Saturday, March 31, 2012

Slice of Life #31 of 31: Why Write?

Created with Tagxedo from my Slice of Life blog posts.

Why write? 

I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.1
My thoughts are stars I cannot fathom into constellations 2
Ink and paper ...passionate lovers, ... brother and sister, ...mortal enemies.3
I love being a writer.4  
The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time...4
but you do have to
Exercise the writing muscle every day, 6
...a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry 6
blog post
slice of life
How can I know what I think till I see what I say? 7
“So why does our writing matter, again?" they ask. 8
"Because of the spirit," I say. "Because of the heart." 8

The Slice of Life Story Challenge ends today: 31 slices, 31 blog posts. I've enjoyed the writing though it always takes me longer than I imagine it will. Reading and connecting to other teacher writers has been a great experience. The writing community I've felt grow around me has kept me motivated to read, write, post, and comment. What heart, what spirit I have discovered in this group. Thank you to Ruth and Stacey, to Beth and all of the slicers who shared, encouraged, tweeted, commented and didn't knock my spelling or grammar. What a gift this has been. 

Until Tuesday,

1 James Michner
2 John Green
3 Emme Woodhull-Bäche
4 Peter De Vries
5 Robert Cormier
6 Jane Yolen
7 E. M. Forester
I've been participating in the Slice of Life Story
Challenge sponsored by Two Writing Teachers.
This is post #31 of 31 for the month! 
8 Anne Lamott

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Conferring with Writers

"You have to dive in and talk to the kids. There's no point just sitting around the room observing."
~Linda Rief 

The green ceramic kettle whistled at 5:30 a.m. Slipping my hand into a silicone oven mitt I lifted it off the gas stove and poured its steamy contents into a stainless steel French Press. The rich scent rose  reminding me of chestnuts and walking through woods. I poured a cup's worth and carried crisp, white porcelain cup to the table where my notebook waited.

I wanted to review my notes from the day before and think about the learning I would take away from my visit to Linda Rief's classroom. The house slept. I sipped my coffee and sifted through my thoughts. Six fifteen came as fast as the end of school vacation, but today wasn't over yet and I needed to get on the road. 

Armed with my smooth talking Gentleman G.P.S., I made my way north east to Durham. I slipped into a visitor's space, parallel parking like a ballerina on point, arriving at the middle school by 7:18. I quickly checked in with the front office, clipped on my visitor's badge and hustled down down the hall to room 201. On the agenda, writing conferences.

Students sit at round tables in Linda's classroom. The groups are flexible and change based on the work of the day. Today, Rief directed students to groups and reminded them of the process: 

  1. Before a writer shares, ask them how you can help with the current draft.
  2. Once you know the writer's concerns, listen for them in the piece. 
  3. Listen to the writer read.
  4. Jot down words and phrases that stand out. Note a question if you have one and phrase your suggestions (In my classroom we call these what you'd propose the writer change or re-see) as "what if" statements. The what ifs should connect to what the writer wants in terms of feedback.
  5. Talk about what you liked in the piece. Share your questions and "what ifs" with the writer and give them time to respond.
  6. Give the writer your post-it response notes; be sure to sign your name to them.

Simple, right? Imagine the teaching moves packed into those 6 steps. 

I sat and conferred with students  in of Linda's 4 classes. As in my own classroom, I brought a piece of writing to share with the group. I chose to read "Lessons from Lilly," a summer blog post that has been on my mind this week. I read first, telling the students that I didn't like the lead of the piece. I told the girls I'd been thinking of cutting the first two paragraphs and getting to the story quicker. They agreed. Thoughtful responders, you can read their sticky comments by enlarging the picture. 
Notes from my journal; post its show feedback students gave me .
Writing conferences empower students. Their voices take center stage. The choice and autonomy they have in crafting the pieces they bring to the table is the hidden lesson here. Each student brought something to share that mattered to her: a poem, a descriptive lead for short story, a vignette. Each writer took risks and in the risk taking soared. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Question Tuesday

John Green's "Sharpie Face Question Tuesday" from last week post brought back many fine memories from this past year's Project for Awesome and brought lots of good Nerdfighter news to celebrate (The Fault in Our Stars movie option for one).  In the vlog, Green answers Nerdfighter's questions, one of which is "did you ever want to be a teacher?"

His reply, "Yeah and now that there's 'Crash Course' I can kind of be one and not to geek out or anything but I am totally living my teacher dream!"

I love that John Green has a teacher dream. I am totally living one of my teacher dreams this week. To get ready for day two in Linda Rief's classroom, I thought I'd blog a few questions, call it my own version of "Question Tuesday."

Here's a list from my journal that I started yesterday:

Do you test? or quiz?
Are students always working on a variety of genres in writing at any 1 time?
Do you track students' independent work with a status of the class?
Do students have a common language--vocabulary: academic vocabulary or readers'/writers' vocabulary?

As you can see in the picture, I jotted a few answers down yesterday as Linda and I talked. I'm looking forward to more conversation today.

Today is writing conferences. I'm already wondering:
How do you schedule conference time?
What happens if another student or group has a question while you're conferencing?
What systems do you use to track conference conversations?

Questions abound! And I'm off to discover answers. Have a great Tuesday.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Living the Dream Day #1

My name is on the board! 
Day 1 in Linda Rief's classroom started with advisory. Advisory is a time to get settled, to work on projects, to plan or update calendars. There are no school bells at Oyster River Middle School. I never realized what a difference that makes. No rush. No clock watching. No running-out-of-time feeling.

Students move casually between class periods and rooms. Rief teaches four language arts classes and supervises advisory and a study period during the 7:35 a.m. -2:30 p.m. school day. The schedule is a thing of A/B blocked beauty.

Beyond the building schedule though is Rief's schedule for collecting students' journals. See it on the board?

Do you collect students' journals or notebooks or portfolios? One thing I wrestle with in my own classroom is how to assess or give feedback on the work students create in their academic journals. My students have kept writing journals, academic journals or reading journals--see the directions inset below. I've graded journals, not graded journals, written in them or not written in them. How I've used journals or notebooks in my classroom changes over time.
Hi I'm RJ - Directions

Today's to-be-graded pile
When I first began using reading journals or readers' notebooks with students,  I based my format on Rief's design--built my list of prompts from her suggestions. Today I saw those same prompts charted on the wall above the classroom library.  The academic journals my students are creating this year share some traits with Rief's Writer's-Reader'sNotebooks, but as I confessed to Rief, I've abandoned some things. The pressures in my state, at my school, in my teaching schedule-- reading journals fell by the wayside this year. I have regretted that instructional choice.

One purpose of this trip is to remind myself of what really matters. To refocus on what I  believe is right for kids. To clarify and sharpen what matters.  Today what matters are how students use their writing and reading notebooks and how Rief assesses, grades and gives students feedback.

Rief collects one class set of notebooks each day, so she is responding to students 4 days a week. She collects the notebooks every two weeks. Students get a quantity grade (4-8 half hours for reading, 8 vocabulary words and 4-8 pages of writing) and a quality grade. When asked what the quanties were worth, Madison told me "8 is an A; 4 is like the lowest."

Feedback is important and Rief has streamlined the process. She uses underlining as a form of commenting. Students understand that Rief underlines lines, phrases, sections in the writing that stand out or sparkle. Sometimes there is nothing to underline and students reflect on that. She adds positive comments here and there as a reader, a member of the community would.  Her goal is to respond to one class set of notebooks a night and return them to students the next day.

Rief's grade and comments in one student's journal.

What matters is that students are doing the bulk of the work. Though Rief does works with the whole class (at least 1/2 of each quarter is spent in study together) most of the writing about reading in the notebook is done about self-selected texts. Students are choosing what to read at least half of the time. Students also choose what to write (form and content). Sometimes Rief guides students through a particular genre (writing a short story or a book review), but other times students make the writing choices. Students are collecting their own vocabulary words--tracking and collecting language in the backs of their notebooks. I'm still processing and my niece is calling for Auntie to come tell stories by the bathtub. Here are a few last words about seeing these students' work:  authenticity, balance, collaboration,community, choice and engagement, and investment. The notebook becomes a living artifact, a map of students' journeys, their learning in action.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Hunger Games

I created the picture using a inverse selection and
Gaussian blur filter in Photoshop from this image.

Once a long time ago, I had students write haiku about characters from our shared reading. I forget where I got the idea, but they are quick, fun and a good review in class. Here are a few my son and I wrote after this afternoon's Hunger Games movie adventure

Katniss Everdeen
bow wielding courage saves her
for another day

*              *              *

Whistles the Mockingjay
Sounds of safety from the trees
Take care! Surprise attack!

*              *              *

Girl on fire dancing
Running for safety, finds it
Spies on the Careers

I liked the film, but I don't want to spoil it for anyone. Watch the filming effects. Notice the lights. Marvel at the soundtrack. See the movie. Now, back to re-reading the book!

I am participating in the Slice of Life Story Challenge sponsored by Two Writing Teachers

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On Writing and Rock Stars

This is slice #22 of 31 for the  Slice of Life Story Challenge sponsored by Two Writing Teachers

I met Linda Rief nearly ten years ago. She was in Orlando for a conference and stayed a night or two at Janet Allen's house. I lived in the same neighborhood and when Janet couldn't take Linda to the airport, I volunteered.

The airport's only a 20 minute drive the neighborhood. Though I live in a rural part of Orlando, we have quick access to a highway that takes us straight to the airport and into town. I was driving a tan Honda CRV and there were probably cheerios in between the seats.  I didn't have time to vacuum, but I swiped my sleeve across the dash and ran a tissue over the console.

I read Linda Rief's Seeking Diversity as a beginning teacher while in graduate school. It shaped many things I did in my own classroom from how I structured independent reading time to the self evaluations I used for exams at the end of the year. She is a teaching rock star and I had her in my car! On the way to the airport, I talked to her about writing, writing about teaching and my classroom.

I have always written. In journals, on napkins, on canvas, in cards. I love the act of writing. The feel of ink taking flight over paper. The landscape of memory that blooms in my mind when I take the time to connect and reflect. I (mostly) enjoy writing, but I  wondered.

On our drive I told Linda that I wanted to write about my classroom, but I didn't want to just repeat what others had written. What could I add to the conversation that hadn't already been described?  By Atwell and Rief and Allen and Pilgreen and Krashen (and now Gallagher and Layne and Miller). I've never forgotten Rief's reply, "What you say will be different because it is your story. Write your story."

I've written part of my story in an e-book format that will be published by Stenhouse later this year (spring, maybe summer depending on production). My first story is about reading and technology: Reading Amplified. The book will share everyday ways to integrate technology. It's going to include tutorials for teachers who want to learn a few new tools.  I'm excited about the book (and that revisions are nearly finished!) But today, I'm more excited about spring break.

I'm heading north for spring break. I leave Saturday morning. My brother lives not an hour from Linda Rief's school. I'm going to spend a few days in her classroom learning. My mom bought me the plane ticket for my birthday. I'm going to recharge, refocus, renew what I believe about teaching and learning language arts. And you know what? I'm going to tell her I finally took her advice.

I can't wait!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Birthdays and Building

Do you recognize your students' birthdays? Do you wish them a happy birthday during class? Do you let the class sing or have cupcakes? In elementary school, at least since I've been a parent, kids still celebrate birthdays. I've sent in Yoda cakes, Rabid Rabbits--homemade has meaning in my family. Cupcakes, cookies, treats--time is taken to pause, sing and eat sweets. Even if the singing embarrasses the birthday kids, he or she grins. Smiles abound.

Rabid Rabbits were all the rage when my son was 9. 
This week is birthday week. My birthday is Saturday. I share my actual birthday with a student and 2 colleagues. Three girl friends, two children of friends, one cousin and a former next-door neighbor have birthdays this week. We celebrate, often together.

My principal sends out birthday cards. I got my card from her today. The hand written note made me cry--luckily it's allergy season and I haven't managed mascara this week. The kids didn't notice. Her note buoyed by spirit.

In high school sometimes connections gets lost. The curriculum or latest mandate takes over or scatters the flock. We think, I've got Shakespeare to read or main idea strategies to teach, essays to plan, a test to grade, a field trip to organize--the list never ends.  Taking the time to acknowledge our students as people and to celebrate their lives with them, even in small seemingly insignificant ways, makes a world of difference.

I haven't always been good about keeping track of students' birthdays. When I know or remember, I make a point of reaching out, sometimes I sing (solo even) . I've gotten much better since the school district adopted a newer grading program and since I started using a social network (Bear English Ning)  with students. Both the Ning and our grading program remind users of members' birthdays. I love that feature and so do students. They beam when I am the first to wish them happy birthday in class. They notice who is having a birthday online and they post to greetings to them or greet them grinning in class. Sometimes we have cake (shhh... don't

This afternoon's faculty meeting at my school focused on building relationships with students. One thing my grade level group talked about was birthdays. We had a good conversation that went well beyond birthdays and into the reality of building strong relationships with sometimes reluctant students.

I'm still thinking about it. I believe in community building. I've written about it before here and here. I make time to build relationships with students. Doing so forms bonds and attachments between my students and me and between students in the same class. Building relationships is an instructional routine, a habit, part of my classroom culture. It paves the way for learning and some believe that without such attachments, students have difficulty learning (Jensen, Payne, Noddings, etc.). We had good conversation in our meetings this afternoon. We weren't lectured. There wasn't a flurry of handouts. We got to write, reflect, move about the learning cabin and talk to each other about students.

Prior to the meeting we were asked to prepare by reading Cris Crutcher's "Flying Blind" (the article version from a recent Family Circle magazine was excerpted from the chapter of the same title which appears in Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice edited by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. When I got to the meeting space I was struck by the set up. The room was wall papered in student photos from the yearbook.

My school is divided into "colleges": iAM (arts and media), HPA (health and public affairs), STEM (science technology, engineering and math) and IB (International Baccalaureate). Each college has a team of teachers across grades and subjects--more than 30 teachers per college is my rough estimate. One of our leaders had photocopied all of the students enrolled in my house and posted their pictures around the room by grade level. I could see all of the ninth graders. In truth I could see all of the 500+ (give or take) students in STEM. It was the first time students had attended such a meeting--even virtually.

The meeting began with bellwork: think about a teacher who made education "real" for you and write about how the teacher did it. We shared our stories and then discussed in grade-level groups how we build relationships with kids. Then we were given stickers and directed to walk the room putting stickers on students with whom we have positive, meaningful relationships. I edited one of the chart pages of pictures so that it showed just students I have (my students sign release forms each fall, so that I can write about them and post their work or pictures).

These are 12 of my 100 ninth graders.  Of these 12 students, 1 has been suspended for drugs on campus, another broke his wrist skateboarding (twice and required surgery), another is a Nerdfighter. One of these 12 has straight As. One takes medication for a mental illness. Six are reading far below grade level. Many get free lunch. There are many things I could tell you about these kids. I could tell you about sharing breakfast or talking books. I could tell you about the divorce or the foreclosure or the day the dog died.

As teachers walked the room putting small dots on students' pictures we talked. We talked about the Billys and Johns, about the Shakishas and Lisas. We shared and tried to problem solve. Some of the stickers on you can see, some were too pale a color to show up in this picture taken with my iPad. Some students didn't get any of stickers during the activity. No teacher in our college feels connected to the stickerless. The stickerless have not positive, meaningful relationships with an adult on campus. We need to do something about that.

I want to spend my time in meetings at school like this. I want to spend my time talking about real kids and real ways to solve problems that kids face. Our meeting today gave us time to begin those conversations. Thank you to the planners--the support folks, the teacher leaders, the keepers of the vision, my college administrator and my Principal, my instructional leader--this afternoon was time well spent.

This is slice #21of 31. I am participating in the Slice of Life Story Challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers


Jensen, E. (2011). Teaching with povery in mind: What being poor does to kids' brains and what schools can do about it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 

Noddings, N. (2002). Educating moral people. New York: Teachers College Press.

Payne. R. (April 2008). "Nine powerful practices." Educational Leadership.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Poetry Tuesday

Youth Poets: video posts coming soon to CCHSPoetry
Tuesdays mean Poetry Club. One sacred hour after school sitting in a circle, I spend time with teens looking for their voices. Everyday Tuesday we take the full hour sometimes more. We share. We write. We practice bringing a poem off the page--a page often worn soft from creasing, folding, unfolding, clutching words from hand to mouth.

Poetry speaks.
Poetry lives.
Poetry empowers.

No matter what kind of day I've had with my regular 7:00 a.m.-2:11 pm students, the youth poets I serve, breathe life back into me.

Poetry saves.

Peace and Poetry be with you,

Monday, March 19, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Recommending?

Slice #19 of 31 for the Slice of Life Story
Challeng sponsored by Two Writing Teachers.

Last week I wrote along with the It's Monday! What Are You Reading? meme. This Monday, I  thought I'd take a minute to reflect on the books I recommended to folks today.

To a student in class who just finished I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, I recommended Susan Kuklin's No Choirboy and Gail Giles' Shattering Glass or Dead Girls Don't Write Letters. I'd given her a Cooney mystery over the weekend. She returned it today, read, but I had to chuckle when she said, "I read it, but it wasn't the book I was looking for."

To my massage therapist who just finished The Hunger Games trilogy and is reading Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, I recommended Divergent by Veronica Roth, Delirium by Lauren Oliver and The Maze Runner by James Dashner.

To a good friend who is coming out of a hard eighteen months, she's read Westerfeld's Uglies series and the Hunger Games, loves C. S. Lewis and dabbles in art, so I recommended The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver and Looking for Alaska by John Green.

There were more--just a few--I also took pictures of books at the bookstore while I waited to meet  my dinner-date friend. I will show the pictures to pertinent parties tomorrow. And over lunch or during before school breakfast, I will start conversations with "have you read..." or "I saw this book and thought..." and I will delight in all that follows.

Happy reading Monday!

PS: I'm finishing Death Curse tonight even if I'm up until morning!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

YELL Orlando

This morning my son and I went to the first annual Orlando Youth Empowerment Leadership Learning Conference. The conference was organized by IB students from my school, Cypress Creek,  as an outgrowth of Miguel Goncalves' participation as a Bezo Scholar in the Aspen Ideas Festival. What a great job Miguel and the student development team did on this all-day leadership conference! The best part? It was free and many of the speakers donated their time and talents.

Collin and Becky Kagan Schott
The opening keynote speaker Becky Kagan Schott graduated from our school and has made it big! A professional videographer, she dives and films sharks, shipwrecks, whales and more. She even worked on the Titanic expedition in 2010. She's the owner of Liquid Productions, and a recent Emmy award winner. Her pictures--liquid sky, clear water, dolphins, golden caves , alien and ghostly wrecks-- take your breath away. Beyond her art, two things stood out for me: goal setting and taking initiative.

During Schott's senior year, her yearbook teacher asked students to write down what they thought they would be doing in 10 years. She wrote that she wanted to be making documentaries about sharks. It took her 12 years, but she did it. She lives it--her resume, in her words, reads like an "extreme bucket list."  She reminded students that it started with a little slip of paper in yearbook class. Set goals. Dream big.

When you see a chance, when you see someone living your dream, take note. She started taking note while working for the Florida Aquarium. During a shark program there she met someone from the Discovery channel. She said her next move changed her future.

She went up to the camera man and said, "I love what you're doing. How can I do your job?"

That simple step makes all the difference.

"Ask," she told students in the audience. "Find the people that are doing what you dream and talk to them. Face your fear and jump in ... know that you never stop learning."

Never stop... indeed.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Open Mic Nights

This post is slice #16 of 31 for the March Slice of Life Story Challenge sponsored by Two Writing Teachers

This semester the youth poets and I have been hosting open mic nights at our local Barnes and Noble. Performing in a public space would be impossible without the support of my media specialist. He loans us a portable microphone, a sound system really. Two speakers and an amp zipped into a rolling suitcase, speakers stands in long zippered case and a mic stand. The microphone makes all the difference in the store. And having a space in the store to perform, makes all the difference to my poets. We have a fantastic education coordinator at our local Barnes and Noble, Mary Ramsey has given us time and space to bring these students' talents to life. It matters.

Isabella & Diana performing 2 World Hip Hop
Our school poetry slam is about 3 weeks out, so the poets have started to hone the pieces they'll take to our stage. I can't wait to hear how they sound tonight. We don't follow slam rules at the book store. Students can take more than 3 minutes with a piece. Few do.

We also don't score at the bookstore.  If you're new to slam poetry, a slam contest is scored by random judges picked out of the audience. During our school slam, 5 judges will score the poet's pieces from 1-10--10 garnering the poet "rock star" status at school for the remainder of the school year. The lowest score and the highest score are drop, the middle 3 are added up. The poet at the end of the slam with the highest score takes the slam. As we say though, "the point is not the points, the point is the poetry."

Tonight the point will be sharing and showcasing. Often, students in my classes come. I offer extra credit (why not?) and give bonus points if they take a turn at the mic. You should see their courage as they approach the mic.

Last month a poet--a real adult poet--was in the bookstore during our open mic time. She introduced herself and explained that she runs a poetry group for Hispanic writers at the book store once a month. She praised the kids and beamed at their pieces. The student poets soaked it in and I celebrated inside. Yes!

Happy Friday!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Chocolate for Everyone!

Celebrating success in the classroom builds community. When a student comes up for air while reading that just right book and grins. She just smiles, ear-to-ear, we celebrate that reading moment. We celebrate by sharing, by taking the time to talk. It could be that we talk about a piece of writing or a book or an epiphany. It could be that I celebrate a child's learning through lamination or magic wand action--scanning the piece with a handheld scanner to save and savor the student's success.

Our new teacher evaluation system requires teachers to celebrate success connected to a lesson's learning goal. It is my weakest area on my recent observation. I don't celebrate during every lesson. During my pre-observation conference my administrator reminded me to be sure to have students give themselves a pat on the back or a round of applause. I told him that probably wouldn't happen. He'd seen the real thing during an informal observation. Students broke into spontaneous applause after a small group presentation. The group did a bang-up job and that authentic applause acknowledged their home run.

We do celebrate, but it usually happens spontaneously. Students applaud after a moving presentation or in the hush and rush of feeling that follows a read aloud of a touching piece of writing. Those things don't happen everyday.

I do plan for celebrations too, it's not always spontaneous.  Though I appreciate Alfie Kohn's work on rewards as punishments, I do occasionally reward students.  I have a compliment board in my classroom, an idea I learned from my son's kindergarten teacher. When other adults (teachers, administrators, substitutes, guests, etc) compliment my students, the class gets a star. Five compliment stars earns the class a treat, a celebration.

This week the ROTC students are selling chocolate. I found a twenty floating in the flotsam of my school bag the other day. I rustled up a few more dollars. I owed sixth period a treat.  One of my students came in carrying chocolate and I had an idea.

"How many candy bars do you have in your box?" I asked the ROTC cadet.
"Oh, Miss, it's full. I've hardly sold any," she replied.
"Well then, why don't I just buy candy bars for everyone," I told her.
"What?! For the whole class?"
"Yes! Chocolate for everyone!"

 I took the box and toured the room, letting students pick out which candy bar they wanted. It was like being queen of the classroom for a moment. It felt like a surprise party. The kids, loved it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I Believe, Dalton: Slice #14

Do you believe in your students? Do you have high expectations for their learning? Do you? Or do you just want to believe in them? Do you believe in them on Tuesday mornings, but then have serious doubts by Thursday afternoons?

Some days I have my difficulties. I have challenges. Doubt sneaks up on me. Dipping into the Twitter stream this evening, I came away inspired, refreshed, and renewed by the Dalton Sherman keynote that George Courous (@gcouros) tweeted.

Twitter inspires. Some days it virtually breathes my beliefs about what's right with kids right back into me.

Isn't Sherman an amazing young voice? At 2:23 he asks us, "Do you believe that every single one of us can graduate ready for college or the work place?"

Interesting word that "or." Or,coordinating conjunction and logical operator, what does it mean exactly? Either of two outputs. Either. Not both.

Does your school support either, either outcome for high school students: college or the workplace?

In this afternoon's English department meeting we learned that high school teachers have another test on their horizon. Juniors are now required to take the PERT test: Postsecondary Education Readiness Test.This is a state mandate.

If the junior  student does not demonstrate college readiness via ACT, SAT or above proficient scores on the state standardized test (the FCAT) then they must take the PERT--the scheduling of which is currently in the works. These tests will be in addition to benchmark tests for progress monitoring (given to all students who did not score above a 337--passing is 300--on our state reading test in fall and winter), AP exams and end of course exams in math and science. Many of these juniors who have to take PERT are enrolled in state mandated reading classes (they did not pass the state test in 10th grade and now much take reading instead of an elective course of their choice.) Students in reading classes must take the state's FAIR test and if that reading students is also a second language student he or she will take the CELA test. Some of these students have spent 20 school days testings. Twenty school days!

According to our attendance policy if students are absent that many days they have to prove they know the course material or they automatically fail the course--of course being absent for testing doesn't "count."

If juniors do not score well on the PERT it will affect their schedule. Instead of having the standard or honors English IV class on their schedule for senior year, students will be placed in an English IV college readiness class.

When I was a beginning teacher I gave my seniors the old College Placement Test. Well, I didn't give it to them, but I invited folks from a local community college to come and test my students so that my students could assess themselves as they made plans for their futures. It was enrichment and a point of discussion, not a requirement. There were no penalties, no doors closed if students didn't do well. Of course, when I started teaching we had a rich vocational-education program. Students built engines and computers and furniture. Students could graduate and get jobs in refrigeration or air conditioning and make more money than beginning teachers. We did what Dalton Sherman preaches; we prepared students for college or the workplace. Many times I felt we prepare students for both.

I think the college readiness class might mean an end to teaching British literature for some. It definitely means that those students will not have the same opportunities as students who take honors or advanced placement. It definitely means we will have fewer students in advanced placement or higher level classes. If students do not pass PERT our administrator told us they are not allowed to take upper level classes. Scary language, that.

In how many ways are we going to label students failures? Testing is not providing students with opportunities to learn and develop curiosity and passion.  Testing is not teaching.

Am I being unreasonable?

I told myself I wasn't going to rant or react after this meaning. Then I figured maybe I could just think my way through and come to some peace of mind. This is just one slice, slice 
#14 of 31 for the Slice of Life Story Challenge sponsored by Two Writing Teachers

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Taking the F Out of Grading

My summer reading collage for The Hunger Games.
In a recent report on our local public radio station, Senator David Simmons talked about upcoming changes to Florida's system of grading schools. Here in Florida grading schools is a yearly nod to accountability. Letter grades A through F are reported in news papers, on television-- essentially splashed media wide. School grades affect property values and mobility rates: serious economic business. Grades are calculated based on a variety of factors. There is no way to simplify how high schools are graded. Half of the school grade comes down to test scores: how many students score above proficient (or meet high standards), how many make learning gains in reading and math and by how much did lowest quartile makes "progress". The other half of the grade takes into account graduation rate, accelerated coursework (A.P., IB, etc) and more. Visit the 2010 Guidesheet for school grades and skip to page 2 to get the high school low down.

According to a press release from the Florida Department of Education, "of Florida's 2,547 graded elementary, middle and non-high-school combination public schools earning "A" through "F" grades this year:
  • 1,481 earned an "A" (58 percent), an increase of 82 schools compared to last year.
  • 458 earned a "B" (18 percent), a decrease of 33 schools compared to last year.
  • 460 earned a "C" (18 percent), a decrease of 35 schools compared to last year.
  • 117 earned a "D" (5 percent), an increase of 16 schools compared to last year.
  • 31 earned an "F" (1 percent), a decrease of 13 schools compared to last year."

High school grades were not release until well into this school year due to test scoring challenges. Of the 477 high schools, 151 (or 32 %) made As; 222 (or 47% ) made Bs; 72 (or15 %) made Cs; 24 (or 5%) made Ds and 6 (or 1%) scored Fs. (Totals calculated from the All District High Schools, School Accountability Report).

High schools performed even with a new test (FCAT 2.0) and shifting criteria (see how the cut scores for proficiency change from year to year).

Now, the state has adjusted passing scores for the test and has revised  the school grading system.Senator Simmons at first proposed a year delay to the system but then changed his mind after a "weekend sit-down with Governor Rick Scott." Really? One weekend? One meeting?  I would have loved to have listened in on that conversation.

Simmons is in "favor of higher accountability of our school systems." However, one might thing he's nodding to reason with his follow up statement. Apparently he doesn't want to punish schools. Simmons said,  "At the same time, I do not want to penalize the schools here in the state of Florida for the successes they have obtained.”  What about the children?

If Simmons doesn't want to penalize schools, then why advocate a change to a poorly, underfunded system in the first place? It bothers me. It bothers me that media and politicians spend more time crunching numbers than they do helping kids. It bothers me that a report card for schools earns more attention than helping students who are poor and or homeless. Yes the 60 minutes story on the 2 Seminole County students who were homeless helped,rallied a national audience; those two students now have a home of their own. There are many more students still living in poverty in Orange County.

Senator Simmons is concerned about labeling schools "failing." In his own words he said, "He'd like to find another word." A word that "properly categoriz[es] and characteriz[es] what the score means." On my o'dark thirty drive in to work last week, listening to this story on the radio, I came up with a few choice words for Senator Simmons.

 How about, forgotten? How about forsaken? How about forlorn? F schools in Florida are not failing, they are fraught with political maneuverings--trapped in a shell game which hides economic inequalities that will forever impact the lives of the children teachers work so hard to serve.


Creston, Nicole. 8 March 2012. "Seminole County's Top-Rated Schools Brace for New Grading Policy."

Florida Department of Education. 30 June 2011. "School Grades Hold Steady Despite Increased Grading 
     Standards: More than three-quarters remain high performing."
     Press release. Available online

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday Reading

Kellee and Jen  from Teach Mentor Texts participate in a meme called It's Monday! What Are You Reading? The meme comes from Shelia at Book Journey. I thought I write up my reading week and think about what's on the horizon for my students and me.

In the classroom, 11th graders are reading Swift's "A Modest Proposal" this week. They are also going to read documents on gun control--we're wrapping a short unit on argument and will close with a synthesis (document based essay). We are thinking of

My ninth grade students self-select about half of what they read for English class--we spend some time each day reading independently. They are currently in a variety of novels and nonfiction books. I think I have 3 students reading the collection of tales, Cut From the Same Cloth by Robert D. San Souci and Brian Pinkney
and two boys reading a motorcycle book Bone Shakers to Chopper by Lisa Smedman. Probably 7 students are nearly finished with The Exploding Toilet by David Holt. I put a bunch of what I call browsable nonfiction in the book boxes on students' tables. These are actually small group titles from a Plugged-in to Nonfiction set but as I haven't used them for small groups this quarter, I thought students who were in between books or who like books with short pieces would enjoy them. I really like how stacking the book boxes with some browsable books has worked.

In terms of what we are required to do together, half of my ninth graders are reading excerpts from Romeo  and Juliet. We're building familiarity with the language of the play and studying how Shakespeare uses figurative language.We may go from reading to the stage but the acting and stage play may come next week as students get comfortable and understand what's going on. The other half of my ninth graders are in the midst of a short text unit (short stories, articles and poetry)--they are also examining figurative language.

I am reading Charles and Emma: The Darwin's Leap of Faith by by Deborah Heiligman
this week. I like the story and I noticed how the author weaves bits from Darwin's letters and papers into the narrative. I think the structure--in that sense-- is very interesting. I would like to add some picture books to my reading menu, so I may head to the library one day after school and pick up a few.

It's Monday! What are you reading?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

On Courage and Poetry

Click the link for poetry club's YouTube  channel.

The student poet met me in the Principal’s office. I was running late because another student had stayed after my last class. I dashed the ½ mile to the office as fast as my clodhopper-clogs would allow.

When I arrived the poet was sitting straight-backed in a red-vinyl chair in front of the Principal’s desk. I took the other chair and gave her a pat on the back.

“Sorry it took me so long,” I said as I gulped air.
“Not a problem we were just having a nice conversation,” the Principal replied.
“Did you read the poem yet?” I asked the poet.
The Principal replied, “No we wanted to wait for you.”

How long had she been sitting here surround by books and high school trophies.
Did she feel the stare of academe?  Was she sweating?

“Okay, “ I grinned. “Are you nervous?”
“No. (deep breath), maybe a little,” the poet replied.
“That’s okay. It will be okay. That’s to be expected,” I said focusing on the business at hand. “ Why don’t you go ahead and read the poem.”

So she did. She spoke of Christ and blessings and being molested at age 5. She told tales of being forced to and pushed to and made to and deciding to. She shared how a girl survives.

There were tears in the Principal’s eyes (and mine) as the poet closed the piece. With her last words,  I stepped in to build a bridge.

“Because this is a sensitive piece, we thought we should share it with you and let you, the Principal, decide if it should be performed on stage for our school’s poetry slam. All of the poets understand and respect that this is our school stage. We respect that you have the last word about what to allow on that stage. That is why we wanted to read it for you today. What do you think?” I inhaled on that question, held my breath.

“Wow,” the Principal looked directly at the poet. ”She smiled. Well said. I’ve never heard that message spoken quite that way before—and I mean that. You did an incredible job with that piece.” She paused. Her voice dropped, “ I’m glad to see you don’t look like the girl you described.”

I interrupt to say something about how we remind our audiences during the slam that pieces are not always biographical—they don’t always reveal the performer. BufferBalance I’m  thinking to myself. Protect the writer.

“Do you want to perform it?” the Principal asked the poet.

“Yes,  ma’am. I do,” she responded.

“Then, yes. Yes, you may. There are people at this school, who need to hear that message.”

The conference ended quickly. I seized the teachable moment and said to the poet, “this is the part where you stand up and shake the Principal’s hand and say thank you.” We giggled—all three of us—at my insistence on protocol.

Of course the poet soared; she took the proffered hand. She even reached out to the secretary who turned, with tears in her eyes to praise the poet, as we exited.

Slice #8
As the glass door swung closed behind us, I whispered, “wait, wait until we turn the corner.” Eyes wide, heads up, we walked with a purpose away from the Principal’s office.

When we turned the corner—high fives and happy dances,  all the way down the hallway. Sweet!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bright Futures: Slice 7

This post is #7 of 31 slices for the Slice of Life Story Challenge sponsored by Two Writing Teachers

Now that's a mohawk!
When I look around as I stand at my doorway in between classes I can't help but wonder about the future. Kids' futures, the community's future, where is all of this going? I'm sure, in some part of myself, that the kids with the spiked mohawk who'd decked out in dog chains is just going through a phase--that phase of figuring out what and how you fit. He may well wind up on Wall street, all business and boardrooms. I wouldn't be surprised. 

Click the book to check out
Sara's website.
Have you ever wondered what your students will do when they grow up? What will their real lives be like?

What will Lillian be like at 40? Will she have children? a job? Will she be a soccer mom or an engineer? She's sitting doe-eyed in front of me,14--what does her future hold?

I wish I had Sara Holbrook's "Whooping It Up at the MTV Saloon" with me at home so that I could send a line or two your way. The poem begins with a stern look at those "teenagers" and then the speaker in the poem sits back in awe as the child takes wing and flies. It's in Isn't She Ladylike--a collection of poems of rare range and reach. I've had the sort of day that makes me want to grab that poem in my fist and shake it. I've had the sort of day that makes me want look to the amazing heights to which many of my kids will soar-- instead of looking of down to see where a few have so recently fallen.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I Wonder

I wonder what the world would be like if we could just be "a little kinder." I wonder how I can get my students reading like my son does. I wonder if my students have books at home or parents who read or people in their lives (other than me) that are excited about books. I wonder...

I lost Wonder recently. I'd read the book and promised it to my son next, but when he was ready to read it we couldn't find it anywhere. We both figured I'd taken it to school. So I looked in all of the book stacks and bins in the classroom and couldn't find it anywhere.

Click the book to visit R. J. Palacio's
website and see the book trailer!
At dinner last night after reading Stacey's Wonder post on Two Writing Teachers, I realized that just maybe I'd put it my son's to-be-read pile.

Wouldn't you know, that is exactly where I'd put it.

Wonder found!

Even more remarkable to me was what my son said next, "I'm almost done with Vladimir Todd- I can probably start it tonight!"

What? Didn't I just send that Vladimir Todd book to his iTouch? I said something to that effect aloud.

"What?" he replied,  "It's only 182 pages!"

Oh my. I wonder how we will keep him in books and get him through middle school reading-passion intact.

I wonder.

Find more from fellow slicers:
Kevin Hodgson,  Tears from Wonder
Katherine Sokolowski on Read, Write and Reflect

Monday, March 5, 2012

Good Morning Sunshine! Slice 5 of 31

"That was you? At 5 something this morning? That was you who woke me up by posting to the Ning?! Acck! Miss..."

Yes, I wake up early. Often, after a little Bible study,  I cozy up to my laptop with a cup of coffee and get something done. This morning that something was posting a few links to a discussion board in our class Ning for students in my English I Honors classes. I wanted to get the resources on the board, so that we could work with them later in the week.

"Oops. Did I wake you?"

"Yes! At some dark-o'clock in the morning!" my student complained.

Inside, I'm a bit giggly. I try to apologize, but I say it with a smile. I don't think she believes me.

Really, I'm tickled. Delighted even,  that the student is a member of our group on the Ning and that she has connected her cell phone to our Ning network, so that she receives text updates when anyone posts to the group. That's what I call taking advantage of the tools and using them to your advantage.

You can tell by the screen shot of the group that only 14 students (of 35 in 2 honors sections) actual belong to the group. Even then, many of the students have yet to personalized their profiles or spent time developing their presence on Bear English (our Ning name) as evidenced by the generic bear avatars in the members section.

Now if I could just get every student to join the group and sync updates to their phones. I wonder why they don't? .

Sunday, March 4, 2012

iTeach: Reflecting on Florida's New Teacher Evaluation System

Midnight is around the corner. My lower back is complaining about the computer chair.  I'm determined to finish the work before I go to bed. I'm remembering Wednesday night.

The work this starry night is a pre-observation conference form for my first formal evaluation using Florida's new system. I wanted to show you what the pre-conference form looks like, so I printed it as a PDF from the website to give you a clear idea . I wrote long; I wanted to be thorough. Just skim it. Though you can see the links to my attachments, you can't click on them from the Scribd document.

Pre-conf From Web

It looks a lot like National Board writing doesn't it? It felt like writing for National Boards--something I've done twice now. Once to certify and once to renew my certificate.

To win Race to the Top funds Florida had to revamp teacher evaluation. The state contracted with Robert Marzano's research lab and is using iObservation. We are ranked as "innovating, applying, developing and beginning." The learning is curve is steep, but this is the landscape. There is real value in what the iObservation system demands: responsive, goal-directed teaching is but one of the valuable take-aways. Sometimes, however, the new process--because it so much to take in at once and because implementation is accelerated and immediate--feels like a sink or swim survival exercise.

Administrators first told teachers that no one would rank at the top tier. "Innovating is rare. Innovating is maybe 2% of any given population." At the beginning of the year teachers were told that no one would be scored as "innovating." No one? As we've all learned a few teachers here and there are scoring innovating on a few of the 41 elements assessed for design question 1. I can't go into the set-up in this post, but  to explain quickly we're assessed across 4 domains; within the domains are several design questions; within each design question are elements or as Marzano says:

Domain 1 is based on the Art and Science of Teaching Framework and identifies the 41 elements or instructional categories that happen in the classroom. The 41 instructional categories are organized into 9 Design Questions (DQ) and further grouped into 3 Lesson Segments to define the Observation and Feedback Protocol. Copyright Robert J. Marzano
I want to achieve that top tier--in Domain 1 Classroom Strategies and Behaviors. I want to demonstrate that I think on my feet, respond to students' needs, integrate technology and differentiate instruction in innovating ways. Innovating does not mean that I know everything or that I'm 100% spot-on 100% of the time, but, to me, it means I am pioneer in my classroom, a leader, a change-agent for learning, a curriculum evangelist and an excellent teacher. I think I am, but will my students' standardized test scores say that I am? That of course is the crux of the new system.

Our new evaluation model is a 60-40 proposition this year. Sixty percent of my evaluative score will be data gathered from administrators formal and informal observations using the iObservation system from Learning Sciences International (Marzano, Daniels and Reeves). For formal observations (of which I have 1 per year based on my continuing contract status as a 19 year teacher), teachers complete a pre-conference write up, meet with their assessing administrator, do the lesson, complete a post-conference write up and meet again with the assessing administrator. Monday is my post-observation conference, so I've been working on my lesson reflection this afternoon.

Forty percent of my evaluation for the year will come from students' test scores. Teachers were told that "the State" is using a regression model to create predicted scores for schools and targeted student populations. If the predicted scores are lower than our school or students' actual scores, we win. We will have "added value" to the students academic year. If scores come in below predictions, we lose and teachers (along with administrators, guidance counselors, media specialists and other supporting faculty) will be labeled ineffective. Here's the language of the law:

"Specifically, the rules shall establish a student learning growth standard that if not met will result in the employee receiving an unsatisfactory performance evaluation rating. In like manner, the rules shall establish a student learning growth standard that must be met in order for an employee to receive a highly effective rating and a student learning growth standard that must be met in order for an employee to receive an effective rating." Florida Statutes 1012.34 Personnel evaluation procedures and criteria
I finished my post observation reflection--though it's not as thorough as I might like it to be. I didn't attach as much evidence (photos or documents) to it as I did the pre-conference piece. You can see it here also from Scribd.

One thing that stands out post-lesson is how allowed me to poll students using the exit slip and gather the results. I love how Socrative (unlike Poll Everywhere) will email me an Excel spreadsheet of the results. Here's just a clip from the file. I'm starting with students' questions on Monday as we continue to draft our position papers.

We'll see what my administrator and I talk about during my conference tomorrow. I know we have to discuss the actual lesson, but they he will also touch on domain 3 (planning) and domain 4 (collegiality and professionalism). This is my first run around this course. I'm sure it's going to be a long race.

See you Monday!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Run On Zaryn: 3 of 31

From the after-race photo booth.
Neon green. That was the shirt color for today's 5K walk, run and roll at my school. The race establishes a scholarship in Zaryn Hennigan's name--Zaryn passed away this fall. His family (Mom, Dad and grandfather) are on the faculty at Cypress. Faculty, family, sometimes the line blurs and this morning was one of those times. Students, teachers, deans, and even the principal participated. I'd never done a 5K before so I anticipated coming in dead last. Much to my surprise, I didn't. I loved it: lots of joy this morning. Here's what made my first 5K awesome:

  • The turnout: there were more than 100 people who participated and many, many more volunteers.
  • The sea of green shirts
  • No one cared what you looked like; roll-out-of-bed hair, plain face was the order of the morning for most.
  • The fact that walk, run or roll was an expectation from the start. I didn't feel badly about being pokey.
  • The yells of encouragement all along the way--from administrators, teachers, volunteers and students. 
  • The water stations--manned by student volunteers in the Leo club who came early on a Saturday to set up, direct foot traffic, provide water and encouragement.
  • The cheers: hearing "Come on, Ms. Spillane!" from current and former (seriously, that made my week).
  • My son and I did it together--he rode his bike with our good family friend (his pretend sister), Hope.
  • The opportunity to focus and be quiet inside but still be surrounded by support--I realized that much of time we walk or run alone (in our classrooms, in our personal lives, etc)  and in order to finish the race set before us, we have to pull up something deep inside ourselves and make it matter. 
  • My friend, Beth who  teaches with me,  walked and ran with me and for all of the other teacher friends who shouted encouragement.
  • My friend ,Erin who also teaches with me. She's a runner and halved my time at least, (she should she's probably half my age too!) but when she saw me come into the stadium for the final lap, she ran out on the track and said "it's no fun to finish alone, so I'm going to do it with you." Amazing.

And Zaryn, what a legacy of love you have left us with. Peace be with your Cypress family.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Click, Clack, Quiz

Click, Clack, Quiz

Click, clack, click, click. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Key boards in action. The keyboards in my classroom make quite a noise. I’m a pounder myself, so I don’t mind it the productive clatter of keys on the keyboard. Today in class, students are demonstrating their understanding of recent readings and of vocabulary we’ve studied.  In plain language, they’re taking a quiz.
My vocabulary quizzes are short answer, usually written out. This year half of the words I’ve chosen for word study are words from Latin/Greek roots. I created a playlist of vocabulary words, Root Mix found here (each group of words is organized by song) .  We  build a context around the words as we study them. That means that I make explicit connections between the words, what we’re reading and what we’re writing.
Students have choices in terms of the practice they do to learn the words: traditional or tech-based. They print their practice or do it in their journals (unless it’s a video) and use it during the assessment until I see that don’t need that support. All but one of my first period students is quizzing “off book” or without the support of their journal. 
As I was writing today’s agenda on the classroom’s common board, one of my students asked if we were taking the quiz on the computer. She was referring to Socrative, an online student response tool we’ve recently begun using. “I like it on the computer better,” she said.
Hmmm. “I suppose I could put it up on Socrative while you review for bell work. Would you like that option—to quiz on paper or online?”
“Yes, please.”
So, I did. On the spot, I differentiated. Students access  the quiz on student computers (there are 6 in the room) or from their cell phones. Students can clear the quiz from the computers or devices and share tools or choose to write out the quiz on paper.
I gave students the option of taking the quiz on paper or online. For kids with dysgraphia, using the computer or cell phone to type/text responses to the quiz questions is a can-do support. I can do that.

Why didn’t I think of that earlier?