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Dear Sirs & Madams;

Dear Policymaking Man,

My esteemed colleague, Bill Ferriter, recently wrote you a powerful letter. I hope you’ve had a chance to read it. Twice. Maybe even a dozen times. He talked about the devastating toll that high-stakes testing, merit pay and other half-baked policies are making on our teachers and their families. I could add to these sentiments a hundred times over as an elementary teacher. I won’t bother you with those details today. Instead, I want to piggy back on Bill’s comments and tell you a little bit how these things affect our kids.

Have ever seen the toughest kid in class break down into hysterical sobs in the middle of a state reading test and have to be removed from the room since it is not acceptable to disrupt others?

Have you ever had to console a child who did not meet that “level of proficiency” on one day and one test? Nevermind the fact that she was up all night babysitting her younger sister because her mom was called into work.

Have you ever convinced a child that she should get up off her knees and put away her Bible that she was praying over feverishly trying to allay her own fears of failure?

Have you seen a child with test anxiety?

Have you ever seen a child without test anxiety?

Have you seen a child get off track with their bubbling of answers and fail a test and realize it too late, knowing that their fate rested on it?

Have you watched kids labor over two straight hours of intense reading and math work, knowing that this is their chance to prove that they’ve had a successful year?

Have you ever actually seen one of these tests? I don’t know a psychometrician worth his/her weight in paperclips and floppy disks who would call them valid.

By the way, Mr. Policymaker, I teach 4th graders, kids who are 9 and 10 years old. And you are telling me these policies are what’s best for our children? I’m not as eloquent as Bill, but I just thought you should know what this testing is really doing to and for our children.

Sincerely,

Stressed and Saddened in NC

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In Defense of Learning (part 2)

As I started discussing earlier in the week, Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food held some amazing insights for me into the world of food and many of the debates in education. I pulled out the envelope I used to scribble down ideas while making my cross-state trek on Interstate 40. One point that Pollan makes early in his book is that a food’s total value is far greater than the sum of its parts. This idea seems to hold true for education and learning as well, as evidenced in recently efforts at reform.

In educational circles we talk about reform and best practices and methodology for instruction that will alter the current educational system for the better. Yet, despite efforts to affect change, little real movement seems to be occurring. There are several camps of thought and theory to which you can subscribe, all proposing that their ideas are the only way to meet the educational goals of our students. But how can this be? How can everyone have the right answer, yet no one does?

Pollan attests that it is nature’s combination of ingredients, enzymes and perfect timing that gives Earth’s most nutritional foods their inherent benefit. As scientists have tried to isolate individual nutrients and chemical compounds for use in increasing the nutritional value of other foods, they have found that the maximum health benefit is never reached.  In other words, the individual components of the food need one another to work harmoniously to reach the best result.

Keeping this analogy, there is no “fix” for the way things are currently operating in education. We are already trying to pit too many independent ingredients against one another and trying to pretend that they will “play nice” and create a desired results. Instead, the combinations of testing, accountability, technology, direct instruction, inquiry and other bits of educational buzz are mixing together to form almost toxic stew that is virtually counterproductive.  Instead of a secret strategy to solve the issues of education, we must look for a blue ribbon winning recipe that leads to a combination greater than the sum of the individual contributing parts. So what might that include? In my not-so-gourmet opinion, I sense a combination of technology, co-learning and passion-based discovery. The most important ingredient, and the that must be the most prevalent, will need to be the student.

Teacher Leadership: Ostrich Syndrome

ostrich-by-ltshears.jpg

Head in the sand or stick your neck out? Those are often the choices that we, as teachers, face when offered leadership opportunities. Teacher Leadership is an integral part of leading and learning in our schools and classrooms. We often underestimate the power of influence that we possess as individuals, schools and larger groups when dealing with students, families, communities, school systems and educational policy.  So, if you are ready to stick your neck out, what next steps should you consider?

  • Determine an area of need. What is an area of improvement that needs to be addressed?  It is essential when choosing to take on a challenge that you understand it and the implications fully.
  • Assess yourself. Do you have the time and energy to devote to making these changes? There is nothing more detrimental to your perception as a teacher leader than unfinished business. It is okay to say “No, I’m not ready to tackle this right now.” It does not mean that you are any less passionate about your ideas or concerns; it is simply a way to confirm that you appreciate the seriousness of the issue enough to realize that it deserves your dedication and attention.
  • Gather information and resources. We are trained to collect and analyze data to inform instructional decisions and planning in our classrooms. Tackling issues within our schools and communities is no different. If you are concerned about staff morale, have survey data that clearly states these issues. If you are looking at trying to implement new instructional strategies in reading, gather research about your school’s current programs and the programs that interest you. Know the in’s and out’s of your areas of concern, as well as the data and research to support your solutions.
  • Make a plan. If you attempt to address an area of concern without a solution in mind, you are just complaining. You will not be viewed as a teacher leader; instead, you will be seen as a pot-stirrer. The majority of building, district, and state level administrators are much more receptive to “agents of change” who have a well-developed idea of how to create this change. Know your data, construct a plan specific to your needs, and organize it.
  • Stick your neck out. This is the hard part. Choose to be heard. Make an appointment with your principal, curriculum supervisor, or district superintendent. Know the channels for addressing issues and respectfully follow them. Most importantly, do not give up. Yet remember, while it is necessary to express your concerns, research, and ideas, it is equally essential to listen. The change you want to see will need scaffolded buy-in, and forming positive, cooperative relationships that stay focused on the ultimate goal will go a long way in fostering this.

If you are questioning your own role as a teacher leader, I would ask a single question back to you. Do you want to be? The most effective leaders emerge  at times when leadership is needed. Be that leader and don’t stick your head in the sand.For more resources on teacher leadership, check out…

Awakening the Sleeping Giant by Marilyn Katzenmeyer and Gayle Moller*

Connecting Teacher Leadership and School Improvement by Dr. Joseph Murphy

VCU’s Center for Teacher Leadership

Leadership for Learning(the Cambridge Network)

* I was blessed to spend the weekend with the North Carolina Teacher Academy talking teacher leadership with Gayle Moller. She is inspiring! Thank you for your time, energy and enthusiasm! Awakening a Sleeping Giant is going to be in hand for many weeks to come.

Learning at NCSTA

This week, I am attending the annual professional development institute of the North Carolina Science Teachers’ Association. This yearly event focuses on providing two full days of professional development for K-2o science educators and pre-service teachers in the form of general sessions, concurrent meetings, exhibit halls and more. The learning sessions are provided by university educators, classroom teachers, vendors, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. There are sessions for everyone. The focus of the 2009 institute is sustainability.  If there’s anything that I’ve learned from my Personal Learning Network (PLN), it’s that sharing is power. So, here I am – wanting to share some snip-its of the goodies that I learned today. There are links, resources, tips and ideas. There are even a few questions that I may or may not have had answered today.

The current NSTA president, Pat Shane. She focused on the 3Rs of Science Teacher Retention: Resources, Respect, & Renewal in her keynote address. While many things she talked about were noteworthy, here are a few that really stuck out to me.

  • What do Bones, NCIS, House, CSI have in common? Not just shows about science – focus on problem solving and collaborative teamwork!
  • Are you in first 3 years of teaching science? Apply for the NSTA New Teacher Academy. Get a mentor, sponsorship to national conference, etc.
  • There are things we know, things we know we don’t know, & things we don’t know that we don’t know. The latter is why we need on-going professional development (this applies beyond science, obviously).

Food MASTER:

Food MASTER is a Food, Math and Science integrated curriculum unit designed to teach students in grades 3-5 about food, energy, food safety, nutrition and more. The hands-on lessons cover various levels of inquiry. It was developed as part of a SEPA grant and is being “test driven” across North Carolina. I am excited to follow its development and see how I can incorporate the resources into my classroom, especially since it thoroughly covers one of the four main science goals in fourth grade.

 

Picture Books and Novels. Oh My!

This session focused on using literature to enhance science instruction. tItfocused on building math and literacy skills through science using trade books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Mr. Brown Can Moo. Can You?, and The Cloud Book. We explored various ways to expand learning using these mediums.  A list of novels can be found HERE with linked science standards included. There are also many interactive learning simulations HERE that can be utilized in conjunction with picture books and novels.

Sustainability

The Environmental Protection Agency provided many ideas and resources for providing sustainable education.

 

What To Do with Your Rock Kit

*The North Carolina Geological Survey provides rock samples from across North Carolina for teachers at no cost. This year, they also offered additional professional development for finding ways to use your rock kit in the classroom.

Much of what I got here is still in a folder and I haven’t really been able to dive in yet. I will say that one thing that excited me is the amount of resources available from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. There are historical maps, transportation maps from state archives, and more – all for free!

 

I am looking forward to more learning tomorrow and presenting my own sessions on interactive whiteboards and social media for teachers. I will be sure to share more!

 

Set Up for Success: Procedures

I recently got the opportunity to get into my classroom and get the physical space set up for the new school year. I rearranged bookcases for ease of access and organization. I moved my desk to a different location in the room to maximize flow and efficiency. I rearranged the computers in my room to change focus of their use. I arranged students’ desks to foster collaborative working relationships between students. Although my arms and back may have been a bit tired, the real work is still waiting to begin. The arrangement of the physical space of a classroom is a core component to creating an inviting learning environment, but I believe that there are more important needs in a classroom: Procedures.

Procedures and routines are, in my opinion, the critical factors that separate successful classrooms from those who are not. When students know what to expect and feel comfortable in how to carry out their daily routines, there is an ease that fosters success. So, what in your classroom requires a pre-determined routine? Well, everything. Can there be more than one routine for a particular objective? Sure, as long as you teach it. Here are a few of the routines that I establish (and practice religiously) in the first days of school.

Handing Out Papers:

  • Each student in my classroom has a “mailbox” constructed from a standard office mail sorter. I return all papers to the individual student’s mailbox. There are designated times throughout the day when students are allowed to check their boxes. Anything that must be returned is stamped/sticker-ed with a brightly colored notation and also written on the homework board.

Absent Students:

  • If a student is absent, I put all of their papers from the day they are out into their mailbox. Students know that if they have been out, that’s where they should check for their work. I also go ahead and write all due dates on that paper (traditionally, one school day for each day absent).
  • I also keep my own mailbox in our sorter. Students turn in their excuse notes (and any other communication from parents) to my mailbox. I can check it and take appropriate action when it is convenient for me, and I know where they are!

Hallway Travel:

  • Obviously, this tends to be a more primary/elementary issue, but it’s always something to consider. I have students treat hallways like a two-lane road, and they must follow traffic rules for an intersection each time they reach one. I teach students early to stop at each intersection (or if it’s a long hallway, a particular “landmark” like a fire extinguisher or teacher’s door). This helps me to keep my stragglers in check and not end up with half of my line at the destination and the other half still in the room.
  • I don’t do door holders. I know lots of people do. I have adopted the idea that students should work on general, real-world courtesy. They learn to hold the door for the person  behind them with a “tap and go” practice. Hopefully this idea will translate as they are walking into community buildings, as well.

Starting the Day:

  • My students come in the room each day to background music and explicit directions on the board. Even on day 180, I do not assume they remember what to do. They become conditioned to check the board as they walk in each day. I usually remind students to unpack, check their mailboxes, sharpen pencils and use the restroom before the announcements. I also often have a starter assignment for the day. If the starter assignment is a worksheet, it is in their mailboxes.

Housekeeping:

  • I use a passing system to collect papers. I don’t usually let students go around and pick them up. I don’t always have students pass the exact same way, but there’s always a target.
  • I usually don’t mind if students get up and sharpen pencils during independent working time of a lesson. If I am teaching though, the grind of the sharpener can get a bit distracting. I use an empty cubed tissue box to help my students know when it is not acceptable to get up and walk to the sharpener. The tissue box slides neatly over the sharpener as a great visual cue not to get up right then.
  • When students need help during work time, I have a couple of different ways to organize that. Usually, I have students ask their tablemates for clarification. If the lesson needs to be individual in nature, I hand out red plastic drinking cups. If a student is in need of assistance, he/she can put the cup on the corner of the desk as a cue for me. This trick also works great when in the computer lab because the cups will easily prop on top of the computer monitors.

There are dozens more procedures and routines that are integral parts of my daily classroom life. I probably could not even begin to list them all because they are so ingrained in my own head. They have certainly been honed throughout my ten years of teaching. We often set routines to make our lives easier, but we do not think about how that make learning more effective and more efficient. So, how will you make your students’ lives easier this year?

My Hair Is Not on Fire

When the summer began, Lee Kolbert made a call for recommended summer reading for educators by educators. One of the first titles that streamed across my PLN was Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire by Rafe Esquith. I picked up the book at a local bookstore and started reading write away. I was initially impressed and even blogged on the first chapters of the book here. I was excited about what it set up to be and how it was playing out, but something changed for me as I continued to read.

I have struggled over the blog post because there are lots of things I want to say about my reactions to the book, but I do not want to undermine what  Esquith does with his students. I think the dedication he displays to the children in his room is remarkable and admirable, and his students are very lucky to have a teacher who is devoted to help them develop as learners and leaders. Esquith offers great ideas for engaging students in reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and the arts. He even talks about teaching students about testing as a process, rather than a stressor. That being said, there were several moments in the book that I found myself questioning what was going on – the how’s of it all.

How does Esquith get students to arrive at school at 7:00 AM and stay until hours past the official end of the day?

How do students get to school and get home?balancing act

How do his students feel who don’t want to or can’t participate in all of these extra events?

How do the students in other classes feel who aren’t having these experiences?

How do his students react to their teachers when they leave him and move on to other grades?

How do the students balance their lives outside of school?

How does Esquith balance his life outside of school?

Throughout his book, I wondered how he had the time. I worried about new teachers or those getting ready to enter the teaching profession might feel when reading this book. I give a lot of myself to teaching and to my students, but even I was overwhelmed. If you are not putting on plays, teaching how to play musical instruments, teaching from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm, driving kids on cross-country college tours, facilitating home-based film clubs and organizing tours of the nation’s capital, you are still an amazing teacher. As this post evolves in my own head and on the screen, I am finally figuring out how I can love this book and dislike it at the same time. Only a small percentage of us can do what Rafe Esquith does. I am not one of them, but what can I do?

  1. I can know what my students need. Esquith recognizes that his students may not ever get the opportunity to “know what they don’t know.” We, as teachers, have the unique chance to open our students’ eyes to a world they may not know exists beyond their neighborhood. While I may not be able to make a cross-country trip with them, I can emerge them in great literature, take them on virtual trips, and connect them with others world-wide through technology.
  2. I can find a way. Esquith set up his Hobart Shakepearans as a non-profit organizations to raise money for their expenses and trips. If he can do this, I can certainly fill out the occasional grant application to offer a new experience to my students. I can encourage parents and community members to put their monies where their mouths are. I can communicate regularly with my elected officials to keep funding and adding more funding to public education.
  3. I can encourage service-learning. In Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire Esquith highlights his students’ holiday meal service. Even if this is too much of an undertaking initially, take from it the idea that you are providing a priceless lesson for your students by teaching them the value of service. The experience of service-learning cannot be written in a lesson plan or numerated through goals and objectives. It touches the heart, and lessons that do that will last much longer than any science lab you will ever do. Collect cans for a food drive. Sing holiday carols at a nursing home. Write letters to troops serving overseas. Find a way to make students dig deep into their hearts, not just their parents’ wallets.
  4. I can let students have it. It may be your classroom. It may be your materials. But it is their learning. Allowing students to own their work and to share it with others in their classroom, school and community will instill in them pride for learning. They will learn discipline and hard work. They will learn problem solving conflict resolution. If you you hold so tightly to the control of your classroom, everything you try to accomplish will stay within your walls. If you let your students have it, they can take it with them.

So, no, I don’t teach like my hair is on fire. I don’t really think that Rafe Esquith does either. He teaches like his heart is on fire, and that’s the greatest thing a teacher can offer his/her students. And when you are reading about astounding things that others are doing, don’t get overwhelmed by the how’s. Focus on the why’s. When you do that, you will find inspiration to light the fires of your students.

Photo from Flickr: Balancing Act by SashaW

If No Textbooks, Then What?

You hear a lot of talk these days about ditching the textbooks and moving toward a more open-source means of creating content for our students. Donelle O’Brien shared her enthusiasm for the idea in a recent blog post but posed some great questions about what and how this works in a traditional classroom setting. I stopped using textbooks in science and in social studieby Plutors a few years ago, so I thought I’d share a little bit about why, alternatives that I use and how it has impacted student learning in 3-5 grade classrooms.

Because textbooks are written to be mass marketed, the curriculum covered in them is actually much more broad than what most state-standards require at a particular grade level. In our school’s science text, we could only use three of the eight units that are published in the book and it doesn’t include one unit goal that I am required to teach. Our social studies book is specifically designed to teach about our state, but it does so in a static and unengaging manner. Why would I want to use these materials? We know that textbooks do not equate knowledge, which is why I appreciated this Flickr photo because it is titled “Just the Ones I’m Getting Rid Of” by Plutor.

So, if you are pondering the great journey of letting go of the textbook or you are entering a classroom where there weren’t any textbooks to start with, here are a few ideas.

Fiction and Non-Fiction Literature:

Last year, my grade level team decided to forgo the adoption of a new textbook and to spend a fraction of that budget on purchasing various class sets of novels that serve as foundations for most of our curriculum. Carole Marsh, author and founder of Gallopade International, has a great series of mysteries that teach about many areas of our curriculum. She has great titles such as Mystery on the Underground Railroad and The “Gosh Awful” Gold Rush Mystery. These books put children in the middle of historic places to teach about them and why these places are important to our history. We also research picture books that would help tell the story of events in American history in their context of North Carolina’s past, such as Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins. We visited the State Archives and ordered many publications from there that were collections of primary resources to add to our students’ research experiences. For a fraction of the cost of a set of textbooks, we have a collection of literature that adds life and unique voice to our curriculum. Studies Weekly is another of my favorite resources, as it is a content based weekly newspaper publication for students that teaches in exciting and engaging ways. I usually get a mini-grant for these (about $5 per student/per year) and the kids have a consumable resource that evolves from year to year – and, of course, they have excellent on-line support.

Check out community resources:

There are dozens of community resources that will provide free or very reasonably costing programs for classrooms. There are also many who will “lend” these resources to educators. Here are some links to some resources that I have used.

Ag in the Classroom: Ag in the Classroom offers resources for science and social studies lessons, including lesson plans, contact information, a Teen Zone and a great Kids Page.

4-H Programs: 4-H puts together amazing “kits” for educators across the curriculum. We have their Electricity Kits which teach everything from circuits to motors in an inquiry based manner that is designed to get kids thinking and experimenting. The resources for teachers are top-notch and the training/support by 4-H is also excellent.

Government Officials: Who better to talk about state and local government than government officials? Invite your elected and appointed officials into your classroom to talk about what they do all day and how government works. Don’t forget that with the ease of free video conferencing (like Skype), distance no longer has to be an option. When we studied Louis and Clark, we talked to a class in St. Louis who had been studying all about them in their home state!

Museum Speakers and Lending: Check with your local and state museums about sending programs to you, if you cannot go to them. Also, consider the possiblities of the Lending Libraries that many museums, like the North Carolina Museum of Art, have to offer.

Colleges & Universities: Need resources to teach about geology? Who better than a geologist (or at least someone studying to be a geologist)? Universities and colleges are often thrilled to send professors and or graduate students to do programs for K-12 classrooms. They have access to amazing specimans and samples that a regular classroom teacher could never afford to collect. For example, we study rocks and minerals. A graduate student from East Carolina University was more than willing to come out to our school, bring a huge rock collection, streak plates and other activity materials for my students to get hands-on learning experiences with rocks. They also bring the interesting dynamic of how to turn curricular passions into a career!

Getting Organized:

I have to admit that I love plastic storage boxes. They are stackable, fillable, and easily labeled. To start our textbook-less movement, our grade level team organized what we already had. We grouped like topics, added supplemental resources we already had, stuck in any videos/multimedia materials that we owned, and we created a folder on our school’s share drive for each unit. When you check out a unit box, you are agreeing to use the materials from inside that interest you and to add anything that you create/find to supplement it. After a year of six teachers using the same unit, it was exciting to watch those resources grow and evolve. We also have a shared folder of resources (documents, multimedia presentations, findings from Discovery Education, and links to online sources).

One Unit Box we have is the “Kitty Hawk” box. Contents include:

  1. Class set of The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk
  2. Teacher created reflection questions and comprehension/vocabulary practice to accompany novel
  3. Link to Animated Hero Classics: The Wright Brothers on Discovery Streaming
  4. Photos and literature from a family visit to the Wright Brothers’ Memorial National Park in Kitty Hawk, NC
  5. Various supplemental books about Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers
  6. Writing prompt ideas/support for newspaper writing exercise (as if the student were the witness to the first flight)
  7. Curriculum connections to the science of flight
  8. Coloring pages from various sources that teach about others in the race to fly
  9. And more and more every time someone uses the unit box

cole24_ pick me

So, don’t be afraid to let your textbooks start collecting dust. Use your personal learning network (both face to face and online) to collect resources that will enrich and enhance your teaching and learning!

I’d love your comments, suggestions and tips on more ways to teach without a textbook.

*Added June 30

A few people have asked me to talk a little bit about how I teach math without a textbook, so I thought I’d just talk about my typical math lesson (90 minutes daily). I divide my class into 4 flexible groups and they learn our routine early in the year.

I work with 1 group at a table at one side of the room on introducing new concepts or reviewing skills that need attention. We do guided hands-on activities together, use personal dry erase boards, etc.

At the same time, another group is at the interactive whiteboard doing a lesson that I have chosen/created that reinforces skills that we have already worked on. This station might also be used for a learning game or other educational experience disguised as something fun.

Another group is working collaboratively on problem solving skills as a group. They each have their math journals in which they record their problems, strategies and results. Each Monday of the first several weeks of school I introduce a “new” problem solving strategy. Throughout that week students focus on practicing that skill. In following weeks, problems demand that students choose a skill or multiple skills to solve their problems.

The final group is working on an independent assignment at their seats, from Accelerated Math or on a specific computer site that I have chosen (like AAAMath, Multiplication.Com, or even an assignment on Edmodo).

We rotate through these groups daily on about a 20 minute rotation for each space. I get to sit down face to face with every student every day. I have found that my need for grading daily papers, etc. has been reduced drastically. I know how my kids are doing because they have to prove it to me and their peers on a daily basis. We establish such a solid routine that even substitute teachers are happy to carry out these rotations. The students have told me how much they like the varied opportunities within each day to have time together to talk and time to process on their own. I pull resources from across the internet, design projects with my peers and even use worksheets (gasp) occasionally. By carefully choosing the worksheets I want to use rather than just relying on what comes with the book, I know that these papers are going to meet specific needs and targeted objectives. Again, we stay with the county’s pacing guide, take common assessments with other 4th graders and jump through the necessary hoops. Using these methods of instruction, I can effectively and seamlessly differentiate learning for my students and help to ensure their success.