Sunday, October 30, 2011

How Blogging has Rocked my World

October is a busy month. Professional development, conferences, meetings, lots of running my girls around. Throw in all new curriculum and the prep and you find yourself standing in the desert of your own blog.

I was selected by Nancy Carroll for the Rockstar Meme Award (#rockstarmeme), and now it's become clear that I've got some catch-up to do. Nancy writes a fab education blog full of great ideas and innovative teaching.

So how has blogging rocked my world? It's all about three things: building relationships, developing myself professionally, and reflecting.

I have come to understand the power of connecting; connecting with students, peers, parents and other teachers. It's like being a spider and throwing out your line to others. Blogging has given me many new threads, all connected to others in education. These fine educators continually inspire me and ask me to look at my own teaching. They are the ones who can share in the joy that comes from educating.

Blogging gives me ideas. It's like a giant mind-map. I can always rely on the blogs I follow to get that hamster in my head to start running on her wheel. The best part is when I come across a great idea I wasn't even looking for. It's like Christmas every day.

Lastly, blogging continually asks me to look at myself and my own practices. It's a constant check and balance. You can't pretend everything you do is perfect and without the need for improvement and change when you are always reading what other teachers are doing, and when you are writing about your own practice. Stopping reflection encourages complacency, and there is no room for that when you are responsible for kids' learning.

I am passing this #Rockstar Meme onto the following people:

Award recipients, here's your challenge:
When one is awarded the meme, according to the originator Guhlin, they are supposed to Write a Post about how Blogging has Rocked your World then:
  1. respond to the meme and link back to this blog entry
  2. leave a comment on this blog entry and then ask 5 more people to participate
  3. Notify those 5 people by sending them a quick note (a tweet prob would work).

Blog on!!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Changing it up

Someone asked me today why I changed the design and title of my blog. Here's why:

If you've read my first posts, you'll remember that I identify strongly with the story Perry the Peacock. It helped me through the second year of teaching, when I knew that my style was a little different in comparison to other teachers I knew. It took some bravery and serious self-belief to stay true to myself.

The thing is, I really looked at the teaching world through an "us" and "them" lens. I felt like I was blazing a trail, and I was mostly blazing it alone. Perry made me feel like I was strong enough to go it alone.

I realized a few days ago that I'm really not alone. I think I felt more alone before I discovered Twitter and a window to a whole world of teachers doing their thing was opened for me. I found myself in the company of nothing but peacocks.

I guess in that moment teaching became something more than "us" and "them". It became a circle made of many different styles and energies. When I look at the talent I am surrounded by every day at school, I guess that I see many individuals doing their thing. We all have a little peacock in us, just as we all have a little bit of penguin.

I didn't feel I could embrace our uniqueness if I only looked at it as I saw my own. I choose to foster individuality in others instead of making it an exclusive club only certain types of teachers can join.

Talking Responsibility for Learning

I attended our Master's fall conference today. As always, I was inspired by the passion and creativity of the teachers I spent time with. I was particularly excited by the self evaluations some of the other first grade teachers were using with their students. I have wanted to have my first graders self-check their progress in reading and writing for awhile, and this was the jump start I needed.

I came home and thought about where I wanted to start. I decided that Reader's Workshop would be good, since we already have some of our routines in place. At the moment, Read-to-Self is at the top of the list of importance. At this time, we are practicing reading for 5-10 minutes; expectations are that we read the whole time, we stay in our spots, and we do not talk.

Here is the rubric I created for this. We will do it together for the first few days, until I know the students can do it independently. I will use the rubric to discuss how Read-to-Self is going with each student.

I am looking for feedback. What do you think works? What would you change?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Sunday Night Edge

Have you ever been sitting on the far edge of Sunday evening, looking out onto Monday? That's where I am, right now.

We spent the weekend up at the lake, and there was a terrible accident on the Interstate on the way home. It was 10 miles ahead of us, and took us 2 hours to reach and get past. I am sad for whoever (if anyone) that was hurt or suffered the types of losses associated with auto accidents. I am grateful my family was far enough behind to only be inconvenienced. Instead of 3 hours to get home, it took us 6.

I had brought my work up to the lake with me (don't all teachers lug a milk crate full of work wherever they go?). I forgot my school laptop on my desk, though. I did have my home laptop, so I have some things I can email to school, but I feel disjointed and not at all ready for the week.

I should be getting for bed, but am restless from the long car ride and anxious about feeling unprepared. I do not have the luxury to fly by the seat of my pants with my kiddos this year. I need to have it all set up and ready to go.

The homework that my 6th grader was going to finish at 7:00 when we got home is also not done, so we'll be working on that early in the morning.

Some Sunday nights I'm ready to leap off the edge and glide into Monday. Tonight, all I want to do is walk back into Saturday.

Friday, October 7, 2011

... but is it appropriate?

We went on our first field trip of the year, to the New Richmond Heritage Center. The experience ties into our social studies unit "past and present". There is lots to see; there is little to touch.

What I find happens with my kiddos, year after year, is that interest starts out strong and then slowly wanes throughout the day until there is nothing left. By the time we get to the 5th building, the realization that all they will get to do is walk, look, and be talked at sinks in. Their brain is in overload. Too much information, but no way to make it stick.

I question whether this field trip is developmentally appropriate for them. If I can't remember much from it, how much do they retain? It's difficult to experience joyful learning when you are sitting on your hands. How can I make it more engaging? I need some ideas.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Defend Your Tirade (in other words: Educate Yourself)

At lunch today my team was discussing our new district-wide phonics program (Fountas and Pinnell). Being a groupie of F&P (along with Caulkins, Boushey and Moser, etc.) I was jazzed to have a sturdy phonics program created by highly esteemed researchers.

I admit I'm a chronic band-wagoneer. For being a peacock-type person, I have serious buy-in tendencies. I love to implement whatever latest and greatest I come across. If it fits within my beliefs and philosophies, I'm game. The upside is that I'm fearless when it comes to implementing new things, including technology; change doesn't make me uncomfortable. The downside is that I find myself hurtling onto that wagon before I have done adequate research. Leap first and look later.

Our lunch conversation brought us to where we are at in the phonics lessons. Everything I've taught up to this point has been pretty cool. I love the substantial base it builds for our Firsties. I will agree that it appears the program takes us a step back from what we usually teach in first grade, but I think the thorough attention to letters and sounds is a benefit to even my advanced readers. After all, what we were doing before (Sitton) wasn't producing good spellers.

My colleagues disagreed. They thought we had taken a major step back with our students, and this was to their disadvantage. What struck me wasn't the fact that we were disagreeing; that's cool, as long as we respect each other. What I didn't hear was any facts or researched-based opinions on the appropriateness, relativity, and reason backing what we are (or are not) teaching. This included myself.

How often do we form opinions about what we teach without really knowing what we are teaching and why? How easy is it for us to create assumptions based on the small slice of students in our learning communities? It seems exhausting to dig deep into every curriculum we have no choice in teaching, but why should we blindly follow the scripted lessons, either happily or unhappily?

It's time we picked up the accountability and learned a little more about what we are teaching our kids.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

We are only as great... those we surround ourselves with.

Today we were told, in a closed after-school meeting, that our admin to our principal was moving to another school. We all assumed that since the principal hadn't put boxes of tissues on all the tables that we weren't in for bad news. But it was bad news. Really, really bad news.

See, our school isn't just a community. We're family.

It didn't happen by chance, either. There's some good chemistry, for sure, but our family was forged by tragedies that bound us together in grief that no one else shared as intimately as we shared with each other. In the course of three years we lost a student to cancer, battled breast and colon cancer with two co-workers, grieved the loss of a teenage daughter from an accident, journeyed through infertility and were later devastated by the loss of the miracle baby three weeks from delivery.

Instead of mourning alone, we pulled together. There is strength in numbers, and it was all we could do to hold together so that we could weather the storms. But we did weather them, and while I would take back every single tragedy in a heartbeat, I can only admire the love and support that was born out of them.

So losing a co-worker isn't something we take lightly. Not a dry eye in the house, and no tissues on the tables.

We are really only ever as great as those we surround ourselves with. Maureen is one of the reasons we can achieve what we do with our children.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


I love my class.

We all say that, right?

I mean it. I really really mean it.

I got to thinking about why I love my students so much this year. I always love my students; I care about them, I worry about them, and they become a part of my family. But this year is different. I would put any and all of them in my pocket and bring them home. I love them like we love puppies, or snuggling or chocolate.

So what's the difference this year? I've been thinking about it for a week. If I always love my students, then why the extra boost this year? This class is 10 times more challenging than any class I've ever taught, so it would figure that I would connect with them less. Something has to be different with the connections I have made with them and the relationships we formed.

Aha. That's it. It's (obviously) all about the relationships. So what's different this year?

We, the first grade team, knew that our group of kiddos coming up to us this year were challenging. Last year, people talked. The K teachers looked exhausted all the time, and let's face it, K teachers are the best at not becoming exhausted. The final judgement fell when one of the K teachers did not reapply for a teaching position. Lastly, we walked by their rooms every day, always curious about our next group of students. We heard what was coming. We saw it with our own eyes.

We also went from 4 sections down to 3. As with the rest of the states, teaching in Wisconsin has brought a whole new set of budgeting challenges to our classrooms. The decision was made to take 4 classrooms of kindergartners and squeeze them into 3 first grade classes.

We had all kinds of alerts that this year would have it's challenges. There was some panicking as we faced the largest classes we had ever had, with students that we knew would stretch us into the realm of extreme teaching. I knew that I couldn't handle this group like I had in the past, and some preemptive strikes were going to be necessary. What I learned has changed my teaching forever.

I began by considering my parents. Would I be calling home more often? Would I be sending home "fix-it" plans weekly? If that was going to be the case, then I needed to have a good relationship started before school began. I was inspired by a teacher in my master's cohort who makes home visits to her students. You cannot even imagine how inspired by her I am. I had gotten my class list late, so I knew that time wasn't going to allow for home visits; and to be honest, it was so far out of my comfort zone.

Instead, I opted to set up 1-on-1 meetings in my classroom. The kids came and poked around, got to meet me before Open House Night. I had folders with important information ready for the parents. We talked. I wanted them to know me, and know how passionate I was about their kids. Did it take a lot of time? Yes. Each meeting was about 30 minutes. Did I get paid? Nope. But I laid a base to build a relation with each of my families.

I set up an Edmodo account to use with my families. I knew that quick and frequent communication was going to be important. I wanted my families to feel a part of our learning, because with a sense of belonging comes a sense of ownership and responsibility.

Next, I set to working on a relationship with my students. I began with a picture-filled "All About Mrs. M" letter. I wanted them to see what I liked, and have a teeny peek into my life. It became very important for them to make connections with things I did and things I like. I had 5 students tell me at our meetings that they "liked getting their hands dirty", too.

Then came the postcards. I picked up a postcard from Sea World for each of them, hand addressed and personalized for each one. "Hi!" it said. "This is what I'm up to, how about you?", "I care" it said.

A remarkable thing happened, then. I watched Angela Maiers Ted Talk, "You Matter". Her words inspired me to a whole new level, and that's what clinched it. I realized that each student needed to know that I "heard" them, and each student knew I "saw" them. Every day I think to myself as I look at them, "You matter". Not a day goes by that I don't hunker down next to a dozen kids and whisper to them something I noticed them doing, or asking them how they are.

So you see, telling them they matter made them matter, to me. It is reinforced each day. Because I made them and their families matter, they became something more than regular students to me. These aren't just children I spent all day with and teach. These are children who are amazing, and unique, and wonderful, and important.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Flock of Peacocks

Twitter has become one of the exciting and relevant resources for teachers. It's like a buffet of information. You belly up to the bar and decide what flavor suits you the most at that moment. Hash tags sort and categorize the multitude of tweets. Want to read about Daily 5? Web 2.0 in the classroom? iPads or blogs? You will be pointed in the direction you want to go by teachers who are as passionate about learning as you are.

My favorite thing about Twitter, though, is this: it is bringing teachers together who refuse to remain stagnant. In schools, where the pressures to perform exhausts teachers, there is often a lack of energy and excitement about new technologies and new ideas. Other teachers don't always want you popping into their rooms and chattering about the great new idea you heard. Twitter is a place where everyone welcomes ideas. You don't stress your colleagues out, and information is a valuable commodity.

If you don't have a Personal Learning Network (your very own PLN) started on Twitter, consider it.