Wednesday, June 27, 2007

It's Not Yo Momma's Basal!

I have spent the last few days listening to publishers as they try to convince the Reading Adoption Committee that their basal series (or should I say Comprehensive Core Reading Program) should be the main event in Duval County for the 2008-09 school year. You might wonder what a basal basher like me is doing on a Committee like this? Good question! I'm here because as political winds shift, the battle cry becomes louder that all schools in this large, diverse county should be on the same page - should have the same opportunities. A huge undertaking!

I come from a school that placed the Teacher Editions in the book room after the last reading adoption and left them there. We shook our heads sadly at the huge waste of trees and money. From the adoption we only used the level texts for our classrooms libraries. We spent the next six years of the adoption immersed in the Workshop model offering our own intensive, embedded Professional Development based on the work we were doing with America's Choice (we offered our teachers over 400 opportunities for professional development on the clock at our school site last year!) We sent our teachers all over the country to learn from the best and brightest (Lucy Calkins, Ellin Keene, Sharon Taberski, Ralph Fletcher, Debbie Miller, Kylene Beers, Fountas and Pinnell...) We studied professional books together; we did demo lessons for each other and then debriefed to raise the level of our work; we brought student work to the table to discuss and debate; we wrote common assessments and rubrics... We became a collegial, first class learning community of lifelong learners. We worked hard. As a result we really taught teachers to teach, and we did it well. We did all this without a core reading series.

So now, why would we want anything to do with a Core Reading Program? Well...because the Core has changed. Each publisher that presented, of course, put their own spin on what they could offer, but basically there were some intriguing possibilities - an incredible amount of differentiated instruction is being offered. There are integrated strategies for second language learners and separate programs for our Tier III students (which will become even more important as our county moves into fuller inclusion). Technology is everywhere, making so many of the things we are now doing faster and simpler. Lesson plans are easy to complete and yet complex in their content with just a few clicks of the mouse. There is the possibility that assessments and homework assignments can be individualized within minutes. Professional development is being offered when it's needed, even at home, with short video clips of teachers actually teaching the lessons! Professionals to do the training are being offered like... Vocabulary Instruction from Isabell Beck, Assessment from Roger Farr, Guided Reading Lessons from Irene Fountas... WOW! We have learned in these past six years that doing Readers' and Writers' Workshop RIGHT is incredibly time consuming, and we often find that we are working 24/7. What I see in the Core are endless resources that can make life simpler and more manageable. We have taught our teachers now to be discerning enough that they will be able to make the sophisticated decisions that it will take to individualize for each of their students, taking advantage of Core pieces as they are appropriate. Less seasoned teachers will have the full support of a day-by-day planner but when a seasoned teacher sees that she can teach a lesson much better than the Core, she will. She will hold on to what has been good about what has been learned these last six years. We will hold fiercely to our commitment to a deep Readers' and Writers' Workshop while ALL teachers commit to the Scope and Sequence and adhere to it with fidelity. That will become the backbone and common piece that will rally us around the flagpole as the Core Reading Program is implemented across the county. It is the piece that will put us ALL on the same page and give us ALL equal access.

The other thing that I realize anew is that no program will ever take the place of a passionate teacher. Motivation cannot be packaged. Relationships between teachers and students will always be the cornerstone of successful teaching. So I say... bring on the Core! It simply adds tools to our toolbox. The Scope and Sequence will become our rally cry - something that we can all agree to implement with fidelity. We will hang on to what has been good as we stand on the shoulders of our history to actively pursue our future.

Update: As I look at how promising this blog post was, the reality was that the Core was really not very different than it had always been.  Instruction from real professionals was never offered.  Technology was so cumbersome that it was never realized. Chets Creek, like it had for the previous adoption, stored the manuals in the supply closet with a sigh of regret, wishing the money could have been spent on something useful!

Friday, June 22, 2007

PLC...and the beat goes on...

Our Summer PLC (Professional Learning Community) met again today. Six kindergarten teachers continue to study vocabulary and write activities around their favorite read-alouds that they will field test next year. Haley Alvarado displayed her work today so that we could all discuss activities and make suggestions. As we already knew, six heads are so much better than one! The only problem, of course, is that collaboration is much more time-consuming that working alone. After we discussed, clarified, and brainstormed, we will once again work alone to make the best use of limited time, coming back together as we complete more of the work. Debbie Harbour would really like for us to have pictures for each of the words, which makes sense as we think about all of our learners. She has been searching the web for just the right pictures. It's not unusual in this group for someone to have an idea and be willing to do the work to make it happen.

What is so inspiring about this work is that it's easier when we work together. It is helping each of us learn more about vocabulary which is turn will make each of us a better teacher next year. This is a group that has been learning together for a while so this is a trusting, safe place to learn. It's okay to say that you don't know or you don't understand. It's okay to ask for help. It's okay to really like working because you are passionate about getting better so that your students get the best possible you that you can be. I guess what I love the most about this group is that they are each trying to be the teacher that they would want their own child to have. It doesn't get any better than that!

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Summer happenings

Kindergarten teachers do not sleep in the summer. They certainly enjoy the break, but there is a group of six teachers at Chets Creek (Haley Alvarado, Elizabeth Conte, Randi Timmons, Debbie Harbour, Maria Mallon and me) that have been inspired by Maria Mallon to work on a vocabulary unit that uses the work of Beck and McKeown to infuse vocabulary strategies into a a set of read aloud books that they all use in kindergarten. They have looked at Beck and McKeown's Text Talk and also at the America's Choice vocabulary units. This is a group of "looping" teachers who make the kindergarten-first grade loop year after year. This next year they will be back in kindergarten. They have formed their own professional learning community. It was Maria's brain child last year that they use their kindergarten "Star Books" (read aloud books) to develop vocabulary. They have each taken 2-3 book titles and have committed to writing activities that will be shared and then revised by them all next year. They have been meeting for half a year - studying together and working out the division of labor and the framework for the lessons. They have chosen six "tier two" words for each of the books, four words that are used in the book and two that are inferred for each book. I have just finished a template for the activities and they will be working on the activities independently until we all meet together in mid-June to share our work. As the work becomes available, they will share it on this web site. Others may want to try their draft activities and are welcome to comment as the manuscript changes and improves with use.

This is really a professional learning community at its best. Teachers who come together because they want to learn from each other. Teachers who push each other to be better than any of them could be independently. Stay tuned to see how it all turns out.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Once upon a blog...

A peek inside a year of kindergarten at Chets Creek Elementary School... I am so often asked about life inside "the Magic Kingdom." People often don't believe that things can really be the "Fantasyland" that I describe. I certainly am an eternal optimist, and I always see the glass half full instead of half empty. But... this is an opportunity to put "on the record" all the happenings of this fully functional professional learning community - the excitement, the successes and challenges, the pure joy of teaching when you have the support of your peers always pushing you to the next level. What I will try to do is make this year in kindergarten visible through words and pictures. Welcome to the journey...