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