Monday, May 31, 2010

The Homework Question

I have long wondered if homework is really worth the time. As a Special Education teacher I have had too many conferences with parents who have talked (some cried) about getting their children to do their homework. They would describe power struggles that took hours each night to complete an assignment that the teacher probably expected to take 15 minutes. Parents talked about tears and frustrations - time that took away from playing outside or family activities. I am often the one who fields questions and concerns from primary parents about homework. Parents don't call who love the homework - only those that feel like it's a poor use of their child's time or who feel like it interferes with family time.

While we have "grade level homework" (all teachers give the same homework) in Kindergarten and First Grade to try to keep down the competition of parents comparing teachers, we have tried to differentiate by giving children choices and offering "challenge" activities. To take family life into consideration we give the week's homework on Monday and take it up on Friday with no homework on the weekends. We think we stay within the county's guidelines of no more than 30 minutes a night for homework. However, no matter what we do, it seems to me that the students that don't really need the practice actually turn in the homework every Friday and those that might really benefit from it, never turn it in!

Recently I have been reading Alfie Kohn's The Homework Myth and Cathy Vatterott's Rethinking Homework. It seems to me that we have bought into the idea that homework means rigor, that more homework means more learning, and that homework teaches discipline. The research simply does not support these ideas. In reading the research, it looks to me like to make it effective, homework needs to be differentiated for each student. It needs to be checked and discussed and used as an assessment of how well students understand, and we need to take into consideration the children and families in our classrooms.

As I think about all this, I have tried to decide what our children are doing that really makes a difference. To me, it's reading every day. I know that the more our children read, the better readers they will become. I know that their vocabularies will improve and I know that the more they do it, the easier it is. In thinking about and discussing all of this our new grade level of first grade teachers is considering only having students read as their homework. We believe that there will be some push back from parents who really believe that their children NEED homework so we are thinking about offering homework options on-line that a student might complete for extra credit.
We don't want the reading to get boring so we know we will need to provide interesting ways for the children to respond to what they read or different ways for them to record their reading. We know we will have to make completing homework rewarding and exciting, like talking about it in class. We might even try a "Homework King and Queen" each week, like the Mall-ards or let those that remember to turn in their homework choose their spot during Readers' Workshop, like Haley Alvarado recently did.

We are just in the "thinking" stage, so... what do you think?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Interventions that work

For ten years we have offered a safety net to our Kindergarten and first grade students who perform in our lowest 20% on each grade level. The safety net is offered for 30 minutes daily and is taught by one of our paraprofessionals. We have invested in professional development over the years and have sent our paras to training that is only offered to teachers. We were very fortunate to have a teacher that had been a Reading Mastery Master Teacher before coming to us and had received advance training, come to our school as one of our Kindergarten, First Grade looping teachers. In years when we couldn't find outside training she always graciously offered to train and support our paras and has been their "go to" person when they had questions. The paras meet in every crook and cranny in the building including the hallway and closets! Since Reading Mastery is such a very scripted program, some people are surprised that we would use it at Chets Creek but it provides intensive lessons in phonemic awareness and phonics and that is what most of our youngest learners who are at-risk need.

We've never kept really good records on the success of this safety net program, but teachers anecdotal information is convincing. They can't wait for it to get started each year and often credit the para's work with students as a key to a child's success. However, as we get deeper into the RtI model, I am sure that will change. Keeping specific data will be our next step and proving that this really works with the numbers. We will also get better at matching the right kids with the right intervention. For now, the program simply provides extra support for our neediest students. My hat's off to our para group that cares more than they have to and works harder than we could hope for!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The scores are in! The scores are in!

As much as I hate the idea that so much depends on a single day of testing, I have to admit that the day the scores begin to come in is an exciting time! As the Principal sprinted into her office today (she rarely sprints!) she called for the Leadership team and a pack of highlighters. We waited impatiently as she powered up her computer to pull up the school scores. At this point we simply get the scores of each third grader from the state. It's up to us to figure out the rough percentages and then to figure out which kids will not count in the school score (because we didn't have them in both attendance periods or because they are active second language learners or Special Education students). We will get a final score from the state much later, but we simply cannot wait! Each of us takes a list and we figure the grade level percentages and then the percentages for each homeroom in both Math and Reading before the Principal calls the grade level together. Of course, during the hour that it takes to figure it all out, the buzz has run through the building that the 3rd grade scores are in! As the grade level gathers, teachers look stressed. Some are anxious and others look like they might get sick. A few are really excited! As soon as the percentages are unveiled with the grade level, you can hear teachers talking among themselves, congratulating themselves on their successes. They are both proud and relieved! Very few disappointing scores come as a surprise. We did notice for this grade level that of the 16 or so students who scored a Level 1 or 2, over half of those students live in the community that we have just decided to target for some intensive academic support!

There's nothing like a young teacher who has 100% of her students score 3 or better or the seasoned inclusion teacher who will spend hours tonight going through the scores of every single student to decided what worked and what didn't and how to tweak instruction for some of her most needy students. Many teachers will look at when the children came to Chets Creek because historically, it's the students that come new to us that are the ones that struggle the most. I'll never believe that the one test should determine passing and failing or should ever be the largest factor in a teacher's pay but there is something very satisfying and validating about seeing in black and white that all of your hard work has made a difference! Wow! What a day!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Chets Creek Academic Resource Center

Sometimes dreams come true and today was one of those days. Today we opened the Chets Creek Academic Resource Center at Portside. Portside is a 1000 mobile home community in our attendance zone. With over 1200 students at Chets Creek, about 250-300 of our students come from that community. While some of our most gifted students live there, so do a large percentage of our at-risk students and our families on free and reduced lunch. We have long talked about targeting this underserved community for some type of academic intervention. However, we are not a Title 1 school and while we have a substantial at-risk population, as many students as many small schools, we don't qualify for the type of money that would allow us to pay tutors outside of the school day.

Regardless of that reality, earlier this year our Leadership Team went to Portside to meet with their Management group to compare our visions of what could be done. The first project happened at Christmas time as our faculty poured out their love for the families in the community. We spent a "service Saturday" giving out gently used clothes, groceries, blankets and toys, playing games and making holiday ornaments with the kids in the community as they visited with Santa, and pressure washing and stapling plastic inside homes before winter cold leaked in. It was a great day, but the outpouring by the faculty just made us want to do more so... Liz Duncan , our Behaviorist who deals with discipline and KK Cherney, our Energizer Bunny who is is also our Media Specialist continued conversation with the Portside leadership. The Portside leadership, the Management Group ARC, knew that if they could offer academic support to their families that they would be giving their families more reason to stay. We knew if we could offer academic support, we might reduce the mobility in our school and raise the test scores of our children. But the commitment of both groups was so much more than that surface level of "what can this do for us." It has been obvious from the beginning that this is about making a real difference. As Liz and KK continued to work with ARC, they worked out a location within the community and ARC agreed to refurbish several rooms in a building for our use. They painted and carpeted two rooms while the Chets Creek artists got together to frame children's art work from the community and our art teachers painted a beautiful mural of a beach scene where we could hold story times. Book companies came through with bookcases and a load of new books for check out. ARC donated computers and their upkeep! We still have no money, but look what you can do with a load of care instead! The Chets Creek faculty has offered to man the Center throughout the Summer to offer academic support. We know that our students that do not read over the summer come back to school and have taken a step backwards - but not this year. This summer all of our children will read. I can only imagine the difference it will make! I don't know if all schools have a Liz or KK on their faculty or if they have Leadership that will set them free to dream and make their dreams come true, but I feel so fortunate to work in a place where people care so much. And don't tell me that businesses are all about money! ARC has given much and today book companies provided give aways to the children while Chick-fil-A provided food for the kids and Starbucks provided for the adults. Over 200 people showed up for the official ribbon cutting, -many of them Management officials from the parent ARC who flew in from all over the country, many of the faculty from Chets but mostly families from the community. Also there were our long time volunteers from Landstar who are interested in going to the community during their lunch times this summer to tutor children! Isn't it just amazing?!!

Monday, May 17, 2010


Wow! What an exciting Early Release (professional development) we had today! Speedgeeking! It is a humours play on Speed Dating! Under the direction of our Technology Team and Head Geek Melanie Holtsman the faculty was divided into 5 groups simply by giving each person a colored piece of paper as they walked into the Media Center (all the greens together, all the reds together...) As the faculty divided, with the Loveboat theme playing in the background, they each went to one of five rooms to learn about a new technology tool. All five tech tools were new to me and I'll bet there was at least one new tool for every single member of the faculty - even the geekiest! We had 10 minutes in each room to hear about the tool and then at the sound of a bell and one of the technology team coming over the Intercom with a humorous nod to speed dating we moved to the room to the right. Five new tools in less than an hour! Not bad! So today I learned about
  • Flixtime - an easier moviemaker type tool that doesn't need to be rendered that I will use for my next slide/video show
  • Timetoast - a simple timeline that I will use with my next author study
  • Jing - a screen capture program that I will use to show parents next year how to leave a comment on my blog!
  • Wallwisher - a techie wall with "sticky" notes that looks easier than Gloster that I will use to demonstrate to my students how to take notes for my next report unit
  • Fotobabble - a picture with audio that is great when you don't need an entire Voicethread - would have been great for the kids to say "Happy Mother's Day" on a teacher's blog
We even evaluated Speekgeeking using an evaluation form that took minutes to complete. To get an idea of what the faculty thought about this little piece of PD, check it out!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

New Team

Today I met with my new first grade team. It's a large group of 13 women but so many ladies that I have worked with for many years. I have a great relationship with this group and know that they all adore each other. Also thrown into the mix are a few new faces to our primary grade level. It's really such a gift to be able to spend an entire day with our Standards Coach, Suzanne Shall and a group that is excited about being together next year. It just makes the hectic end of the year easier when you already have a plan for next year!

What do we do on a New Team day? We start by enjoying a breakfast suggested and brought by the team members. Then it's on to getting to know each other by playing a game of matching pet peeves with people in the room and then putting each person in the hot seat and asking them a question that we just have to know! There was lots of laughter and lots of fun as we learned more about each other. So who has a thing about yucky toenails? Who can't stand belching? Who pieced their own belly button? Secrets - only first grade teachers know for sure! We selected a new Team Leader, my partner, Tracy Ruark, who will be WONDERFUL, and volunteered for Committees (Field trips, Spirit Committee, Homework, Foundations...)

Then it was on to the meat of the day with discussion about the Parent Supply List that goes home in the report card and then our list of "non-negotiables." It's the list of the things that we all agree to do as a team.

Chets Creek Elementary
Non-negotiables - First Grade

Subjects• One hour Readers’ Workshop daily
• One hour Writers’ Workshop daily
• 30 minute Interactive ELA Skills Block daily
• One hour Math Workshop to include Interactive Math Skills Block (i.e., Calendar Math)
• 15 minutes daily and 45 minutes of Science on long Wednesdays (100 minutes a week)

Don't forget time for Social Studies, Health and Character Education!
Homework• On average, including book in the bag, homework should take no more than 30 minutes nightly.
• Homework on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. No homework on weekends.
• Grade level homework is to be sent home by every teacher although it may be modified to meet the teacher’s learning schedule.
• Projects should be reviewed and effort should be made to align projects with the New Generation Standards. Projects sometimes go home before the weekend to give students and parents additional time to secure materials but teachers should not expect students to work on them over the weekend. Projects (including responses to Standard Snapshots) should be considered part of the 30 minutes of homework nightly.
At CCE we encourage students to be actively involved in extracurricular activities and spend the least amount of time as possible on homework while still building some rituals and routines around study skills.
Million Word Standard
• Each student is responsible for reading a million words a year.
• Evidence should be logged. Book logs can be paper/pencil, digital, school based or home based.

• Standards must be posted for the daily lesson that can easily be read by students throughout the classroom.
• Book of the Month should be attractively displayed and accessible to students. A Book of the month bin of 2009-10 books of the month should be part of the genre library.
• A system of organized data collection is required (such as a notebook that includes Diagnostic Profiles, DRA’s, PMPs
• Portfolios in Writing and Mathematics are required for every student.
• Artifacts for individual students in Science may be journals, notebooks or portfolios.
• Teacher made Charts demonstrating mini-lessons in ELA should be evident in the classroom.
• Classroom writing rubrics of genres covered should be available for students.
• Word Walls should be obvious as students should be using them daily.
• Math artifacts such as teacher-made charts, 100’s chart, number lines with negative and positive numbers, manipulatives, strategy charts… should be displayed. A Math bin of books should be available in the genre library.
• Science artifacts such as teacher-made charts and evidence of an inquiry based laboratory should be obvious. A bin of Science books should be available in the genre library.
• Student work should be posted with the standard - encouraged on the walls of the classroom but with limited space is acceptable in hallways.

Standards-Based Bulletin Board
SBBB will be displayed by the deadline date. A typical board will include the following components: Standards, task, 4 pieces of student work, teacher commentary. The board may also include student commentary, circumstances of performance...
• No SBBB are due in August, December, March, May or June.
• At least one board is required in ELA, Math, Science and a final work-over-time board.
Standard Snapshots• SS will go home with report cards on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd nine weeks.
• SS should be done collaboratively as a grade level with an emphasis on discussing student work.
• Each student’s piece of work will be attached to the snapshot to be sent home on the specified date.
• First grade will produce a writing, math, and science SS to include a parent engagement piece.
Pacing Guides and Standards• District Learning Schedules in Mathematics will be followed; Sunshine State Standards will be used.
• District Learning Schedules in Science will be followed; Sunshine State Standards will be used.
• First grade CCE Pacing guide will include reading and skills and will follow the Scope and Sequence of our county adopted Houghton-Mifflin core, using the First Grade Sunshine State Standards
• First Grade CCE Pacing Guide will include 6 genres of writing: Narrative, Non-fiction – Procedural and Informational/Report, Response-to-Literature, Persuasive and Poetry. Standards will reflect the America’s Choice Rubrics for the first 4 genres and the Sunshine State Standards for persuasive.
• The First Grade CCE Pacing Guide will include Reading, Writing, Skills, Math, Science, and Social Studies so that teachers can see “echoes across the day”.

On Course Grade Book
• No grades will be taken on content of homework. However, a single grade each nine weeks may be given as part of a habits and processes grade based on homework turned in and completed.
• There should be a reasonable number of grades to average for an overall grade each nine weeks. (5 or more)
• There needs to be grade level consistency on what is being graded and teachers need to be able to communicate with parents how the grade was derived.
• Teachers should post grades within one week of an assignment being given.
Communication with Parents• A one page weekly newsletter is required to be sent home on Mondays on the back of the Connection. It must be edited by an Administrator before being copied.
• Written notes to parents, phone calls and e-mails should be replied to within 24 hours.
• Written notes should appear in planners and/or emails should be sent to every parent every couple of weeks.
• Blogs are highly recommended but optional. To keep a blog active a teacher should post at a minimum of every other week. An e-mail can be sent to parents when a new post is written.

By discussing the Non-negotiables we made sure that each new first grade teacher understood the expectations for the grade level and discussed that sacred cow, "homework" with the idea of thinking about removing all homework except reading each night and a monthly parent project - but more about that later.

We actually went out to lunch with the idea of more team building. We recognize that the success of a team is built on relationships and if that is the only thing we accomplished in this day, that would be enough! It's also nice to just get out to a nice restaurant and have adult conversation!

When we came back we each updated out web site and then spent some time playing with the computer site, Discovery Education - a gift from SAC! What a resource! Videos on every possible topic to add a little tech savvy to any lessons. the kids are going to love it!
I can't begin to tell you about how excited I am with my new grade level. Each year brings its own successes and challenges, but this new year is opening on such a high note. Can't wait!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

I think for all high performing schools - especially schools that have lots of parent volunteers - Mother's Day is day when mothers are invited into the classroom for a special "something." At our school, different teachers at our school do different things including...

  • asking Moms and kids to come dressed up - wearing their Sunday best. After all it's a very special day!
  • inviting both Moms and Dads for a Parents' Day since Father's Day is always when we are out of school (I love "Muffins for Moms and Doughnuts for Dads")

  • serving simple or extravagant breakfast or luncheons, usually provided by the teacher, since you're entertaining the moms in your class - everything from muffins and juice to a complete smorgasbord

  • a card - sometimes a poem such as the "tea poem" with tea bags or a handprint poem or cloze poems that each child has completed about their mom with drawn pictures of the child and mom

  • some type of performance - some are prerecorded (flip videos of each child saying "Happy Mother's Day", why I love my mom and blowing a kiss or a PowerPoint of baby pictures sent in by the family and the audience guessing who it is and then a current picture showing who it is) and others present live performances such as songs with motions and props, sign language songs, poems read by the entire class, acrostic poems for something like HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY, all with a mother theme
  • a wrapped gift - the most popular right now at our school is buttons threaded on an elastic band for a bracelet - actually I think I'd wear one - wrapped in a toilet paper tube with tissue paper and ribbon at each end
All in all, it makes for a very special day - often with a few tears as our moms and our teachers realize that another year has passed and that we are so proud of our childrens' accomplishments!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Our Boy TOY

Chets Creek 2010 Teacher of the Year
5th Grade Math Teacher, Tom Ruark
I guess lots of schools across the country select their own Teacher of the Year, but I do think we have more fun with the process than most. On Thursday we "honored" our Boy TOY, Teacher of the Year Tom Ruark in a hilariously irreverent and tissue-crying celebration.
At our school the grade level of the Teacher of the Year, the Spirit Committee and the Media Center staff decorate the Media Center around a theme that is chosen especially for the selected teacher (check out that Mountain Dew can painted by our Art Department!) This year Tom and his family (wife Tracy is a 2nd grade teacher at our school and his daughter is a 5th grade student) entered the Media Center at the appointed time with the staff on each side of a green carpet clapping, yelling and holding up Mountain Dew cans - a Tom favorite. Then the lights were lowered as we were treated to an adorable slide show of Tom's life to music. He was such a cute baby! I think it meant even more to the faculty because Tracy, Tom's wife, is a 2nd grade teacher with us and his daughter is a 5th grader who has been with us for her entire school career. Tom's parents were also in attendance. The slide show began with adorable little Tom as a baby and toddler and moved through his long hair, mustached teen years, his marriage and birth of his daughters. I don't know why but even the funny parts of looking back bring tears to my eyes as I watch a child who has realized his dreams.

As the faculty begins to get in line for an outstanding buffet breakfast, each grade level comes forward to give a skit to represent the Teacher of the Year. Several of the grade levels presented their skits digitally but I hope you can tell from the pictures below how really funny this is!It is such fun to begin the day remembering times that bring tears to your eyes and then laugh until your belly hurts! The morning just makes you feel good about being a teacher! In the evening about 20 of the staff got all glitzed up for the county's Eddy Awards, which celebrates all of the almost 200 Teachers of the Year in our large county. It's a glamorous affair celebrated by 1300 teachers and their families and friends with a delicious dinner, but it's really just icing on the cake. I don't think anything means as much to our Teachers of the Year as being honored by their own - the teachers who know you inside out and still vote for you! Tom, we love and adore you and are so thankful that you have chosen to spend your life making a difference with our precious children! What a gift!