Saturday, January 31, 2015

The BIG Weekend

the most reflected-upon collage, ever.
I know, you're thinking what everyone else is thinking, "The BIG Weekend" must mean that Susan is counting the hours until kickoff Sunday night.  

Aside from my marginal fascination with the new commercials, and maybe the mystery of Katy Perry's surprise collaborators, you could not be more wrong about my interest in the Superbowl.

The BIG Weekend, the new news, is that the TDO (Talent Development Opportunity) proposals are rolling in.  I can't even begin to imagine what my students dream up for the Themes in Literature version of Genius Hour.  Many of the projects are things that I've never even heard of, and some of them are the beginning of something that you'll see on the internet, stage, or billboards.  Yes, we're always looking for an authentic audience type of project, and the real focus is about the metacognitive process of reflection on the journey through the 18 week project.

It truly is my favorite time of the semester!

The very last Te@chtought Challenge for January:

Share about a time that you experienced the joy of learning with your students.

yes, she MADE that architectural model.
When my learners conceive their original plans, they are required to write a proposal, supporting their plans with appropriate NAGC standards, and outlining the specifics.  I have to admit, I frequently Google the information in some of the proposals, trying to wrap my head around what they are trying to do.  This semester is proving to be no exception.

The interesting thing about Themes in Lit. is that every semester there are students who have taken the course before (focusing on a different theme), and others who have no clue what they're in for.  As the semesters have passed, we've revised the process together, and there is a greater understanding that their individual projects are great, but they are collectively working to focus on reflection, habits of mind, and metacognitive strategies.  The new learners are overwhelmed.  The veterans are excited to expand on a previous project, come up with something completely new, or are motivated by something done by a classmate.

I've read the proposals (which aren't technically due until Monday), that have hit my googledrive up to this point.  There are tons of amazing ideas.  There is always one giant standout proposal:

While within Mrs. Heydt’s room,
A theory did I steal,
From Bryce, the mighty Wizard,
A quest of highest zeal.

This quest is rather bookish
(Read Ulysses shall I not),
But write instead some stories,
‘Cause that’s ‘bout all I got.

I want to ‘cause I want to,
not because I must
I shall become a poet,
out of choice, never thrust.

Wait, I lied, go back again.
That just now were but a lie
I shalln't write in verse so much,
I’d rather truly die.

Now my final statement,
short stories will I pen,
And if I’m extra eager,
I’ll write a poem again.

So Quoth the Raven. 

(J. H.  - Senior)

It's going to be a great final semester.  Stay tuned for photos, stories, and, maybe, another poem.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sorta like sand?


 The Te@chthought Blog Challenge for today:

Is ‘grit’ a valid noun?

If you search Amazon these days with GRIT as your keyword, you'll find more than a few offerings dealing with perseverance,  character, resilience, and success.  Oh, and one bag of chicken feed, aka GRIT.    As you continue to scroll past the "How to Teach Grit" , "How to Parent Grit" , "How to Flourish After Learning Grit", and the bag of chicken feed GRIT, the next suggestion is, you guessed it, Mindset, by Carol Dweck. 

There are a few words in the English language that cause a sort of weird distaste in my mouth -- and GRIT is one of them.  Don't get me wrong, I don't disagree with the idea of a growth mindset.  Heck, I've written about it more than once in the last 6 months on this very blog.  Grit makes me think, gritty, and I sort of flash back to riding in the back of a Plymouth in the sixties on vinyl seats, after a day at the beach, still wearing a damp and sandy swimsuit.  Yeah, that's what grit says to my psyche.  

I knew this prompt was coming, as I had scanned the list when it was first posted in December.  I was already tasting authentic sandy balogna sandwiches (get it?) and thinking about the Plymouth in July.  And not with fond memories, necessarily, given those two connections.  So imagine my surprise when Facebook surfing when I discovered this status from a friend:

(Daughter's Name) , ice skating for the first time, having fallen for the 800th time, tears streaming down her face, surprisingly cheerful: I'm successfully failing!!!
(Parents may or may not have read that book about grit.)

Suddenly, my gritty flashback went from the beach to the ice.   I learned to ice skate after a family friend, who also happened to be a Catholic priest, took the family to the ice rink and taught us.  We skated a lot with him, and thinking back, I wonder why I didn't think it was a weird activity.  But all that retrospection distracted me from the post above, and suddenly GRIT became a different memory.

Is GRIT valid?  My sandy buns on vinyl seats have brush burns that say so.  Every kid on wobbly skates falling for the 800th time without tears is proof.  That little discomfort, that bum-on-the-ice while watching someone else spinning the perfect Hamel-Camel, or the discomfort of sand that keeps you squirming on the vinyl seat, is exactly what every kid needs to be motivated to continue.

And while I'm not sure what book was read (or not read) by the ice skater's parents, it certainly seems that it should rank high on the Amazon list as required parental reading.  Imagine if adversity were treated by every learner as something to be celebrated as a success? 

So check out GRIT in your neighborhood bookstore, or elsewhere.  I'm pretty sure the value of Grit is pretty significant, and something that should be owned.  (Making it a noun that seems significantly more valuable than than that aforementioned bag of chicken feed.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


This has been a busy week.  Nearly every day has ended in an evening with plans of varying importance, with very little time at home.  Tonight was no exception, but tonight was so very needed, and so very, very worth trying to cram three weeks worth of stories of triumphs and frustrations  into 2 1/2 hours -- because it's been at least that long since Liz and I have been able to connect and talk.

We met at our favorite coffee house, grabbed really good sandwiches and chai, and the next thing I knew, I was worrying that the quarter I'd put in the meter, convinced that 2 hours was plenty of time, might have resulted in a parking ticket.  It was 8:05.  I'd arrived at 5:20.   

The Te@chthought Blog Challenge for today:
What is one thing you wish you’d known when you first started teaching, and explain how you do it now.

How lovely that at the end of a very long day, on the cusp of the arrival of the end of a very long week, speckled with talks of blizzards and snow days, but actually punctuated with snow delays which only serve to shorten classes into fractured measures of time that in no way equal the plans for each day, the prompt is something so clean and easy. 

When I first started teaching, I arrived a few minutes prior to the start of the school day.  On a really good day, I might be as much as 20 minutes early.  Given that my own children were also in school, and required transportation to hockey games, band practices, dance lessons, and a variety of other chauffer commitments,  I usually left school as close to the official end of the day as possible, dragging a school bag that rolled behind me that looked like I might have been heading to the overseas terminal at the airport.  I'd say hello and goodbye to colleagues as I wheeled past their rooms, and got to know the ones who ate lunch with me at the same time every day that I was in their building, but I was teaching in the vacuum known as Giftedland, and there were few interactions or co-teaching opportunities in those early years.

Oh, how I wish I had realized the importance of connecting with others in the profession.  Collaborate, plan, design, dream, talk about common philosophies, passions, interests....  I didn't think I needed to do that, because it wasn't defined as necessary, and the district had assigned me a mentor to provide all the knowledge I needed to succeed.

Fast forward to today.  Education has changed, my rolling suitcase is now a backpack, both to save sanity and time, and my connections with my colleagues extends far beyond the English wing to other departments, other districts, and other continents.  Who would have known that talking to Bainbridge Island or Sacramento, California would give me the perfect activating strategy for a lesson this week?  Or that I'd be tweeting with someone in China about Project Based Learning?  Or that dinner with a former colleague, and forever friend would give me the assurances and renewed strength to face Friday head on.

It may seem like a perfect fairytale, or, (go ahead, indulge me -- the chai was wonderful) folklore.  But I can honestly say that this year, my sixteenth in this position, is the best year of my career.  I love my job, even though it overwhelms me on a daily basis.

I get by with a little help from my friends.  My World Wide Friends.  And more than a few here at home.  

New teachers, take time to grab a hot beverage, don't roll that cart past a room.  Know your colleagues, love them, and support them.  You'll be astounded at the reaping from that sowing.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What's the Point? Tupperware?

The invitation came via Facebook and Email.  A Tupperware Party!  With homemade apple crumb pie!  Sarah's a dear friend, and I have ancient Tupperware in need of replacement lids, for after more than a quarter century, the lids were cracked and torn.  And, after all, Tupperware is guaranteed for life.  

I've done the Tuppeeware thing for more than a few decades,  but this saleswoman knew her stuff.  I'm pretty sure the hostess purchased an oval modularmate to use as a burial urn for her husband.  I saw her measuring the mantle to make sure it fit.  It was a lot of fun, with many laughs, points tossed out like beads at Mardi Gras, that seemed to be as valuable as the ones Drew Carey awards on "Whose Line is it Anyway?"

Okay, I really went for the pie.

Today's Te@chthought Blog Challenge prompt of the day:  

How do you incorporate STEAM into your teaching? (Countries not using STEAM, feel free to reflect on Inquiry Learning and Teaching and how we make sure that Science and Tech etc aren't missed out).

So here's the deal.  It's nearly ten pm.  I've been home for less than an hour today, and bought more Tupperware than I probably needed.  But it's guaranteed for life, and the engineering behind this stuff is pretty darned impressive.  Tupperware has been around for 40 years.  (That piece of knowledge is worth 20 points.)  Oh, and bringing your husband to said party is worth, you guessed it, 20 points.  The thing about Tupperware is that in order to stay competitive, they've done a lot to reinvent themselves.  

Forty years ago, microwaves weren't used for much more than reheating - and a whole lot of people were suspicious of this new-fangled thing that might actually emit radiation that would make you glow.  Men "assumed the position" when cooking and standing near the humming contraption, doing their best to protect themselves, and their potentially future offspring.  Now, the featured item is something that goes from the space-engineered hot/cold bag with the multiple zippers that contain plastic cooking dishes that go from freezer to 485 degree oven.  (That information, I suspect, is worth 20 points as well.)

My husband volunteered to go to the party with me.  The motivation behind that gesture is still suspect.  Although I think he had more fun than he thought he would, he may not venture back to the land of burping seals for a very long time.  But he made the effort.

So how does engineering relate to Tupperware, men at Tupperware parties, and teaching?

Clearly you aren't thinking hard enough to make the quality connections.  

The same is true of our young females, who avoid our STEM (or STEAM) labs, or Technology Education teachers, and college recruiters in search of estrogen-enhanced brains to balance the overindulgence of testosterone in the STEM classrooms in colleges today.  

In my world, we work to try to identify the strengths of gifted kids and find challenges for them.  STEM interested kids are easy to enrich -- and when they're gifted FEMALE kids, it's even easier.

There are dozens of competitions, but a few that I've been involved with in the last few years include:

The biggest takeaway for me from all of this, aside from the fact that if you had told me yesterday that I would spend my evening at a Tupperware Party with my husband after he volunteered to accompany me I would have made some sort of snowball in hell comment worthy of etching on a calendar somewhere, is that the best thing any teacher can do is communicate and collaborate with people in departments other than their own.

There are art competitions, science competitions, technology competitions, robotics, and so many others that engage students in learning.  Many of them are Project Based Learning, in style, which has an added bonus, in my opinion.  Suggesting, working with, guiding, directing, or otherwise engaging students in attempting the research or competition necessary is often easier when there is an authentic audience to motivate the outcome.

Who knows?  Maybe it's points (doled out 20 at a time) or the idea of an authentic audience, or just the fact that those girls get to see the inner sanctum of the male equivalent of a Tupperware party in that Tech Ed lab.  Whatever it is, its up to us as teachers to find the motivation, collaborate with each other, and offer unique opportunities so that our world can continue to be filled with technology.

Some of which burps, goes from freezer to microwave, and causes people to bake apple crumb pie on a Wednesday to laugh with friends.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A is for Apple

What does a five month old apple look like?

L - F - S.
Those letters cause some in my district to groan, or worse.
For those who aren't LFS literate, the acronym stands for Learning Focused Schools.  
I'm sure you're thinking, "well, duh... isn't EVERY school supposed to be a Learning Focused School?"  Of course the answer is affirmative.  Especially if you are on the board of directors for the LFS conglomerate.
  • Effective Teaching
  • High Expectations
  • Support All Students
  • Continuous Improvement
 Solid goals, to be sure.  Bottom line, it's good teaching strategies, sold in a professional development package to districts, with accompanying data to support the cost of the program.

Don't get me wrong.  A lot of the LFS training is very good.  Much of it causes mocking and groans from students.  Oh, and teachers.  Because in a perfect world, it's difficult to "teach to the echo of the bell" and still feel successful when there is an interruption or announcement in the final seconds of class while the "summarizing strategy" is being implemented.

I actually volunteered to go out of state for a week to be trained as an LFS trainer, and was slated to go, until my district realized that the cost would be nearly $10,000.  This was more than six years ago, so I can't even imagine the actual cost today.  (Oh, and none of that cost was going to me, but I still volunteered.)

So what really motivates and engages students?  Sometimes it's strategies that come from the LFS website, handbook, or trainings.  Sometimes it's just plain old good teaching, and the willingness and ability to work on the fly and recognize when a shift in plans is warranted.  

I'm thankful that I work somewhere that recognizes the need for flexibility.

Today's Te@chthought Blog Challenge:  Share what creative and innovative ideas you have done in your classroom to increase student engagement.

 First, a few questions for kids:
  • What are you doing?  
  • Why are you doing it?  
  • Who is going to care enough to see what you've done? 
  • Oh, and what would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?  
  • What would you do if you had no limitations?
Okay.  Go back and re-read those questions.  FOR YOURSELF this time.  (Unless you're a kid, in which case, well, still go back and re-read and think about your answers.)

Hands down, the thought of an authentic audience for any project seems to be the single greatest motivator.  When students are interested and engaged, their enthusiasm is palpable.  And it is most strongly felt and understood by other students.  Above is the apple that I've spoken about before.  In August, the apple was  placed in the bell jar as part of an art study designed by one of my students.  Betsy is an AP art student, and saw the potential for an authentic audience, as she worked through the decay process.

Betsy did some amazing work, but more than her work was the conversation she started.  Students were genuinely interested in the decay process, and in her attempts to convey the decay.  Kids I've never taught were stopping by during homeroom, lunch, or after school to see the fuzzy apple. 

The day the live fly was captured in the jar was actually talked about on social media as a highlight.  Seriously.  A fly.  On a decaying apple.  Tweetworthy.

There really is no one magic technique to increase student engagement, but empowering students to lead their learning through Project Based Learning, or define their own audiences to follow a passion, is certainly a great start.  

Oh, and now, a mini art show.  The subject, The Apple


Monday, January 26, 2015

Thank You For Your Service

The Te@chthought Blog Challenge for today:

Share a time when you learned a very important lesson from one (or more) of your students.

 Our district hosts a Veteran's Day assembly every year on November 11th, and plans for it to end at 11:11 am.  The annual winner of the Voice of Democracy essay is declared, and the essay is read, the marching band plays the national anthem,the chorus sings, including In Flanders' Field, and the front rows, just this once, are not reserved for the seniors, for it is the veterans of the community who fill more than a hundred seats -- many of them dressed in their original uniforms.  

Suffice it to say that this event always makes me cry.   Sure, it's predictable, but it's also emotional.  And, I'm sure, some of that emotion comes from the incredible sense of pride I have for this small town tradition, and the courtesy shown by the students.

Shortly after Halloween, the mini-posters appear.  You know it's serious, when the district prints an announcement on the color printers:  DRESS UP DAY!  November 11th.  (All who do get a free bag of baked chips).  I'm really not sure how significant the bribe of the small bag of baked Doritos is, but the annual distribution is usually somewhere close to 80% of the student body.

I stand in awe of the climate of respect that is developed every year by our principal.  Somehow, the freshmen inherently know  that he means business, and that this is something special.  At the conclusion of the assembly, after having heard a speaker -- sometimes an alumni who has been involved in military service -- two trumpet players play Taps, signalling the end of the experience.  The sounds echo each other, hidden in opposite corners of the auditorium.  The students are dismissed, to leave the auditorium in silence, as a sign of respect.

I was standing in one of the back rows, when a freshman approached me, asking if he could stand with me.  I  must admit, I was suspicious.  At first, I shushed him, as he had violated the silent exit.  The entire student body exited, and the veterans started making their way to the back of the auditorium.  The kid stood, silently, hands clasped in front of his body.   

I was confused.

I whispered to him, inquiring as to what class he was missing.  Surely this was the reason for his unusual behavior.


Just as he whispered the word to me, the first veteran reached his outstretched hand.

"Thank you for your service," he said, looking the elderly serviceman in the eye.

I stood with this young man, tears welling up in my eyes, as he shook the hand of every single veteran who passed by him at the end of the assembly, repeating his thanks to each and every one.

It's the job of every teacher to keep an eye out for kids trying to pull one over.  I am embarrassed to admit that I was suspicious of the intentions of this young man.  Instead, I learned that I will never again wear non-waterproof mascara on November 11th, for I will always remember the sincerity and kindness of Preston - the kid who valued military service over his own lunchtime.

I told the story to the principal, and then I called the young man's mom, leaving a message recounting the story.  Society is in good hands, with this next generation, no matter what some may think.

Sunday, January 25, 2015 wear required uniform.

My district, like many districts, use an electronic gradebook that automatically feeds the grades, work ethic rating (H,S,N,W), and "Teacher Comments", to which I refer with air quotes because there are few comments from which to choose in the pre-determined comments that I would actually use. (I once added "Fails to Wear Required Uniform" for a student with 100% in my class.  Accidentally.  I swear.)  While this is a great system when you're grading a hundred kids, it does make the entire grading process rather numerical or impersonal.

Having said that, I understand that this current system is the one that makes the most sense for all of the teachers involved in the educational process.  One of my dearest friends is a librarian, and has to generate a work ethic and comment for every single child in her school.  The same would apply to the other specialists as well in art, music, and physical education.

Today's Te@chthougt Blog prompt comes from my PLN friend, Michelle Edwards:

How would you choose to report progress out to children and parents? How often?

In addition to the technological advantages and challenges provided to teachers by Powerschool, it also allows instant access to parents and students.  The residents of Giftedland have alerts set to their smartphones, knowing and instantly monitoring, their GPAs.  The same can not be said for the average and below average bears, most of whom choose to live in blissful ignorance of what is due, what is overdue, and what may have been a dismal failure.  Sadly, the students who choose the ostrich posture (and don't write to me -- I know that ostriches don't really bury their heads in the sand, but you get the point...), often have parents who are not as involved in the monitoring process.

In reality, we don't really need reportcards any longer with this constant real time access to classroom performance.  If there were a definitive way to communicate clear and sensible comments to parents through this current system, and know that the parents were actually reading and comprehending the success or failure of their learner, we could save a whole lot of trees.  It would also guarantee that the progress reports that I print and hand to every kid halfway through the marking period is actually delivered instead of turning into crumpled filler in the bottom of the black hole of the backpack.

As far as the "how often", it really depends on the learners involved.  There are some students who will only speak to me after failing an assignment, and they have only one question:  "Can I do that over?"  Our district directs us to answer yes to this question, which has resulted in some students who failed, miserably, to hit the original target, going through some remediation review and then attempting the assessment or assignment again.  (Which is wonderful.)  Unfortunately, it has also resulted in students who fail to ever prepare for exams and tests, figuring they can get a first look at what the tests contain, fail, and then prepare based on the content.  OR students who score 95% or higher requesting another shot at perfection. 

While the first example may seem abhorrent and the second seem obsessive, both result in teachers having to design yet another version of a test, taking time away from the rest of their defined duties, for students who, in my opinion, don't need to be taking the exam for a second time.  (After all, how many of these kids are headed off to college or jobs where they will be automatically given a second chance on every single project or assessment?)

As a TOG (Teacher of the Gifted), my reporting of progress also involves monitoring the progress of my gifted students on their GIEP annual goals and outcomes.  The same data is also gathered several times a marking period by the Special Education teachers, who inquire about performance beyond the average scores.  Is the kid prepared for class?  Is he on time?  Is he focused, or does he need prompting to stay on task?  We share that data on rubrics provided, and the special ed teachers glean and report a comprehensive picture to parents.

I wish I had more time, and the universal latitude, to share more of what my learners produce.  I'd love to update parents on a blog, with pictures and specific examples, of student work.  Privacy restrictions make that a difficult thing to accomplish.  I have taken pictures or videos of student work that was exemplary and shared same with (otherwise unknowing) parents.

Meanwhile, I get to tell parents "Pleasure to have student in class", "Pleasure to work with student", "Fails to complete homework", "Congratulations", "Outstanding", "Right on Track, Keep it Up!", and the never popular "Fails to Wear Required Uniform"Sure there are others, but your eyes are glazing over.  Just like the parents squinting at that right hand column on the report card at the  6 point type. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Climate Change


This lil ole blog thing has taken on a life of its own.  I didn't mean for it to become a snarky retort -- and I don't even mean for it to sound that way when I reference it in what can be misconstrued as a snarky retort -- but it is certainly much more than I thought it ever would be.  Just yesterday, a fellow teacher asked me why it seemed that so many young teachers act like they know it all?

Before I knew it, I heard the dreaded words:  "Don't you read my blog?"  

Those of you who have been reading the spewings from my brain for months know that despite 16 years of gifted education, I feel less like a master teacher every single day.  So much so that this blog is aptly named to reflect any possibility of misnomer.  For more seasoned teachers, the presumption of having gleaned all necessary knowledge at the feet of professors in college and a few stints in classrooms as observers or student teachers is preposterous.  

Yet I can't help but wonder if this new outward optimism and competency is an act being taught, to keep teachers from what would otherwise be an overwhelming pit of despair.

The Te@chthought Blog Challenge for today:

What do you do to help your students learn in a climate of optimism and hope? Do you have a successful strategy you can share? 

We've all heard the warnings:  
  • Don't act scared around a potentially violent animal, for it will, assuredly, sense your fear and make you a target.
  • Nursing mothers should relax and everything will be fine.  (While worrying about the nourishment, nurture, comfort, and very life of their child.  Sure.)
  • Don't run when you're on fire.  (Stop, Drop, and Roll.  Flippy the Clown says so)
 You get the idea.  The very thing that you most instinctively do in any given situation is the exact opposite of what is best.  Certainly the idea of showing anything less than complete competency should not be an option for new teachers staring down two dozen or so students who are just looking for a crack in the armor.  Optimism and hope are the two most difficult emotions to fake, and the two most necessary emotions and environments to cultivate in a classroom. 

So what do I do to foster a climate of optimism and hope? 

  • My room is clearly not mine.  The students in room C 108 know that we are all in it together, and that the room itself conspires against us.  (Take, for example, they lying thermostat that assuredly reports a comfy 68 - 71 degrees from the protected confines of its locked lucite protected shell, while everyone in the room has chattering teeth.)  When kids complain about the temperature, I commiserate -- and offer them a blanket.  There are stacks in the closet, and they know that they are there.  A couple of times a month I drag them home and run them through a sanitize cycle, and haul them back to school.  The message is simple:  it's difficult to learn when you're distracted, and if being warmer makes you more focused, I care enough to make that happen.
  •  Due dates are arbitrary.  As teachers, we have to admit, if only to ourselves, that the due dates we choose for major assignments are usually designed to fall around extended weekends that will allow for marathon grading.  This semester, I'm asking all of my students to be aware of all of the necessary assignments, so that there is a clear understanding of what needs to be accomplished by the end of the year.  If someone realizes that the same week that my big research paper is due coincides with the speech in Spanish, the midterm in math, and the giant art project, then a simple discussion to adjust deadlines is warranted.  But it is up to the students to initiate the conversation and offer a solution.
  • We are a team in the learning process.  Showing respect for each other, for work produced, and for property demonstrates maturity and responsibility.  Once I've seen a level of commitment in my students, they can count on me to be an advocate for them - not just in my room, but beyond.
  • I make phone calls home.  I actually made a mother cry one time when I called to tell her how much I enjoyed the honesty and humor of her son.  Imagine having a child who, for ten straight years, only ever generated negative calls from the school.  She was stunned when I told her that I was calling with an idea for a job shadow for her son.  By the time we got off the phone, I was crying, too.  
Optimism and hope?  Maybe it's taught to new teachers to protect them from admitting to uncertainty.  Maybe it's fostered in the reflections of older teachers who write blogs, or maybe it's cultivated in the relationships between teachers supporting each other in collaborative discussions at lunch or in empty classrooms after school. 

Whatever it is, and wherever it's cultivated, it is clearly the key to surviving the present, and making thoughtful, more productive citizens of us all.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Diversity in Amish Country? You bet.

When I was in college in the early 80's, a new minor was offered - Racial and Ethnic Understanding.  As a soon-t0-be unemployed teacher, I was anxious to expand my repertoire of certifications to make me more attractive to a potential school district.  I worked to tutor minority students, took classes with a focus on cultural diversity, and was released into the workforce with a greater appreciation for minority students and their challenges.

Where was my first job?  Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  While most of the world considers the minority in Lancaster to be the Amish, it's no secret that the bulk of the population in my district when I started in 1999 was white.  Needless to say, my minor in Racial and Ethnic Understanding was, well, pretty minor.

The Te@chthought Blog Challenge question of the day:How do you meet the needs of a diverse student population?

The diversity defined in the coursework in the early 80's didn't begin to touch the diverse populations today.  There was little discussion about LGBT, and only marginal discussion about anything related to special needs populations.  Sensitivity allegedly existed, but only for discussions that people would consider having in actual public forums, rather than whispered.  The city of Lancaster, which really is classified as a CITY, despite what the folks in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia may think, has become much more diverse in its ethnicity as well.

Oh, and academic diversity?  That, too, was not as expansively recognized either.  There were the kids that "got it" and the kids that didn't.  The discussion pretty much centered around what kinds of worksheets would be gathered and copied and placed in colored folders marked "enrichment" for the lil rocket scientists who finished their "regular" classwork early.

Given that I work with the upper level kids, most of the diversity that crosses my threshold deals with diversity in interest or opinion, in the form of a multiple menu of special passions or interests.  My one section of Information Literacy does contain a variety of abilities, from students with IEPs to those identified gifted.  My intentional planning of the scope and sequence of the course includes an intentional transparency.  The students are able to see what is due when, are able to project what they're working on, and adjust their focus or advocate for themselves.  

One of the biggest keys to success for high school students is the ability to self-advocate.  We focus on speaking up, instead of speaking out.  Being mature, instead of being a clown, and being a responsible learner, instead of making excuses.  I ask them to own their learning and their assignments, and include me in the structure and planning of their timelines.  (Isn't this what business and industry does with adults?  Why don't we teach this explicitly?)

Students with data that support a higher level of understanding are permitted more independence, often working collaboratively or individually in the library.  Their projects are held to a higher standard, require a bit more in the way of research, and often address a thesis statement with a supported argument rather than a specific, informative assignment.

Students at the lower level are supported with my wonderful colleagues in the special education department, who help me to modify assignments by creating graphic organizers, word banks, and the ever-popular "madlib", allowing for student research to be inserted into the shell of an essay, proving they know the content, even if writing skills are not top notch.

It's exhausting, it's exhilarating, and proof to me that I always have something to learn, and will never claim to be a master teacher.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wings and a Prayer

 The new semester started with a whimper, yesterday.  First period went off without a hitch, but when the students arrived for 2nd period, they were asking questions about lockers, and coats.  Admittedly, I was confused - after all, it wasn't even 10 am.

"We're getting out at TEN THIRTY," repeated student after student, as they entered my room.

I glanced out the window.  Not a flake in sight.  A quick check of my email revealed, however, that April Fools' Day had not yet arrived.  We were being dismissed for the day due to an impending storm that was expected, apparently, momentarily.  The 84 minutes of lesson plans was condensed, quickly, into the fastest 33 minutes of the semester, and the building emptied and the buses departed by 10:35.

Talk about adapting.  As soon as the teachers were released approximately 45 minutes later, the wings were frying at Beanie's, ordered for the second day in a row by appreciative faculty.  (The previous day had been an in-service day -- ahhh, the luxury of lunches out in public that last longer than 28 minutes!)

The Te@chthought Prompt of the day:

Is your school leading the team to adapt? What structures are in place to engage staff in generating and testing out new ideas, practices, change?

 I must admit, I'm a bit confused by this prompt.  Education is nothing BUT adaptation these days.  I'm fairly certain that most of my colleagues actually have the DNA of a chameleon, as they flexibly adjust to whatever new buzzword, strategy, and technique that comes down the pike.

Our district participates in the training opportunities and networks of the local Intermediate Unit.  IU 13 is a pretty cool place filled with educational experts who design instruction, interpret data, assist with teacher training, and facilitate discussions, all of which allow for the encouragement of collaboration, exploration, and improving teacher practices.  

Beyond the structured in-service trainings, the network and IU collaborations, my colleagues are consummate professionals.  Case in point:  today I stopped by the classroom of my English Department chair, Kasey.  My "quick question" evolved into a 45 minute, 3 person discussion that left all of us feeling better equipped to do our jobs.  Our mini-professional development was probably among the most affirming we've received in recent months.

Michelle Edwards (@mdeHSD) is a faithful reader of this blog.  Recently she tweeted on a post about collaboration and camaraderie in informal mentorships.

  Celebrate you today! Post helped me realize what is missing at my new school-history with school families. Takes time to build.

Thanks, Michelle, for pointing out the true gift I have in the longevity in my district.  The structures that are in place to adapt to change are the people with whom I work every day.  My support network is also my adaptation network, my consultation network, my collaboration network, and the very people who support me when I decide to take a risk and try something new in my classroom.

And they invite me out for wings on days when the cafeteria is closed.  Are they the best, you bet.  Oh, and the wings are pretty good, too.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Rubric for Happiness

 The impending snowstorm sent the buses to the high school at 10:30 am for an early dismissal.  An hour later I was home, having survived a quick trip to the Country Store (because who is crazy enough to go to the supermarket on a milk and toilet paper run day?) to find this message waiting in my inbox from a colleague:

I am trying something new with my Geometry class -
 something that I think you have done - 
having the class create the rubric for a project.  
Do you have any helpful tips or suggestions?  
THANKS my friend!

It's nice that Lori took the time to give me the opening for a response to today's Te@chthought Blog Challenge:

 How do you design the perfect rubric?

Once again, I'm staring at the list of prompts from Te@chthought, and muttering under my breath.  Who the heck proposed this question?  Oh, yeah, ME.  What the heck was I thinking?  After all, if I'm going to ask a question for people to respond to, AND INTEND to be part of that experience, it would seem that I should have an answer.

To quote my kids, "I GOT NOTHIN".

It's tough for me to sound like a confident teacher when I want to use that as an answer.  To wax philosophically, I could certainly ask "What IS perfect?"  I mean, really.  How can anyone define perfection, especially when designing something that could potentially assess an infinite number of possible responses. 

As a Teacher of the Gifted, (TOG), I struggle with rubrics because they identify "best possible work", when, in reality, I don't know the full capabilities of my students, and by providing rubrics I may actually be stifling them from producing or creating something that is so much more impressive/valuable/intricate/thought-provoking/meaningful  than the expectations I have defined for them.  I've used some Autonomous Learning models with my gifted and talented kids for more abstract projects, but when I'm called upon to define a specific rubric for a more defined project, I rarely design them myself.


Nope.  I let the students design them.   I used to offer rubrics, based upon LDC, or the Student Guide to Written Work, or, or some other online source.  The reality is, the high ability kids did exactly what they needed to do to get exactly the grade they wanted.  Heck, even the lower ability kids did exactly what they needed to do.  For me, it was unfathomable that for some kids, a D+ was "just fine".

I teach a course called Information Literacy.  The students are required to do two short reports and one lengthy research paper over the course of the semester, that satisfy requirements established as part of our graduation project.  The assignments are non-negotiable.  They are required for all students who graduate.

So here's how I design a rubric -- and I will be the first to tell you, it isn't perfect.  But it's the best I've come up with so far.

When I first introduce a new assignment, we chunk it over several days or weeks, but begin with the end in mind.  Students need to have a vision for where they are headed, but they don't need to worry about the specifics until the actual "creative" process is visible.  So when it comes to papers, we define and outline, and then do the following:

1.  Assemble a circle of chairs.  Make sure there is one for EVERYONE, including the teacher (s).
2.  Sit down with your students.  Listen more than you talk.  Ask questions, but give no answers.  The questions go something like this:

What is the most important thing you will be demonstrating with this project?
(students may need prompting, if they've never done this before.  
answers could include things like MLA Formatting, or other specific skills or larger
concepts or ideas, depending on the nature of your course.)

How important is this project for the course?  How many points should it be worth?  
This is always an interesting discussion.  You may need to encourage kids to talk and
to disagree with each other.  It settles out, and the discussion is WELL worth the time.  I usually encourage 40 points for a rough draft, and 100 for a final, but it depends on your class and the amount of time you're spending on the project.

What are the other components that are important to you as a class?
For example, the 2 page informative papers that my students write are usually worth 40 points, 10 points for proper MLA format, header, page number  10 points for sources/citations, and 20 points for content, the first time around.  The points may shift slightly, and the kids may decide that something like "conclusions" is worthy of consideration. 

3.   Appoint a student scribe to create the rubric on the board, so that all have ownership and can see and comprehend it.

4.  Ask for a final vote for consensus.  If someone disagrees, now's the time to voice that.  I've never had to break a tie, so let them talk it out.

What I have found is that the kids who care have a good grasp of what is important, and define those things for the rubric.  Letting the kids do the discussion means that they own the rubric.  Subsequent final drafts, and future papers focus on different skills, with different point values.

Does it work?  In my unscientific study, (aka, I've done it with 3 classes over the last 3 semesters), my students score an average of nearly a full letter grade higher than when I define the rubric.  They aren't looking for "minimum acceptable level" work, but are truly working to prove they can hit their own targets.

**If you haven't done any reading on Socratic discussions, it may be helpful to establish some ground rules.  It helps to have a couple of strong students who will guide (but not seize control of) the conversation.

Happy Students?  Maybe.  Happy Teacher? Definitely.