Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Course 1 Wrapping Up

So far it's been a whirlwind! Our first class in Edina's Teaching & Technology Cohort has flown by, with quite the learning curve and fantastic new experiences. The last eight weeks or so have given me a chance to increase my web presence, establish a personal learning network (PLN), learn a great deal from colleagues, collaborate on projects, and reflect on my own teaching - with technology's place in it - in the form of a metaphor essay.

While it hasn't always been pretty, and some of the timing got a little crazy with end-of-quarter responsibilities & conferences, it's been a completely rewarding experience. I look forward to the rest of the courses, hopeful that I will learn as much as I have so far.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tech Cohort Mash-Up

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Writing, Thinking, Learning in 2010...

As I type this post, I'm listening to a podcast, entering grade updates (online), checking my twitter feed, and pondering writing, learning, and 21st century education technology.

One of my main professional goals this year is to push my students more into using digital platforms to write, express themselves, collaborate, and increase their global understanding. The process is still in the early stages, but I'm planting seeds to get my students thinking about how technology currently plays a role in the way they write, and how digital literacy can increase their written language skills.

Later this week, we will take a look at this article and prompt from the NY Times learning page. Hopefully, writing a 'love letter' to their favorite piece of technology will start to open the door for further discussion...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Not Your Father's Classroom...

Who am I kidding? This isn't my classroom, or even the classroom from my first year of teaching! This decade has been a whirlwhind. So much change, so much innovation, so many new ways to teach and learn. At the same time, it always feels like there isn't enough time in the day to keep up, much less develop ways to implement all the new technology into your classroom.

I feel like there's been some catch-up in the last few years, however, and being a part of Edina's Teaching & Technology cohort will only help. After all, a few years ago I would not have read this article about being a 21st century teacher, much less pass it on after identifying with many of the points.

Here's to staying above water...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New Learning, Same Joy

Last night was the first class meeting for Edina's Teaching & Technology cohort. I am very excited to be a part of this group, working with and learning from Edina colleagues. One of the highlights was a group activity where everyone created a Google Map, highlighting the places they've lived and the technology they lived with at the time. Thinking back to days of VCRs, TVs without remotes, the original Nintendo, and even Atari (what up, Frogger?!) was great. It was a fitting exercise to do on a day I happened to read a great obituary on The Walkman.

What I couldn't escape after last night's session was this realization: I really do enjoy learning. I know that sounds simple and perhaps obvious, but I don't think all teachers sincerely agree with me on that point. The challenge is exciting, new concepts are invigorating, and collaborating with people I work with is, quite frankly, refreshing.

So here's the challenge to myself: do whatever it takes to instill this in my students who don't have it, and foster that love for the students who already do enjoy learning. Being an example in my room on a daily basis, and modeling those behaviors is huge...I think that's why nights like last night are so important. You can be reminded of a basic fact you may have forgotten, and that simple "aha" moment can go a long way.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Learning Curve

It takes a while for many students to get into the 'swing of things' at the beginning of the school year. Because my students are also transitioning into a new school (middle!), there are that many more adjustments to make. Gone are the days of recess, homeroom teachers, and walking in lines down to lunch, gym, etc. Throw in the fact that students have multiple teachers and classes a day, and it's easy to see why so many of my sixth graders struggle to used to life in middle school.

That said, it can be frustrating to wait for everybody to deal with their own unique learning curve - some students seem to have it down by day 2; others are still struggling here at the beginning of week 4 - while also accomplishing everything I'd like to accomplish in the classroom. While seemingly benign things like bringing the wrong notebook, forgetting a textbook, or leaving an assignment at home may not seem like much, the time students spend going back to their lockers can add up quickly, taking away from the learning that should go on in class. Because of this, I usually reach a "no mas" point after the first 3-4 weeks of school; students slowly get weaned off of going back to their lockers, and start to quickly learn the importance of using their assignment planner and keeping their materials organized.

Although I consider myself very understanding of and accommodating to every student's unique learning curve, 'tough-love' has to set in, for the good of the class and my own sanity.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cathers and Pitchers Reporting...

Amazing how many similarities can be drawn between the first days of school and spring training in Major League Baseball. In some ways, teachers coming back for our six workshop days is akin to pitchers and catchers reporting shortly before the rest of the team. The first day of school is essentially the full roster reporting for spring training, with the month of September - in many ways - plays out like baseball's spring training. Getting students acclimated to a new grade, school and surroundings takes a little bit of time, along with some brief reviewal of concepts to shake off the cobwebs.

Besides some of the procedural similarities, other common aspects of both spring training and the first days of school that have always struck me are emotions like hope, enthusiasm, & optimism. Just like every Major League team feels like they have a chance to compete for the pennant, new students (from our perspective) and new teachers (from the kids' perspective) brings the opportunity for new learning, achievement and experiences.

My goals every year are simple - sustain those emotions for students throughout the year...foster that hope, enthusiasm and optimism for learning each and every day, if possible. Second, to help them grow and achieve at as high a rate as possible. Like a good manager, this means putting kids in the best possible situations to learn, grow, and achieve all year long; coaxing the best effort out of them, and helping them see themselves in the best possible light.

That said, I suppose I'll keep the polyester pinstripe pants at home...

Monday, August 30, 2010

Value in Tutoring

There are plenty of moments during the summer when I question my decision to tutor students. It isn't because I don't enjoy working with the students, but more about taking time out of the day and away from my own kids when it's 80 and sunny just doesn't seem so appealing.

While it does take some effort to arrange schedules, along with the commitment to go through with it, I've found a lot of benefit in tutoring a few kids each summer. Working with students of varying abilities in a one-on-one situation has been a great way for me to brush up on specific teaching tools and strategies. There are times during the school year when instructing a class of thirty 12 year-old students lends itself to a certain "teaching to the masses" style, where that individual attention can get put aside for a while. What tutoring allows is a chance to do just that, adapting to kids' unique learning styles and providing immediate feedback.

This summer has been especially fulfilling, as I have worked with three students at a wide range of ability levels. Challenging - yes, but like a good workout where you push yourself, the stretch makes you better. I feel sharp and ready to work with my students this year, conscientious of students' individual needs, ready to meet them where they are on their learning journey.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Good Cause & Welcome Break from the 'Grind'

Quite too often, the stretch of school year from Spring Break to the end - in the case this year 10 weeks - can be much too long. I affectionately refer to this period, from time to time, as the grind. This is not due to the fact that we are at school and working. On the contrary, time usually flies with a steady stream of full weeks and plenty to do...those are my favorite stretches of time. What can make this stretch tough is two weeks splintered by state testing (Mid-April), an increase in meetings - staff, team, annual IEP, year wrap-ups, next year preps, etc. - throughout these weeks, and a subtle yet powerful pull of students 'checking out' as the end approaches and the mercury rises. It's hard to blame the students too much; we all did it, it's part of being a kid and certainly a human being. You look forward to the end of school years, to summers with friends, to being done with homework. Another contributing factor is state testing. Once they are done, many students feel their 'work is done' for the year, and instilling the philosophy of being a lifelong learner can be a challenge.

Because of all this, breaks in the action are always welcome. Tomorrow brings a great change - our community service learning day. A chance to get outside, get our hands dirty, do some physical work and help a great cause in the process. Every fall, our entire 6th grade group (roughly 315 kids) goes to Camp Friendship @ Camp Edenwood in a neighboring suburb. Students spend the day goal-setting and using teamwork to conquer obstacle courses, low-ropes courses, and finally high-ropes courses and rock-climbing walls. Last spring, we started giving back, going for a day to help clean up camp, plant gardens, clear buckthorn, clean up the beach, paint cabins, and anything else that needs to be done around the camp. Why? The money saved by the organization, Friendship Ventures, can be used to provide scholarships for kids to attend summer camp there for people with physical and developmental handicaps. Additionally, it makes the camp a better place for these kids to be.

No matter how the weather turns out to be, it will be a great day of service learning. Our students will get a chance to see the world through someone else's eyes and help the community around them. For all of us, it will be a great break from the 'grind,' helping us all re-charge our batteries, sharpen our focus, and appreciate all we have in our lives.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Once in a blue moon; once upon a time...

Apparently I'm not doing such wonderful job at updating blog with thoughts, reflections, and reactions to what's going on in my classroom and school. Such is life I guess - spring break, standardized testing (taking up 2 weeks in April), preparing for the end of the school year/finals, warmer weather, etc. - not to mention every non-professional factor that can take up time in the day.

That said, there's been plenty worth writing about, and I hope to get to a lot of it here in the near future. Reflections on the state tests, the (un)glory that is spring time middle-schooler B.O., curricular updates, and many other particulars of the job.

Because it's so fresh in my consciousness, I need to express some thoughts about what transpired in my classroom yesterday. I was out of the building, and my students were left with an incredibly experienced, knowledgable, hard-working, and admittedly 'old-school' substitute teacher. This sub was left with explicit, typed lesson plans and knew exactly what I wanted all of my students to accomplish throughout the day. For the most part, things went exactly as they should have, except for one class. Now, I know that students treating a substitute differently than their "real" teacher is a time-honored tradition. I'm not that old; I remember how plenty of students would always try and get away with more (behavior) or less (work) while a sub was in charge. For the most part, I realize my students will probably do the same, and as long as they are not rude to the sub and get done what's expected, I'm fine with that.

Yesterday, however, was different for one class. Not only did some students try the usual antics associated with any substitute day, more than a few kids openly challenged this person's authority and their "right" to give them work to do. Amazingly, for how many times I've told my students that subs do exactly what I instruct them to do, they still don't realize this is the fact. Essentially, my students disrespected and disregarded this person because, basically, they "don't like her." This only serves as the latest example of a powerful and pervasive we are entitled mentality of so many modern students. Really - the sub is supposed to let you sleep & not do anything? Really - the adult is supposed to be over-the-top nice and let you slough off before you treat that person with the basic human decency they deserve?

I always tell my students that yes, it can be difficult to adjust to different teaching styles. Additionally, I want my students to learn independent thought and to not blindly follow people, rules, and policies they know to be wrong. However, I feel as though we're not headed for a good place - collectively - when 11- and 12-year-olds demand that every assignment/task/challenge asked of them be rationalized/explained/validated.

What happened to simply being respectful of those put in a position to help you? Further, what about a common human understanding and decency? As I tell my students - they better hope they all own their own company one day - odds are at some point they'll work for and answer to someone they don't like...what happens then?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Novel Unit, Testing Unlimited

We are now officially underway with our new novel, A Single Shard. Essentially, what we are doing is examining the Historical Fiction genre, using this particular book as a vehicle for this examination. In terms of garnering student interest, this book has proven to be difficult at times. Why? Because it is a story that takes place hundreds of years ago, in foreign country, and there are few, if any, tangible aspects of this book that the students are able to connect with. The challenge is to highlight the abstract, transcendant plot elements that any 11-12 year-old can identify with: growing up, responsibility, decision-making, loss, pride, etc. To help class gain a mental picture of the artwork featured in the book, I went on a little mission at the Art Institute of Chicago. It will be interesting to see where our class discussions take us.

Switching topics, this week at school gives us the latest round of MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) tests. The students take two tests, via computer, that are about 50-55 questions each: math and reading. On one hand, some decent insight gained into how well our kids are learning, and where I, as their teacher, can focus my learning. On the other hand, I lose two days of instruction, and beyond that, there are plenty of questions that arise about how relevant and accurate the scores are. For example, there have already been a few students this week whose math scores have been higher, even though they took less time as compared to the fall test, and who have put little to inconsistent effort innto their math course work all year. In the end, the positives outweigh the negatives, and the scores do offer another insight into my students' abilities; as well as give us educators the possibility to put students into the right classes for success and learning.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Playing Catch-Up

Today has been a workshop day. At one of our sessions this morning, our principal talked a lot about poverty and the brain, citing works from Eric Jensen and others. There were many staggering facts brought up during this presentation, many of which I had heard before. Students who come into school having lived with chronic or severe stress - termed distress - have brains that are literally smaller than those of their peers, and in many cases have weakened, atrophied brain cells. Other writers, including Malcom Gladwell, have written about IQ and races, and what studies have shown are some of the effects of growing up in stressful, cognitively-poor environments.

As educators, we are left with two options of looking at this situation: a. this is a crisis, and b. this is an opening for opportunity. In truth, it is both. I don't think it can or should be underscored just how much this is a crisis facing our children, schools, and country. On the flip side, this definitely presents us with a chance to make some wrongs right, and help our students catch-up as best they can, so they may experience success.

No doubt this will take a ton of work, not to mention flexibility, encouragement, and tough love on our part. While this all can seem daunting, what are the alternatives?

Cultural Discovery - Art of Celedon

This coming week, we will be starting a new novel, "A Single Shard." This is the story of a young, homeless man who is trying to become the apprentice of a Master Celedon Artist.

The genre we are focusing on is Historical Fiction, with the setting as Korea, a hundreds of years ago. For some background on the art of Celedon pottery, click here.

Looking forward to more thoughts, both mine and the students', about this story as the next few weeks unfold.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Last week, I was able to have an impromptu conversation with my building principal about a few different topics. This was important for a couple reasons. First, my boss is typically so busy and tied up in meetings that an encounter like this is pretty rare. Beyond that, it was great because she listened intently to everything I had to say - which on this day, was quite a bit.

Among the issues on my mind that day were...6th grade open house format, various academic interventions at our school - specifically serving 6th grade, the amount of non-academic screen time our students have on a daily basis, and whether or not students should have some exposure to grades before entering middle school.

Now, I am aware that this is quite a bit to bring up to one's boss, especially when the meeting in question started at a very informal place. We somehow went from talking about the Minnesota Twins to tackling very important issues at our school.

Which is why the kind of support, listening, and reponse I received is so great. My building principal was fully invested in what I was saying, completely honoring where I was coming from as a classroom teacher. She asked meaningful questions in attempting to find solutions, and even responded to my with more detail via e-mail later in the day. It's this type of support that makes certain people great to work for...and it's always a reminder of how much support our students need from us, even when they're coming from a very random place!

One semester is down and in the books...here's to a great second semester and warm weather just around the corner!

Thursday, January 7, 2010


It's often said that students tend to learn best when they feel comfortable, safe, and welcome at school. Additionally, plenty of studies, along with anecdotal testimonies, show how strong, positive connections between teachers and students can lead to better achievement, more classroom participation, work completion, and increased attendance.

Unfortunately, this aspect of our job gets pushed to the wayside, in favor of breaking down test scores, prepping for standardized tests, modifying educational plans, etc. While ALL of these things are incredibly important, I believe people tend to overlook the importance of making and maintaining healthy, fun, and positive connections with students.

I can think of so many students over the years that I was able to have a really great connection with...and it hardly ever centered around the curriculum! Instead, we would talk music, sports, the pains of older siblings, managing life/school/family/activities, movies/tv, etc. I have had students do poorly from time to time in a class of mine, but because our relationship was positive, strong, and not centered on the material, these kids have always been able to regroup and end up doing pretty well in many ways. Other students have really outperformed where they normally would because of how good they felt about themselves and their place in the classroom that year.

The saying goes - "students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." This is a great message to always keep in the back of our minds...more and more students are coming to school with greater needs for connections, and we need to be able to be here for them. In the end, it can be just as powerful a tool as analyzing test data.