Friday, December 16, 2011

Reflections--A Look Back on 2011

On this last day of school of 2011, I feel compelled to reflect on the first half of this academic year, especially in light of my new position.  It began with a professional development workshop on assessment, which refined my vision for the year--kids have to know where they are headed, where they are now, and how they will close the gap.  They have to be able to name the things they are learning so they can evaluate their progress.  Teachers have to provide meaningful feedback in reasonable chunks and kids need time to reflect on their learning.  In my role as instructional coach I have been trying to hold these key ideas in my mind in all of my work with teachers.  I see the positive effects of teachers naming the learning targets for the kids, having them reflect on their progress, and setting weekly goals.  I am grateful to have attended the workshop led by the Assessment Training Institute and feel like this is the right path to take to help kids become more metacognitive and engaged learners.

The next stop on the professional development train took me to Kansas for Jim Knight's Instructional Coaching Institute.  My goals as a coach became easier to name as a result of the training:  be a better listener (active listening is really hard), work with people who are excited about being coached, and strive for reciprocity (by getting as much as I give).  I have tried to do these things, and I am particularly pleased to say that I have gotten far more than I have given.  I plan to continue working toward these goals in 2012.  Thank you to all of the teachers who have let me in your doors and allowed me to help you fine-tune your craft.

The rest of my professional development has happened on the job.  I am so lucky to work with such a broad range of teachers and their students, dealing with challenges as diverse how to introduce fiction writing to kindergarteners to how to engage middle schoolers in science.  I am most grateful to my coaching partner, Penni, and our technology integration specialist, Melissa.  All three of us are navigating instructional coaching together, even though we have different content expertise.  Thank you, Melissa, for inspiring me to begin this blog!

As I head off for winter break, I pack my bag full of what I'll need to begin 2012 well:  a list of blogs to read so I can stay abreast of what's working in schools near and far, a copy of Troy Hicks' The Digital Writing Workshop so I can continue to plan for how to move writing workshop into this century, and works by George Hillocks to deepen my understanding of inquiry-based learning.

Until next year...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Organic Technology?

At my school, we love the word "organic."  We love it so much, we even bought our own composting equipment and our students know how to sort their waste into "trash," "recycling," and "compost."

But I'm really more interested in our more frequent reference to organic change.  We believe that change should emerge "organically" (unless, of course, it is mandated), and that when the time is right and the people are willing, we will embrace the opportunities we are so blessed to have, like ipads for all students (and the teachers who work with them) in grades JK-4.  One can become numb to a word like "organic" because it feels too much like a fantasy, too obscured by visions of hippies and peace signs.  But I believe, much like Maria Montessori did, that if we provide people with the right materials, the best space in which to use them, and talented teachers to guide them, the organic process of coming to choose technology as a valuable resource in the classroom can and does happen.

Over the past week I have experienced this organic transformation. It began with a conversation with an amazing teacher who wanted to let her kids use their bubbling energy and creativity to create iMovies about the rock cycle.  It continued with an incredibly supportive technology integration specialist.  Then it traveled to the passionate science teacher and several other adults around the building who were willing to serve as expert geologists.  We knew we had found an amazing way to create a truly interdisciplinary performance assessment--we could naturally (organically, even) include science, language arts, and technology skills and content.

As we began to work through the plans we realized it would be easier to use Googledocs to create the unit plan since there would be four teachers (science, tech, homeroom, and coach) working on it.  We later decided that when students interviewed their primary source experts, they should record the interviews using the Voicethread app.  So, in the space of a few days, we found ourselves dripping in technology--not for technology's sake but because it would enhance teacher and student productivity.  The lessons begin next week and we can't wait to see what the students will create.  Watch for some of their projects here in the coming weeks. 

In a recent blog post, Troy Hicks lamented the negativity he felt when he and his colleagues presented their session on teaching digital literacy at this year's NCTE convention in Chicago.  He felt disheartened by teachers' concerns such as "I don’t have the time and the energy.  When do I have time to learn how to do this myself?  I am afraid the students know more than me. Where do I even begin?  I am teaching to my strengths – that doesn’t include this.  We can no longer talk with one another.  Why spend time on a tech project when we need to spend time on the paper…" 

Troy--don't give up.  We hear you.  We are getting there, little by little, one classroom discovery at a time.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

What's The One Book That Will Help Students Write Better?

A parent asked me this last week. Her daughter is interested in working on her writing outside of school, and the well-meaning parent wanted to know what book she could buy so her daughter could improve her writing skills. When I didn't immediately answer (how could I?), she continued..."if kids want to work on math, they use the math textbook. What's the equivalent to the math textbook for writing?" Again, I said nothing.

First of all, while I am not a math teacher, I am certain that any math teacher worth her certificate would refute this mother's assumption. A textbook is a resource, a collection of rules and examples, but not a bounty of math enrichment. I am certain that a child who wanted to brush up on math would be more enriched by a problem-based inquiry and investigation--a roll up your sleeves and figure out how to solve the problem of how to more effectively use a limited recess space/time for 110 kindergarteners and first graders. Lots of great math opportunity there--time, measurement, division...

So what did I tell this well-intentioned mom? First I'll tell you the last thing she said before I answered her. She frowned, sensing my answer, and said, "it must be so dependent on the teacher. If there's no one book that teaches kids to write, the teachers hold so much of the responsibility."

I smiled and nodded my head. I told her she was right, there was no one book a child could use on her own to guarantee that her writing would improve, and the quality of her teacher was a major factor in how well her child would unlock the skills to good writing. What I didn't go into was the much more complicated answer. There are books that can help her child become a better writer, but they aren't textbooks or workbooks. They are beautiful books for children like E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, filled with passages such as this: "The next day was rainy and dark. Rain fell on the roof of the barn and dripped steadily from the eaves. Rain fell in the barnyard and ran in crooked courses down into the lane where thistles and pigweed grew. Rain spattered against Mrs. Zuckerman's kitchen windows and came gushing into downspouts" (25). The rhythm, the words, the message--all magical. Or she could read any of Cynthia Rylant's warm and poignant books including Long Night Moon, from which this passage comes: "In March, a sap moon rises over melting ponds, sleepy bears, small green trees. It tells a promise and a hope." Children need to hear and read these powerful examples of rich language. These and so many other mentor texts point the way for young writers.

And there is another set of books that would help our young writers flourish--the professional texts that have guided my path as a writing teacher by Ralph Fletcher, Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Penny Kittle, Donald Graves, Donald Murray, Carl Anderson, Georgia Heard, Katie Wood Ray, and so many more. Now I am reading more professional texts about digital writing, so my list of professional mentors is growing. Teachers must find ways to demystify writing while at the same time making it transformative for students. This comes from being writers ourselves, sharing wonderful texts with our students, and breaking down writing strategies into chunks of meaningful instruction. And one more essential element--students need to write about things that matter to them for audiences that matter to them.

So much for one magic bullet writing textbook.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Student Collaboration Begins With Teacher Collaboration

Several weeks ago in a meeting between middle school language arts teachers, a beautiful idea was born. Beth asked if she could have her fifth grade students work with seventh graders--both classes were working on writing memoirs, and she thought her fifth graders might benefit from sharing their work with the older students to receive feedback. And the seventh graders would benefit in many ways--we all know that we don't fully understand something unless we can teach/explain it to someone else, so they would strengthen their understanding of strong moves a writer makes by pointing out places where their fifth grade writing partners could make better choices (or by pointing out p,aces where they had. Ads very strong choices already). They would also be reviewing the "rules" of good writing so they could take another look at their own work. And who knows--they might even receive helpful feedback fom the fifth graders.

Luckily Jen realized what a great opportunity this collaboration would be for her seventh graders, and she and Beth proceeded with the plans. It took a bit of emailing back and forth to find the best day and time for Beth's kids to travel upstairs to Jen's room, and Jen had to prepare her kids to act as mentors for the fifth grade writers. But the arranging and prepping paid off today as a room full of middle schoolers worked as collaborators as the bravely shared their memoirs with a partner two years older or younger and gave and received feedback about their narrative leads, their conclusions, their word choice, their sentence fluency, the "power of I" (a Nancie Atwell writing rule), their "so what" and so much more.

To think that this opportunity would have been missed if the middle school teachers of language arts had not decided to meet. This group does not have a designated time to meet because department meetings occur in two groups: JK-6 and 7-12. That means that our middle school language arts teachers, grades 5-8, do not meet. But this group found their own time to meet in November. I do hope we will meet again soon.