Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Inquiring Minds

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the 
christening of all children, I would ask that her gift 
to each child in the world be a sense of wonder 
so indestructible that it would last throughout life.
- Rachel Carson

Inquiring minds want to know. Inquiring minds question. They wonder and are curious. Such minds seek patterns and aim to make sense of the world around them. Inquiring minds learn continuously.


All of us have minds made for inquiry. One visit to a pre-school group will confirm such a claim. We are born curious. It is through observation and exploration and discovery that we learn. We began our learning lives that way and if we are lucky such learning ignites our passions and interests in ways that engage us our entire lives.

This week at Singapore American School,  authors, Kath Murdoch and Trevor Mackenzie are working with teachers around inquiry. Their books are new to me, so I've been playing catch up with my professional reading--modeling reading during independent reading time in class and continuing my own learning reading and thinking at home. They are working here at school to deepen inquiry practices across campus.

In the two sessions I sat in on, Trevor Mackenzie, discussed stages of inquiry (structured, controlled, guided, and free) as well as how teachers' current practices can act as scaffolds to inquiry later in the school year.

Today I am thinking a lot about those scaffolds. How do my current practices structure opportunities for student agency? How do I give students voice and choice everyday in the classroom? What language do I use or can I use that will help kids develop inquiry mindsets as Murdoch says?

Today in Catalyst class [Catalyst is a semester long inquiry course where students delve into an interest--the course takes them or gives them space to create from pitch to product to presentation.] a student was working on an idea around putting on a course for young children on financial topics.

He had completed a self-assessment of his strengths and interests and he was working on what the course developers call a "Squid diagram." This thinking tool aims to get students to flesh out the who, what, where, when, how much, how and so what of an idea. The student had drawn a squid diagram on the whiteboard wall and he called me over to review it.

"So, talk me through your idea," I said to him.

"Well, essentially, I want to share information about finance with kids... uh, you know like create a syllabus of things I could teach to kids. I'm not sure what age, and I'm thinking of all of these finance topics, " he gestured to his diagram.

I borrowed his marker and wrote on the wall's edge: so what? for whom? how?  "Can you tell me a little more about these ideas: so what? for whom? and how?"

He reviewed his "for kids" whom and the importance of financial literacy and his interest in finance and then a bit of magic happened. When he looked at the how, he pointed at the word "syllabus" he'd jotted in his diagram and he replaced it with "course."

"Ah, a course, so how would you deliver that content? what would that include?" I asked.

From there came more ideas: video, an age-appropriate book, course handouts or modules kids could use to learn. He gestured to those ideas, I'd scribed for him and said, "ah, that can move over here... " to grow the "what" and "how" of what he wants to accomplish.

In another part of the room a student was working out several ideas. She was considering large topics: personal defense, the environment, ceramics and tolerance.  They seem so disparate at first glance don't they? I asked her, "where do they intersect?"

She drew a four-circle, Venn diagram showing the overlaps. I offered an example: ceramic water filters that people carry during trail hikes or when wilderness camping.

That example did stretch the tolerance aspect of her interests in a direction that may not have been true to her first thoughts (I was modeling on the fly). She understood my thinking  and started to brainstorm possible intersections. Another boy wandered by and asked us what we were doing.

"Thinking. Trying to figure out an idea," she answered.

"We're looking at the intersections of her interests," I said.

He looked down at her table drawing, pointed to the overlapping center of the four circles and said, "It would be really cool to design a project that would fit right in there."

Wouldn't it?

In sharing one of those moments during Trevor Mackenzie's session this afternoon, he suggested that, that moment with the how? and so what? questions would have been a moment when he stopped the class for a mini-lesson. He said he would have shared the student's thinking and ah-ha around the question stems in order to demonstrate for students how to think about their topics in generative ways in order to focus on a viable product (to use Catalyst  language) or a unit of study or idea (to use Mackenzie's words).

I can see where stopping the class and sharing that moment could work. It would not have worked mid-class in that Catalyst class period though. My co-teacher and I had 38 students spread across several spaces -- some not in shouting distance. Context matters. We had a good chat about how I could use that moment next class to focus on students' individual ideas and the work ahead. Work flow and routines matter too and I am reminded once again of the beauty of the infinite. There are an infinite number of ways to learn and to organize or support learning.

What resonates with me right now is how I can shift my practice. How can I use the language kids need to internalize the thinking long before they will use it on their own? How can I create  instructional routines-- that sort of mini-lesson ah-ha share out --on a regular basis to teach kids the transferable thinking skills they need as they approach independence as impassioned learners?  How do you establish that sort of routine? What sort of remembering (or anecdotal note-taking) would the teacher need to do in order to insert this into the work cycle of the class?

I love thinking about the possibilities. After all, like Emily D., I dwell there.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Unsettled Meet Grace

It is day eight of the new school year. I am still trying to get my feet under me when it comes to the new schedule, new PLCs, new buildings, new routines, a new common language and new to me ways of talking about the standards. All of my classroom things are in new places, new cupboards and new drawers. There is a new sequence to connect the projector and document camera, new Apple TV and new AirPlay mirroring. There are new log ins and new learning management tools, new teachers and new kids too.

New has high expectations. Whew.

It is easy to get overwhelmed at the start of a new school year. At Singapore American School in the days leading up to our start, leaders surprised me by talking about grace. Give each other, give your families, give your students, give yourselves, give a little grace as you face the demands of getting a new year going.

Grace takes a breath.

Grace assumes positive intent.  Grace gives us permission to fail or forget or forge ahead. Grace helps us to try again, to keep going, to work the tasks, one manageable piece at a time. Grace knows we will get to that sweet spot in the fall where routines take hold and you know all of the students' names and you know where you're going and who's on your team.

Though we are on day eight, I have seen my freshmen just three times, so in many ways it still feels like the first week of school. I am still getting routines in place. We set up our journals: academic and reading/writing. We started class with independent reading. We shared a word of the day. We wrote to each other.

Sentence completions and Dear Ms. S letters connect me to kids from day one. Love the reading and
writing strengths I see in their letters to me already! 

Familiar routines. Feels good.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Who Do You See?

Thanks to the team at Two Writing Teachers for linking us up and creating a community in which to write.  I learn so much about writing (and teaching) by writing with this community. 

SAS runs on a rotating block schedule. We have A day and B day and C and D day. The mornings are soft starts with planning time (for teachers or PLC groups) and flex (free) time or Advisory for kids. Tuesday was our second first day of school.

While I want to write about the schedule and the school and the Welcome Back dinner. While I want to write about the army of folks--from security to landscaping to maintenance to food service-- care taking the day to day operations. I want to write about the futuristic Pathways -- learning spaces that are open flexible and mobile. While I want to write about PLCs or the grading policy, today, I’m a selfish writer. I want to hold this shiny moment at my new school and just let it sparkle.  In the challenge that is relocating to  new country and a new school, this moment made me feel ever so connected to the people I call home.

I was standing in the hallway during passing time with teacher and writer, Josh Curnett-- he teaches ninth grade and AP Language across the hall from me. Supportive and transparent, Josh has shared curriculum and tips and how tos with me since last April. I landed knowing I would learn a lot from him based on his chapter in  Global Perspectives. Here’s is just a moment from a day that sparkled with rain showers.

Josh: “You know Penny Kittles’ work?”

Me: grinning, “I do! I would consider her my friend. Well, you know, I know her from her work and from NCTE and ...”

Josh: “Your teaching reminds me of her.”

Me: “Wow! That is … I am friends with Penny Kittle. Well, not friends, friends, but I’ve skyped into her UNH class a few times to talk about my notebook and we’ve corresponded or emailed..”

I hear myself babbling, so I close my mouth and I fall into Penny memories from NCTE: introducing myself to her after reviewing, The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching, for California English . Emailing her pages from my notebook after sitting across from her at Middle Mosaic, skyping with her UNH summer students about my notebooks, resting in her Book Love words… she is one of the folks I walk with into my classroom each year.

Josh: “All those New Hamsphire folks, Penny Kittle, Linda Rief, …  what you’re doing reminds me of…”

Me: “Really?” I shift from one foot to another then snake one foot up behind a calf. I tell him I once spent a spring break in Linda’s classroom.” An think how formative that event was in terms of my learning and practice.  

He’s standing stoically at his blue door, nodding to kids as the come down the hall. His feet are hip width apart, solid, an athletic stance.

Josh nods, “Yeah.”

Josh: “You know Donalyn Miller?”

Me: “I do.  Yesterday was her birthday!  I see Donalyn at NCTE and ALAN conferences each year… yes, The Book Whisperer? Reading in the Wild? You know her work? ”

Josh: “Yes. Yes. You remind me of her too.”

My mind goes to NCTE last year, a group dinner out. Then my imagination skips to the long banquet table set up of the ALAN conference. I see book stacks and sleep brown hair and a crisp blouse. I  I see Donalyn engaging my son, Collin, in conversation about books and high school. She leans in and he does too, nodding, listening, talking. When I walk up we talk about our children, her daughter in an IB program in Texas and my own difficulties as a teacher-mom. She tunes in to readers, to teachers, to kids -- her spirit opens and she shares.  I love catching those moments when her book spell weaves its way around Collin’s reading life (or mine).

Me:  “Really?

Josh: “Yeah. I see them in what you are doing.”


Josh’s compliment will resonate with me for a long time.  This is a pink stone moment for me because you know, we teachers. We work hard. Teaching is challenging work and there are times and places where people don't really see us. They may not know us or understand us or be members of our tribe. Josh's compliment felt like it came from a place of knowing, of paying attention, and of intention too. His kind words may even set the tone for my year--what powerful words!  What a label full of portent and positive possibilities he gave me and my teaching today.

He also made me think about how I am with educators. Do I spot peoples' strengths? Do I name their talents? Does what I say build others up? Am I that intentional in how I talk with teachers about their practice? Am I that affirming of others?

I need to go back to Choice Words and revisit Peter Johnston. I am going to learn a lot from Mr. Curnett this year. How lucky am I to have him right across the hall?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Share Your Why in PLCs

It's hard to say what I've appreciated the most about my new school's on boarding process: the settling in week at a beautiful hotel, the new teacher introduction to Singapore American School week or the vulnerable and honest communication from administrators and PLC team members as we get started planning the work of the first weeks of school this week. It's the start of  week three, pre-planning for the whole faculty. We've had two days of speeches and meetings and today we have a break for Singapore's National Day. It's a national holiday here, so schools and many businesses are closed. I am grateful for the time to take in and process what I've learned so far. Topping that list is working in teams and  PLCs.

Singapore American School is tight on PLCs. Teachers meet weekly, on Wednesdays and Fridays, in two different PLC groups. Yesterday we talked about PLC culture and expections. We played PLC Chutes and Ladders and discussed several toxic PLC scenarios that were achingly familiar.

(Chutes image, rogue slide)

I am in the ninth grade English PLC and in the Catalyst PLC. More on Catalyst later. In essence it is kid-driven inquiry that is literalky out of this world in some cases. Last year kids designed an experiment, sent it to THE space station, astronauts ran it and beamed the data back. I will co-teach one section of Catalyst the first semester.
My PLCs are high functioning and healthy. And one reason that must be is because administrators have modeled and modeled so much of what teachers are expected to do.

For example, start with story. Build relationships. That began at the aurport upon arrival and continues. Here's a snapshot of stories shared around the table of incoming high school teachers. You know who shared his why and how first? The principal. You know who shared second and third? The deputy principals. Then each new teacher shared.

(Story notes image)

 That relationship building continued in PLCs this week. Each began with members telling stories about theirnexperiences. We thought about questions such as: How did you get here? Why do you teach? We told our stories. With each telling we learned something new about each other. That bond building took much of our first ninety minute meeting. Men and women around the table spoke from vulnerable places and we affirmed and listened and connected, some cried.

Affect, emotional weight matters to memory and meaning making. That resonates with me this week.

Monday is coming. Kids will arrive. I know my room will be ready. But it isn't yet. I know I will have syllabi for my three courses posted and a stable log in and name games and a plan. But those things are not firmly in place yet.  The PLCs here have course materials that have been developed across years. Courses have institional memory and longevity here.

The principal said recently that the PLC process can be tough for teachers who come here at the top if their game. It can be tough because this is absolutely not a "do whatever you want" sort of school.  PLCs work togetjer to plan, create, assess, analyze and decide on next teaching mives. The intervene and extend when it comes to learning too. When teachers are told their grading categories must match in the digital grade book- they must. Instructional decisions are made by PLCs as a group that is a hard (tight) expectation and administrators are clear about that even before you are hired. If you go rogue, you go home.

There is tremendous innovation here in PLCs and across the campus in a myriad of ways. I am honored to be a part of it. I know I will learn a lot from the established curricula, and I love that this school and these people speak my language around topics like independent reading, assessment and grading. #This is Singapore day sixteen.

[I am working in my cell phone without WiFi and will have to upload pictures later. Post in orogress.]

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Day 10

It’s near dawn, day ten in Singapore. Tonight will be our last night in the hotel.this afternoon we will do a final walk thru of the condo we chose last week. Workers have been busy painting. Instead of dark red walls and an orange ceiling, it is now a fresh white.

Elvis will have left the building. By this tomorrow my husband will have left the country. He is headed back to Florida and Walt Disney World. He will enjoy a Singapore vacation home in October when we will next see him.

Tomorrow we will transition out of the hotel and into new home. We will have more clothes than closets and more books than shelves. We will have two beds and two dressers and mismatched service for twelve.

Today we have new teacher orientation. I will learn power school and admire the cabinetry of my classroom.i will anticipate the magic and envision unpacking the classroom library.

I will finish reading the student handbook and meet with the guidance counselor to support Collin as he chooses classes. Today I will pick up the laundry and get coffee from the cafeteria, complete my medical screening and have a chest x-ray. I will meet my agent and sign a lease and pay a comission and take two cans. I will listen and sketch and take notes and imagine the new school year today too.

Tomorrow we will walk home from school to our happy gate and begin again this new life in Singapore.