Friday, January 27, 2012

Make it Real to Make it Matter

So we began the fourth grade blogging unit lessons on Monday.  Some kids were excited, some were nervous, and many were confused.  What would they blog about?  Who would read their blog?  Would the whole world get to see it?  They settled down enough for us to go through our blog overview lessons and our two internet safety and responsibility lessons over the next several days.  They even played along during the third lesson when we asked them to write simulated respectful blog posts about scenarios like these:
  • You want to write a blog post about your most recent math test, which you finished before anyone else and answered all of the problems correctly.  How can you write this AND be respectful of your classmates who did not finish as quickly or as well?  What would you write?
  • You want to write a blog post about a group project that you recently participated in, but you don’t think that everyone in your group contributed equally.  You are proud of the work you did.  What would you write?
There's nothing wrong with these scenarios, except that they were scenarios, not real and immediate.  While some of the students have actually experienced these situations and my choose to blog about them when they get underway next week, the kids all knew that this wasn't for real.   The blog posts they wrote in this practice session were generally vague, overly polite, and forced.

But things took a turn for the beautiful on Thursday when we taught the lesson on how to write good comments on a blog.  We showed strong and weak examples of comments and discussed the "rules" of blogging, which we adapted from Grammar Girl's blogging rules.  And then...and this is when things got good...we showed them Mrs. Emerick's real blog post and asked the kids to write real comments to her.  Mrs. Emerick amazed her class with her blog about helping the dogs at the animal shelter where she volunteers find homes.  The kids were moved by the pictures of the dogs and by the stories Mrs. Emerick told them about the dogs.  They wrote heartfelt comments about how her blog made them think about their own dogs who have passed away, about how they wished she had included more stories about the dogs on the blog, and about how they'd like to come help her at the shelter.  Their comments were respectful and thoughtful and sincere.   We were amazed by how well they responded when they were writing to a real person (and even more importantly, to their teacher) for a real purpose. 

Students see right through simulations and role-plays.  What they need are more opportunities to put the skills we teach them to use for real, about things they really care about, and for real audiences.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Leveled Library Launch

Finally, after six months of planning, ordering, cataloging, and shelving, our Lower School Leveled Library is open for business!  For several years we have been using the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System to assess our students' reading levels, organize them into guided reading groups, and help match students to their just-right books.  Many teachers took time to level some of the books in their classroom libraries and teachers found resources on Reading A-Z to use with their students during guided reading instruction.  We also invested in a RAZ Kids account so students could practice reading at their level from home or in school.  But we did not create a large resource collection of leveled books...until now.  It has only been "open" for one week but it has already been used as a resource to pull books at various levels for an upcoming mystery unit and a historical fiction unit and as a great place to find new books for students' independent reading book baggies.

It's time for a new sign!
So here's how it went down.  We received permission from the Lower School director, Sheena Hall, to empty a storage closet (this was a major production that could have earned us a special on Clean House). 

Then we purchased mountains of books from all kinds of places including Scholastic and my personal favorite, Booksource.  We also collected books from classroom libraries that were not being used frequently.  With major help from Glynis Miller,  Michelle Plaut, parent volunteers, and most especially Guni Cambata, we leveled, labeled, cataloged, and organized over 1,000 books.  Now our storage closet is a fledgling leveled collection that will allow our teachers to offer a wider array of choices to our young readers from A-Z.
A peek into the closet

Our wonderful team of librarians created a new collection in our library database, so now teachers are able to check the books out.  We are still working through the best way for teachers to do this (a portable scanner that can fit into their iPads?) out and then process them when they are returned.  If you have any suggestions, please share them!

Third graders exploring the new bins of books

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Coaches as Personal Trainers

Like so many thousands of other Americans, I have found myself at the gym quite a bit in this first month of a new year. exercising with more intention and focus.  I even decided to work with a personal trainer for the first time in my life.  Yesterday my trainer and I were chatting as I warmed up at the ridiculous hour of 5:00 a.m., and since it was our first session, she asked me what I do.  Ever since I began this job as an instructional coach, I have struggled to answer this question because coaching is so unfamiliar to most people.   For the past sixteen years the answer has been easy:  I'm a teacher.  But now I hesitate and begin, "Well, I've always been an English teacher, but now I'm an instructional coach."

And then it hits me, like the weight of the medicine ball she hands me, that I am sort of like a personal trainer.  Under the best circumstances, a trainer and her client are both there because they believe the experience will be beneficial, that the client has goals and wants support to reach them, that the trainer will do all she can to support her client in reaching those goals, and the client will feel stronger because of the work she has done with the trainer.  The trainer will also learn from the experience.  Under those same best circumstances, a coach and a teacher will work together through a similar process.

In my first meeting with the trainer she asked me what my goals were, what sorts of exercise I enjoy, and what time of day would be the best for me to meet her.  She explained that we'd work together once a week and that she'd write out instructions for my workouts throughout the week for me to do on my own.  So her role was to create an effective set of workouts for me, model the exercises, and encourage me through the hard parts.

Sounds a lot like what Jim Knight taught us at the Instructional Coaching Institute a few months ago:  people will not work toward someone else's goals, coaches should expect to learn something from everyone, and we must be respectful of people's learning styles.  As coaches, we must listen to the teachers to learn what their goals are, understand how they most want to engage in a coaching partnership, and model/guide/encourage all the way.  If only we could burn calories while we do it, too.

                                                                                from Todd William

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Media Literacy Matters

Yesterday I saw a commercial for General Mills cereals that made me want to jump through the television and run through the set shouting,"Are you kidding me?  We are not idiots!"  Why was I so upset by the commercial?  Because here's what it says about cereals such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Honey Nut Cheerios:  More WHOLE GRAIN! 

More whole grain than what?  Than any other ingredient.  Really.  See the pitch for yourself on Whole Grain NationHow can you make cereal without grain???  I felt insulted by this pitch, that the mere mention of whole grain and more in the same statement would be enough to convince me that these cereals are healthy.  Of course the grain is the primary ingredient, whether it's whole or not.  That's like advertising that cola has More WATER than any other ingredient.  It's still soda, and these cereals are still loaded with corn syrup, sugar, and "artificial ingredients."  One serving of a General Mills cereal can have up to 14 grams of sugar, the second ingredient on the list.  

I was alone when I saw this commercial, but I wish that I had been surrounded by susceptible children so I could bank on this "teachable moment."  Our kids need to know how advertising is designed to manipulate them.  They need to know it even more now because of internet ads that offer free trips, miracle drugs, and duplicitous empty promises.  Many years ago I used to teach a persuasive writing unit based on analyzing print ads.  If I were to resurrect that unit now, I would use a whole new set of advertisements, mostly from television and the internet.