Thursday, December 10, 2009

Popularity vs. individuality

In Language Arts, we are currently reading a novel entitled Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli. The book is named after one of the central characters, a sophomore who approaches life from a completely different angle than anyone else. Her heart is pure, she's accepting of all others, and celebrates life with true enthusiasm.

This is a great book to read as a whole class for many reasons, but primarily because it forces the students to look at their own lives, relationships, and school environment. How tolerant are we? Do I/we think of others first? What do I/we value in a person? A friend?

Lately, we've had some interesting discussions about popularity and individuality. Can they co-exist? Are the independent of each other? Do people try to be individualistic for popularity's sake? We have yet to come to a consensus, but that's probably the way it should be. What's interesting is some of the same students who felt as though these two qualities could co-exist are the same students who promptly and cheerfully offered plenty of ideas for thorough Stargirl "makeover" to fit into our school nicely. It will be interesting to see hear reaction and thoughts as we continue on with the book...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Creativity vs. NCLB

Although this is just one person's point of view, I consider this to be the ever-present battle in education: our responsibility as educators to foster creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills vs. the mandate to make sure students have sufficient technical math and reading skills, as told to us by legislature. Another sprinkle added into the mix is the omni-present and growing nature of technology...and how to utilize these tools to teach students what they need to know and open doors for creative outlet.

Everyone universally agrees that students need be proficient in reading, math, and writing. The problem is, schools can get so bogged down with mandates (and looming threats of lost funding) that curriculum can lean towards lower-level, rote thinking drill and practice. Typically, creative, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills lose out in this battle. On top of that, programs like the arts and physical education lose out, taking away an opportunity for countless students to grow and show some of their amazing skills.

Sir Ken Robinson talked about this a few years back, during a TED Talks seminar, and he returned to the topic again recently in this article.

How can we as educators use all of the technology and resources around us to help students become creative, critical thinkers in the 21st century? For every 1/2 point gain on a standardized test, what are we losing on the other end? How can we best prepare out students to prosper and solve tomorrow's problems? These are questions that I always have, and hopefully they are questions we can work towards answering while we find more places for creativity in our schools.

Conferences & Workshops

The busy time of year is back! Holidays, workshops, conferences and grading...just to name a few. It's an exciting time, and typically this is a stretch of 5-6 weeks that goes by pretty quickly. It has been interesting to reflect on the first quarter of the year and seeing how so many of the students have grown into responsible, self-sufficient middle schoolers; while at the same time having quite a few students struggle with the new demands.

Conferences began last Thursday, with a pretty good turnout from parents. The night was steady, but certainly not busy. I am hoping to see more parents today and tomorrow morning, to at least meet people, put faces to names, and celebrate many successes.

This morning we have the first part of our fall workshops, and we are meeting with our Communities of Practice. My CoP this year is focused on integrating technology into the classroom, and it has been fun and rewarding to learn many new ways to do just that. Even this morning, I just created my first - albeit very amatuer - Scratch project. Even though the students have the week off, there's a lot of learning going on...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Living within Sci-Fi

We are currently in the midst of a Science Fiction genre study unit in Language Arts. While this is happening, we are taking a close look at what makes Sci-Fi different from other genres; how we see these elements playing out in the world around us, all while using 3 different novels as the lens to look through.
The books we are reading are The White Mountains by John Christopher, Memory Boy by Will Weaver, and The Power of Un by Nancy Etchemendy.
Each novel is unique in its own way - different characters solving unique problems in various plot lines - yet share some common Sci-Fi traits. One element many students struggle with is how the science in Sci-Fi doesn't have to be "out of this world" all the time. To illustrate this point, I gave the students the example of someone telling me as a 6th grader there would be things like texting, IMing, On-Line homework and grade update websites, and of course, blogs.

Extending the thought, I continually find it amazing how much new technology is incorporated into teaching and learning. Even better, many people aren't just doing this for the sake of doing it; these individuals are finding creative, useful and productive ways to use technology in their classrooms to broaden student learning. Living within the current Sci-Fi context of our world is pretty exciting. Hopefully our effective teaching will prepare the students for the Sci-Fi technologies of tomorrow - and also the problems that will come along with them.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ode to Protocol

More and more, I feel like what we do as teachers is becoming more and more clinical. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Being able to analyze student data in a sensible way can be a powerful tool for helping kids learn at their level.

However, there seems to be a fine line that is easy to cross when it comes to this approach. Too often, too much importance is placed on a single standardized test score. A snapshot of a child's ability, taken one afternoon on a computer, shouldn't be the only piece of evidence used for placement and teaching practices. Our district is good at trying its best to avoid this, but sometimes it can just happen. High or low, good or bad, these scores need to be coupled with past performance, teacher observation, and different standard scores to help find the best fit for students. Sometimes, I feel teacher/classroom input can be neglected, even though it is the teacher offering the professional observations.

This brings up the next point...protocol for student discussion at team meetings. It is probably a healthy thing to have some type of established pattern, or set of norms, for talking about students in a constructive manner. That said, the impression given at times is that certain things discussed are irrelevant, when it could be argued that these factors are indeed very relevant. If a student's parents are going through a rough divorce; if a family member passed away; if the student has attendance issues/shows up late/always wears the same clothes/falls asleep in class/seems unhappy/had older siblings with similar patterns...these variables all seem like they are important enough to include with student dialgue.

We can't narrow our focus so much that we lose sight of some very important things: teacher-student connection/relationship, professional observations, and constructive dialogue. Coupling these practices with effective data use can be a great way to serve kids better moving forward.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Whose Ownership?

With the first quarter of the school year already half over, I feel like I have a much better grasp of who my students are as individuals and, well, students. An incredible thing to come across in teaching is how every class - as in class of 08, 09, etc. - can have its own identity: 'studious,' 'hard-working,' 'talkative,' 'unmotivated,' etc. From year to year, it seems as though with each new class, there's a new identity.

One constant, however, is in every group there are plenty of students who are either incapable of or refuse to accept ownership. let alone the slightest role, in the learning process. While this is no doubt normal for many students and a part of growing up, it can create plenty of headaches for the other stakeholders in the situation - parents and teachers.

Although I (and all of the students' teachers here) have and will continue to do everything we can to help students succeed, there comes a point where you have to realize something very, very profound: "I can't care more than they can in order for them to succeed."

As soon as I realized that, I adopted a healthier approach to working with those students. I know miracles can't occur on a daily basis. Instead, I try and help students take ownership of their learning and understand the importance and long-term effects of their decisions and habits now.

We'll see where it goes with this has been a very positive year so far; I look forward to more growth as the year goes on.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Making it Official...

Tonight is a big night - 6th Grade Parent/Student Orientation/Welcome Night!

Once we get to this point, the start of school begins to loom large on the horizon. Open House is a great time for parents and students to get acclimated with their new surroundings and meet teachers.

Of all the important information passed along tonight, the most beneficial communication will be meeting all of the kids and shaking as many hands as possible. If people leave tonight more comfortable about the new year and the transition into middle school, then it has been a successful evening.

More thoughts later...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A New Beginning

Welcome Dream Teamers! This is the first of many posts to come this school year. As summer winds down, leaves fall, and Friday night lights turn bright, our thoughts return to school. I'm looking forward to a great year - a year filled with learning beyond the walls of Room 137.

For now, enjoy your last few days of freedom!

Mr. M