Amazing Kids

Amazing Kids

Monday, April 6, 2015

Happy Place

I love being in my classroom. It truly is my happy place. The only other place I would consider to equally as intoxicating is the beautiful and mostly unnoticed island of Culebra.

This year, in our classroom, I decided to go with tables rather than desks. Last year I dumped my "teacher" desk to make room for a kidney table. It made a wonderful place for kids to plop while they're reading, and spurred SO much conversation with my kids. Since getting rid of my desk made such a difference, my hope was to make my kids' work space feel comfortable, flexible, welcoming, and be a catalyst for conversation, thinking, investigating, and growing. Fortunately, my principal, Ben Gilpin, was totally and completely supportive (typical) of this and made sure I had the tables. I also persuaded my husband to build a couple more bookshelves, as my classroom library was busting at the seams! A by-product of this was that it allowed me to make more cozy spots for readers, for collaboration, and for - well, for anything!

Little did I realize how much of a positive impact it would have on our small community of learners and on me.

1. The learners in our room feel more comfortable to move around the room. With desks, there was more of a sense of "this is mine, so don't sit here." Now, I am constantly surprised with some of the choices my kiddos make in where they park themselves.

2. Learners share with each other and tend to make sure everyone has what they need. If there aren't enough colored pencils or some need sharpening, they pitch in and help each other. There's no hoarding; they are practicing kindness and reciprocity.

3. Collaboration is authentic. Kiddos can talk with someone across the table or right next to them. They make connections in various ways.

4.  Nine- and ten-year-olds learn to make smarter decisions and take more responsibility. We have chatted often about how important goals are, how we achieve those goals, and what gets in the way of reaching our goals. Now these kiddos articulate clearly if they need to move to a different table, or will trade spots at the table if distraction becomes a hindrance to learning.

5.  The room feels more friendly. I cannot even remember how many people have commented on this. Parents, grandparents, college students, tech crew members, visiting teachers, and even my own daughters have noticed it! That's huge.

Are we done? No, I'm already thinking of other ways to tweak our setup! But it's great to know we're on our way!

What have you done in your classroom to make it more inviting? Learner-friendly? Please share! We're better together!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Dublin Ohio!

It's late, but I'm pretty excited to be attending my first Dublin Literacy conference! I'm looking forward to catching up my twerps and learning a ton from some super smart people!

I am feeling extremely blessed to be here and so thankful to my family for agreeing to let me come (or maybe they really just wanted me out of the house for a couple of days!!

A huge thanks to Franki Sibberson for organizing this, too! Now to read until my eyes droop shut...

About Those Assessments

Formative assessments, summative assessments, standardized assessments, and report cards. How do they shape instruction? What impact do they have on learners (and their parents)?

As a kid, I took the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) each year, an early standardized test. I don't remember ever knowing what my score was, nor did I care. But I do remember hating having to take the test and feeling stupid every time there was a question I was unable to answer with confidence. When I think of standardized assessment for the kids in my class, I have that lingering memory and attempt to assuage fears, embarrassment, and feelings of inadequacy that many of them have attached to them like an extra appendage.

At the beginning of each school year, and then as a reminder several times throughout the year, I give a little talk to my kids. I tell them about my two daughters and their potty-training experiences. Jessie was our first and she was completely potty trained (even through the night) about a month before she turned two. She has only wet the bed once in her life. When Hannah came along, it was quite another story! Although she walked much earlier than Jessie, she was determined NOT to potty on the potty! We tried everything in the book, but it seemed that she'd just hang out on the toilet, often crying, screaming, yelling about how she didn't have to go potty. When we would finally let her get off, she'd promptly "do her business" in her diaper. We were convinced she'd still be in diapers when she went to college. As it turned out, she was four before we could safely say diapers were no longer in her future. The point that I make to my kids, though, is that even though the two girls had completely different timelines in their potty training, they both eventually got there! And that's how it often is with learning.

Literacy assessment is so important, and we use it on a daily basis to help my kids grow. I conference with students about their reading, writing, and math. We are honest with each other about how they are growing and what learning goals they have. When they are working toward their goals, they own their learning more readily and have an intrinsic motivation for achieving that goal.

It is important to show that students are growing in all areas of literacy and moving toward becoming proficient and eager readers and writers. Just as children learn to walk at different ages, kids are going to develop their skills in literacy at different ages. Our assessments should reflect goals reached, strengths, weaknesses and next steps in development. What I find often is more of a status symbol or (at the other end) a statement that a child is not up to snuff. do is reflect a "grade equivalent", as this leads to children (and parents) feeling either inferior or superior (stupid or smart). Once a child feels "behind" it can often be counter-productive to maintaining a positive mind-set in literacy development. And yet, often children will naturally grow within the "normal range" if that pressure is simply removed.

My job as an educator is to help all kids learn to love reading, and lead them to become independent readers who can find and choose "good fit" books. In writing, it is to develop a love for getting their thoughts and ideas down, with confidence that small ideas, crazy ideas, everyday ideas often end up in a great story! It is also to help them embrace the fact that while they typically read a book from the first page to the last, writing is an exciting journey that holds many revisions, and although there are deadlines for completing some writing in our classroom, they are free to keep putting their ideas down on paper (or on the computer) for the rest of their lives! There's no need to "finish"! (unless you are fortunate enough to get a book deal!)

In the last couple of weeks, my kiddos had both math and reading standardized tests (online). While I am very proud of their progress, I also know that some of them had an off day, so the scores still don't reflect their true amount of learning. In addition, some of the questions were very difficult to understand, so that threw off kids enough that it did not reflect their true knowledge.

Honestly, I'm not sure that standardized testing does anything positive for our kids' learning. Inevitably I think about all the things the kids could be engaged in to learn every single time they sit down to take one of those tests. It won't help them learn math, spelling, language, problem solving, history, vocabulary, or social skills. However, I'm sure it makes some people a lot of money.

Here's a fun video on testing!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Two Days - Two Books

Land turtles are slow. They plod. Stop. Plod. Stop. Sea turtles are calm, graceful, powerful, and fast.

When it comes to reading, I have several "sea turtle" friends. Typically, I'm more like a land turtle. In the last two days, though, a couple of books have captured me and not let go. This, despite my incredibly busy (and admittedly out-of-balance) life.


EL DEAFO is a book several of my PLN buddies have raved about. I hadn't seen it, but caved to the peer pressure, ordered it (from an independent book seller), and it finally arrived.

Once I opened the front cover, though, I couldn't put it down, even though graphic novels are not typically a format that pulls me in. The way in which the subject matter is presented, and the way it's written, is magic. It takes on authentic challenges, real feelings, and true-to-life responses. I appreciate how it addresses the hearing impaired main character dealing with not being able to hear, with her having to get hearing aids, and how she felt about it and dealt with it! My classroom kids will be able to relate that to another of their favorite characters, August, from WONDER, by RJ Palacio, which is another of their favorite books. 

I imagine every kiddo in my classroom who reads it will pass it on to another and another, and another, and... Which means kids will have a shift in paradigm and a more healthy understanding of what it is like to live with a hearing impairment. YAY!!!

Way to go Cece Bell!! You're a genius - and a superhero!!

Here's Cece talking about her experiences as a kid! (I'm showing this to my kids tomorrow!!)

There are books I think I "should" read because they're Newbery Award books. Since I'm a late-comer to the the whole "reading for pleasure" thing, there are MANY books I've missed out on. One of my unofficial goals is to begin to fill in the gaps by reading several Newbery books each year. I recently purchased A SINGLE SHARD by Linda Sue Park. I've already read A LONG WALK TO WATER, which I LOVED (and so have many of my students), so I figured it was a pretty safe bet.

Probably if you've read the rest of this blog so far, you're thinking that I'm some freak who shouldn't be teaching reading to fourth graders because I probably write like a middle schooler with a mighty big crush on books and their authors. However, I'm so excited about A SINGLE SHARD - and on so many levels - that I'm going to put aside those thoughts and spout for a few minutes.

First, I love the notes that Linda (I'm going to pretend we're on a first-name basis) added at the end, giving historical credibility to her story. Her precise and intentional decisions as she wrote put her writing at a whole new level. Kids will want to look up this "celedon green" on their ipads and see if they can find the same vase online. They will also most likely look for Korea on the world map, and hopefully try to find the route that Tree-Ear followed as he made his trek to the palace. I will proudly announce this as a new addition to our historical fiction section in our classroom library and will encourage our school librarian to order several copies as well so my kids won't fight over who gets to read it next.

I love the loyalty Tree-Ear shows to Min, despite Min's harshness. I equally love Tree-Ear's loyalty to Crane-Man, who has loved him as a father for most of Tree-Ear's life. I love the ability Linda Sue Park has to allow me to even smell the village, under the bridge, and how she allows us to peek into Min's wife's kindness and growing love for Tree-Ear. The understated leadership Min's wife demonstrates is truly remarkable, as is the unwavering care Tree-Ear shows to his elders.

To me, this is an unconventional read-aloud, but such an important one. Probably every reading/language teacher worth his or her salt has read it and/or recommended it to kids. Now I can say that, too!

The more I read the more thankful I am for the amazing people who dare to share their writing with us.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Waiting for Normal

The cover of Leslie Connor's middle grade novel caught me. An old classic yellow trailer sitting at the bottom of a wistful blue sky. It didn't let on how much heartache, bravery, blurred lines, and love were contained in its pages.

Addie's story brought life to statistics that tell of children whose lives are anything but "normal." Her willingness to do what she needed to do in order to survive was amazing. Sadly, her story is similar to too many kids today.

I thought I'd write a "full length" review on Waiting for Normal, but I don't think my words can bring justice to it. You will come away with more empathy, hopefully more caution before passing judgement on the kids in your school/classroom, and become more of a cheerleader for those whose lives are spent without supportive parents. If a book could be judged on how much it makes you ache, this one would be one of those at the top.

Thank you, Leslie, for bringing Addie's life into ours. Thank you, HarperCollins, for bringing it to us.

Wow! That's a lot of awards!!
~New York Public Library’s “One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing”
~School Library Journal Best Book
~ALA Notable Children’s Book
~ALA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults
~The Schneider Family Book Award
~Texas Lone Star Reading List
~Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice
~2009 Connecticut Book Award