Thursday, May 21, 2015

Narrative Post-Prompt

With soft music playing in the background, our students took 45 minutes today to complete their last prompt piece of the year, this time a small moment narrative. Most of these students we have had for two years. Some came in drawing detailed pictures with the ability to orally tell us about the pictures. At most, they could write a few words, like love, mom, dad and their name. A few came only able to scribble.

Lucky for us (and for them!), Lucy Calkins and Teacher's College, introduced their new writing units as we began kindergarten with this group. We eagerly embraced the new units the day they were in our building. We are so fortunate to have a Reading Coach, Melanie Holtsman, in our building that has been steeped in Lucy's work for years and is an often participant in the summer professional development offered by Teachers College, so we had help along the way as we implemented. We had discussions and saw demo lessons.  This is not the adopted writing curriculum for our county, so we are so fortunate to have a Principal with vision that can see the value and find the money to offer this curriculum to our students.  We were able to teach three of the units before kindergarten came to a close last year and then have been actively engaged with the four first grade units all of this year.

We can see the difference it is making in our youngest writers and today the students will produce this final on-demand piece. As I walked around, I could see that students were going back, rereading and editing.  They had their personal word wall outs to check words, and you could see them stretching words that were unfamiliar.  They were going back to check punctuation, and you could see them erasing and adding capitals. But even more than the conventions, I could see that they were adding dialogue (part of the second grade standard for narrative).  They were adding details to their drawings, speech bubbles and labels.  The best thing is that almost without exception, they worked solidly, without a sound, totally engaged for the entire 45 minute!  Writing stamina is simply a way of life! As we took the booklets up, I wanted to stop right there and read every one!  We can't wait to see what they have written!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Work-Over-Time 2015

This year our final bulletin board features a first grade student's writing.  We have had Adrian for two years and have watched him grow as a student, as a reader and writer, as a mathematician and also as a Scientist.  He is the total package! When I think of him in those first early days of kindergarten and then think of the strong young man he is today, I am just bursting with pride.  We titled this board from a Wizard of Oz quote, "You are capable of more than you think"  and added a beautiful background mural from a scene in the movie with work contributed by all of our first graders.

Adrian's first piece on this bulletin board is from the first day of Kindergarten when he was able to draw a picture with "amoeba" people (circles with arms and legs), tell us a story orally, and write his name.
Adrian entered kindergarten with a strong background, already recognizing letters and sounds and a few sight words.  He had been nurtured in the early years by a strong nuclear family where reading and writing were reinforced.  He was an eager learner.  It wasn't long before Adrian's writing took off. 
The board  has several more pieces including later kindergarten and early first grade writing.  The final piece is a realistic fiction piece, completed a few weeks ago, that is part of a series that he is writing about Dan, the sports guy.  Below is the piece and translation.
 One day there was a boy named Dan and he likes to play soccer.  He has a soccer game.  Dan said to his mother, "What happens if I don't make a goal?"  Mom said, "It will be fine. OK?"
Then it was time for the soccer game.  It started.  Dan had the ball first and he ran as fast as he could.  Then... he made it go so high it was almost higher than a humongous giant.  Then... it made it in the goal.
"That was amazing," said Dan.  "One to zero!" shouted one of his team mates.  Then BOOM!! "Aaaaaa!" said Dan.  He twisted his ankle so he had to stay out.  It was half time.  Dan was still hurt.
Then the other team scored. "One to one," shouted a player.  Then Dan believed he could do it with the twisted ankle, so he went out on the field.  He had a plan...  He kicked it
with his other foot and the last second he made a goal!!!!!!  Then everybody was amazed by him.  He was the extraordinary guy on his team so every game he plays, he believes that he wins!!!
Quite a transformation from an "amoeba" family to a complete story with dialogue, a beginning, middle and end, strong vocabulary, pictures with speech bubbles, and even craft! Adrian is so good at so many things, but I wouldn't be surprised if one day I am asking him for his autograph on his first published book!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

What if?

As I am standing by the window of  my classroom so that I can get a signal for my iphone. so that I can download a blog I have just written on my phone (my phone is the most sophisticated technology in my room, although I'm not really suppose to use it because it's not county owned), my mind wonders to the "what ifs?"

I do have six outdated computers in my classroom that often work well enough for the students to get on the computer program that the county endorses.  I also have a laptop that works at a basic level but really cannot be used for much instructional because so much is blocked.  I do not have wireless in my classroom but can connect to the land... but because the county is always chasing a lack of bandwidth, you can never depend on anything on the Internet working - you might have a little better than a 50/50 chance that you can use what you've planned.  I can plan the most engaging lesson, full of pictures and videos only to have the entire lesson derailed once I get to school because I spend so much time trying to get the technology to work that I completely lose the class. What the children learn is just how frustrating technology can be instead of the engaging content planned.  Like many teachers, I often don't include much technology in my lessons any more...even though I'd like to. I don't mind spending the extra time planning and I still constantly look for the resources, but sometimes it's not worth the frustration.  So... even though it's not permitted, I use to my iphone - to look up a picture of a wallaby when a second language student asks what it looks like or to make sure I have a word in Skills Block is spelled correctly, or to show a short clip on my phone that I enlarge with a doc camera.  Even though we are using technology that is in a time before our children were born, I still feel compelled to pull lessons into the century that they are living.

But what if?  What if children had laptops, as many of them do at home now, and they could learn to use them to research the things they wonder about... instantly?  What if they could learn to use them for educational purposes, instead of just for games?

What if I had an anecdotal system that connected everyone that sees each of my children so that all the information was in a single place?  My classroom is like a revolving door - with students leaving my room for Occupational Therapy, Speech, Language intervention, counseling, Social Skills group, Special Education services and now RtI intervention.  Four different interventionists come to my door every day, just for RtI, to pull each student at a different time for a 30 minute intervention.  How do I know what they are doing when they are pulled out?  I don't really.  Yesterday one of the interventionist came to tell me that two different interventionist were pulling the same child for the same intervention!  With 36 children in and out, I hadn't even noticed!  It had been happening for two weeks.  I was mortified!   There is no way there is time in the day or even in the week to catch up with each of these support folks to find out how it's going with each student or more importantly, to find out how I can reinforce what they are doing when they are pulled out of my classroom.  But what if all those folks were tied into a single system and when I pulled up Joe's name to do guided reading, I could see what he did earlier that day in his RtI intervention group and I could add a few extra words that reinforce the skills he had just done?  The possibilities are limitless for how we could support each other instead of each chopping up the poor child's day and wondering why he isn't getting it with all that support.

The technology is here.  My co-teacher and Special Education teacher and I all pay for an app, called Confer.  I have talked about this app before because it connects all three of us.  We are able to type in notes and then sync our phones to share our notes instantly.  Yes, that's my iphone again, the one I'm not suppose to be using.  And yes, we each have to pay $25+ to have the app, but what a difference it has made.  What if I also had the sounds that the Speech Therapist is working on when I sit down to do an individual writing conference so that as I am stretching a word I could make sure the child to saying the sound correctly or the specific pencil grip that the OT wants a student to use as I sit down for a writing conference or the skills that the RtI interventionist is teaching later today to reinforce during my few minutes of conferring during independent reading with the student?

What if we had visionaries in our school that made these dreams such a reality that every single person could see the benefits?  What is we cared so much about our children that they became a priority and it wasn't money that was blocking our road.  What if...?

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...