Sunday, August 28, 2011

Are you Sad?

We've just finished our second full week of school with our students. The teachers returned three days before the students and something that a teacher said to me is still floating around in my head. After asking me how I spent my summer and I told her the highlights, she frowned and said, "Aren't you sad that summer's over and you wasted your summer?"

I was a bit stunned. How could someone look at all of the things that I did over the summer and think that I would be sad? My summer was full of things from participating in a flash mob, having my book released, presenting at four different conferences, speaking with Alabama legislators, and meeting the most amazing educators from around the world...and those are just a few of the highlights.

Was I busy? Yes, but I was energized as an educator (and a person) by all of the connections and life experiences I had over the summer. As I thought of all of those things it brings to mind an assumption that many have about a student's perception about returning to school. They assume that they student is unhappy about returning to school. We know that if a student hears something numerous times, they will start to believe it. Should they be sad about returning to school?

As I mentioned last week, my students started blogging. As I've read some of their first blogs, I realized there are under currents of this mentality. However, they have told me, through their writing, that they don't dread school, they look forward to it. Here is an example:

While I was out of school for the summer people always asked me,”Are you ready to go back to school?” I always said , “No, not at all.”   I said this because I thought that fifth grade would be horrible. I hadn’t seen my teacher once before the first day of school and I didn’t know how she would act. I was a little surprised because I hadn’t met any teacher who did as much as she did in the class. We have so many opportunities this year. I was also a little freaked out because throughout my whole life (well at least kindergarten to fifth )I always had the nicest most creative teachers. It’s hard to say that is a coincidence. Now I can barely sleep because I wish that school could start again as soon as dinner is over.
I could share several other quotes, but I think this one makes my point. Learners should look forward to school. It should be a place with "many opportunities" to learn and engage with one another and explore new concepts and how they fit into their lives.  It should not be a place where students are sad. I'm definitely not sad about my summer or the fact that I get to go to school each day and do what I love...and I hope that rubs off on my students every day.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Did I Make the Grade?

I've just finished my first week of school with my new class of fifth graders. This week, we started out building a strong foundation for the rest of the year. We did many of the same activities that I discussed in Chapter One of Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?, but we also stretched and adapted those strategies as they best met the needs of my students. Much of what we do springs from conversations from reading Frindle by Andrew Clements. It serves as a great example of writing as he expertly weaves together the different modes of writing and the use of figurative language, with an entertaining story for middle aged readers. As we read it, I encourage my students to not only enjoy and discuss the humorous story, but also to begin looking at it through a writer's eyes.

As we are reading, my students begin to create a list of "Characteristics of Great Writing." My new students begin a bit hesitantly to add to the list as I've requested that they explain and justify their answers. I ask a lot of questions to guide them in this kind of thinking. They've been so trained to think that there is only one possible answer or conclusion to a question that when I told them that most questions have a multitude of possible answers, you could see a burden being lifted off of their shoulders. They were so eager to grasp this new kind of thinking. This discussion led students to making conclusions not only about the craft of writing, but also they purpose of composing using correct grammar and mechanics.

All of these fabulous conversations lead us into our blogging conversation. None of my students have ever blogged before and most of them were unclear about what a blog was. I used a variation on McTeach's blogging lesson, but the students naturally linked the importance of good writing from our Frindle discussions to our blogs. We also read and discussed parts of Net Cetera (I ordered copies for each family) to ensure that the students understood digital citizenship, Internet safety, and cyberbullying.

One strategy that I love is that I let my learners create their own criteria/rubrics for each of our activities. It puts the power of expectations into their own hands. After all, this is their blog, they should have a say over what should be included. (Note: I realize that many feel that blogs should not be evaluated. However, those that read my blog regularly know that this is not a luxury that I have in my classroom. See: Homework and Reading Logs)

Since this was the first criteria they were going to create, I led them through it as a class. Here is the list that they created of their Blogging Expectations:

  1. Use proper capitalization, organization, punctuation, and spelling. (As they explained, "If you don't edit, it doesn't matter what you've written; no one will understand you.")
  2. Be safe with all of your choices.
  3. Create posts that show what we've learned.
  4. Always use appropriate and kind words.
  5. Think about the audience.
  6. Explain and give great details in your posts. ( As one student said, "Who wants to read something that's boring?")
  7. Compose three or more blog posts a week. (They really wanted to have more in this number, but several students do not have access to a computer outside of school hours.This was a heated debate...pretty cool that most of the kids were fighting for MORE work instead of less, huh?)
  8. At least one of your blog posts will be about what you are reading. (The class actually cheered when they figured out this was going to replace the dreaded reading logs.)
  9. Create comments that are thoughtful, relevant, and continue the conversation.(One learner actually pointed out that by creating comments like this, they were also giving evidence that they were reading...score another point for getting rid of reading logs, but still meeting that independent reading standard on the report card. Yep, he got a high five...wish I had though of that.)
  10. Practice using characteristics of great writing in every post.
Is this the of expectations that I would have made for them? Absolutely not! It is infinitely better. This list demonstrated to me how well they had grasped all of the activities and discussions that we had done all week. They tied it all together and saw the relevance of how all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together better than I did. What I didn't realize (until we were done) was that they were grading me on how well I had done this week. Did I make the grade? Did I grow as a teacher this week? I think so. This group of learners are going to keep me on my toes. The sky's the limit now. Who knows what tomorrow is going to bring?