Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Paper Chain Challenge

This crew worked closely together to get their chain assembled.  S & S worked together to tear the paper, while P taped, and J & T were ripping paper independently.

P & L decided to use their mouths to tear their paper, while I used a binder to hold her paper to rip paper in a straight line, and A "just put it on the table and ripped!"
Today, our icebreaker in Mrs. Ullmer's class and mine was the paper chain challenge (Mrs. Ullmer's awesome idea!).  The challenge was to build a chain out of paper, using one hand and make it as long as possible ... all without speaking. Groups used many strategies, including those pictured above.

We learned several lessons from this team challenge:
  • It's harder to communicate without talking, so we have to be flexible and creative with how we communicate. (P)
  • Use teamwork, because when you have a limit (one hand instead of two), you need each other. (J)
  • Two is better than one. (A) ... at least in this activity.
  • If you only have five minutes, you'll feel under pressure to do this, and you might rush. You have to plan time carefully. (A)
  • In team activities, it's harder to change your plan than it is when you're working by yourself, so you have to adapt what you're doing to what your team is doing. (P)
  • When you do things more than once, you get better at them. (L)
Written by Mrs. Taylor's Block #3

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Puzzling over Independence, or Toddlers and Middle Schoolers are Not So Different

I'm the mother of a very expressive two-and-a-half-year-old and a very mellow five month-old.  Some days, the similarities to teaching middle school are uncanny.  Thankfully, I (almost always) love teaching middle school, and I (almost always) love having a toddler and an infant; I've learned to embrace and enjoy the unpredictability, the abrupt mood shifts, the constant movement, the curiosity, and the energy.

This morning was pretty calm.  The wants and needs were coordinated, the screen time was limited, and the quiet toys were in full us.  Z and I were working on a puzzle, and C was smiling and "gahhhhh-ing" to himself on his Boppy.  (Honestly. Whose laid back child is this?)  Then, as frequently happens with babies, C shifted to his full-on, red-faced, POOPING RIGHT NOW OMG LISTEN TO ME NOW face and immediately needed a diaper change.  
Digital composition note: I am SUPER sensitive about having
my children's pictures online. I not only sent both pics to Maria before I hit publish,
but I also covered up the tiny bit of nudity in this one.
I turned to help my sweet second child, and Z began protesting for my assistance: "I can't do dis piece. Mommy. I need you to do dis piece."  I quickly started to change her brother's diaper and reassured her that I would be back to her very quickly: "Z, I am helping C right now.  I need you to ...."  "Wait." "Yes, please wait and I will be back to ..." "Help."  (I've found that fill-in-the-blank conversations are quite helpful with this one.)  After a few more protests, it got quiet.  I stood up to throw away the diaper yuck, and my girl turned to me, grinning ear-to-ear:  "I did it! I got it, Mommy."  She'd correctly put together five pieces of her first big-girl puzzle -- the kind with interlocking pieces, not just slots for shapes.

Making a Leap
Just a week prior, the kids and I visited my good friend and mentor Maria.  

Here's my friend Maria - @WonderLeadMaria - with Z and the
 mellow boy, who's sleeping in the carrier next to them.
Side note about Maria: we teach in the same district, and her school feeds into mine, but we met through Twitter.  We met in person for the first time last year when we drove together to All-Write, several hours away from Columbus. Our husbands asked us whom we were riding with, and we both answered, "Oh, Maria/Gretchen. We've only talked online."  Great/weird minds think alike ;)

One of the highlights of Z's, C's, and my visit to Maria's house was the time Maria generously and patiently spent helping Z assemble one of Maria's children's old puzzles, this one a big floor puzzle with about 20 pieces.  To that point, we'd stuck with beginner puzzles like this fun one, which we now use for a guessing game, by the way. Maria coached Z step by step and also taught Z a new puzzle trick: look at the pictures, not just the shapes.  After a sold half hour of on-and-off work, Z was thrilled that, with Maria's help, she'd accomplished such a challenging task.  A week later, with a little bit of space (read: Mommy having to ignore her during a poopy diaper change), some prior experience, new knowledge, and a slightly easier puzzle, Z was able to take a new leap on her own.

Building Independence
As I was prepping lunch later that morning, reflecting on how proud I was of Z's persistence (one of her finer character traits), I was struck by an "aha" to a problem I continue to struggle with.  During my students' independent work time -- especially time on the computer, which always elicits groans from my colleagues, too -- I'm exhausted by the chorus of "Mrs. Tayyyylor... Mrs. Tayyyyyyylor"s. Usually, I'm conferring or doing a mini-lesson with other students and I solve the problem by repeatedly issuing a usually-patient "Wait -- just a moment! I'll come help you." ... which has the effect of interrupting the individual or small group whom I'm working with.  

I've heard about different band-aid solutions, like giving students red and green cups to show me their progress (red = I can't proceed without your help, Mrs. Taylor).  I do like those, because they also give students tools to work on their own self-monitoring.  However, I now think that the more lasting solution is constantly reconsidering the level of independent work I'm giving my students.  

Just as it wouldn't make sense for me to give Z a 100-piece puzzle or a baby rattle to occupy herself while I helped her brother -- the pieces would end up in her mouth, and the baby rattle would be used for unnameable mischief as soon as she got bored -- it doesn't make sense for me to have students do tasks that are way below or too far above their independent levels.  Is it fun for Z to use a rattle for the purpose of playing with her brother and practicing social skills? Sure.  Is it good for her to see me -- and help me -- assemble a 100-piece puzzle so she can pick up new tips like the one Maria taught her? Absolutely.  But for the precious independent time that she has to practice new skills and develop confidence that she CAN do things on her own, I need to give her something challenging enough to engage yet accessible enough to not wind her into a tantrum and end the whole effort.

Moving Forward
Lately I've been struggling with the balance of that already-overused "rigor" word with some other classroom practices.  (I just typed out that sentence eight times before realizing that more specific word choices would lead me down the path to a whole other blog post explaining myself ... and the end of naptime is near ;))  In both my reading and writing workshops this fall, and in this transitional year to my new grade level and year before we start PARCC assessments, I think my focus needs to be on monitoring and using appropriately frustration, instructional, and independent levels of learning.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Review: Join the Club

I could not have finished reading Katie Doherty Czerwinski's Join the Club: Bringing Book Clubs into Middle School Classrooms at a better time.

I had just received the very initial data report from last year's state tests and started to reflect on the little information that I had.  Just a few hours earlier (hooray for kid naptimes!), I had dutifully created a table organizing my observations and the questions those observations raised: wonderings I could control, and wonderings I couldn't control but was concerned about.

Here's the first row of my obsessive little chart:

Feedback. Huge.  This is something I knew based on last summer's buddy read, Visible Learning. (I have an amazing nerd friend! It's a fantastic, transformative book but a little... ahem... "full." Check out what the complete title is.)

My biggest take-away from that read was that feedback from teacher to students is critical, but even more critical is feedback from students to teacher.  A workshop with Cris Tovani, as well as her book So What Do They Really Know?, showed me what this student-to-teacher feedback could look like, but last year, I struggled to figure out how to effectively build in that time on a regular basis, additionally challenged by the fact that I was out for 12 weeks of maternity leave with my sweet second child.

Back to Join the Club.  Not only do I love Czerwinski's conversational, honest voice, but I also appreciate her detailed look into how book clubs function in her middle school classroom.  This is the second year I'll be teaching in a block, and I've struggled to balance reading and writing workshops.  Czerwinski gives me a better idea of how to do that, and then she dives in to the work her students do in her book clubs.

That's where I'm starting to see how I can increase my feedback loops with students.  Czerwinski describes ways to help students become skilled at thinking deeply together about short texts and books, both in whole group and book club settings. If I can coach my students to have richer, more challenging discussions, I will have the ability to step outside the conversations a bit and do more thoughtful observations (rather than just behavior management management) from which I can gather pieces for feedback and ideas for minilessons. Czerwinski's thinking sheets and ideas for assessment will also inform the feedback conversations (meaning the sheets invite students to give me feedback about their needs, as well -- effective feedback is not a one-way process) I need to have with all of my readers, most especially the readers who try to slink into the shadows of the middle school classroom.

I am excited to continue to refer to (and share) this thoughtful, quick, well-organized read as I continue to reflect on last year's data and this year's plans!  Join the Club is a refreshing book about maintaining and blossoming from choice in the Common Core era

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Gifts of Summer: Space to Enjoy and Reflect

This week has been a week of both hyper-focused professionalism and hyper-enjoyable summer. What a blessing!

During the day, I've been working with my dear colleagues Margaret and Julie and a host of amazing teacher consultants with the Columbus Area Writing Project Advanced Summer Institute in Digital Composition.

In the evenings, I've been soaking up the beautiful summer weather, and the gift of time, with my blogger husband and two kids, including a fun night at Benny's Pizza in Marysville.  The silly, summer feel around our house this week can be best summarized by sharing that we are now the proud owners of a custom-made Mickey Mouse balloon (Thanks, balloon lady!).  Mickey is residing in the (currently unused) crib in the nursery -- Clark sleeps in our room -- and has stirred up many thought-provoking questions, like, "What happened to Mickey's nose at night?" (he deflated, dear) and suddenly maternal feelings, like, "I gonna show Mickey how I go to bed. He needs a diaper."

Clearly, the daily transitions between my personal and professional worlds are a bit more jarring during the summer than they are during the school year.  The other middle school teachers and I joke that two-year-olds and twelve-year-olds are really not so different.  Going between an infant and toddler and a group of professionals, though, is quite different, and can sometimes boggle my already boggled brain.

One morning this week, before #cawpasi, I squeezed in a meeting with Rob, a doctoral student doing research in my classroom.  Rob is himself a former teacher of young adolescents, so he has a great perspective on the blends of theory and practice.  He had to say very little in our conference Tuesday to make me realize that I need to revisit my beliefs about how children learn to read and write, because sometimes life gets in the way of me teaching in a way that I believe is best for kids.  In the summer, even while I'm juggling my fun mom time, I have the space to reflect and to pull myself back to my (ever-evolving) principles.

This year, I'll be teaching in a new grade level, and I know, come August, I'll be wrapped up in the nuts and bolts -- the new curriculum, the shared reads, and the ways that seventh graders are different than sixth graders.  I'll also be wrapped up in figuring out how to still be a 100% mom to my sweet babies and 100% wife to my husband. Too often, reflection unfortunately falls by the wayside in favor of survival. To avoid straying from the heart of workshop -- from the child-first mentality that's at the core of my teaching soul -- I need to make a habit of frequently returning to my principles, which I'm fortunate to reflect on and refine in the lazier days of summer.

Here's a snippet of what I recorded in the Google Document that I'll be sharing with the mentors who help me think:

I have so much rattling around in this brain of mine after a rich week of being on the "other side" of professional development -- the side of the person who is supposed to deliver the content.  Funny, though --  it turns out that I'm developing a set of beliefs about PD, as well, that in a lot of ways mirrors my beliefs about student learning. Stay tuned...
(#cawpasi'ers, that's how I end a post when I run out of time and battery ;))

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Reading Reality Check: What I (Re)-Learned During Maternity Leave

My last post was on February 22.  Six days later, I had my sweet baby boy, and over the last ten weeks, I've been fortunate to have time off from school to bond with him and to help his big sister adjust to her busier, louder, stinkier, and -- hopefully -- even more fun life.

The little man is most relaxed when he's snuggling on me.  This was especially true his first few weeks of life outside the belly; he's very much what I call a "fourth trimester baby."  He really craves the warmth and coziness he had the three trimesters in my belly, and I am more than happy to provide it for him.  (This is a challenge when sister is awake -- we're working on making her feeling just as secure and loved as before!)

I am a hugely paranoid person, so unless my husband is around to make sure I don't squish the baby, I don't fall asleep with the baby on me.  Therefore, I've used a lot of this precious snuggle time to enjoy some pleasure reading. (Sometimes, though, I just hold him, kiss him, hug him, and enjoy his calm.  Parents know exactly what I mean.)  Rediscovering reading time has made me revisit my beliefs about what really makes real readers.

Readers Need Reading Communities
I have a handful of friends with similar reading taste, and I love getting recommendations from them.  For example, I have two educator friends who've read great parenting books; I know to seek them out when I'm in the mood for a parenting book and for people to talk to about it.  Two other friends share similar fiction interests; we like realistic drama, but they also know that I can't stand cheesy "chick lit." I can count on them for just the right characters and plots.  All four of these reading friends have given me high-interest non-fiction recommendations, as well, so I can count on them to help me expand my reading to topics I wouldn't necessarily choose on my own; best of all, I can follow up with them during and afterwards to talk it out.  My friends who are readers are some of the most interesting people I know; I try to tell my students that reading will, for so many reasons, make them more interesting people, too.

Readers Need Books to be Convenient
I love my Kindle Fire (my credit card does not!); what a source of instant reader gratification! As soon as I get a recommendation, I can pop open my e-reader, swipe through the Kindle store, and have my next read ready to go. Not every reader needs an e-reader, but every reader benefits from ready access to pleasure reading; how valuable to be able to go grab a book in the community library, the school library, or the classroom bookshelf while the recommendation is hot!  There's something so cool about getting that new story in my hands right when I want it; the longer it sits on my "to read" list, the more stale it becomes.

Readers Need Time to Read
I know that, when I'm reading a book, I can't hop in and out of it in five minute increments.  I think it's Kelly Gallagher who wrote or spoke about the power of getting lost in a book (I cannot remember his phrasing, but it was brilliant, of course); I know some of my students have never experienced that.  I know this about myself -- and about many other readers: if I don't devote longer chunks of time to reading, I can't get in to a book.  I can read other texts in short chunks (blog posts, magazine articles, cereal boxes -- you name it, and I'll read it), but without the satisfaction of getting lost in a book, I find myself abandoning my longer reads.

Readers Need Time to Talk
Recently, several friends and I read a popular -- and somewhat controversial -- choice that had big-time, thought-provoking implications for our career lives and our personal lives.  My reader friend Staci and I spent 45 minutes during a run pouring out our reactions and talking through the connections to our lives; we'd still have plenty of other great things to talk about even if we haven't had read this book, but the book has planted another anchor for us to come back to in our hours of conversations each week. We didn't need to do projects for each other or fill out worksheets about our book; the power of the read was in sharing a literary experience that we could talk about intelligently (I hope) and that will transfer over time.  This kind of reading satisfaction (the social piece!) makes reading so much more real and so much more rich to me.

Returning to Authenticity
The instructional implications for my reality check are pretty clear. In my away time, the majority of my email has been from vendors touting Common Core-friendly products, or about updates on testing.  It's easy to get caught up in the anxiety of doing more, more, more, and certainly, we DO have to challenge ourselves to do more and to try new things ... but when I think about the heart of independent reading, I know that I have to be authentic.

When I return to school from my maternity leave, I'll have nine days with my students. I don't have much time with them to reinforce the authentic reading habits that I know I need to stay true to. I do have the obligation to continue to do more for myself as a real reader and to think about (and write about) what it looks like with the real readers with whom I'm entrusted every day.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Our Day at the DTC: Getting Started with Research

We had a very busy, educational, and tiring (maybe that's just me, the old, pregnant lady!) day today at the Dublin Technology Center.  Three to four students in each class are preparing to coach everyone through our research process.  The first step of their work will be to share out tomorrow some resources they are developing for the class wiki.

Here's a preview of what they've developed:

An overview of our first research steps --students will work in Study Center Tuesday to develop the two screencasts that they think will be helpful for students to get started

We did a LOT of thinking today about how to determine if a source is reliable.  Our biggest idea is that, no matter what the source looks like or where you found it, you need to THINK CRITICALLY about it.