Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why I'm Standing By the Core

     I've spent a lot of the past two years being very skeptical about the Common Core and the ad hoc full force shift that education in our nation has taken. At times, I've been miltant and strongly opposed, at times I've been panicked and guided by fear, but I am starting to break through all of those reactive stances to be able to bring myself to a place of really evaluating what we're facing and determining whether I can support what is being presented. I still have moments where my personal pendulum swings from skeptical to irrate on subjects like APPR, the flood of new testing that Common Core is ushering in, and what I see as the barely veiled agenda to deteriorate the public education system of America in favor of a for profit model dependent on charter schools and big business. But, when it comes down to the fundamental question of whether or not I can support the new Common Core Learning Standards, the answer is yes.

     Here's what I have experienced in my own classroom this year as a teacher trying hard to adapt the Common Core to best meet the needs of my students. The work that we do is extremely focused. Before the Common Core, my curriculum was a mass of almost 200 disjointed performance standards. There seemed to be little to tie any of these ideas, strategies, and skills together, and the result was a kind of "teach by the wind" style that was fun, and worked most days, but never really lent itself to the opportunity to come back and do in depth work with any one idea or skill.

      But the Common Core has changed that for me. I appreciate the clarity of a skills based approach to learning. By stressing the most essential skills for students to be successful, and then building on those skills grade by grade, I can see how to focus my teaching to get the most out of every limited minute. Every day in English class, we work on the same skills. We work on reading closely and carefully. We work on writing clearly and coherently, we work on bringing our reading lives and our writing lives together. This was what I wanted to accomplish as a teacher before the Core. The difference is that before I couldn't figure out how to put all of the pieces together coherently, and now I feel like I have a roadmap for how to do that.

     One of the biggest concerns I hear people voicing about the Common Core is a fear that the core will standardize education so much that we will lose the art and skill of teaching in the work. I can understand this fear. With school districts quickly adopting modules, canned programs, and data tracking devices this is a valid concern, but one that I have not seen coming from the Core itself. Maybe I am simply lucky to teach in a district that is not shoving a program onto my teaching. That seems to be a failure of leadership rather than a flaw of the Core. The new standards are not a new curriculum, they are not a new program, they are simply a framework of skills that we expect students to work on. I have been able to adapt these new guidelines to help sharpen my teaching. I haven't abandoned my philosophy or my best practices. My students still write to learn, they still read voraciously of their own choice reading, they still engage in self-directed writing workshops, they still develop interesting research questions, but what they get from me is more intentional teaching. This is an improvement that I stand behind wholeheartedly.

       Today I got into a discussion with a social studies teacher who was chafing at the idea of stressing the need of text based evidence and appropriate citations in every piece of writing that students do. He thought this the antithesis of authentic thinking, and didn't think it appropriate or necessary to be done on a regular basis. He could see the sense in something like a research paper, but hesitated to bring the expectation into regular practice. He expressed fear that teaching this way would create automatons incapable of independent thought beyond the text.

       I get this, because I've been there. I've had those same fears, that a highly skills based approach will stifle creative thinking, but I've shifted my thinking. We owe it to our students to give them all of the skills they need to be successful learners. That means training them to think creatively and critically, but also teaching them to follow the rules of being a successful student. As I see it, the content, ideas, and big thinking of a curriculum are the nails, while the skills, just like those stressed in the core, are the hammers. One without the other is pretty useless.

       I have a lot of clarity right now on the Core and the expectations it puts on teaching and learning, and personally I can stand behind it. We have work to do, and many of the effects of the Core are ones that I think it essential to examine, but from where I sit I can see with good sense and sound professional judgement how this plan could benefit education.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

SOL 14: Happy Pi Day!

This day, March 14th (or 3/14 for the more visual) is one of my favorites in my school. Since the irrational number Pi is a new concept our students need to master in 7th grade it's the perfect day to collaborate and celebrate all things Pi. Today our students will work their way through their general schedule but each class will have a Pi theme.

In social studies students will work on the history of Pi.
In math they will compete in a Pi memorization contest to see who can remember the most digits (last year's winner was in the 400s!).
In science they will do probability experiments that rely on Pi.
In music they will compose Pi songs and finalize Pi themed musical skits.
and in English we will write Pi poetry.

The day will conclude with Pi performances, a Pi poetry reading, awarding the Pi memorization winner and of course, a slice of actual pie baked by our students in FCS. The day is always a little chaotic, but a lot of fun.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

SOL 13: March Madness Idea

 The other day, my team and I were brainstorming ways to make our work with "Authors of Substance" more visible. We already have kids reading, talking, and blogging. Our librarian has devoted space in the library to the question, but we still want to do a bit more.

     That's where the idea of a March Madness Author's Bracket came in. We are devoting an entire bulletin board to setting up a giant bracket pitting current children's and YA authors (those who published their work after 1980) to "classic" children's and YA authors (those who published before 1980- I know! It makes me feel ancient too!). On Friday, we'll ask kids to create two top five lists to submit their authors. Those with the most votes will make the Sweet Sixteen.

      Right now, my top five lists would look something like this:

Top Five Classics:
Judy Blume
Madeline L'Engel
Harper Lee
Roald Dahl
J.R.R. Tolkein

Top Five Currents
J.K. Rowling
John Greene
Suzanne Collins
Maggie Stiefvetter
Meg Cabot

Who would be on your top five lists?

Monday, March 11, 2013

SOL #11 We Threw a Conference!

          This weekend, months worth of work finally came to fruition in the form of a two day conference on the importance of writing. We had great food, interesting presenters, and despite my biggest fears, an audience of engaged adults willing to get themselves out of bed early on a Saturday.

         My workshop on using expressive writing as a tool for thinking went very well. people were kind and excited, and so easy to work with. I watched teachers' lightbulbs turn on and beamed a little myself as people shared those moments where my ideas were clicking for them. My colleagues shared some great ideas as well. Every workshop I presented gave me something that I can use in the upcoming weeks of teaching.    

         The overwhelming theme of the day was gratitude. Participants were grateful for the ideas we were sharing. Presenters were grateful for the participants who came and shared. Everyone was happy to be thinking about their classrooms in a meaningful way.

          This is rare though. Usually my experiences with professional development don't end this way. I think the key element to the success of our day, as opposed to full day school district events, or after school PLC meetings is the idea of choice. Throughout the day we built in choice at every step, but that is not the choice I am talking about. Everyone who came to our conference had chosen to be there. Nobody had been urged by their principal. Nobody had been contractually obligated to go. People came for one reason- they wanted to spend the day learning. I don't know how to bring that energy back into school, but I wish I did.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

SOL #9 of #31: Saturday Morning

Even though it's a Saturday, I am still awake to my alarm, going through my work day motions, and getting ready for a day of teaching and learning. My National Writing Project site is hosting a full day regional conference on writing today, and I am a presenter. 

I usually LOVE this kind of day, but today I did not want to get out of bed for some reason. 

Sharing my teaching with adults used to make me nervous, but I've done it a lot and it is no longer butterfly inducing. I have all of my materials ready to go, and I have a solid, simple idea to share. I'm all set.

Then why was it so hard to get out of bed this morning?  
I hope it was just the new sweats,
or the flannel sheets,
or the two blankets.
I hope my hesitation to jump out of bed a sieze that day was simply just the desire to be comfy and not a sign of a hard day.
I put on cashmere just in case.

Friday, March 8, 2013

SOL#4 Making Citation Fun

We just started the new research unit in our seventh grade classes that I wrote about the other day. Our students will be reading books by an author of their choice, and doing research into that author to answer the question of whether this author is an "author of substance", someone who will become a classic, or just a quick trend. We're excited about the project, and it has been amazing to have students come in every day proudly holding a book that they read in one or two days, and asking to go to the library to see what else we have by their author.

Yesterday, we took on the tedious task of working on citation skills in class. Our students will need a works cited, and we have decided to do it bit by bit as we go instead of trying to reconstruct a works cited at the end of the unit. Searching the publication page for information has never been a fun lesson, until yesterday when my co-teacher came up with a great idea.

She started the lesson with a complete works cited on the Smart board, and asked the students to make observations. As students shared their observations I identified and labeled their observations using the same techniques we've been teaching for close reading. Once we knew that kids had a good bit of background knowledge we moved on to a shared citation.  

She had brought in a big container of Gummi Bears, and told us all that, "If we can cite the Gummi Bears we can cite anything!" We used our citation cards to list the important information imagining that the Gummi Bears were a book:

Author: Daniel Wegman
Title: Gummi Bears
Place "published": Rochester, NY
"Publisher": Wegmans Food Inc.
Date "Published": 2013

All of this information was right there on the label, and kids were easily able to find it when we brought the container to their tables. We then guided the students through converting their information into a citation, paying close attention to punctuation:

Wegmans, Daniel. Gummi Bears. Rochester: Wegman's Food Inc, 2013.

At this point everyone had two good models, and we set them off to independently practice by creating a citation for their own book. Once they passed inspection, and had two perfect citations they were rewarded with both reading time and GUMMI BEARS! By the end of the period, even our most struggling students had completed the task successfully.

The lesson was fun, creative, and highly motivating. I will never go back to teaching citation any other way. Thank you, M.S. for sharing such a wonderful lesson with us!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

SOL #3: Let's Celebrate

Yesterday was a rough day in many ways. It jump started cold when I left a before school meeting just as the first bell rang, raced across the building to find that someone had unlocked my door for my class then left them unsupervised- mayhem!  Both adults and students posed challenges throughout the day. And I feel like I'm buried under a mountain of tasks this week.

But instead of focusing on any of that, I want to take a moment to celebrate. Yesterday we introduced a new unit of study. We'll be doing a research unit on "authors of substance" asking ourselves the question: 
"Will we still be reading, insert any author you want here, in 2050?" 

And the conversations started almost immediately.
Tolkien- obviously!
Meyers- a unanimous probably not.
Rowling- we're pretty sure.

The energy of intellectual curiosity filled the room. Students quickly got themselves paired up with an author that they either already know and love, or a new author that they get to experience for the first time. When one of the small minority of students who admit to not reading complained that they've "NEVER liked ANY book" others in the class took it as a challenge, tossing out title after title for the curmudgeon to look for.  

So, I could have let my day be ruined by outside forces. but instead, I spent my day matching kids to books, and it was wonderful. This is by far the best part of my job, and one that I want to celebrate this morning. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

SOL #2: Teaching and Activism

This year I have noticed a troubling trend in my teaching that links up with a certain professional opportunity I became a part of. For years I have been hearing other teachers who I respect greatly rave about an ongoing literacy PLC hosted through our BOCES. They have talked about how transformative it is, and how much the discussions have led them to great teaching.

So, naturally I jumped on the opportunity to join this community when the latest group started. However, I quickly found that the focus of the group had changed. Instead of being a great collaborative environment where everyone was able to share best practices and have real discussions about great teaching, the group has become a training ground for what I am referring to as the "Common Core Army". 

It make sense naturally, the group facilitator is our regions' connection to the state. She understands the new demands, and willingly embraces them. She wants to train us to be leaders in our schools, and since this is (seemingly) the only thing that matters in schools right now, she wants us to be as skilled as she is. 

But I have my doubts. I doubt that the Common Core is the way for every student. I doubt that the Common Core will actually make a difference. I doubt that the modules developed through the Gates Foundation are not homogenizing teaching. I doubt that drinking the Common Core Kool-aid will help students learn or schools grow. I doubt that the link between CC and APPR will result in anything except the disillusion of free and public education. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but I have my doubts. I am far from a good little soldier in the Common Core Army.

      I've tried to be compliant, and test the techniques from the group in my own classroom, and I am not pleased with the results. Most of the things I try leave my most competent students bored and my struggling students frustrated and anxious. When I come back from these meetings and start teaching "Under the influence of the Common Core" things stop feeling authentic. My teaching and my classroom lack the spark of creativity that has kept me teaching and constantly revising what I do.

This morning I went back and read an old post from Two Writing Teachers where Stacey was sharing some advice from Lucy Calkins about teaching as a form of activism. The idea that stuck out the most is this,

We need to be able to teach according to our beliefs. If our teaching doesn’t represent our best current notions about what matters in classrooms and in life, if our teaching doesn’t represent our most cherished hypothesis about education, then how can we hold ourselves responsible for and learn from the results of our teaching?   

For the rest of the month and the rest of the school year I am making a commitment to teach every day to my "most cherished hypotesis about education". 

For me, that means resigning from the Army of the Common Core, 
getting back to an authentic workshop classroom, 
and not signing up for year two with the BOCES community.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Slice of Life #1: Realizations

This month the ladies over at Two Writing Teachers put out the Slice of Life Challenge. A challenge to write and post something every day for the month of March. (Those who start today and link up every day will be eligible for a prize too!) I am desperately in need of some writing inspiration, so I decided to give the challenge a try.  

This weekend I went to the first meeting of a monthly professional writing group. The group ended up being small, just me and one other teacher who I work closely with. When we realized that nobody else was coming (it was a cold and nasty early morning) it would have been really easy for us to pack up early and go catch lunch, but instead we sat and committed ourselves to writing. Not so amazingly, it worked!  

I've been struggling this year with finding some balance in my professional life. Early in the year I took on a new leadership position at my school. My work with the writing project, and the success of my sabbatical last spring had left me feeling like it was time to move up in my school and take on more of a role as a teacher leader. A retirement in my department left a position open, and I was honored by my peers when I was elected to the position over someone with more seniority. I had toyed with the idea of changing paths and making moves to transition out of the classroom into a professional development  position, and this seemed like a good first step.

When this position started I was excited, but I have quickly started to see the hidden demands of the position. I went into the position hoping to be an active agent of positive change, but instead I am finding myself pulled into every meeting under the sun and filling my time with tedious administrative tasks. I don't mind doing some of these things, but more and more often I am being pulled away from my teaching to do these things. The number of days I am being asked to leave my classroom is piling up, and I am starting to feel resentful.

So this weekend I wrote about what I really want, to try to figure out if this is a midwinter blip or a real problem, and I discovered a few things. The most important one is that I LOVE being a classroom teacher and that I do not want to change that. For years I had been thinking that I needed to "move up", and seeing being a full time teacher as a stepping stone to something else. Now I know that I don't want to move into a role that would keep me out of the classroom. I did not get into teaching to become an administrator, I came into it to be a teacher.

That is what I want to do! That is enough for me!

Amazingly enough, as soon as I made that realization, a whole creative outlet opened up for me. I was finally able to make some headway on a chapter I have been struggling to write in the book about my teaching. I was excited to tackle the pile of papers I had to grade this weekend. I was excited about teaching, writing, and spending as much time with my students in my classroom as I can. Now I just need to figure out how to reclaim some of that time when others want to pull me away. I need to work on saying no more often.