Monday, April 6, 2015

Celebrating Kevin Henkes

In the midst of Lucy Calkin's new writing units, first grade found a little space to celebrate one of its favorite authors - Kevin Henkes. After a four week study, the grade level came together for a little celebration of all they had learned.

Our first grade is large with thirteen teachers so any project that we do "together" is a big deal.  It's not easy when you're trying to get so many teachers to agree, but I work with one of those rare group of teachers that are remarkably collegial.  They share.  They support each other.  They work together.  With four teachers meeting as a small committee in just an afternoon after school, centers were designed and a celebration day was ready as a culminating event.   The students rotated through three centers.

The first center was watching movies of the books we had studied while the students ate "cheesy snacks" in celebration of all of Henkes' mice characters.

Then it was to the "Lightbulb Lab" to make Lilly's purple purses and movie star glasses and Mr. Slinger's ties and glasses.  This was probably the students' favorite center as the girls asked to wear the purses all the day and boys kept on the ties.







Finally the students moved to another room to play Kevin Henkes Bingo which was the perfect review of Henkes' characters and mice books.

Earlier in the week students had been divided into groups for Readers' Theater of some of the stories.  They practiced fluency and intonation all week.  In the afternoon students made their final presentations.  We will be giving "Academy Awards" for the best Readers' Theatre group and individual awards for individual performances at our next Awards Day.  Students really love these stories so they have loved doing all these culminating activities.

The thing is that first grade teachers don't HAVE to do this author study.  It's really a lot of extra work, but they choose to do it because they know the students really develop a love of reading and a love of narrative from these books that they so naturally relate.  It makes your heart leap when the students beg to get a Kevin Henkes book during independent reading and work so hard to say every single word -with expression! - even when the book is above their reading level or when they search the vocabulary board to find a Kevin Henkes word they can use in their writing.

It makes MY heart leap when I see a group of teachers work together so tirelessly to make something happen for their students, just so they will love reading!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Kevin Henkes Puppet Project


One of my favorite parts of the Kevin Henkes author study is the family projects that the students bring in. They are asked to make puppets for one of Kein Henkes' mice stories. I love the creativity and pride that the students have. I love seeing the book that they choose as their favorite. Thank you, Kevin Henkes for such delightful stories!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Pay for Performance

I have been so worked up over this issue for so long, that I thought when I sat down to write this blog that it would practically write itself, and yet, I have been sitting here staring at an empty page and trying to decide what it is that I really want to say.

You see, when the idea of pay for performance first came out, I applauded it.  I thought it was about time that teachers that work so hard and care so much, who put passion and commitment into their work, should be recognized.  I was sick to death of seeing poor teachers continue in our profession.  I thought it was about time that we got rid of those teachers who were just there to earn a paycheck and didn't really care about their ethical responsibility to the children in their care.  It seemed like such a logical path and such an affirmative cause.

What  I didn't fully realize is that the decision for how the system would work would be left up to politicians and people who have never walked in a teacher's shoes. We would not be like doctors who police their own profession or lawyers who regulate their own membership, but we would be the pawns in a wicked game of political power and circumstance. 

I could give you all the little details of why this system hasn't worked, from personal experience, but it doesn't really matter.  The bottom line is that the formula for being a "highly effective" teacher, which is the road to performance pay in Florida, combines a principal's evaluation with student growth scores.  The problems with that formula are so enormous that it's hard to contain in a single blog. They have tried so hard to be fair, but a principal's evaluation, no matter how hard they try, is still subjective, and the growth scores are a crap shoot in any given year.  Sure, there's a state test to determine growth scores for some teachers but is even that fair?  You can argue that the teachers have no way to control for what their students come to school with or you could argue that students who make a perfect score often count as "not making growth" when they make a perfect score the next year, so how can those growth scores be fair?  I could spend this entire blog just talking about things that effect the scores that are out of a teacher's control!

And to complicate it even more, there is no state test for K-1 students (and for many resource and specialty teachers).  I could tell you about the year that my growth score was dependent on a state test and that the communication was so poor at the state and county level that our school never got the word of how to open the portal to test high achieving children so... because our children made so high on the pretest and then just repeated their perfect scores on the post test, they were deemed not to make progress!  Of course, that certainly is water under the bridge. However, I guess I still haven't gotten over it, because I'm bringing it up here! It's just hard to live with because it effected a large number of extraordinary teachers.  That year most of those exemplary teachers were not highly effective, although they had very high Principal evaluations.  It wasn't because they didn't teach their heart out or because their students didn't make exceptional progress. It was because of a line of  poor communication.

Or we could take this year's announcement of last year's scores.  My kindergarten group showed amazing progress as a group and individually.  I was so proud by the end of the year.  I won't go into all the individual successes we had, but they were numerous.   Our growth score for last year was determined by a county-written test designed for pre and post testing.   The test had never been field tested.  It was a new test, designed by "somebody"  - hmmmmm...  Anybody see a problem?  This was also the year that we were told at the beginning of the year that kindergartners would be pre and post tested and monitored each nine weeks in Language Arts, Math and Science and pre and post tested in Art, Music P.E. - I don't even remember all the absurd testing that we were suppose to do.  When I first heard it, I thought it was a joke, but no, "someone" had decided that this made sense for five year olds?  About sixty days into the school year, the county finally "listened" to the outcry and came down to a more reasonable testing schedule but by then, much of the damage had been done.  We had complied with the original requirement so we had essentially lost 60 days of initial instructional time.  As the data began to arrive, it was full of mistakes.  We had students with scores over 100%, missing data, and missing students, so the data was useless.  We called... and called... and called... the Testing Office to have the obvious inaccuracies fixed.  I'll bet they flipped a coin in the testing office and the loser had to take our calls!  It would really have been comical, except it affected children and our reputations as teacher! The data was basically unreliable - and this was going to be our growth scores to determine if we were highly effective?

I wasn't surprised  that when the growth scores came out, I was called into the Principal's Office.  The Principal explained to me that I had a 1% growth score.  1%!!!!!!!  That means that exactly 1% of my kinder students made progress last year!  I had about a second of absolute panic when I thought - could I really suck that bad?  But then reality began to set in.  No... this was a class that had made incredible progress. I could go student by student and rattle off the amazing things that I had witnessed. We had worked so hard. I looped this class, so I still had most of these students as first graders.  No way! No, this was not possible...  As I began to put it together, I noticed my Principal sort of smile.  "I know," she said, "there has to be something wrong with the data."  OH MY GOSH!  A 1% growth score put me in the "Needs Improvement" category! I am a National Board Certified Teacher with over 30 years experience. I am a former Florida Teacher of the Year.  I have published 19 books for teachers and now, I was in the "Needs Improvement" category!  Really?!! Thankfully, the Principal and Assistant Principal went right to work to begin notifying the Testing Office that there had to be something wrong with the data.  It ended up that there was a large group of teachers at my school - and I later learned at other schools - that were effected.

That was October.  We had to submit an appeal and were told "someone" would look into the matter, but for months, we were to hang out, having nothing to go on but a 1% growth score.  How did we know that anybody was even looking into the problem?  What would the parents in my class think, if that news got out?  I looped this class so I still taught most of the same students.  Would the parents trust the success they had witnessed in their students or would there be that little seed of doubt?  Would they wonder?  Would it get out  that a former Florida Teacher of the Year had a 1% growth score and was an ineffective teacher?  Would my name be published in the paper?  I know all of that seems a little irrational, but I am sure that in some way, it went through the mind of every teacher involved.  It's embarrassing.  This is our life's work... Our county had allowed our reputations to be defined by a poorly written test with no history and a data system that was untested and obviously full of inadequacies and inaccuracies...

Just last week, the new scores FINALLY came back - We had waited four months - FOUR MONTHS! - and I am thrilled to say that my growth score was 95%, which does put me back in the "highly effective" category, but you know what?  Who's to say that those scores are right either?  I am suppose to learn something from this process that will make me a better teacher,  but what I've learned is that this state is not ready for pay for performance.  They don't have the structure in place to make decisions that effect a teacher's morale, pay, and reputation, because each of those things in its own way effects the children that we teach... and they deserve better.

Did the state or county learn anything from this debacle?  It doesn't look like it... because this year K-1 teachers in our county have yet another new test.  This time it's a computer-based test - for kindergartners... hmmmm... see any problems?  To start with, our school simply doesn't have the technology to support a computer-based  program of this magnitude, so the very foundation is full of holes.  We have one tech lab that supports 1300 students and with the intermediate testing schedule, we might get into the lab a handful of times a year.  I have three computers in my classroom  (for 36 students!), just recently bumped up to six, but what instruction do I want my students to miss while they get on the computer?  I already have students come in before and after school and give up my planning time to help accommodate, but it's still not enough.  Of course, students can get on the programs at home, but that just widens the divide between the haves and the have nots!  The students that need the most instruction are the very ones that don't have computers at home.  But none of that  really matters, I guess, because once again, my ability to teach will be judged on the scores from a computer-based program - that even the designers of the program say was never its purpose...

Pay for performance can still be a good idea , but it's an idea that we are obviously not ready for... It's time has NOT come...

An Open Letter to Dave and Elizabeth Conte


I met Elizabeth Conte about fifteen years ago when she was barely out of college.  She had graduated and gone to work for a non-profit (she could never know then how that experience would pay off later) and was working as a para at Chets Creek to get some experience while she finished her masters in Elementary Education.  I remember Dr. Stahlman, the Principal at the time, telling me to go watch her because she was "something special."  Elizabeth finished her masters.  Soon she would be an outstanding beginning teacher who embraced inclusion, and I would have the opportunity to work in her room every day as her Special Education Teacher.  She was indeed "something special."  During the next few years, she met and married Dave, had a son, Charlie, and co-taught with my very talented daughter-in law, Randi.   Once again, I had the chance to spend every day in their room as their Special Education teacher.  Along the way, Elizabeth became a Nationally Board Certified Teacher and soon became pregnant again and decided to stay home.  She even opened her home to my first granddaughter, Kallyn, for a year while Randi continued to work.  Soon...  Kate was born... and slowly... Kate changed all of our lives.

Last night I attended the fourth annual "Promise to Kate" fund raiser.  You see, Kate was born with myotonic dystrophy, a genetic disorder that would change the lives of every member of her family as they uncovered the depth of this disease.  It would also change all the rest of us, those of us who love Elizabeth and Dave and their extended family, because we would begin to understand what compassion and commitment can do.  Elizabeth and Dave founded an organization that raises money for the families in Jacksonville who use Wolfson Children's Hospital, the children's hospital that continues to serve the Conte family, when needed. The organization also promotes awareness and raises funds for research for myotonic dystrophy and is at least, partially responsible for the enlarging force at UF for research into the disease.

Today Kate is a kindergartner, full of grit and determination.  Mostly, she makes me laugh...  Elizabeth has returned to work and this year our roles have reversed.  I am the first grade inclusion  teacher and I see her each day as she so beautifully serves as my Special Education partner.  With great humility and respect, I write this open letter to Kate's parents...

Dear Dave and Elizabeth,
Last night you introduced us to new researchers who would be joining the research going on at UF for Myotonic Dystrophy. You have been part of bringing together this new team and you continue to put pressure in all the right places to make sure that the research germinates, produces and delivers.  Oh, we know there are lots of other people helping to make all this happen, but to us, your friends and family, you are the face of this disease.  We all understand... your urgency, this race against time to make a difference in Kate's lifetime... because of you. 

Last night, Elizabeth, you described yourself, as just a mom, and  you are, but you are so much more.  You are our inspiration, our hope, and Kate's future.  You are the light that illuminates the dark road.  I was reminded once again last night about the really insignificant little hurdles in my own life, because you face, what to some seem like impossible odds, and yet, you see the sunshine and are able to turn it all around to count your blessings.  As important as the end is, it's the journey that you are taking, that models for each of us how to live our own lives every single day. 

I blubbered through the videos again last night, even though I've seen most of them many times.  Kate's struggles and successes will always reach down, grab my heart. and then just squeeze.  She is a fighter, born from a long line of fighters.  I realize that your experiences are not entirely unique.  It could happen to any of us... but it's your response that has been so unique.  Not only did you and Dave turn your circumstances into a mission, but you took a Divinely crafted vision, and you acted on it.  Maybe the road is not always well lit, but with a servant's heart and a warrior's determination, you are leading the way and reminding us all that we too, have a promise to keep. 

Elizabeth and Dave, Charlie and Kate... you are a gift, beyond words. May your vision be clear.  May your fight be noble and may you always know that you are surrounded by a legion of those  of us who believe, and who will honor our own promise to Kate. Stay the course, dear friends.  There are great things to accomplish...

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Opinion Clines

Scaffolding Language Scaffolding Learning: Teaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom by Pauline Gibbons is the Chets Creek book study that I have been attending led by our Reading Coach, Melanie Holtsman.  There are about fifteen teachers who meet each week after school from first through fifth grade, including a couple of Math teachers. We only meet for forty five minutes so Melanie has quite a challenge to get us thinking. The third strategy from Chapter 3 that I have tried  is called "opinion clines." (I admit that when Melanie explained the strategy I doubted it could be used with first graders!)
The idea is to arrange items in a line representing a continuum.  Student need knowledge to be able to make decisions so I decided to use the characters from our Kevin Henkes Author Study.  The students know these characters well and relate to these characters.  I put a continuum on the board with "worried" at one end and "never worries" on the other end. The challenge was for the students to use their knowledge of  Kevin Henkes' characters and to place each of the characters on the continuum using reasons to support their opinions from the books. Putting Wemberly at the worried end was a no brainer. He is the main character in Wemberly Worried, but making a decision of where Sheila Rae, the brave and spunky Lilly fit was a little more challenging. Soon the discussion and disagreement started.  The students argued back and forth using examples from the book to try to change opinions.  When we couldn't come to a consensus, the students voted and the above is the continuum the students finally agreed upon.  Not bad! 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Donut Circles

I talked about our book study, Scaffolding Language Scaffolding Learning: Teaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom by Pauline Gibbons in the previous post.  We are led by our Reading Coach, Melanie Holtsman who always tries to have us practice something as if we are students so that we can better understand how the students feel,.

This week we read Chapter 3. This chapter talks about the philosophy behind collaborative work and why it works so well with our EL students and then gives some suggestions for group and paired activities across the curriculum.   This, of course,

This time, we decided to try "Donut Circles" which is a well known activity that can be useful for students with low levels of English.  This activity allows for practice and rehearsal which are so important to our EL learners. Children sit in two concentric circles with equal numbers of students in each circle.  The outer circle faces inward, and the inner circle faces outward so that each student is facing someone from the other circle.  The pairs talk in turns to each other for a minute about a teacher-suggested topic.  After both students have had a turn, one of the circles moves clockwise to face a new person, while the other circle stays still, so that everyone is now opposite a new partner.  The process of exchanging information is then repeated... 

So... we set our first graders into two circles facing each other.  Because we didn't have an even number, I took a place in one of the circle.  We chose the question,  What is your favorite Kevin Henkes book and why to go along with our author study and because it is something we knew the students had thought about because we had ranked the books the day before.  We wanted students to practice giving their opinions and backing up the opinions with reasons.  This activity would be a precursor to asking students to write their opinion about our favorite Kevin Henkes book and to give reasons and evidence from the book.

We went about five rounds. We had the inner circle share first and then the outer circle share with their partners  for each round, and then the outer circle rotated and did the same thing with a new partner.  As the students rotated before me I noticed that as we continued to rotate the answers got quicker but with much more detail. On the third round, I sat in front of one of my EL students, a student who traditionally struggles with English.  To my surprise, he easily articulated his favorite book and gave me a really good reason!  Wow!  This is a strategy that we need to place in our tool box often.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Trying Something New: "Hot Seat"

One of the great things about teaching at Chet's Creek is that we are always involved in a book study. Right now we are reading Scaffolding Language Scaffolding Learning: Teaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom by Pauline Gibbons with Reading Coach Melanie Holtsman. It is an especially timely book as our second language population continues to rise each year.  Melanie always tries to tie the words we are reading directly back to something that we can do the next day in our classroom, so that the learning sticks!

This week we read Chapter 3, "Collaborative Group Work and Second Language Learning."  This chapter talks about the philosophy behind collaborative work and why it works so well with our EL students and then gives some suggestions for group and paired activities across the curriculum.   Melanie always tries to have us practice something as if we are students so that we can better understand how the students feel, so... we first practiced "Donut Circles" which is having the students in two concentric circles facing each other and the outside circle moving every few seconds so you talk to a new partner.  This, of course, allows for practice and rehearsal which are so important to our EL learners.

The next activity was "Opinion Clines" which asks students to arrange themselves in a line representing a continuum from strongly agreeing to strongly disagreeing.  For our teacher examples she chose the topic of family photographs, choosing four teachers who all post lots of family photographs and asked the group to put them on a continuum from someone who is not at all interested in photographs to someone who makes a living shooting family photographs.  The teachers asked questions until they could easily place each of the photograph-lovers on the continuum.  It was easy to see how this activity could be used to have students practice opinions orally so that they learn to have stronger reasons in their writing.

The final activity was "Hot seat" where a student pretends to be a character from a shared book  and answers question from the class as if he were that character.  Melanie always asks us to try out one of the strategies that we are taught so we can share for the next time (is she a great teacher, or what?)  So... as we left, my co-teacher and I talked about how we could use "Hot Seat" as a strategy in the author study of Kevin Henkes that we are deep into right now.  We really want to eventually do some close reading using the lens of looking at one of the characters, Lilly, because she appears in several of the Kevin Henkes' books, but we knew her character was "too big" to begin this activity.   So my co-teacher volunteered to do the first round and pretend that she was the character Wembery from Kevin Henkes' Wemberly Worried. Wemberly worries about everything so she was an excellent first choice for us to pick.  I explained the game to the children and then reread the book, telling the students that they should look for parts in the text that led them to questions for Wemberly.  This book is FULL of the things Wemberly worried about so the questions came so easily.  Below is just a snippet of Tracy playing the part of Wemberly as the students ask her questions, using the text!



"Hot Seat" from dayle timmons on Vimeo.


 After about five minutes one of the students came up and whispered in my ear that he thought he could be Wemberly, so "going with the flow" (as Grandma suggests in the book) we had him take the "hot seat."  He did a remarkable job!  The students were so engaged.  Our EL students DID ask questions!  Tomorrow we will try Sheila Rae, a strong Kevin Henkes character, and then next week, our ultimate goal, Lilly!