Thursday, July 26, 2007

Me? Math?

Comprehending Math: Adapting Reading Strategies to Teach Mathematics, K-6 by Authur Hyde. While I am a kindergarten teacher and this book spans K-6, I think it is important for early grade teachers to have a full understanding of where they are going if they want to teach at a "deep" level. Now I have to admit I would never have picked up a Math book to read this summer, but I was intrigued by this book because the Forward was written by Ellin Keene! I thought the book might give me some ways to connect math to the comprehension strategies (asking questions, making connections, visualizing, inferring and predicting, determining importance and synthesizing) that I teach in reading. It did. Dr. Hyde "braids" math and reading together in a way that helped me see how I could help connect problem solving strategies in math and reading. Math is enhanced by a student who can talk about and write about the strategies that he is using. For instance, a math student has a better understanding of a word problem if he knows how to ask questions, if he can activate schema and make connections and can actually see the problem in his mind. If he can explain the strategy that he used and write about several different strategies for solving the problem, then we have made a difference in both math and language arts at the same time. If the student can learn to do that in math, he can use those same skills to enhance reading comprehension and vise versa. This a great book for K-2 teachers who teach all subjects, because it helps them see how they can make connections for students.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

We Are Fa-mi-ly!

Nancy Carter has been Chets Creek's Assistant Principal for the past two years, but come August she will open her own school as a new Principal. Today about 60 teachers, administrators, office staff, assistants, husbands and children gathered at her new school early in the morning. We planted and weeded gardens, moved a mountain of mulch, straightened shelves and closets, decorated bulletin boards in the common areas, cleaned, organized and rearranged. As always, we also laughed and had fun! Why would we spend part of our weekend during the summer at another school on the west side of town working so hard? Why indeed! Because we adore Nancy, but also because that's the way we are. We are a family and if someone is in need, there are always people who will be there for support.
Nancy with PE Coach and college roommate Estrella Bailey.
We hope that Nancy's teachers will understand how special she is, and that they will also know that she has a legion of family ready to help at any time, because we will be there... any time.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Florida's Teachers of the Year

I have just returned from Orlando, FL where I have met some of the most outstanding teachers in our state. It was an educational love fest as Macys, the Florida Lottery and the Florida Department of Education spent three days celebrating teachers and announcing the new Florida Teacher of the Year.

This year Duval County was represented by first grade teacher Michelle Stinson. I have had the honor of being in Michelle's classroom. I remember driving up to Kite Elementary School. It's an older school but in this case, older is better. Kite sits up on a hill and is beautifully kept. From the moment the principal, dynamo Erdine Johnson, met us at the door, I was impressed by the clean, neat hallways. The school sparkles with charm. Walking into Michelle's room I immediately compared her classroom to our own primary classrooms at Chets Creek. Every nook and cranny in her room was filled with the the same bright teacher-made charts and student work that I see on our walls. Her class was neat and clean, a polished learning space for young children. Her class was homogeneous as engaged first graders, in hues from the lightest honey to the darkest, richest chocolate, followed their teacher's every move. Our classes at Chets Creek by comparison look more like the United Nations with 31% of our children speaking over 20 different languages, but the engagement is the same. We happened into Michelle's Skills Block. She uses rhythms, rhymes, movement and enthusiasm to teach Phonemic Awareness and Phonics. Her activities were short, fun and full of energy. I found myself singing her chants and songs in my car on the way home! You can feel the electricity and connection between Michelle and her students. What I learned that day is that best practices are best practices, regardless of who the children are or where the school is located.

Rick Ellenberg, a fifth grade Science Resource Teacher, was named the 2008 Florida Teacher of the Year. Rick has been a kindergarten teacher (gotta love a guy that's spent time with the little people!) and is married to a kindergarten teacher. Rick and his wife both teach at Camelot Elementary (!) in Orange County. As I listened to Rick over the three days, I could envision his rich learning environment that spills outside into his garden. He reminded me of how important it is to give our kindergartners hands-on activities that teach them about the world they live in. I can't wait to see Rick's enthusiasm for Science spread across the state.

And finally, Frank Brogan presented the Mary Brogan Award for Teaching Excellence to kindergarten teacher, Anna Phillips, of St. Lucie County. Through tears Anna told her own story of being raised in a Children's Home. Young Anna also suffered from a speech impediment and visual difficulties, but a fourth grade teacher saw the promise deep inside Anna. She told Anna that she could be anything she wanted to be and Anna held tight to that dream. She wanted to be a teacher. As she faced obstacles all along the way, Anna drew strength from her fourth grade teacher. Because that one teacher poured so much into an empty child, Anna is able to pour that same love and strength into the kindergartners that she sees every day. Anna was such an inspirational reminder of how one teacher can change the life of a child.

I guess that was the lesson this week. Great teachers come in all shapes and sizes and ages, but great teaching is alive and well in our state. As I think back, I can't remember one mention of the FCAT (!) even through Florida Commissioner of Education Jeanine Blomberg and State Board Member Donna Callaway were with us all three days, even though Lt. Governor Jeff Kottkamp spoke to the group, even though the best teachers in Florida were gathered together. They spoke instead about changing the world one child at a time, of making a difference in a child's life, and of the passion that they feel for the mission they call their life's work. It really is a great time to teach in Florida!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

It's an "A"!

In Florida’s accountability system Chets Creek has posted its seventh consecutive “A” and is once again one of 50 top scoring schools in the state! There is much to brag about with 94% of our students meeting high standards in both reading and math, but the statistic that is most impressive to me is that 97% of the lowest quartile made gains in reading! What that says to me is that we are doing what is right for our neediest students! 97%! WOW!

Being a kindergarten teacher, you might wonder why I am so excited about test scores, since I don’t really teach an accountable grade. In my school the scores or third, fourth, and fifth graders stand on the shoulders of what happens in our primary school. Everyone realizes that we are all interconnected. Our intermediate school stands on the foundation of our primary school as they stretch toward the pinnacle.

We have long known that students who come to us new are the ones that struggle the most. Students we have had since kindergarten do quite well over the years, so I’m proud of our Leadership Team, because they keep their collective finger on the pulse of each new student and pour over the data to predict trends and design specific short-term and long term interventions. They have the big picture. I am also proud of our Intervention Team (the 2006 “Chets Creek Team of the Year”!) as I look at that 97%, because they meet twice a week to look at at-risk students to make sure that no child gets left behind. They make suggestions, fill in the gaps, find the resources, push for parental involvement, and do whatever it takes. I’m proud of our Special Education teachers and our Coaches who also meet regularly to look at trends and then step in to offer safety nets for small group of students falling behind. We really believe that our best teachers have to teach our most challenged children, so we make that happen. Groups are fluid as they offer short and long-term solutions. Actually I don’t think there is a single teacher from kindergarten to fifth grade that doesn’t tutor on her own time to make sure that every single child in her classroom meets the benchmarks. We work really hard, so it is affirming to see the results. But… it’s time to roll up our sleeves for the new year. There is still work to be done!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Mosaic of Thought

I have just finished Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman’s 2nd Edition of Mosaic of Thought (70% new material including many stories about Ellin’s work with the Cornerstone Project – some of the poorest schools in the country). Either I’ve gotten a lot smarter since I first read the first edition eight years ago or the text has gotten easier in this second edition!  Mosaic begins each chapter with a challenging adult passage so that you, the learner, can practice the strategy that will be introduced with a text at an adult’s instructional level. Problem was that the text seemed way above my instructional level - usually so challenging that I just shut down – much like my struggling readers do. I had very little schema for the type of comprehension work that Keene and Zimmerman were describing, and I struggled through most of the chapters. The only chapter I fully understood was activating schema and making connections… so that is where I started.

The second time I read Mosaic of Thought was two years later in a book study with a group of teachers. By now I had received Professional Development that scaffolded my understanding of the seven comprehension strategies. I had also read Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis’ Strategies that Work which put the principles of Mosaic into lessons that I could understand. Finally Debbie Miller wrote my book, Reading With Meaning. Debbie is a first grade teacher and she took the Mosaic strategies and put them in the context of a first grade classroom! Now this was a book that my little kindergarten brain could wrap itself around! It became the Bible for our kindergarten and first grade work in reading comprehension.

Now comes the second edition of Mosiac and this time around Keene and Zimmerman spend the second chapter answering all the questions that I have spent hours discussing with my peers. Should comprehension strategies be taught one at a time when we know comprehension is about integrating strategies? Should children study different strategies based on their reading level? Don’t think-alouds rob children of the joy of hearing the poetic language and beauty in a new story? Do comprehension strategies slow down thoughtful, able readers? Is there an order to teaching the strategies that is better than another? Each of these questions has monopolized hours of thought and discussion, and thankfully, Mosaic answers each of these questions.

Better yet, the passages this time around that introduce each chapter are text that I understand! They engage me. I am able to use the comprehension strategies that I have learned to read the introductions at a deeper level. So I ask you, have I gotten smarter or did the authors do a better job? Probably some of both. As a learner I have deepened my knowledge with each year, but the teachers, Ellin and Susan, have also become pros at presenting this material. Isn’t that the way teaching is if you are a lifelong learner? Each year you get a little better so that you know how to scaffold and stretch instruction. Isn’t that what we love most about this profession?

Mosaic gets my 5 star rating!

Monday, July 2, 2007

New Teacher Orientation

One of the ways that you stabilize a faculty that continues to have new entries is to make sure that each new teacher is quickly immersed into the school's culture and then is supported throughout her first few years. That includes teachers who are new to the profession but also those that are new to the school. One of the ways that Chets Creek does this is by starting all teachers new to Chets with a three day summer orientation. Of course, there is no money to pay new teachers for their time, but they are new, anxious and excited, so they never ask. They seem as genuinely excited for a peek into their new assignment as we are to give up our own time to provide the training!
Susan Phillips, the Principal, begins with an entire day of getting to know the new residents herself. She gives them a tour of the facilities, but she also gives them a tour of the school's philosophy, its rituals and routines, its traditions, and its rich history. She explains why there is an urgency to our teaching, our data story, what it means to be immersed in standards-based education, and what it means to thrive in a collaborative professional learning community. Each new teacher is given a copy of Roland Barths' Improving Schools from Within, the same book that all teachers at Chets have studied, to help them understand the process of genuine collaboration. All of this sets the schema for the next two days when teachers are divided and given an overview of their grade level and subject area. Grade level information includes, among other things, Non-negotiables written by the new grade level of what they all agree to do this next year. Teachers are then divided by subject areas and given an overview of Readers' and Writers' Workshop and/or Math and Science Workshop by the coaches who will support them throughout the next year. These sessions include general information about the Workshop model, Pacing Guides, information about grade-level homework, common assessments, progress monitoring information, resources including professional books that teachers are expected to read, and a wealth of information on getting through the first 30 days. Since we know that teachers often find classroom management one of the most difficult parts of initial teaching, time is also allocated to explain our school-wide behavior plan with suggestions for individualization. The three days end with an evening social at the Principal's home because our bottom line belief is that "it's all about relationships" - relationships with our students but also relationships with each other. The new teachers and their mentors are invited to join with the Leadership Team for dinner, fun and games - lots of fun and laughter! All of this provides the new teacher with the essential elements of knowing other new teachers as her own cohort, but also the players on her grade level and subject teams and the people in Leadership who will be the scaffolding her experiences as a new year begins.

This cohort of new teachers will meet throughout the next year to provide the support they need to make their first year one of their best years! Here's to the 2007 new cohort of teachers at Chets Creek (pictured above). Here! Here!