Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Warm Fuzzies and Whatnots

Do you ever feel like you are drowning in a sea of negativity? Does it seem like every time you turn around policy makers are proposing budget cuts, salary/benefit cuts, or adding to never ending list of hoops classroom teachers have to jump through? Do you hear colleagues complaining that they aren't going to do anything but the bare minimum for their students because it's just not worth the hassle? Do you have parent conferences where your hard work, professionalism, or abilities are called into question? Do you ever feel a lack of support from your administrators?

If you've answered "yes" to any of the previous questions (and I know you have), there is hope. With these three simple steps, you too can be paddling with the power of positivity.

  1. Create your own Warm Fuzzy Folder to keep handy in case of a negativity attack. Inside it keep notes, cards, student drawings, and emails that students, their parents, or your colleagues give you singing your praises. You can even collect reflections that you've written down when you've had a success with a student or even professionally. By reading these, you'll be reminded that you really do make a difference in the people whose lives you touch every day.
  2. Surround yourself with other like-minded, powerfully, positive educators. By seeking out these paragons of positivity, you too will begin to focus on what's right with education instead of what's wrong. Even if where you teach you struggle to find those upbeat educators, with the tools of today, it's easier than ever to connect with educators worldwide through Twitter, blogs, Second Life, and Skype giving all of you a venue to find solutions to common problems and celebrate your successes.
  3. Focus on why you became an educator. As new educators we were extremely upbeat and on a mission to change the world. We were not motivated by money, prestige or social standing. We knew why we became teachers. Look around, they are right there, looking to you for guidance even if they won't verbally admit to it some days. Those students, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic background, religion, or personal history are looking to you to be a beacon of light in their day, every single day. What a positively prestigious opportunity!
So what are you waiting for? Get up and start reaping the benefits from paddling with the power of positivity! Your students, friends, and family will thank you.

Disclaimer: No "p's" were harmed in the making of this blog. The events and comments mentioned in this blog are generalizations and not intended to be specific indictments of actual events or individuals, real or fictitious.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Learning Inside the Box

Today, my class of authors are working on their newest writing projects. They wanted to create interviews between two different innovators for our next edition of The Coast to Coast Chronicles. As with any genre of writing, I feel that it's important for my students to learn and analyze real-world writing examples from real authors. When I asked my students why they thought we read from these resources instead of me directing a lesson on the different genres like op-eds or science fiction, one of my students responded, "These authors are the best at what they do. They get paid to be the best writers. If we look at their writing and learn from them, we become excellent writers too." Pretty insightful for 10 year-olds, huh?

Because we are living in the digital age, my students have much easier access to learn about the craft of writing from actual writers. By teaching them how to correctly analyze and apply content knowledge and seek out experts, we are empowering our learners with the ability to learn anything that they want to learn.

With the easy access of online publishing and media outlets, it is now easier than ever to find excellent examples of writing regardless of genre. I know that there is a plethora of tools out there for organizing links to these resources. However, my students for the last couple of years have been very visual. Although they could use bookmarking tools, they often got frustrated because they couldn't remember which link was the one that they were searching for when they wanted to refer back to analyze a particular piece for inspiration in their own writing.

In order to gather the online samples, whether they be Op-eds, PSAs, historical fiction, song lyrics, interviews or any other genre of writing, I use a tool called Simply Box. To use Simply Box, you need to download their toolbar. Once you find a website that you would like to mark, you click on "Box It" and a screen pops up that allows you to box the website and then saves it to your SimplyBox account. Then you can choose whether or not you want to share your boxes with friends, keep it private, or make it public.

My students love using SimplyBox because you can see a small screen capture of the website for which they were looking. They have found may other uses for SimplyBox in different content areas. They especially like the fact that you can comment on different websites, extending the conversation beyond what we discussed in class.

For my young authors, SimplyBox gave them a user-friendly tool which helped them organize all of their website content into meaningful categories and gave them another forum to discuss, analyze and connect with their peers from the classroom and across the country.

Here is a demonstration of how Simply Box works:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Finding a Love of Reading Faster than a Speeding Bullet

I recently had the good fortune to get to attend a seminar where Rudy Giuliani spoke about the importance of every citizen becoming literate. What he defined as literate is not only reading and writing but stretching out into also being competent in digital age skills. As a profession, I think many educators are embracing this updated definition of literacy. As he continued to speak about the importance of reading, he struck on a thought on which I have been pondering since the beginning of the school year. That thought is that everyone should be reading two different things. There should be challenging reading and fun reading.

Now people that know me as an educator know that I've spent most of my career focusing on instilling in each of my students not only the ability to read well, but also the love of reading...just for fun. I have had numerous parents wanting to know how I have changed their students from one who used to hate reading, to one that they cannot keep enough current materials available for them to read in their home.

However, this year has been a totally different story.  I started to notice this difference about the second week of school. My students didn't want to check out any reading materials from our extensive classroom library. When they had a couple of free minutes and I suggested that they get out one of their fun books to read, they would pull out a textbook, open it up and stare into space. Then when we went to the media center, I noticed that over half of my class didn't check out any books.   The learners that did check out books had checked out drawing books that had no text.

As I started to investigate this, I found that I had almost an entire class that HATED to read. So I went to work, pulling out all of my tricks. I've always encouraged students to choose reading material that interested them, but the problem was they didn't seem interested in anything that would involve reading like students in the past. We read all types of genres and authors in our class; we used nonfiction picture books in content areas; we did read alouds and had book discussions, even with other classes using digital tools. I had tried all of these and many other strategies to no avail.

As I started pondering this change, I realized that these students' opinion of reading could have been shaped by their feelings for the scripted reading progam that we are required to follow (after speaking with several other teachers, they have noticed similar behaviors). The program is extremely prescriptive. We are not permitted to add anything to or take anything from the program. This group of students has been in the reading program for three years. It makes me wonder if this could be a, if not the, contributing factor.

As I continued to search for solutions to  helping each of my students find a love of reading, one of my students brought in a comic book. I noticed how much interest it generated from my students. I found them "secretly" trying to read the comic when they were supposed to be working on something else. A light bulb clicked on in my head. Maybe comics and other graphica could be the answer.

The next day, I pulled out a stack of about fifty comic books and laid them on the table. I didn't say anything about them being there, I just wanted to see their reaction. In a matter of minutes, I had kids begging to go through and choose several to read. Throughout the next four days, my students began having conversations about the different comics, discussing the plots, themes, characters, settings, problems, and making connections between different comics. Then, I was handed a list. Many of them had finished reading all of the comics and they had gone online and researched different comics and together had generated a wishlist for me.

Yep, they gave me a list of what they WANTED to read. A visit to the local comic book store yielded one hundred more comics...some on the list, some not. The owners of the store were not only knowledgeable on every comic in their extensive library making some excellent recommendations for my students, but also they were very generous and gave me a great deal.

The next day, when my students saw the bags of new comics and they started to go through them and pick their first round of reads, one student looked as me and said, "Mrs. Ramsay, this is better than Christmas!!!" Their classmates agreed. The excitement over READING comic books was tangible. Who knew that graphica could break down those obstacles and help my learners find a love of reading? Guess where I'm headed this weekend? Yep, the comic book store. I've got to build up that library.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's Celebrate!

At the end of each school year, we receive our class rolls from the previous grade. Often a commentary on the students accompanies these rolls. Although I try to avoid this, I still end up with an earful. One of my students (we'll call her Cassandra), came with comments from her previous teachers that she is just so sweet and helpful, but a sad case because she can't read or write. They told me I would love having her in class because I wouldn't even know that she was there. I was offended to hear another educator describe a student this way.

Once Cassandra arrived in my classroom, I noticed how cowed down she was. When she spoke she was so quiet one couldn't even hear her. I couldn't even get her to smile.  Now granted, Cassandra is an exceptional education student and also an English Language Learner so I knew there would be challenges. She is pulled out of the classroom several times a day to receive her services as she is reading on the pre-primer level, which affects all the subject areas.

Once we started doing our writing, I was shocked to discover that Cassandra was never expected to write anything. When I conferenced with her, I discovered that she really wanted to write all of her great ideas and publish like all of her peers, but she said that no one would help her. What? Here's a child who wants to write and no one has ever expected her to write. (I did confirm this with previous teachers, much to my dismay.)

Of course, reading is an obstacle. She is always in my small group for differentiated lessons across content areas. She set personal learning goals just like all of my other students. We would revisit her goals often and celebrate her successes no matter how small they would be. Through all of the hard work, she slowly began to speak louder and with more confidence with me. One time, we were celebrating her success and I told her it really wouldn't hurt too much if she decided to smile. Her lips curled up into a small smile. Her steps were small, sometimes almost unnoticeable, but they were steps forward.

As the weeks progressed, she began to speak up with peers and in small groups as they worked. She was the second one to finish publishing her animal story because she wanted to publish her work. She asked for help when she wasn't sure how to progress; something she never did at the beginning of the year. Then much to my surprise, she volunteered and began helping other students publish their work. Listening to her conversation with her peers had me wondering what those teachers from previous years were talking about.

Her entire posture changed. Now she shares dazzling smiles regularly and in the last two weeks, Cassandra has volunteered to participate in class discussions adding some amazing thoughts and connections. Last week, we took a reading benchmark test, which we do not modify because we want to get an accurate view of how a child will do on a grade level test. She scored a B. Today, they took a reading test and she insisted that she could take it without any modifications. She confidently smiled and assured me that she could do this. I let her thinking that she could always go back and retake it later with modifications if necessary. She scored a C. To say we celebrated these two accomplishments is an understatement. I know that grades aren't the end all be all in determining a student's success, but for her, it was the first time she earned a grade she could brag on...which she did to all of her Ex. Ed teachers and her mother. The ELL teacher who has been working with her for 4 years, told me that Cassandra is a miracle child.

When I asked Cassandra what she was doing differently, she told me with a twinkle in her eye that she spends time reading now and that she knows that she can "do it right" if she practices enough. Knowing her, she is probably putting many extra hours to overcome her specific challenges. Does this learner still have obstacles? Absolutely, but it's amazing what she can accomplish when she wants to and when she has support to help her reach all of her goals.

So  today, I wanted to write about Cassandra to remind myself and others out there of the importance of reaching every child. Being consistent and patient with each and every one of them is crucial for all of our students to reach his/her full potential. It may be tedious work, but we cannot write off a child's potential because of their previous school experience, home situation, cultural background or disability.

And by the way, her mother is so overjoyed, she is bringing homemade Tres Leches for the class on Friday. Congratulations, Cassandra! You've earned a chance to celebrate.