout the years. Good teaching understands and responds to the current climate, and works to build the needed skills, attitudes, and efforts for a better future.

Many of our old practices, mandates, and rules related to teaching are outdated now. Attitudes of "punishing bad teachers" for all but the most unacceptable actions are not helpful, instead educational organizations should continually work with and for teachers to help each educator develop his/her skill to best teach children. As I read and reflect on all 33 elements outlined by Massachusetts, my first thought is that teachers are not superheroes, but then my second thought is that we can be proud that we work in a state that holds high expectations and regard for the work we do. While we won't all excel with all elements, we can certainly work towards greater and better efforts in each area--areas that matter when it comes to the lives and futures of our students.

Teachers can't do it alone. That's why educational organizations have to think about how they can best maximize professional learning and support so that every educator has what he/she needs to do a good job. Those who lead, but stand far from the classroom, need to make the time to spend a day teaching to really understand what it takes to do the job well. It's easy to forget the multiple tasks, decisions, and challenges a teacher faces every day once you leave the classroom, and that's why it's imperative that leadership plans and delivers a lesson now and then in order to lead and support educators with strength and promise.

Similarly, political leaders who make decisions about educational funding, personnel, and protocols, should also make it a part of their regular routine to plan and teach a number of lessons each year. Just think of the impact they could have on students, and the resulting sensitivity to educational policy that would come after a day of teaching.

We spend too much time in our organizations, media, and politics on issues that don't matter, and not enough time in working with the problems that exist in thoughtful, strategic ways to find solutions--solutions that matter and solutions that make a better world.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Teach Children to Collaborate

Collaborating while learning to garden. 
We may often remark that he or she is not a good collaborator. Yet when we state that, what do we mean?  What does it mean to be an effective collaborator?  This is a critical skill in today's world due to our increasing populations, ready information streams, evolving interdependency, and need to collaboratively solve complex problems.

To teach well today means that we will purposefully develop students' ability to effectively collaborate.

As I reviewed the start-of-the-school-year agenda this morning, I began to look at the details of the first weeks of school lessons, the all-important six weeks that Ruth Charney outlines in her book, Teaching Children to Care. 

As I looked over the many lessons included in the Learning to Learn curriculum, I was prompted to give greater shape and order to the area of collaborative skill.

In order to do that, I took the attributes outlined in a Forbes article, and created a student survey. Willingham affirms the use of question/answer surveys as one way to strengthen learning in his book, Why Don't Students Like School. I will ask students to take the survey in September, January, and June. I will also use the collaborative attributes list on the survey form as a reference point for our grade-wide biography framework.

As an educator who is moving from the isolation of schools in the past to a learning community that requires regular, thoughtful collaboration, I too will give the survey careful consideration and attention as I hone my own skills and abilities in this area.

In order to promote students' future success, we need to pay attention to the way we foster, teach, and engage students in the study and practice of collaboration. Beginning with a student survey and focused attention to collaborative attributes is one way to begin this effort in your classrooms and school.

As always, please let me know what you would add, revise, or enrich to make this study more meaningful. I look forward to your share.

Link to Survey Activity, Simply click "file" and "make copy" to personalize the document.

I was unable to teach this activity as planned. The problem with the "Learning to Learn" curriculum has been the time to teach it all and the students' readiness for so many concepts at once. Instead I find myself chipping away at each attribute and skill with regular focused attention through discussion, video, and activity. As I think to the future, I'm wondering how we can blend these activities into our Open Circle activities for greater learning. 

Teach Well: Broaden Your Horizons

Yesterday I had the opportunity to explore the world of music via the Internet. With a couple of free hours I simply explored the work of multiple artists and genre. I collected a few favorites on a YouTube playlist. I thought about the intersection of film and music, the vibrancy of multiple cultures, and the artists themselves.

I also realized how often we get stuck in same patterns and routines which reduce our reach and understanding. In the past, our stretch was limited due to the fact that it took a lot of time or resources to find and buy books related to new ideas, visit another country, or attend a concert. Today it's still expensive to do those things, however, the Internet provides us with an efficient and low cost way to "travel," attend amazing events, and make collections of the work that inspire, entertain, and informs us.

The Internet will never replace the real world experience of attending a conference, visiting another country, or experiencing new skills and knowledge first hand, however the Internet does serve to broaden our horizons, whet our appetites, and help us understand the world around us with greater depth and care.

Therefore, take an hour or so, and go on a virtual adventure using the multiple platforms available. That experience will enrich your world and better prepare you to teach children well.