Amazing Kids

Amazing Kids

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Look Back and Forward

This year has been full of firsts for me. It has been pretty amazing. Over my lifetime I've done a ton of stuff: traveled and lived in many places, but this year has been like no other. I didn't go any exciting places geographically, but the shifts in my own perspective were global. And I am celebrating big time. At the end of 2013, I want to merge into 2014 on a note that helps me to remember some of the best of the year.
  • Reading for enjoyment is becoming more of a norm. Since I have finally given myself permission to put aside "productivity" and just read, I have read more books than EVER in my life. Fiction, picture books, graphic novels, informational, fantasy, historical fiction, you name it. Most of the titles were written for middle grades. Many were brand new, hot off the shelf, or even pre-published. I went to places that came from the wild imagination of some amazing writers and introduced me to a huge variety of interesting characters. I laughed, cried, and wondered. I stayed up way too late to read. That's a good thing.
  • My students have a teacher who is thinking outside the box. I dared new approaches, which may or may not have included technology. I'm taking advice from some really smart people who, age-wise, could be my kids. For the first time, there is no "teacher desk" in our classroom and it is WONDERFUL. Kids gather in various places around our room and are focused on learning targets more than completing assignments (although they ARE required to that, too!) They are becoming more responsible for their own learning, so they are asking more questions. (Disclaimer: I still have a long way to go in this area, but we've made huge strides!)
  • PLN (personal learning network) growth has been key. "Meeting" educators from everywhere has been positive in so many ways. I imagine most everyone reading this can relate. I'm not an extreme blogger, tweeter, or Pinterest aficionado, but each of those platforms (and more) have provided more professional development and ideas for me than many seminars, college classes, or conferences I've attended. My commitment is to avoid (at all costs) comparing my number of "followers" with anyone else. If my motivation is for growth for me and my students, then it really doesn't make one lick of difference how many followers I have. What makes a difference is that what I do online makes a difference for my kids. That's it. 
  • Although I don't consider myself to be an expert on a lot, I am committed to my own growth, development, and learning. This year afforded me the opportunity to share some of that learning in professional development settings. Much to my amazement and delight, those sessions were well-received, fostered relationships with some pretty amazing people, and stretched me as an educator and as a person. I'm looking forward to more of that in 2014.
  • Common Core is no longer a looming monster. Chalk this up to a mindset shift. In our district there's been some chaos in the implementation of CCSS. If you're in an elementary setting, you know the feeling of having to shift not just one subject, but everything. For a while it felt as though I was in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night in nothing but an empty and leaking dinghy. Now I know that although I still may not have answers or as many materials and strategies as I'd like, we will make it. My kids will be stronger thinkers, and better at asking questions and problem-solving. Perspective is what I gained.
  • I am not done. There is so much more to be part of; there are so many things to do, goals to set and reach. I love this inspiring talk from Diana Nyad, who shares her "impossible" goal. I can so relate to her spirit.
As this year comes to a close and a new one unfolds, be brave, move forward, fulfill your dreams. There are always going to be obstacles and nay-sayers, but each of us has the ability for greatness.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Living Up To Expectations

We all have tapes playing in our heads. Some good; some not so good. And some are downright negative. I think I'm pretty normal in that. 

Sometimes those tapes result in making decisions that are not necessarily the best ones. Not that they're bad; just not the best. It's so easy to jump on a bandwagon to gain approval from someone we respect or admire and before you know it we're over-committed. That, then, almost always leads to feelings of failure - or at least not being good enough. We compare ourselves to others who seem to have it more together, who are farther along the path, or a plethora of ideals or qualities we deem inadequate in ourselves.

Today I'm sitting in my windowed great room watching the snow swirl outside. It has taken over the landscape. It's impossible to ignore or escape. Where just last week there was green grass, now it is white - all white. It makes me think about the "stuff" in life that wants to take over and cover up what really drives me, much as the snow is doing to the once green and thriving grass. The temptation of doing in order to keep up with or impress others covers up and makes dormant the life we are meant to lead. In an attempt to be clever, likable, or even popular we allow ourselves to be "covered" with whatever it is that grabs our attention and might move us up the ladder of, well, you fill in the blank.

Josh Stumpenhorst shared a poignant story from his own classroom on his blog, Stump the Teacher. A student in his class just wants to be noticed. She wants others to know her name. Not famous, not a star, not a Steve Jobs or Meryl Streep. Just noticed. Immediately I thought of students in my classroom who may share those feelings. I've been asking myself if I'm doing all I can to be sure each one feels known. Mostly, I think they do, and I work hard on making sure each one knows his or her importance to me.

Then it hit me that quite possibly I'm the one who is feeling unnoticed. There's really no logical reason for that. But it's those bad tapes. AS the snow is coming down outside, covering the flowers I never cut down, I realize that I have fallen into the trap of doing some things out of compulsion. Compulsion to succeed, to be part of the pack, to be seen as more worthy. And it's backfired. Not terribly or irreparably, but my own sense of self is getting a little lost. Instead of moving forward, I'm a little stuck. Almost feeling trapped. I'm not allowing my own creativity and knowledge of my kids and my abilities to drive me. That's not good for me or for my students.

So I have made a decision. Although the snow will inevitably keep all things covered at its will, I will get out from under my blanket. I will be more than satisfied with my own skill set, my own abilities and creativity, and my own perspective. I will get back to the business of doing what I know is "me" in every area of my life. Even in writing this post.

Are you allowing yourself to be covered up? Stop it. Be you.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Wow! It is SO fun to have friends come up with new words that have meaning and make me goals! "Nerdlution" is one of those words. Currently (as I'm typing) it's underlined in red, indicating that it isn't really a word. I'm convinced, though, that soon the underlining will disappear as is has with so many other great words ("iPad" and "blog" come instantly to mind).

This year I've wanted to be a better model for my kids in writing. I've vaguely done that. Haphazardly. I'm uncomfortable with that response. Nerdlution, however, is giving me that kick in the rear I need to get me back on track. Click here for Colby's post about it!

The super cool thing is that it's something I've been working through in my head for the past several weeks. And now, some of my Twitter (another word that doesn't show up in red underlining anymore!) friends have come up with an ingenious way to keep the writing going! Yay for them, good for me, and GREAT for my kids!

So this is my writing for today. And (by the way) I've been ADHD through the whole thing; read at least four other blogs and tweeted some, too. Now, to get those dang papers checked before I go to bed. Oh, and read some more...

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sunshine Award

My phone was off today. Not just silenced. Off. I spent some time with my hubby and younger daughter, and the three of us went to see "Catching Fire" since we had all read the book. It was a nice outing for us. images When I turned my phone back on (after I realized I had left it in the car!) my heart warmed and out came a chuckle when I saw I had been nominated for a Sunshine Award! Thanks, Ben! @benjamingilpin has a great blog, so be sure and check it out here! He's also my principal and doles out sunshine to students and staff every day!
This is a way for bloggers to get to know each other and one of the cool things about it is that there are limitless "winners"! The Sunshine award gives others an opportunity to learn more about me as a blogger and then, in turn, I will send sunshine the way of 11 other amazing bloggers for you to get to know! Here are the "official" rules:
  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love!
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.
11 Random Facts About Me
1. I flunked out of my first semester of college, even though I had a full music scholarship.
2. For three years I traveled and played music in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and the islands of Mauritius and Reunion.
3. My mother-in-law was my high school National Honor Society advisor, but I didn't marry (or know) her son until my late 30s.
4. Fudge Ripple ice cream and the machine to make it was invented by my grandfather. Even before I knew that, it was my favorite flavor!
5. I am a classically trained pianist, violinist, and vocalist (and love it), but my favorite genre to play and sing is jazz and/or blues.
6. My mother taught me to sew so I grew up making most of my own clothes. I've made a couple of wedding dresses and reupholstered several pieces of furniture. I really want to start making handbags. It's still one of those things I feel guilty doing because I love it so much.
7. My mother went into labor for me when she witnessed my dad rolling the car over as he came into the driveway. Fortunately he was okay and my life hasn't been a complete wreck!
8. I have done quite a bit of theater (but not lately). My two favorite roles were Sarah in the musical "Guys and Dolls" and Amanda in the Noel Coward play "Private Lives."
9. I would love to be a contestant on "Survivor." Honestly, it would be a dream come true!
10. School is my "happy place." Although there was a learning curve with the change to fourth grade, and the shift to common core is challenging, I love what I do and truly believe I make a difference in my kids' lives.
11. I do not feel like I'm as old as my drivers' license says I am. I think of myself as a young adult with lots of life ahead of me - and a lot to learn.
The Answers to Ben's Questions for Me:
1. I definitely prefer to shop in stores, although I also enjoy shopping online. I like being a "gatherer" and spending my time in the shoe or handbag departments of nice stores. Or dresses. Or skirts. You get the idea, right?

2. Ben asked how many pairs of shoes I own. Seriously?  Do you want me to count the ones I am thinking about giving to St. Vincent's? I lost count at 60... I think I need to go shopping.

3. My favorite type of music is jazz or blues. However, I have very eclectic taste in music and also adore classical (especially from the classical: Beethoven, romantic: Chopin and Schumann, or impressionistic: Ravel eras). I also love musicals (Stephen Sondheim, Rogers and Hammerstein, Claude-Michel Schönberg), if that counts as a genre. The one genre I don't enjoy is country. My favorite band is Chicago, but again, there are so bands and artists I admire it's hard to choose one.

4. I love both cats and dogs. I believe having one or the other helps you as a person. However, at the moment I prefer dogs because if I said "cats" then my dog, Charlie, would be emotionally scarred.

5. My typical bedtime is 11 p.m. or later, despite my almost-daily resolution to hit the sack earlier.

6. My favorite twitter chat is #titletalk. (Thanks, @donalynbooks and @colbysharp!)

7. I have deep reservations when it comes to politicians and have never claimed allegiance to either the Democrat or Republican party, so I guess I'm "other." There are things I agree with and things I abhor in both parties.

8. The best place I ever vacationed was probably Culebra, a tiny island in the Caribbean whereI also got to teach for a bit. It's beautiful and unspoiled. It's also tricky to get to! But I also loved Germany with its beautiful castles and interesting history. DSCN1131And Panama.

9. Choosing the best book (singular) I've read so far in 2013 is very hard. Top five would be SO much easier...maybe! RUMP, by @lieslshurtliff, THE REAL BOY by @anneursu, THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING by @lindaurbanbooks, READING IN THE WILD by @donalynbooks, COUNTING BY 7s by @hgoldbergsloan. (I re-read WONDER by @rjpalacio - can that count?)

10. Telling my favorite television show when I was growing up is going to give away the age on my driver's license!  I loved "The Wild, Wild West" but would have to say my favorite was "The Dick VanDyke Show" and then "Laugh-In" when that came out.

11. One thing I have rarely shared that I'm proud of is that I was blindsided by a divorce due to an affair (my older daughter was two at the time) and then finished my college education (bachelor and master degrees) as a single mom without child support. I finished both earning high/highest honors. During this time I had at least two concurrent jobs along with being a full-time student. I am now the first person in my family to have earned a masters degree. I honestly don't think about it that much, but when I look back, it's kind or surreal to think that I really did that!

Bloggers who deserve the "Sunshine Award" include: 
Eleven Questions for these Bloggers
1. Why did you start blogging?
2. Do you prefer warm or cold weather? Any reason for that?
3. Have you (and/or your family) decorated for the holidays yet? Why or why not?
4. Whom would you say is the ONE person in history you admire the most and why? 
5. What's your favorite beverage?
6. If you could recommend only one book to someone to read, what would it be?
7. What is one thing on your "bucket list" not many people - or maybe no one - knows about?
8. What's the most relaxing vacation you've been on? 9. Who brings you the most joy in your life?
10. If you could give a lot of money to one organization, which one would it be and why?
11. What's your favorite color?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Week of Two Drews

I LOVE Skype.
I first learned to love it when I taught in Culebra for three months. This tiny island is part of Puerto Rico but is only about 21 square miles and very limited amenities in terms of, well, just about anything except beautiful beaches and wonderful snorkeling. While we had a great experience, we felt pretty isolated, especially due to the fact that the vast majority of the people converse in Spanish and we knew practically none.
My husband and I had agreed before we left that we would Skype almost daily. We did, except when we had no internet (a too-oft-occurring situation) and it made an incredible difference in Hannah's and my emotional well-being. 
When I got back into my classroom state-side, we began to Skype with other classrooms and authors. It was wonderful to expose my kids to other places and people. It was engaging and opened them to thinking in new ways.
Fast-forward to the point of this post. The book, THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT, by Drew Daywalt, is a wonderful 2013 book I read to my kids. One day on Twitter there was a conversation with "Drew" and someone else about a Skype in a classroom. I'm not shy about asking for a Skype for my kids, so I butted in on the conversation and made the request. I was ELATED when he agreed! We set the date and I excitedly announced the great news to my kids. 
Drew and I exchanged several emails about the details of our Skype and I was amazed that this was all working so perfectly. Our time is all set for Tuesday morning at 9:00.
Then a few days ago there was a Nerdy Book Club post about CRAYONS! It was a great post, so I tweeted it out along with the message that I was excited to have Drew meet my kids. Within an hour, I had a personal message from HIM, saying he didn't have me on his calendar for a Skype. He asked me to email him. My stomach turned, my mind raced, and I'm sure I lost a few years of life. Panic-stricken, I searched through our email exchanges. What eventually emerged was that the Drew we were scheduled to Skype with is NOT Drew Daywalt, of CRAYONS fame. Instead, this was Drew Dyer, a yet-to-be-published artist and author who has made some incredible illustrations. I felt stupid and embarrassed.
In my email to Mr. Daywalt, I fessed up to my errors and came clean. But this is where it gets really good. He suggested a theme for the week: A Week of Writers Named Drew! And now, ladies and gentlemen, we are Skyping with him!!! YES!!! Monday at 1:00!
That afternoon the packet from Mr. Dyer (the other Drew) came and it is AMAZING! He made personalized bookmarks for each of my kids - and one for me, too! His artwork is so much fun, and he's giving my kids a chance to send him some of their own drawing of alien alphabet letters! He's also sent a personal letter to each of the kids, so when he IS published, they'll have a wonderful part of his journey!
So the bottom line is that I messed up ROYALLY but somehow it worked out that my kids get to meet two amazing authors at two different points in their writing/illustrating journeys!
I am beyond thankful for what is happening in my classroom this Thanksgiving week!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

When Change is Good

Yes, she's mine....and I am almost done restoring her! :)
Monday morning my kids came into a classroom that had been significantly rearranged. I had moved my room around this summer, but the new layout just wasn't working. On many occasions this school year I was fumbling for materials, frantic to find a place to store important (or ungraded) papers, and digging through piles to locate my projector remote. So this past Sunday was spent in and out of my classroom before and after church with my family, lunch, and a trip to my dad's to store my 1973 VW Super Beetle for the winter.  
Just getting started provided a more positive mindset.  Making the decision to get rid of materials I had chosen to avoid last year gave me direction. Each loaded cart hauled to the storage room (AKA Curriculum Cemetery) lightened my step and made my smile a little bigger. Those cupboards in the back of the room that had been filled with unused materials were replaced with organized classroom supplies and updated teaching materials. My table made its new home at the back of the room right next to the counter (and cupboards!) so the kids would have more room up front. The clutter that had grown like an unwanted fungus on my table was removed.  It was a tiring but victorious day.
I am happy to say that because of the success of Sunday, the week that followed was filled with positive events as well. Lesson plans were at the ready, copies for kiddos were in their places (not covered up with a zillion other things), and my table was open for more effective conferencing and for kids to concentrate undisturbed. Plus that, the projector and Apple TV remote were always in plain sight! My kids were engaged and less distracted and chatty. They were more responsive to each other and to me.  On top of that they seemed to raise their own levels of expectation of themselves. We were ALL back on top of things. We were all just a little happier! The credit belongs to creating a more inviting and organized space.
 Happy Kiddos!
While I had to remind myself several times this week that yes, I DO have a place for that and I know where it is, I have to say the results that came from the hard work of organization are a grand thing. Getting rid of unnecessary things that brought stress made even the busiest week (including conferences!) more manageable. One day of focused and no-holds-barred cleansing did a world of wonders for me and for my students! It offered a gigantic boost to my confidence, my competence,  and (most importantly!) their engagement and learning.  I am now ready for my next project!
How do you let go of things that are causing you stress or keeping you from having your head where it needs to be? Have any tips? How often do you toss things? What goes into your decisions to get rid of materials or keep them? I'd love to hear how you prioritize things in your classroom as you prepare units and lessons! Please share!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

It's That Time Again

As teachers, the end of each quarter requires entering grades and comments for every student report card onto a standardized program that is supposed to communicate to parents how their child is progressing in school.  It seems as though every kid is affected by their report card, though, either positively or negatively. I remember mine always being an anxious event and made me feel worse about myself rather than better.

For many years, the American education system has had an unspoken (or in some districts spoken) rule about how to "do" grades. The rule of thumb seems to be to spend time in the classroom working on a concept, hand out worksheets or other assignments about the concept, collect the worksheets (or projects), and grade them. If a student's worksheets aren't done properly or turned in on time, his or her grade is negatively affected. Then they're given a test that they complete quietly at their desks. That test is supposed to show how smart (or not) they are.

We just finished our first quarter. My fourth-graders have not yet taken a "test".  That's a little scary to say out loud. (I should probably clarify that we have formative assessments all the time, and kids are constantly being asked to rate their own understanding and skill set in every subject area.)

I got to thinking about the whole test thing through the lens of our real lives. In the various (and numerous) careers I had before entering teaching, I didn't take tests. I may have had a yearly evaluation; in fact, in most positions, I did have a yearly evaluation. It was a conversation, though, where my progress was discussed and goals for the future were made. It was encouraging and challenging. It reminded me of my strengths and weaknesses, and spurred me on to reach for new goals. I had a specific job with a job description and hours in which to do my job. I didn't have homework (until I became a teacher) either, and if I had to work overtime, often my superior would offer some comp time.

If I truly want to prepare my kids for their futures, teaching them how to take a test doesn't seem like a crucial element. What is absolutely essential is for each child to be able to read, to love reading, to write, to enjoy and feel confident in their writing. They need to understand numbers and make sense of them. They really need to be able to solve problems, whether that's number problems or life problems. And they DO need to demonstrate mastery of a concept or skill. But over all of that, I want my students to know in their heads and in their hearts that they are learning and growing and developing.

My kids have learning targets. They know what their goals are. They keep track of how they're doing on those targets (goals). I know, too. I know some of them have far exceeded their learning goals and others are still struggling. Each time we chat about their book, each time they edit and revise, each time they practice a math skill, they are showing what they know. In social studies our kids have shown what they know by choosing a format in which they demonstrated their learning. Most of the kids did a great job using their creativity (music, posters, and art) and the technology we have at our disposal (prezi, PowerPoint and iMovie). It was interesting to observe that some kiddos had trouble landing on what they wanted to produce and others knew immediately.

The bottom line, though, is that every kid has grown. Every kid is further down the road.

How do you report learning at report card time? Do you have a secret or idea to share or some insight? What are your thoughts on including homework or lowering grades for assignments not turned in?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Messy, Messy, Messy

I can remember my mom saying those words many times in my life: "Messy, messy, messy," as she shook her pointer finger in my direction. She was not by any means a good housekeeper (as I recall it, anyway) and yet she worked very hard to teach me how to clean - and do a flawless job with it - when I chose to, anyway. She was one of those moms who, after any piano, voice, or violin recital, would say, "That was really nice. Now, how could you improve on that next time?" That is a voice that is in my head on pretty much a daily basis. And sometimes, I admit, it feels more like a sentence than a blessing. She worked on my posture, on my sewing skills, and even my eyebrows.

Those memories are helping me come to terms with the situation in education today.

When I got my teaching degree I had already worked in the business marketplace doing a variety of things. One of those was with an international trade association, where our team planned and executed trade exhibitions that included literally thousands of exhibitors, covering thousands of square feet in enormous buildings. Our exhibitors were household names from all over the globe. Many of them spent up to half a million dollars on their exhibit alone. They each wanted an exhibit that would pull people in and make them curious and excited about their product(s). Those times were opportunities to work with a team, to know what the goal was, to set up and use parameters in reaching those goals, and to infuse all of that with ingenuity and creativity in order to pull off something memorable. It was often a messy business in the process, but the end goal made it worthwhile.

To be a teacher these days means being educated, informed, creative and flexible. It's a very messy business. Every core subject area is brand new: math, reading, writing (and the spelling, grammar, and vocabulary that goes along with those). At the elementary level, that makes for a lot of content to consider all at once. We also have a goal of moving to standards-based grading. Teachers are trying to figure out what is truly essential for our students to master, what materials to use, what pacing should be, what common assessments are to be written. On top of that there are ideas pouring into our inbox, on Twitter, through blog posts, and Pinterest and they're all vying for our attention. Teachers are looking for great apps for their classrooms. Put that all together and it often leaves folks working hours and hours more than before, yet feeling as though they're drowning and inadequate. Where "lifelong learners" was once a new catch phrase, it's now a must-do in the world of teaching.

Do I feel frustrated? Often. Drowning? Usually. Inadequate? Of course. Wheels spinning but going nowhere, asking questions and getting no concrete answers, having meetings that leave me (and my colleagues) with more questions than answers.

I have to keep reminding myself why I got into teaching, what my purpose is, and the perks (yes, although many financials ones have been taken away, there are still perks!) that come with it. Here's what I choose to dwell on:

  • I  love watching kids take ownership of their learning. To ask the kids to raise their hands if they need more help with multi-stop word problems and see those who need help put their hands in the air with no shame is inspiring. To then have other kids in the class help those kids and verbalize their own thinking is even more inspiring.
  • I love hooking kids up with authors and characters they can relate to.  One of my boys lit up completely when he found out I had set aside THE RUNAWAY KING for him. He thought it was missing. Another wiggled with excitement as she shared where she is in MARTY MCGUIRE DIGS WORMS and how she loves Marty. Another has become entrance in WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON and another in anything by Linda Urban (currently reading THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING).  I could go on and on with this one...
  • I love watching kids gain confidence in their math skills after practicing, explaining their thinking, and practicing some more. Yesterday an audible gasp came out of a student when it clicked with her how to round any whole digit number to any place value up to a million. We were working together on an iPad. *Gasp* "Mrs. Gibbs, I GET it now!" That was followed by several green checks indicating her right answers on, a continuous grin on her face, and a bounce in her step when she put the iPad away and went to her next center.
  • I love planning and going on field trips (cheap ones that take a lot of work but not much money). They give my students an opportunity to meet interesting people and understand government and business, and have them become curious and interested in things they considered boring before. Plus that, the adults involved (the mayor, and the VP of a large local business, for example) are way excited about being involved with my kids and ready to help in any way they can.
  • I love going to a homecoming game (or any game/match at the middle- or high school) and seeing both current and former students. Last night three of my former boys (who were characters) reached DOWN to give me the sweetest hugs and told me about their current endeavors in college and the Air Force. My kids from this year hollered my name and gathered around for hugs and smiles.
  • I love having meaningful conversations with other educators around the topic of all of the above. Being around others who share a passion for kids, their learning, and their lives is a perk that is beyond any monetary compensation. I so appreciate my colleagues, whether they're in my building, on Twitter, or through some other connection.

I know I make a difference. In these crazy times of transition and change, it's imperative to keep what's important front and center. I will keep moving forward. I will continue to make my mark. I will not let the detours, the uncertainties, or the debates dissuade me. Although sometimes (often) I will question myself or become frustrated with what is out of my control, I will continue to love on and teach and learn from my kids, no matter how messy it gets.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Only Cosmetic? I Don't Think So...

Amanda, artist extraordinaire, who painted our
"think bubble" outside our classroom.
Last night was our elementary school's open house. You know, the big event when parents and students come in to investigate the classroom, get a feeling for the room's vibe, meet the teacher, find the desk and locker, and see who else is (or isn't) in their class. It was fabulous. It left me entirely and completely exhausted.

Our fourth grade girls' bathroom, with artwork by Jody
You see, this summer has probably been the busiest of my life. I have attended and/or presented at more conferences than ever, have been working on restoring my 1973 Super Beetle, and coordinated a wedding with TWO receptions. On top of that, we (the teachers) decided to paint all the bathrooms in our school, and then concluded it was so cool we should also paint the outsides of our classrooms to help create a more kid-friendly environment. We worked hard and had lots of great help from other staff, from current and former students, and from the community.

Yes, there's a Lochness Monster in our girls' bathroom!
Please understand: I am NOT complaining! On the contrary, mine was the first "non-white" classroom in the building. Several years ago after reading some research on colors and learning, my principal gave me the go-ahead to paint my room. I bought the paint myself and did the painting on my own "time off." The front is a nice blue (helps with concentration and mood) and the other walls are a calming color of green. Parents and students were happy campers and many would make some sort of happy comment or sigh as they settled into the room. I know it makes me feel a little happier and content. When I was given a different classroom, I painted again. This time I asked my artistically talented older daughter to add some quotes on several of the walls, which she happily completed. This sweet addition delighted me and my students. A little joke then started around the building that I was going to be moved again and again until all the rooms were painted. It was funny. But then I really was moved. It wasn't so funny. I painted. Again. I thought I was done painting. I was...momentarily. Until this summer. No reprieve. Not even one year. *sigh*

Love how he went around the corner with this one...
...and this one, too.
Instead of painting around windows and heaters, this summer I painted around toilets and urinals. I remember thinking to myself (as my face was centered over an open toilet) that my kids would know how much I loved them if they could only see me doing THIS. We finished the base coats in both the boys' and girls' bathroom and then our artists came in to make it way cool. And I do mean way cool. The boys' bathroom has graffiti art, done by Josh (who did the amazing "Choose Kind" artwork in my classroom). Jody, a former student, did kids from around the world in the girls' bathroom. She brought in her mom, sister, and brother to complete the work. Dr. Seuss' line, "The more you read the more you'll know; the more you know the more places you'll go" will dance across the top of the wall when Amanda can squeeze some time out of her busy schedule. Both bathrooms are tour-worthy. As a matter of fact, during our open house I sent girls into the boys' bathroom and boys into the girls'. They loved it.

I think this is the one I need to remember most!
So why paint classrooms and bathrooms?? Not because I have nothing to do during the summer, that's for sure. Not because it's my personal taste. Not even to cover up the ugliness of the old dirty white paint.  Really, it's because I want my kids to feel great when they're in this space. I want them to remember school as a wonderful place to be. A place they felt good about themselves and people around them. A place where some of their most precious memories are. I want them to feel like they can curl up in a comfy chair and read a book or have a rousing debate about an issue in my classroom and be completely safe doing so. I want them to know that their teacher cares about them enough to make the bathroom fun and kid-friendly. I want them to know that every part of their life is important. That people care deeply. Go the extra mile for them. I want my kids to grow up knowing they're so very important.

Two of Josh's "tags" from the fourth grade boys' bathroom.
Open house means we're into the new school year. Summer is over and it's time for a new group of kiddos to love on, to nurture, to prod, to encourage, to challenge. This year, our building is ready at a whole new level.

I can hardly wait!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Taking the Bull by the Horns: Technology in the Classroom

Okay, so I'm type A. I get that. Sometimes I get ahead of myself because I am more than a little enthusiastic about something, especially if I think it will help my students. I get that. So I get excited about using technology with the kids in my classroom, and using technology as a teacher to engage them and to make life a little more manageable for myself. It is part of my DNA. Sometimes that can be a good thing. Sometimes I fall flat. But even then I'm at least moving forward.

Today was an incredible day of learning for the Jackson (Michigan) County Intermediate School District teachers and administrators. We are leading the way in technology not only in our county, but in our state. It was exciting to be part of this incredibly talented and smart group of dedicated professionals who are not afraid to become a part of a culture born (in many cases) many years after they had already reached adulthood. I am included in that demographic, but have to admit that my personality has a lot to do with my risk-taking.

Our ISD technology put together a day call EdTech, in which some sessions had pre-set presenters and some sessions were based on attendees' desires, much like EdCamps that happen all over the place these days. There were sessions about Twitter, Googledocs, tech for encouraging reading and writing, iMovie, blogging, iPad apps, and the list goes on. There was even a very cool announcement about a new iPad app that was created 100% by students ranging from 4th grade to high school seniors and is now available for free! In fact, my students were involved in the creation of that app, so it put a lump in my throat when they brought the kids up and made the big announcement!

I am so very proud that our building principal, Ben (@benjamingilpin), led a session for educators (including administrators!) who want to become a part of the twitter educational community. I am so very proud of my fellow fourth grade teacher, Breanna (@studiobree), who engagingly spreads the great news of how accessible iMovie is for teachers and students alike. I am amazed that a one-year teacher, Lisa, is willing to share her expertise on Weebly with a room full of veteran teachers and administrators.

This evening I feel very proud, encouraged, and blessed to be part of a team of people who are completely committed to moving forward. While not every endeavor we attempt is a success, it is gratifying to know we are all willing to make that attempt, we have permission to make the attempts, and there are people around us who readily offer encouragement and listening ears when we need them.

By the way, if you're interested in knowing more about what our JCISD technology team pulled off today, here's the link to check out the day's events. It includes names of presenters and links to some of the resources from the day's sessions. There's plenty there!!

JCISD EdTech Home Page

Saturday, August 3, 2013

We Need to Talk...

This week I spent three days....well, actually two and a a really expensive conference. It was fabulous, even though I have a problem with the how much they charged.

One of the biggest take-aways I had from this conference is that I need to be more specific in knowing and having my students know what the targeted learning goal is for whatever we're working on together in class. For several years now, my kiddos have written down their learning goals and we've worked toward mastery on them. Often, though, it would be written down and then not looked at or talked about for several days or even (embarrassingly) longer. We would be working on the learning target, but that goal wasn't probably always in the forefront of my kids' minds. I don't know, maybe it stuck there because we were working on it, but it would be much more effective for them to ALWAYS have that learning target in their brains so they achieve total, deep, and complete mastery of that targeted learning goal.

For example, I know my fourth graders must master two-digit by two-digit multiplication. This is a skill we laser-focused on and twice a week had kids in small groups according to mastery (or non-mastery) for intervention and enrichment. I sincerely believe this fall when they begin multiplication in fifth grade, the fifth grade math teacher will NOT send up a moan because half the kids don't get it. Hopefully, instead he'll high-five the kids (and their fourth grade teachers!) because they have complete mastery and deep understanding of this essential skill.

However, that one learning target is just one of how many?? There's my dilemma. We are seeing and hearing that we need to focus on deep learning, not on "inch deep and mile wide" learning. Pick the important things and ensure every kid understands them deeply. That is the objective.

So what is important and essential in learning? The "I Can" statements from the common core include every one of the standards. That, obviously, is NOT going to get at the imperative learning. There are twenty-two standards in reading alone! If we were to "focus" on each of those, the kids would have to gain mastery of each one in a little over a week. Keeping track of them would be a nightmare. That doesn't even touch on the standards in writing! Plus that, I want my kids to love reading and writing. I don't want them to be bogged down with tracking twenty-two plus learning targets. So which of those standards are ones they HAVE to know and which ones are NICE to know?

(Caveat: I've read the standards and I teach them. I intentionally blend more than one together to get a bigger bang for the buck. However, that's not the point I'm struggling with.)

What I'm having a hard time nailing down is how I get my kiddos to understand,

"This is what I need to know and this is how I can show I know it." 

It's that meta-cognition of the targeted learning.

I work in building with 100% dedicated professionals. I'm VERY fortunate. Our principal is extremely supportive and motivational, and he's also a lifelong learner. I am also very fortunate to know through twitter, Nerdy Book Club, and other professional connections some really smart teachers. So I would like to get some dialogue going through twitter, or whatever means we can. Here is the question I'd love to see us all wrestle with and dialogue about:

In your grade level, which of the standards do you deem as the top two, three, or four, non-negotiables for our kids to learn at their grade level?

Our goal is to ensure that every student learns at high levels. Our assumption has to be that the teacher(s) from the previous grade level was operating under that same goal.

Could we talk about this? Please send feedback here and/or on twitter! @suz_gibbs #edessentials

Sunday, July 28, 2013

I & E: A Kid-Friendly and Powerful Tool

I have had the opportunity to teach many grades. Actually. I've taught every grade level. That's pretty amazing to me, too, because I've only been a classroom teacher for about 11 years. And I'm much older than that would lead you to believe. The point in this is that in every grade there are kids who are ahead of the "curve" and kids who are behind. We all know this. Great teachers strive to uncover ways to help kids progress no matter where they may be on the spectrum of academic achievement.

Several years ago when I was teaching first graders, another teacher in my building and I decided we would try something we called "Math Exchange." Weekly we gave our kiddos a short formative assessment on targeted math concepts or skills we were focused on at the time and then sort our kids according to their level of mastery. Not surprisingly, we found groups of kids who had reached mastery, another group of kids who just needed some practice, and some who were totally lost.

This led us to enlist the help of some of our parents. We would develop an activity so our students who had reached mastery could be challenged to the next level and typically our parent volunteers would lead those groups. We would also have groups that just needed practice. Again, this was a perfect fit for parents who could help those kids. The two teachers would then focus on those students who needed some extra help on the skills they really needed to know. We spent about 20 minutes on a specific practice, activity, or intervention.

We found this time to be not only valuable educationally, but also an experience our kids looked forward to! We began doing this once or twice a week, and our kids worked really hard so they could be in an "E" group, which were our enrichment groups! In other words, they were highly motivated to master the math skill!

When I moved a year or so later into fifth grade, our building had added two teachers focused on RTI. We were also developing our focus on standards-based learning, so our kids were becoming more aware of and taking more ownership in their learning. Our fifth grade team worked to develop and enlarge the concept of Math Exchange and ended up calling it I & E, which stands for Intervention and Enrichment. Eventually, we were engaged in I & E four days each week, with two days focused on math and two on language arts.

This past year I moved to fourth grade, where (hopefully!) I'll be for the rest of my teaching career. My teammate and I implemented I & E, much to the delight of our students! We were able to enlist both of our RTI teachers along with education majors from our local university, some of our incredible parents, and even our principal at times. We found that it helped our students in some profound ways at all points on the spectrum.

In order for you to get an idea of the nuts and bolts of this, let me share with you what a typical week would look like in fourth grade.

Formative assessments: These are absolutely a must. Formative assessments must be focused on the targeted learning goal. They should be quick to complete (five minutes or less) and quick to check. Some examples for math are 2-digit by 2-digit multiplication or comparing fractions. Examples for language arts include nouns, verbs, or any other part of speech you're working on, or students' development of  a piece of writing (beginning ideas all the way to published writing). Our goal was (and is) to give our formative assessment late in the week and plan our time for the following week according to the results.

We then grouped our students so the more intervention that was need the smaller the group became. We also made it a point to have parents with groups that needed the least amount of guidance.

I & E Time: We scheduled math for Monday and Thursday; language arts was on Tuesday and Friday. They were always toward the end of the day and we made sure it was part of our RTI teachers' schedule. Sometimes in language arts we simply gave kids who needed more time to work on their writing that time while other students developed iMovies from writing they had done. Once or twice during the year we had kids practice readers' theater and grouped them according to reading levels (although we never told them that's how they were grouped). They loved it! They would practice for several days during language arts I & E time and then perform for the rest of the fourth graders, typically during a Friday I & E time. They were engaged, often suggested props and/or costumes, and looked forward to the day they could present to their classmates. We often invited our kindergarten or first grade reading buddies and that made it even better!

The following is one week of just my kiddos and where they were slated to go for the week. The other fourth grade teacher did the same for her kids.

Math Intervention and Enrichment
Week of April 29, 2013
Monday and Thursday
Division Practice
Mrs. Gibbs
Double Digit Division
Mrs. Schaible
Double Digit Division
Mrs. Rooney
Fractions of…
Miss Hinkley
Mr. Baum
iMovie Fractions

* Olivia

Livi +
Emma +

Cole +
*Go to this group first. Once you really “get it” you may go to the other group.

We found this to be an extremely valuable tool to help our kids all reach the next level of learning, no matter where they were on the learning curve.

This coming year, I know we will tweak our formative assessments according the needs of our kids, but it is gratifying to know we have discovered an exciting tool to engage and challenge every single student!

Questions? Please comment! Do you have a similar strategy in place?? I'd love to hear about it!

@suz_gibbs on twitter or simply comment!