Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best of 2011

Much to my surprise the Most Popular Posts on my blog for 2011 all centered around bulletin boards!  I like this, because we spend a lot of time at my school on bulletin boards.  We gave up the "fluff and stuff" boards years ago to move to boards that are a "window into the instruction in the classroom."  They are teaching boards.  They are learning boards.  They have common elements, such as posting the standards, student work with commentary, and a description of the lesson or the lessons leading up to the artifacts.  The best bulletin boards are those that are taken from a naturally occurring lesson.  A special lesson should never be taught just to get a bulletin board, but the bulletin board should be a natural lesson plucked out of the sequence to highlight the learning.  It doesn't have to be a final lesson or project with a completely finished piece of work.  It can be a lesson anywhere in the progression and the work can be at the beginning, anywhere in the middle, or at the end.  I think the reason that I so often write about bulletin boards is because they chronicle the student work.  Take a look back at these posts from 2011.

A Board Walk, February 2, 2011
Bulletin Boards: Are They Worth It?  August 8, 2011
First of the Year Bulletin Boards September 21, 2011
Pattern Book Bulletin Boards December 6, 2011

And so we end 2011 with a look back -reflection - and welcome the new year!  We've been waiting for you 2012.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Writing Letters to Santa

One of the things that Kindergarten teachers like to do this last week before the holiday break is to invite students to write letters to Santa.  Below are a couple of examples.
Dear Santa,
How are you doing?  Are you making any trains this year?  I like trains.  Asher
Dear Santa,
How are you doing?  I want to buy a present for the children at the hospital but I do not have enough money and I do not think that my mom will because she already bought a lot of stuff for me, my sister,

and my brother.  What should I do?  And before I go I just want to ask how are your elves doing.  Merry Christmas.  Love, Morgan

You just have to love the way kindergartners think!

Traditions I Love

Every school has traditions, especially around the holidays.  At our school we have a huge holiday tree that decorates the entry way and has a picture of every single child in the school.  It wouldn't be Christmas at Chets without walking in each morning and seeing that big holiday tree.  Another tradition is our 12 Days of Cookies.  The 12 last days before the break, teachers, who want to participate, bring cookies and candy and put them on a buffet in the Office and then anyone that wants can stop by for a little sweet cheer.  I always stop by, even though I don't often partake.  I do love that the office often has the smell of the holidays.  M-m-m-m-m.

Another tradition that I love is the ornament exchange.  I don't participate in this group of 20, but I love that 20 women on our staff decided eight years ago that they love homemade ornaments, so each year they each make 20 ornaments and then meet one night near Christmas at someone's home and exchange the ornaments.  I love that the tradition was grass roots.  Someone always brings the samples to school.  It just wouldn't be Christmas if I didn't get to see the beautiful handmade ornaments that this group makes. 

I think traditions should continue because they make sense to the people involved.  They are special.  They evoke emotion. They should die when they are no longer meaningful.  It's easy to overdo this time of year to the point that you enjoy nothing because you are trying too hard to make everything perfect.  It won't ever be perfect.  Giving ourselves permission to make the special very special and to discard that that is simply obligatory or without heart, just makes good sense to me.  May your school traditions make this the merriest, most joyful holiday ever!

Thursday, December 15, 2011


In Florida, because of a lawsuit many years ago, all teachers are required to take courses in teaching second language students once they have their first student.  I have been teaching for over 40 years and I have never been flagged for ESOL which means I've never been told I had to take the hours.  That's because I am a Special Education teacher and it used to be highly unlikely that a second language student would be identified with special needs in the early grades.  However, two years ago three little Hispanic children from the same family all showed up in my classroom on the same day (two were twins and the other had been retained).  They had already been identified as students of a second language and students with developmental delays, so...  I was flagged that year - the same year that I officially retired and entered DROP (our state's retirement program).  I was NOT happy.  I just couldn't believe that after all those years, that now, at the end of my career, I would have to take  college courses on strategies to teach second language students to continue teaching.

Most of my friends have had to take the courses and most described the time of sitting three hours a night as similar to that of any other poorly designed professional development.  The strategies they described were so similar to the ones that we are already using for our students with language deficits and other academic challenges.  They learned about diversity, but I come from the years when home visits were a regular part of a school year. How was sitting in those courses now going to help?  Then, as often happens (Divine intervention?),  I had the idea of doing an independent study and actually doing action research to meet the requirement. I was already spending time at the MARC (our tutoring center in our large Hispanic area).  Why couldn't I use those hours for ESOL certification instead of sitting in a classroom and simply reading about the problems. The time with the kids at the MARC actually requires me to apply the strategies and it forces me into the community where our tutoring center is housed.  It took several phone calls through the Ivory Tower to find the "right" person, Karen Patterson - someone to share my dream and my enthusiasm. 

As time passed, that simple idea began to germinate.  If it would be better for ME to meet the ESOL requirement through service, then why wouldn't it be better for the many other teachers at my school who were already involved in this volunteering effort?  It wasn't long before I shared that idea with KK Cherney, our dynamo Media Specialist.  She immediately realized the potential of this small idea.  She had already been thinking about spreading the idea of our volunteer tutoring center all over the county and this was one of the answers on how to help staff those centers.  Teachers from all over the county who needed ESOL hours could choose to spend their time applying the strategies instead of just sitting in a sterile classroom and reading about them.  It would put teachers directly into the community working with children and their families.

That "big picture" hasn't happened yet.  The dream has not been fulfilled but the dream has spread.  Karen and Sharon Patterson are helping us realize the dream.   Today, our first little wave of putting teachers into the community through ESOL hours, came to fruition.  A handful of teachers met with Karen and Sharon, our ESOL supervisors, and shared their written reflections and artifacts - pictures, blog posts, student progress.  Teachers not only participated in weekly tutoring.  They were in the community for Second Harvest food giveaways and hosted children while their moms worked through classes in English.  They participated as 50 families were helped through our Angel Tree project this week.  They helped host a huge Christmas party that included crafts and stories and even the big red man himself. 

Has this experience changed any these teachers?  There is no question that each of these teachers have logged hours in this community.  They have formed strong relationships with children and families.  They have been inside homes.  Some have shared meals.  They have had conversations, often through interpreters, with parents who would never have come to school for a conference.  They have been touched by the dreams that they have shared with the children.  This grassroot effort has the potential to mushroom into something beyond what we can now imagine.  Stay with us for the ride.  The best is yet to come...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Writing Reports in Kindergarten

In Kindergarten children begin to write reports by writing about themselves.  After all, what subject do they know more about than themselves?!  This unit comes during our annual Pow Wow celebration so it is natural that many of our kinder classes choose the tribe that they are studying to write their next report.  Thus was the case in Debbie Harbour and Tenean Wright's kindergarten class.  Their bulletin board this month reflects the reports that some of the children wrote about the Nez Perce tribe.
The bulletin board includes the reports of four of the children with the teacher's commentary and many pictures from the Pow Wow event.  Below is one student's report and the teacher's commentary.
 They use buffalo skin.  Their teepees face east.  They eat fish.  Indian kids play with dogs and in the winter they stay in longhouses.  Nez Perce can shoot 10 arrows in the air before the first ones fall down.
They ride Appaloosas.  They sleep in tepees.  Indians have stew to heat up the fish.

Commentary:  Patrick wrote easily about the Nez Perce tribe we have been studying in class.  He recalled eight different facts and used pictures to help support his text.  It is obvious that Patrick has made the letter sound connection and can sound out many of the words that he does not know how to spell.  He also has mastered the spelling and use of many sight words (they, in, up, the...)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New 2011 Teacher Evaluation system

I hadn't thought much about the new teacher evaluation system in Florida... until Thanksgiving.

As I shared the holiday with my family, I sat around the table with my family, teachers from all parts of the state - kindergarten and first grade teachers, high school teachers, PE teachers and Guidance Counselors.  As the topic of the new state-wide teacher evaluation system came up in conversation, they were fairly unanimous in their opinion about how hurtful and painful the system has been in their individual schools.  One of the kinder teachers talked about veteran teachers who were in tears as they were told after 12 and 18 years of teaching that they were "beginning" and "developing".  They considered it a slap in the face after giving 110% for so many years.  This seemed to be pretty common experience across the conversation.  The kinder teacher said that her Principal told her faculty that it was impossible for a K-1-2 teacher to get "highly effective" because it was impossible for students of that age to meet the highest level expectation on the rubric.  In every single incidence, these usually dedicated, committed teachers agreed that the system was out to "get 'em" and was designed to have few teachers at the top so they wouldn't have to pay them the top dollar when performance pay comes into effect across the state.  One teacher said that Principals in her county had been told that there would be repercussions for Principals who scored too many teachers too high!  The older teachers in the group talked about retiring early - now - and looking for other work to "get out."   The younger teachers talked about other professional choices - these are the same teachers who have been so excited about a career in teaching just a year ago!

I could hardly participate or even listen to the conversations because my heart was breaking...

I haven't had my first informal evaluation yet - that's scheduled for next week - but I have looked briefly at the rubric.  After 40 years of teaching, how will I feel if I am scored as "beginning" or "developing" in any area?  Will the fact that the students I teach struggle with language be a consideration on the level of conversation that they have?  I'm actually having the Principal come during a combination third/fourth grade intervention group - a Phonics for Reading, Level 1 group with 5 students with special needs.  The lessons are scripted and according to the developer of the program, Anita Archer, every word is researched, so I do not veer much from the text.  In fact, my challenge is staying with the exact wording, knowing that it stands on the shoulders of research. It can be rather boring, I guess, but it is what I do with that particular group of students, and the program is effective.  So... should I develop a "dog and pony show" instead to meet the little blocks on the rubric or should I plan to do what I really do?  I have opted to do what I do and just take the evaluation with a grain of salt.  Whatever the outcome, it is what it is.  I will try not to feel defensive or personally attacked and be open enough to see the learning that is just under the clouded surface.  I doubt it's any easier on my Principal - who is over 20 years my junior (I could have birthed her!) - to have to evaluate me than it is for me to sit through someone discussing my shortcomings!  I actually feel sorry for my Principal.  We have over 20 Nationally Board Certified Teachers at our school and another huge block of teachers who go above and beyond every single day.  I am sure telling any of those teachers that they may not be "highly effective" will be very difficult, especially if it is tied to pay.  To her credit, I don't feel the same sense of doom and gloom that the rest of my family seems to be feeling, although we are only at the beginning of this process.  If the culture at our school is nervous, they are also still upbeat and unbelievably committed.  It will be interesting to see how this unfolds across our state...

From a young teacher's perspective...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pow Wow 2011

Today was the culmination of our month long study of the great Native American Nations.  When Chets Creek opened, Chief Jumping Frog was a Kindergarten teacher and she brought the tradition of a Native American Powwow around the Thanksgiving holiday with her from another local elementary school.  Today Chief Jumping Frog Principal Susan Phillips and that tradition have evolved from one of teaching our children that Native Americans use bows and arrows to hunt buffalo and all live in tepees to an in-depth study of First Americantribes across this country.  As the years passed we became dissatisfied with our simple ceremony and began to delve into all of the differences among the First Americans that inhabited our land.  We learned that the Sioux really did live in tepees but the the great Iroquois Nation were people of the longhouses and the peaceful Lenape built wigwams and Inuits actually lived in igloos...  As each tribe researched the clothes that their tribes wore they found that many of the Natives used the skins and feathers of the animals that they hunted in their area and that the Seminoles of our native Florida used shells which were abundant along the shore and that each tribe had different traditional garb so the costumes of the Powwow took on different colors and shapes.

It was not long before we knew that we wanted to involve parents more heavily into our study so homework for the month became family projects.  Families were asked to tell their children stories of their own childhood and their child's early days and to make knots in a counting rope as they told each story just like the beautiful Iroquois story of a Grandfather who tells the story of the birth and childhood to his blind grandson in the beautifully written and former Book-of-the-Month Knots on a Counting Rope. Children bring their ropes back to school and share one of their favorite stories with the class. 

A cardboard gingerbread shape is sent home and families are asked to decorate the native child after researching how their child's tribe might dress.  These colorful First Americans hang in our hallways.
Parents are invited in Tuesday before Powwow for a night of fun as each tribe gathers their families to make replicas of the types of houses that their tribe might have lived in and then these are also displayed in the hallways.  You can walk through the halls and see Seminole  chickees,  Hopi adobe homes, and plank houses with totem poles from the Nootkas...

Several years ago we decided to keep all the information together on a Native American wiki.  Not only is there space for each of the tribes to upload information but on the home page there is a copy of every letter sent to parents, lists of materials to gather for the many projects, invitation sent to first graders, and a million of the other little details that help to keep us all organized!  What a gift each year as we recreate this tradition at our school.  This is a HUGE project and is only accomplished because the work stands on the shoulders of the teachers who came before.

It wasn't long before we began to worry that we were sending our children from Chets Creek with many stereotypes about Native Americans because we were only talking about how Native Americans used to be, but we knew that our five years olds were too young to take on the rich, but sometimes difficult histories, of our tribes, so we decided to bring the tribes alive again in Social Studies in fifth grade.  Our older students do projects that include "compare and contrast" and then do models and PowerPoint's and include many different kinds of technology.  They join us on the night that we have kindergarten parents in for "Make 'n' Take" and make their presentations to the kindergarten children and their families.  Each child gets a "passport" at the beginning of the night and has it stamped at each stop.  When they fill their passport, they can collect a Native American bracelet from Chief Jumping Frog as they leave for the night.  This addition to our curriculum brings our study full circle.

Today was the great Powwow celebration.  Fifth graders joined us by helping to give out programs, holding authentic Native American flags, dressing with colorful tribe-related sashes and roping off the Powwow area and performing a million different chores.  Kindergartners performed Native dances and songs in Native tongues, dressed in their Native costumes.  Chief Chets Creek performed a traditional grass dance that is actually performed to stomp the grass flat before a Powwow.  He had researched, not only the dance and specific dance steps, but the costume, which was replicated by a parent. Parents and children enjoyed the entire Powwow presentation, led by Chief Jumping Frog, of course, and snapped a gazillion pictures.
But that is just the start of the day.  The kindergarten children visit centers throughout the day, led by our Resource Team and each one teaches something important about the tribes.  A real tepee is erected around the flagpole (amazing to behold).  The children enter in disbelief and look up at the beautiful paintings on the inside wall of the tepee.  This is one of the most anticipated and meaningful stops of the day.   Peaceful Waters (Media Specialist KK Cherney) tells stories about the "three sisters."  Each child leaves with seeds of corn, beans, and squash to plant at home.  As she tells the stories Drawing Hands paints a picture.  Peaceful Waters then tells of the native tradition of a talking stick and as she passes the stick to each child and adult, she asks them to tell of one thing they are thankful.  Many of the children are thankful for family and friends - Daddy coming home from Iraq, a grandmother that has been sick, a new baby brother.  A few are thankful for their teachers (thank goodness) and a few are also thankful for dinosaurs and videogames and toys!  The adults always seemed surprised when Peaceful Waters asks each of them to name the thing they are most thankful, but it is not unusual to sometimes see grown men cry.

Next the children visit Colorful Wind (Art Teacher Jen Snead) and she teaches them about the natural dyes used to paint and communicate.  Children are surprised to learn that the Native Americans so long ago could not run to Walmart for paint and brushes!  Then the children experiment by painting with such things as beets and blueberries and spices.  At another art center the children mold clay into balls and then discs and use shapes of native designs to make a keepsake that will be fired and returned. Some of these will be used on necklaces and some will find their way onto Christmas trees commemorating the child's first Powwow.  At that same center each child is given a piece of animal hide (or crumpled brown paper bag) and encouraged to use some of the Native American designs from a chart to write a story. 

Chief Sing um Song invited the children in and taught them a Native song.  They got to beat the steady beat on drums and then used paddles pretending to row boats to the beat of the paddle song.  Today my class visited this center as the last one of the day and Music teacher, DeeDee Tamburrino, was just as upbeat and excited to teach this last group as she had been to teach that first group so much earlier in the day. 
The children always need a break to run and play so the PE teachers divide the tribe into groups and let them compete, much like the Native American kids did.  They have a list of things that they can find in the elements on a picture list and have to find each of the items in the wooded area of our property.  Some of the items are planted such as bird eggs and nests and animal fur and others are found in the natural surroundings such as rocks, sticks, bark, and pine cones.  As they come with their treasures, the teachers discuss how the Native American's used each of these items from their environment. Today, because it was a little blustery, the children gathered around the natural fire heat, much like children must have done in days gone by.

The tasting center is always a fun break.  The children get to taste carrots, dried fruit and apple slices.  They enjoy corn muffins and popcorn and even a taste of beef jerky.  Our Speech Teacher, Moe Dygan, a true hunter, also prepares venison from one of his catches, pork from a wild bore and turkey.  Many of the children make their first connections to the game that the Natives hunted and our own food supply.  Moe also brings in many artifacts of his hunting days for the children to see.  He shows the children real horns and hooves, reinforcing vocabulary we learned during The Three Billy Goats Gruff.  The children, and parents, sit spell bound as he speaks.
I don't even know how to explain how I feel about this day or this entire unit.  It has evolved over time, but there is just so much to be proud of as we complete this unit.  I am so proud of my colleagues and our parents who give and give and give - all who really put out the extra effort to make it such a rich learning experience for our children. Am I tired? EXHAUSTED!  But it is so worth it... The learning, the fun, the collegiality...  It just makes me proud to be a Creeker!

P.S-  Oh, and did I mention that my daughter-in-law helped lead the great Iroquois Nation and my granddaughter was with the peaceful Lenape tribe?  Yes, Kallyn I know that is is Lena-PAY and not Lena-PEE!  So-o-o-o proud to be a Creeker and have the opportunity to watch this tradition pass through the generations of my own family!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Million Word Pay Off

Each nine weeks we ask our students to be responsible for reading 25-30 books with the goal of reading a million words each year.  In Kindergarten we log the books during class and also begin to teach the parents and students to begin the lifelong habit of reading each day by requiring them to log at least one book each day that they read at home.  If 90% of the students in the entire school meet the goal, the Principal does something outrageous or fun with the students.  She has been slimed, kissed a pig, treated the kids to Bingo and even invited them to a carnival.  This year she was taped to a wall and read for two hours.  She says she would do anything to get kids to read.  I guess this is her way of walking the talk!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The End of Molasses Classes, Part 3: Community Connections

The final part of Ron Clark's book is Reaching Out Beyond the Classroom.  He talks about traveling around the world with his students and all of the creative and innovative things that he has done at the Ron Clark Academy.  One of the things that I love is #85 where he suggests always watching a applicant teach before you hire them.  He suggests that you can't always tell from an interview how a teacher is going to do with real live kids.  I remember a Teacher of the Year finalist a few years ago that knocked my socks off in the interview and had a resume that was one of the most accomplished I think we had ever seen.  Then we went to watch her teach and what a disappointment.  She had a marvelous lesson planned but the students were totally disengaged.  One was even asleep on his desk and she just went on teaching, as if every student was actively engaged.  She never stopped.  When she asked a question and not a single hand was raised, she just answered the question and went right ahead.  The problem was that there was no learning going on in that room.  That's the kind of scenario that Clark suggests that administrators avoid by watching the teacher BEFORE they are under contract.

Ron Clark also talks about what it has taken to get and to keep the Ron Clark Academy going.  He has worked 24/7 and has given up many things for his success, including a family. As much as I love his enthusiasm, dedication and commitment to our profession and I see dozens of things that he is doing that I can infuse into my own daily teaching life, I don't think we should ask teachers to lay it all on the line to be successful with children.  I am glad that there are educators like Ron Clark, but we must find a way to have his success without risking the other, balanced parts of our lives.  We will only have global success if we can find that balance.

The End of Molasses Classes, Post 2: Parents

The Role of the Parent in the Success of the Child
Ron Clark spends time talking about a parent's accountability in Part 2 of his book.  There are so many of his points that I would like to turn into little articles for parents and even for teacher parents with their own children! 

I really like #26 where he talks about not being a helicopter parent.  He reminds parents that they can't always come to the rescue and bail their children out of trouble.  It is sometimes better that the child deal with the natural consequences.  That is the better lesson, but as parents we want to save our children from the hurt and pain.  But... it's the hurt and pain that are the lasting lesson and change the behavior- something we call learning!

 He also cautions against buying a video game system unless you want to police what the child is playing.  I love this because I don't think parents always realize that a gaming system can become a lifelong addiction and can fill too many hours that are meant for play and fun.

My all-time favorite - #32: Realize that even very good children will sometimes lie!  How many times have you heard a parent say, "My child does not lie!"  But the reality is that even the best of children will sometimes lie to get out of trouble.  Think about your own childhood.  Can't you remember at least one time that you lied. because the lie was easier than accepting the consequence?  The point to this section of the book is that parents are the long term answer to a child's success.  We, as teachers, can touch a child - maybe even change a child or save a child - but long after we have come and gone in a child's life, the parent will be there.  Ron implores parent to be the difference in their own child's life.  Right on, Ron!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Taking a Look at the Data

We are so fortunate in Duval County to have Early Release Wednesdays every other Wednesday of the month.  These days give us an extra hour and a half for professional development every other week.  Usually we spend the time with our grade level and work on the work, but this past Wednesday the entire school worked on data.  The county has finally figured out a way to give us data that is user friendly.  Of course for 3-4-5, it's based on benchmarks that, in my opinion, are still questionable.  I would hate to see us put ALL of our faith in those tests but at least it's a starting point.  
In K-1-2 we had state-wide FAIR data to peruse. This past Wednesday we looked at the data against our lists of free and reduced lunch, lists of second language children, Hispanic students (which will probably be a high stakes assessment sub group or us for the first time this year) and other identifiers.  

So what did I learn?  Of course I know who my strugglers are by now (it's the end of the first nine weeks!) and I already had small groups and specific interventions in place.  I did notice that a much higher percentage of my strugglers are also on free and reduced lunch.  That has long been a trend but it just means that I have to work harder to make sure that they catch up in these early years.  It means that many of them are in homes where they are in survival mode and the children don't have the same type of support as their more financially comfortable peers have day in and day out.  That group continues to grow as our economy struggles and I want to give each child a fighting chance. 

I also identified which of my strugglers that I can touch at our tutoring center and want to make sure to  target those children and get them there for the extra service after school every week.  I also realize that I have a pocket of my Special Education students that have strong academic skills and will need to continue to be challenged at a more advanced level! Nice problem to have.  There is a responsibility to make sure that they continue to grow even though they are working above the aim line.  All in all it was a good reflection time - something that all teachers need on a regular basis.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Outstanding Kindergarten Teacher

I am not surprised that Kindergarten teacher Haley Alvarado was selected to be a feature teacher on Channel 12.  She was nominated by two former students.  Haley is one of those teachers that is the whole package.  She is an amazing teacher in the classroom.  When you watch her teach you are mesmerized by her ability to teach content and manners and respect all at the same time.  She has a way of talking to kids that lets them know that she cares about them but that she also holds them responsible for their own behavior.  She is the one that you will often see at the tee-ball game or the dance recital or the soccer games, cheering on one of her students after school hours.  I know she is all those things because I worked in her room for an entire year, day in and day out.  She was simply magic.

Haley is a master at organization and regularly shares the lessons and artifacts that she works so hard to provide for her own class with the rest of her grade level.  She is always the one that takes the new teacher under her wing and takes the time to answer questions and check to make sure everything is going smoothly.  Any time I ask her to respond to an e-mail from a colleague from out of town, she responds with cheerful suggestions and insight.  She gives unselfishly of her time to her colleagues.

The thing about Haley is that she is also a wonderful mother who keeps her family time sacred.  She manages a nuclear family with several children of her own and even has time for foster children.  She is, in every way, a model of what teachers today offer to their children in the classroom and to our society in general.  It is such an honor to teach and learn beside teachers like Haley, who make me proud to be an educator.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What are they thinking?

Last week, out of the blue, we received an e-mail with an "invitation" or rather a command appearance at an in-service.  I teach in a very large county and the leadership had decided that ALL K-2 teachers would attend a half day in-service conducted by the state.  The time was to be spent learning about the FAIR, our state K-2 assessment and how to plan for instruction.  I was actually excited.  I have been to several state workshops and in-services over the years and they are usually presented by very knowledgeable presenters.  I figured if the county was making EVERY teacher go then it must be something new and cutting edge.  Why else would the county take on the expense of substitutes for every single teacher and moving so many teachers in and out of the city over the course of an entire week?

So... today I sat through three hours of the most basic in-service.  I think the presenters were very knowledgeable but the information presented was not that different from the information that we were presented three or four years ago and every year since then.  Will the county ever quit presenting on beginning professional development? In my county, performance pay for K-2 teachers will be based on this assessment so I can understand why you would need to have every teacher have a basic foundational knowledge of this assessment but the focus was "using the data to focus instruction, to differentiate for groups".  The presentation was one PowerPoint slide after another with a couple of demonstrations - several Elkonin box examples (are there really K-2 teachers who don't know about Elkonin boxes?)  It was... boring...  It scares me to think what must be going on in my county that that was the level of presentation someone in our leadership thought we needed...

One of the things that I have learned as a presenter is that if you want teachers to really "get all it" then you need to model what it is that you want them to do.  There was a lot of talk about explicit instruction today but surely they also know the research on basic lecture methods and their ineffectiveness.  Of course, they did throw in a couple of "turn and talks."  In my opinion, if you want teachers to differentiate in their instruction with kids then the presentation itself should have been differentiated.  It doesn't seem to me that it would have been too hard to give a quick assessment that teachers could have used to self-assess and then choose a workshop that was appropriate to their need and interest. There were certainly enough instructors from the sate in the room that the session could have been divided into many smaller groups.  For example, I would love to have asked these real state experts about some of the questions that we are wrestling with such as how to best use the FAIR data in the RtI process or how better to use the vocabulary percentiles and what the best interventions might be that match the data or exactly how to group students using the comprehension data in the early grades.  Instead we spent time looking at the same basic scores that we were taught to analyze three years ago. I hate to say it was a waste of time, because maybe it wasn't for some teachers.  But... for me, I could have been much more productive working with children in my classroom this morning.

I REALLY HATE complaining... but I hate wasting my time even more...

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Last week I sat on the floor with C's mom and dad at our local tutoring space in the neighborhood and taught them how to use flash cards with him to work on his letters and sounds and then showed them how they could use the same cards to put the letters of the alphabet in order. His dad listened so attentively, just like he had when we talked about how he could help C practice writing his name. And C has learned to write his name! This dad adores his little boy and he is willing to do whatever it takes. He just needs a little help on knowing what to do. It won't be long before C knows his letters because I know his dad will practice with him every night.

K showed up a the MARC for the first time this week. She hid behind her mother's skirt as her mother half dragged her in. As soon as her mom left K worked on letters and sounds, eagerly writing and taking parts in the games. She had the opportunity to work with a retired Speech Therapist to help with her language needs. I sat with her mom for a few minutes while we waited for K to finish a language game and I asked her about K's diagnosis of ADHD, something I had been told by a previous teacher. Her mom surprised me by saying that the doctor could not actually decide if it was ADHD or language that were causing her inattention. Sure enough, the next day when I hunted down the paperwork her mother was right and I had been told incorrectly. I am so appreciative of that brief conversation with her mom. I also realized that the paperwork was a year old so her mom has now agreed to go back to the doctor to see if we can get a more definitive diagnosis. I don't think this mom would have ever come to school for a conference, but she was so easy and willing to talk with when I sat with her in her own neighborhood.

And then there is D. She is new to our school and so quiet. I have run into her at the MARC several times as I am leaving.  I see her on the playground with her baby sister. Today I was at the MARC with Second Harvest. Second Harvest gathers food from local sources and then makes it available for distribution free of charge to needy families. D came through with her mom and baby sister. She was so helpful to her mom, like a mini-adult. I couldn't help but think of all this little girl is carrying on her shoulders. I think she was surprised... and happy to see me, and... I think it will make a difference in our relationship in class. There just seemed to be such a special connection as she ran up and hugged me and introduced me to her mom.

One of the things that Ron Clark says in his newest book, The End of Molasses Classes, is that you have to get to know your students if you want to connect with them and that you need to form strong bonds with parents. That is the same principle that is a cornerstone of Chets Creek - relationships.  I guess it has just been reinforced to me again this week - just how important those relationships really are!

Friday, October 14, 2011

The End of Molasses Classes, Post 1

I have joined a book study and you can too!  This is my first response to Ron Clark's The End of Molasses Classes.

I have had the opportunity to hear Ron Clark speak several times and even had the honor of introducing him when he was speaking in Jacksonville several years ago.  I am so impressed with his energy and enthusiasm.  At first I thought he was one of those superhero teachers that jumps into teaching for a few years and then leaves teaching to tell the rest of us how to do it.  What makes Ron Clark different is that he used the money he made from appearances to open his own school where he teaches every day!   I think I could comment on every one of the Core Principles and Values because I believe in every one! Of course, believing in them and acting on them with the passion that Ron Clark has can be quite different.

I guess the principle that comes easiest for me is #13: Treat every child as if he or she were your own.  That comes very naturally for me and has every since I had children, and now grandchildren, of my own.  I often think, "What if the child was Kallyn (my Kindergarten grandchild)?" and that often flavors the way I see things.

I think the one I wish I was better at is #19: Make learning magical.  I think there are teachers at my school that do this well, but it's a stretch for me.  When I am planning a lesson, I think about fun but more about sequence and depth and rigor, but I don't really think magical.  I would like to challenge myself to ask that question more often.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Grand Reopening

There are times when I am just so proud of the colleagues that I work with.  Today was one of those days.  A year ago we had a vision for a tutoring center in one of our underserved neighborhoods.  We had been talking about it for years and then one day, we just said, "Let's quit talking and do something."  That's all it took for Liz Duncan and KK Cherney to start.  Over the last year they have partnered with Beach United Methodist Church, The McKenzie Wilson Foundation, the middle and high schools in the area and the managing organization of the 1000 mobile home community.
Teachers from Chets Creek volunteer at the Center Monday through Wednesday from 4:00-6:00.  Thursday and Friday are reserved for middle and high school students.  McKenzie Wilson Foundation has bought a SmartBoard and Nooks and offers a place of service for their volunteers.  Second Harvest has gotten involved so the teachers come on Saturdays to deliver food.  The church offered a full Bible School to the students this summer and offer Saturday Sunday School.  There was a huge baby shower last Spring for all the new moms in the community, Christmas parties with give aways and crafts, construction projects that have included such things as pressure washing, stapling plastic over holes, weeding and landscaping.  We are trying to make this a place where teachers who need to meet the ESOL requirement for the state can do the work at the Center.  With our heavy Hispanic population, it is the perfect place to see and serve.

I guess the point is that I work with some incredible teachers.  They saw a need and were willing to do the work to make it happen.  I guess what I've learned is that dreams really can come true!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

First of the Year Kindergarten Bulletin Boards

Nursery Rhymes are a popular bulletin board for the first standard-based bulletin board in Kindergarten.  The board to the left includes a delightful illustration of the beginning, middle and end of the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty which helps a student begin to see that even very short stories have beginnings, middles, and ends.  It is amazing the detail that some kindergartners can already put into their pictures! This board also includes a worksheet where students have to draw some of the vocabulary words in the rhyme such as wall, King, men, horse.  It also includes a rhyming activity where students have to draw a rhyming word for some of the words that the students have been working with such as drawing a picture of a word that rhymes with wall (ball). 
This board on the right also focuses on the nursery rhymes that are part of our early learning but in this case the entire focus of the board is phonological awareness - the rhyming activites that are being taught through the rhymes.  For instance, the rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock includes the rhymes hickory-dickory, dock-clock, and one-run.  The board shows several rhyming activities such as listing words that are in the -ock family, being given a picture and selecting or cutting out another picture that rhymes with the pictured word.  Rhyming is such a fundamental skill because it is so hard for students to move forward if they cannot hear rhyming at the end of words!
Mrs. Roberts also features work with Nursery Rhymes on her bulletin board.  Her board includes several activites, also with rhyming words but the activity that is unique is her work is with the SmartBoard to teach rhming with the nursery rhymes.  Bet the children are mesmerized!

This board is all about "name" activites including combining the work we do in nursery rhymes to teach phonological awareness by using  a child's name.  We know that there is no more important word to a child than his own name so the board shows how you can substitute the class.  Jane and Henry went up a hill...It also shows a list of the words that the class discovered that also start with the same sound as a student's name and that student's homework when children were asked to bring in items from home that started like their name.  The final activity includes a list of the children's names in the class where the children have counted/ clapped the syllables that they can hear in each name. 
The standard-based bulletin board below focuses on the drawings and words that are the final activity of "Star Names". After the children have done many acitivites that emphasize the beginning sound of the name of a single star student for the day, each child is asked to draw a picture of the star student. The teacher models the child's name as the class follows and then draws a picture of the student. The students begin with simple pictures and then more elaborate pictures that begin to fill up the white space and then finally stories about the student. As the drawings become more sophisticated, so do the words, beginning with the child's name and then moving to labels, sentences and then stories. This bulletin board displays the many levels of entering kindergartners, from a simple, almost unidentifiable picture with mock letters and scribbles to a sophisticated drawing with a phonetic sentence.

Mrs. Mallon and Mrs. Dillard's bulletin board focuses on the beginning stories that our youngest authors write in Writers' Workshop, showing four different levels of writing from simple drawings to  detailed drawings with simple phonetic sentences. What makes this board interesting is the way that the teachers introduce writing to their class by telling the students to first imagine a story with a beginning, middle, and end over three pages before they begin writing and then to tell their stories through drawings and words. It is amazing what these youngest writers have to say and what they can already write!
Each of the bulletin boards above provides a window into the important instruction that goes on inside kindergarten classrooms so early in the school year.  Can't wait to see how these boards unfold in the months to come.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pencil Grip

How important is pencil grip?  "Back in the day" we always changed a child's pencil grip to the standard tripod.  We had a child pretend a pencil was a car.  We told them to put the chubby mom (thumb) in the front seat with the tall skinny daddy (pointer finger) - to hold the pencil -  and then to put the three children in the back (other three fingers).  When we saw children not using the correct grip, we physically changed their fingers and insisted on the proper pencil position when writing.

Then we went through a period in education when we only seemed to care if a child could write, regardless of the way that he held the pencil or marker.  During this same period handwriting practice also seemed to be de-emphasized and we rarely actually worked on daily handwriting practice in the early grades. Instead the emphasis was on the writing process and the thought that went into the writing instead of the handwriting itself.  My own son came through school during this period.  Last week a photographer took this picture below of him signing an autograph at a baseball game and you can see that his pencil grip was never "fixed."  However, he has beautiful handwriting as fine motor skills come easy for him!
So now I wonder... how important is pencil grip really?  The pendulum seems to be swinging again to an emphasis on correct grip and handwriting practice.  I have used several different pencil grips in the past, usually recommended by occupational therapists who are trying their best to help my students who really struggle with writing.  I guess I will still continue to show students the proper grip, especially when they struggle with writing, and I will also show their parents the correct grip and reinforce as changes are made, because I know that pencil grip is extrememly hard to change after a child reaches age 6.  Certainly we now teach handwriting in Kindergarten and then reinforce it again in first grade with more enthusiasm and rigor than we did even five years ago.  Maybe this generation will have neater handwriting... or maybe we should just teach them proper keyboard placement! 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

When It's Just Too HOT!

This is Florida!  And it's hot people!  In this time of budget cuts, the county has upped acceptable temperatures in our building.  There is also some type of  motion sensor in our rooms that turns off the air when there is no movement, so... when you leave for lunch or recess or a Resource, the air turns off.  When you return, the room's heated up in your absence and never quite cools back down.  The air is also off until the last minute in the morning so if you come early to plan, you are reinforced for giving of your time freely by sweating!  The same is true in the afternoons, the air is turned off around 4:00 even though we have Extended Day in the building until 6 and Monday mornings - when the air has been off all weekend - oh my!  The point is the building has been unbelievable hot this August.  By 9:30 in the morning my hair in the back from my ears down is actually wet and in ringlets!  I can feel the beads of sweat drip down my back.

To be fair, they did finally decide that there was some trouble with one of the chillers in our building, but even after it was patched back together, it was still hot.  Yesterday a teacher told me that she had decided to forgo lunch because she was just too hot to eat.  She also said that she didn't blame her kids for not wanting to write at the end of the day because all she really wanted to do was go to sleep.  Opening the door to her room was like opening a sauna.  The PTA ladies won't even do their work in my room because they complain about the heat.  Another of our teachers wrote on Facebook that she went right home and took a shower because she had been sweating all day and her clothes were sticking to her.  Professional dress is a joke when you're wet and smelly!  This is Florida folks!  We are looking at days easily in the high 90's.  When I got in my car one day to go home last week, the temp read 101 outside!  It's HOT!

Now think about that as you think about all of the assessment that is going on in the building.  In the heat that just makes us all tired and cranky, we, Kindergarten teachers, are evaluating the Voluntary Pre-K program in our state.  Is this really fair to our Pre-K colleagues?  We are also beginning the state's FAIR testing and our own county's writing assessments and benchmark testing in upper grades.  With heat and tempers rising, do we really have the best testing environments?  Are these really the results that we want to drive our instructional decisions? When we cut educational budgets, what are we REALLY sacrificing?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Lunch and Bus Duty

As part of the budget cuts in education, teachers at my school have had to take on "duties."  The duties include such things as lunch duty and bus duty.  In years past or at least in the past 20 years, the county has been able to purchase these services through the help of paraprofessionals. Don't get me wrong.  I have been a teacher for a long time and back in the day, it was not unusual for teachers to have duties.  We usually took a week here or there and had morning breakfast duty or a week of bus duty.  In all of my 30 plus years, however, I don't ever remember being required to do lunchroom duty.  However, for ten years at Alimacani Elementary School I skipped my duty free lunch and ate with my class of preschool children with special needs.  It was just easier.  I was often toilet training children and it was easier to be there than to go back to the lunchroom and find a child had had an accident, and I liked talking with the children during this freer time of the day.  Not only could I work on their language skills in this more natural environment, but I just enjoyed talking to the kids during lunch!  During that same time, I did morning bus duty for these same kids.  It was just easier to meet their buses and watch the children myself before school formally started than to ask a para to watch them when they were not familiar with the behavior programs that we had in place.  The same was true in the afternoon.  I put each child in the parent's car and then escorted the rest of the children to their bus in the afternoon.  

Ever since I have been at Chets Creek, I have not been required to do bus or lunch duty except for the first few weeks to help out with kindergartners.  However,I gave up my lunchtime for a year because I had a student that just couldn't get through the lunch period without severe behavioral issues.  The point is, I have done lunch and bus duty in the past, but always because I felt my expertise was needed for those specific times of the day to meet the needs of students.

Now, however, teachers are doing lunch and bus duty, simply because there is no one else to do it.  To make sure that all the duty is "fair" we often have more teachers than are really need in the Dining Room at one time and more than are needed at the bus, but we have to be "fair."  I was thinking today about the amount of money that taxpayers are paying me to stand at the bus for 45 minutes at the end of the day.  I'm embarrassed to say what it is costing them!   I don't really offer much.  Safety is not the issue here. There are five adults out there and a patrol for every bus - a job that could probably be handled by two adults easily. It's not hard work.  I enjoy getting hugs from former students and asking how the day has been.  Today there was actually a nice breeze and I kept thinking about how I was using my six years of college and thirty plus years of experience in reading as I waved good-by to kids. 
The same could be said for the lunchroom.  I'm sure administrators won't fight for a change because I'm sure there are probably less issues with so many teachers overseeing, but what is lost when teachers are spending their time handing out napkins and forks instead of sharing lunch with their colleagues?  Although our school has a small faculty Dining Room, few teachers actually eat there.  Instead, before this year, they usually ate with a partner and 90% of what I saw is that they were planning and collaboratively talking about issues and kids.  There's not really a  lot of personal conversation, although they certainly can do that, but instead, at our school it was mostly about the work.  Because co-teachers are split this year, one in the lunchroom while the other eats and then one at recess while the other eats, they miss this valuable time of comparing notes and planning together.  This really takes its toll in the primary school where teachers really co-teach the entire day.  It's not like one teacher teaches the entire 36 while the other plans for half the day and then viceversa.  In the primary school, where I can speak with authority, most teachers are both on their feet teaching the entire day together.  That takes extra planning, but this year, instead of being together running through ways to fine tune instruction, they are opening pop top fruit and putting straws in juice bags. I wonder how businesses would feel about this really poor use of time... It may be "fair," but is it efficient?  Funny that we would have teachers spend their day in this way in a time when we say we believe in rigor...  Food for thought...