Sunday, September 15, 2013

Being positive - a choice that matters.

I started the weekend in a funk.  I'm not really sure why - though it was probably due to exhaustion.  I ended up arriving home at 6:15 and asleep by 6:30 p.m.  Crazy.

I woke up and went to my "fill up the spirit" place - my PLN on Twitter.  Then a read an article written by a parent about homework.  I know the spirit of the share was to point out that kids have activities outside of school that are just as important to their overall development as school.  I admit it, I left Twitter on Saturday grumbling.

It was just written as a dig to teachers.  Once again putting more pressure to do more, be more within very serious time constraints.  It was like another door closing as a possible venue of giving kids time to reflect and produce outside of the (usually) 55 minutes I see them a day.  It's hard to write in 55 minutes - especially with 30 other kids in the room, the phone ringing, teacher conferencing, schedule interruptions, etc.

I get the homework thing - I have four kids - busy, active kids.  None of them drive yet.  Daily I spend a minimum of two hours taking them from one place to another - I sit and work through choir practice, football practice, baseball practice, and physical therapy.  I cheer them on at games, performances, and productions.  I make time to eat with them, celebrate them, and help them with homework.  In addition, we work on time management.  My husband is great, but he's usually gone from Monday - Friday working hard at various assignments around the country.

However, that schedule isn't the teacher's fault.  She has requirements, pressures, and is working hard to make sure my child is prepared for life. 

I thought about it a lot throughout the weekend.  After taking a step back, I asked myself what was really bothering me?  Was it the fact that she insinuated that I did nothing at night?  Was it the fact that she didn't realize I work hours every vacation and weekend?  Was it the fact that there is constant pressure from all sides to be more, do more, and require less?  Was it simply the fact that I was tired?

Honestly?  It was probably a little of each. 

So I woke up Sunday with a new attitude.  A deep breath, a long walk with the dog, and some time to reflect.  What can I do to change the author's mind?  Probably nothing.  I don't know her.  I doubt she'll ever read this.  What can I do to change MY perspective?   Everything. 

First of all, as a teacher who is also a parent, I always try to allow for TIME to accompany assignments that will happen outside of school.  We have conversations in class about looking at the calendar and not waiting until the last moment.  For example, my students are writing a 500 word + paper over the next two weeks.  I informed parents last weekend, then we began previewing and brainstorming this week.  I gave them a sample paper - a rough draft that I wrote (see previous blog).  I had them assess the rough draft using the rubric - getting familiar with what skills I was looking for.  Then I assigned the rough draft due next Wednesday.  That gives them the choice to do it over the weekend, or during the first few days next week. 

Guess what?  The kids are excited about this assignment.  They keep stopping me in the hallways to tell me exactly what they're going to write about.  They WANT to share their stories and their treasures.  I've even gotten a few e-mails this weekend with them wanting to share ideas with me.

Yes, this will require valuable work outside of my class.  In my class we will be busy reading short stories, evaluating theme, looking for evidence.   We will look at our overarching question of "What makes something treasure instead of trash?"  We will practice thesis statements and how they drive the paper.  Outside of class they'll use what we're discussing to write their personal narrative.  On Wednesday we'll meet to discuss the paper, evaluate the rough draft, conference with small groups and peers, identify areas of strength as well as weakness.  The final copy will be due the following Monday.

The excitement is what finally got through my thick skull this morning.  (Well, and an awesome #sunchat conversation.)  Would this parent have been upset if the kids were excited about doing the work?  What if she was included in the rationale behind the work?  What if her kids were allowed to budget their time between work at home and work from school over a few days?

Would being positive have impacted this situation?  Would it be less of an "us" vs. "them"?  Would it be more of a team?

Being positive is important.  Relationships are important.  How you approach people is important.  Setting it up takes time, but the payoff is invaluable. 

Start with a smile.  Take a moment to get to know the people you surround yourself with.  Figure out what makes them feel valuable - with some it's a kind word, a quick note, a special reward, a good deed, others may feel value in other ways.  In doing this, you'll often make a difference that will be felt for years to come. 

I face the new week with my spirit renewed.  I look forward to Monday with a smile on my face.  I'm excited to hear from students this week. 

I choose to look at every challenge as an opportunity.

I encourage you to do the same.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Writing with kids -- trash to treasure

My students are going to embark on a journey this week where they find things that they (or their family) treasure which another person probably wouldn't appreciate.

We call it "Trash to Treasure."   It's a theme from our literature book to go with the short stories "Clean Sweep" by Joan Bauer and "The Treasure of Lemon Brown" by Walter Dean Myers. After seeing the treasures found in these stories, kids examine their own lives to write personal narratives regarding items of interest.

The stories they share are powerful, amazing, and empowering.  It provides a glimpse into lives and takes a child from being a classmate to someone with a rich history.  I'm so excited.

However, that's not why I'm sharing.  Since this is our first major writing piece of the year, I make sure I write with them.  It's a rough draft.  I haven't proofread, found areas that need clarity, made sure I hit all areas on our rubric.  Instead, I have the kids "peer" edit my work in groups.

Yes.  They grade me in all my glory.  They find my mistakes, give suggestions, AND will see their work rewarded in my final copy.  Not only do they get to work with the rubric, understand what's being assessed, and get a model of what is expected, but it helps to demonstrate that EVERYONE has to go through a process to achieve great writing.  Sometimes it's a long, painful process, but it's worth it.

Here is my rough draft.  I wrote it today about a family book (see photo in my Twitter acct).  I hope you like it.  More importantly, I hope it inspires you to write!

Amy Smith



8 September 2013

My Treasure: The Santa Claus Book

            The anticipation of the event was almost palpable.  Sitting around the fireplace, sated from the glorious meal, smelling the scent of spicy pumpkin pie wafting in from the kitchen, we would gather.  From oldest to youngest, this was the kickoff to the tradition that would last all month.  My grandmother would be seated in the chair of honor, in her calm hands was our treasure.  Smiling, we took turns begging for our favorite story to kick off the Christmas season.  My brother wanted to hear her read, “The Thirty-Nine Letters,” my cousins would choose “The Speedy Little Train.”  I even remember my uncle asking for “The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy.”  Memories abound with these stories.  Every night we would end with “The First Christmas Eve” as a reminder of the gift of the season upon us.

Everyone has special holiday memories they cherish.  After all, year after year we gather together to celebrate beliefs, families, and traditions that are important to use as humans.  In my family, Christmas-time is the most celebrated season of the year, starting with Thanksgiving evening.   There are many customs from which to choose, but the one that I remember bringing all of us together was a well-loved turquoise Big Golden Book entitled The Santa Claus Book.   This book is so much more than memories on a page; it is a celebration of faith, a reminder of what is important, and a thread that keeps those memories burning long after family members are no longer there to celebrate with us.

It’s an old book now.  The once shiny cover is dulled.  The binding is taped together.  There is the page when I wrote my name in on in purple ink when I was five.  The pages are yellowed and musty.  Yet held between these two pieces of cardboard were stories that bring back the memories of my childhood.  Memories that I hope to pass on to my children. The copyright claims that it was published in 1952, when my mom was 7.  She loves to tell the story of the Christmas when her mom bought it for her; the same year she bought a wind-up Santa for my uncle.  Christmas that year was pretty tight for them financially.  My grandfather was back from fighting in World War II, and he was working his way up the ranks at the Hutchinson National Bank.  My grandmother was a 7th grade English teacher.  They worked hard to provide for their little family, and taught them the love of a good story.  Every year they would add a Christmas tale to their holiday shelf.  With these stories, they would create memories. Over the years, many accumulated; however, this one was a favorite from the start. The jolly red Santa on the cover of the book pulled my mom’s eye at the bookstore.  Opening the cover, she was enticed by the 43 Christmas stories and poems included.  This was exactly what she wanted.

“Momma, look!” her voice quavered with excitement at her treasure.

“Oh honey, I don’t know if it’s in the budget this year,” my grandmother smiled kindly at the hopeful face peering up at them.

Saddened, my mother replaced the book.  It was hard, yet she knew that money was tight.  She was grateful for food and clothing.

Secretly my grandmother slid the book on the counter.  She knew this would be something her children would enjoy for years.  It brought her pleasure to be able to share a love of reading with her children.

On Christmas Eve, my mom and uncle were each able to open one gift.  Carefully unwrapping the gift, my mom’s eyes shown as the book emerged.  Together they read all 43 short stories and poems within a few days. 

The purchase of the book provided a legacy for our family.  As my mom grew, she still enjoyed revisiting the stories every year.  Eventually I was born, and she began sharing them with me.  Every year on Thanksgiving night our journey began.  We walked through the “The Penny Walk” by Anne Molloy where two girls were searching for the perfect gift for a younger brother with the aid of a penny.  “The Exactly Right Present” illustrated that the thought and love of a child is what a mother wants.  “Susie’s Christmas Star” exemplified the thought that giving to others can be so rewarding.  We all have our favorites, and each one brings me back to the room with the people who mean the most to me.

Eventually I grew old enough to have a family of my own.  The one thing I wanted for Christmas was my own copy of The Santa Claus Book to share with my children.  It had been out of print for over fifty years.  I couldn’t find it anywhere.  I spent two years searching in old bookstores, on-line, and at garage sales.  That year, under the tree, there was a special gift for me from my mom.  Inside was inscribed, “To Amy, May you enjoy reading this to your children as much as I did.  It has been fun trying to find this for you! Love Mom.  December 25, 2000.”

Holding the book in my hands, I tears of joy ran down my face.  It was like giving my grandmother a hug.  It was hearing my grandfather read a favorite tale again. It was connecting me back to what is most important in the world.  Now I had an opportunity to share the gift with my children; a gift of family, faith, and love.  While many wouldn’t see beyond the old pages and musty smell, this treasure is worth more than gold to me.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Making today count

I've had one of the best starts to the school year ever.  Why?  Well, I credit my PLN, but if you're reading this, you're probably part of it, so you get it.  #twitterisawesome

Seriously, I have always been a good teacher.  I love kids, connect to them, am willing to be goofy with them, and I learn along the way.

However, this summer there was a shift.  It started with Dave Burgess's book Teach Like A Pirate.  I loved the inspiration, passion, creative spirit he brings to each engagement - for kids and adults.  That being said (read the book if you haven't), what made me stop was his perspective that each day counts - in fact each HOUR counts.  After all, it's the only chance the kids sitting in your room will have an opportunity to experience it.  Woah! It is the ONLY opportunity for that CHILD.  Since I want each one to experience success, the articulation of this concept stopped me.  Have I always given my best EVERY hour?  Can I really say that I bring it to the table EVERY time the bell rings?

It's not a new concept, but EACH day is the only time you will be given the gift of that day.  Ever.  I used to think of days like that at Christmas, Thanksgiving, The Fourth of July, even birthdays - but any normal day?  They can blend together.  Sometimes it's a wish to hurry through to get to Friday, or a holiday, or a big event.  Hold the phone - don't wish that time away.  It goes too quickly as is.

Don't let the "normal" days get away - CHOOSE to make them great. special. important.

We had a Pep Talk this week by Kid President.  It referenced one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost,  "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled . . . and it HURT!  Thorns!  Broken glass!" (KP's quote)  This led to a great conversation about what being GREAT looks like - how sometimes great means you do your homework instead of a video game, how it means trusting the process and growing, how it allows you to be surprised along the way, and grow when it's difficult.  Choose to make your learning a priority, and success is inevitable.

Someone was listening. 

On the heading of their paper --
"Today is the sixth of September 2013 -- it's the only one you get, so make it count."

Love it.

He did.  He made it count.  He made a decision to make it count.

So this is my challenge to myself, MAKE IT GREAT.

After all, this is the only seventh of September in the year 2013, how will I make it GREAT?

How will you?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Initial thoughts on Common Core

I have a lot of people asking me my thoughts on Common Core.

I have to say, my initial thoughts are, for the most part, positive.

The most important piece to remember is that Common Core is NOT a curriculum, but a set of standards.  It's a set of standards that are designed to have students think critically of material set before them.

I may have a problem if I don't have choice with my curriculum.  I work hard every day to find things that will engage and challenge my students.  I want to prick their curiosity, engage them through interesting ideas and concepts, and help them develop a skill set to be successful in my class, throughout high school, and in life.  This is different for every child because every child has different needs.  Therefore, flexibility in curriculum is essential.

BUT the standards, the tools, may be more similar.  I took a three day training this summer put on by the State of Tennessee.  It was hard work, draining, and completely necessary.  Over those days we went through around 300 pages of material.  We took a sample PARCC assessment, developed scaffolded questions using close reading passages, practiced and engaged in accountable talk sessions, and created a team to head back to the schools to teach others.  It was valuable to self-assess.  I saw in myself areas of strength as well as areas that needed change.  I feel I have a better grasp on the shift facing our students.

Most importantly, I am blessed to work with an incredible team of educators.  It's always been true that together we are stronger.  In talking through these shifts, we've designed lessons that will meet both Tennessee State Standards as well as CCSS.  One of the first was this week as we approached William Sleator's short story "The Elevator."

Often when you ask kids to read something for the second, or third time, their eyes will roll.  It's more important to be finished instead of read critically.  Therefore we started the week by showing I Love Lucy's famous "Job Switch" episode.  With just a brief introduction, explaining that the show was shot live and broadcast, the kids engaged in the fun.  During commercial breaks (I'm too cheap to buy the DVD), we discussed plot elements and possible flubs in lines.  They fell in love with the story and compared it to the sushi episode in Drake and Josh, the fortune cookie episode in iCarly, and a My Little Pony remake.  It was a great way to review allusion.  Furthermore, it allowed a few of us to become experts (those in my study focus class who saw it twice).  They noticed new things when something was re-read.

Hold the phone.  They noticed something NEW the second time they viewed it?  Imagine if you saw it, gasp, five times?  (Hello, that's me . . . ).  This was a brilliant way to lead into the WHY of re-reading. (Million dollar smile inserted here).

So we headed toward our text books.  We discussed learning modalities - how some of us are visual, kinesthetic, or auditory.  We all learn something through engaging in literature through different modalities.  Guess what, the on-line Holt text book will READ the story to you while you read along.  This was our first passage through.  Each child had four sticky notes to write words that highlight the MOOD of the piece, and describe the CHARACTER of Martin, the lady, and the father  (engaging a somewhat kinesthetic activity), and to read (for our visual learners) along.  At the end of that pass, we shared the words with the class and added to our list as necessary.  We discussed the vocabulary, engaged in initial discussion about motivation, and how the author built suspense.  (We also had a great discussion on how the author was able to manipulate how they were feeling at the end of the piece - they were so on edge as the elevator door closed.)

That night they were assigned to read the story on their own and answer the 11 questions in the book about the plot of the piece.  A lot of the detail work was done through the notes we took in class.  Each child was challenged to find evidence to support their answer, and elaborate on how the evidence was important.  This required them to read the piece for the second time.  It required a deeper level into the how and why of the conflict presented in the story.  It also required them to take a side on if the lady was real or imagined.

The next day I had the pleasure of reading the story to them.  Now, I LOVE to read out loud, so I got into it.  I was told I was MUCH creepier than the person on the book.  (This allowed for a side discussion of how a speaker can add to an atmosphere of a piece.)  When the elevator closed, and the fat lady smiled and said, "Hello Martin," I put them into groups of three to take the ambiguity of the end of the story to resolution.  They had the tools to attack this with vigor.  Using evidence that they had culled from earlier sessions, we saw many possible solutions.  Most of my classes were divided on if the lady was real or not, so meaningful discussions went into the group work on how to make everyone feel validated.  I was impressed by the level of maturity shown in the discussion - often this type of ending would be gruesome to read and painful to hear about upon sharing, but the students really took the details of the story to make it more true to the original piece. 

After sharing, we debriefed with a few questions.  I was blown away with the deep, rich levels of engagement the kids had from this brief piece of writing.  One 8th grade boy began his explanation with, "I believe that the fat lady was a metaphor representing the manifestation of Martin's fears."  Another added, "I believe that the conflict in this story wasn't person vs. person, but rather an internal one where Martin was afraid that the weaknesses others teased him about were actually true.  He was fighting with himself not to be what he considered a coward."  Across the room, a young lady added, "I understand what your're saying, but I think the lady was real.  After all, there was the sensation of her coat scratching him, and the fact that she pushed buttons on the elevator."  One young lady was so excited when she came to the conclusion that the lady wasn't real.  She couldn't believe her idea was valuable (it was the first time it was mentioned in that class).  After I had her share her evidence to support this claim, her classmates were reinforcing the value of what she was saying.

Yes, you read that right.  They were listening, respecting, and responding.  They were supporting classmates and respectfully disagreeing.  It was the initial phase of accountable talk.  They could articulate their ideas, and bring them to the table.  This was happening in all of my classes (some with more leading from me, others with me stepping back to let them lead). 

That is how I can best explain common core.  It's thinking about concepts critically, finding evidence to support your ideas, and articulating why that evidence is important.  It's teaching kids to work together, build on each other's ideas, and bring a new understanding.  It's encouraging them to listen, argue respectfully, and find resolution.  It's knowing that we all have a unique viewpoint, so we all might come to a different conclusion - which is okay when we can support it.

It's giving kids the tools to think critically, so others don't do their thinking for them.

Next week we'll have the opportunity to meet Edgar Allan Poe.  I can't wait.