Monday, January 30, 2012

Reflecting on MITCHELL20

This weekend the Alabama NBCT Network had their annual conference. A perk to the conference was that MITCHELL20 was screened. If you are not familiar with this film here is the trailer:

The Mitchell 20 Trailer from Mitchell 20 on Vimeo.

When I first saw the trailer at the National Boards Conference last summer, it really struck a chord with me. Although I am in a different geographic location in the country, I felt like I could identify with many of the challenges that they were facing. (I've heard that from many other educators who have seen the trailer and the film.) As Kathy Wiebke, executive producer for MITCHELL20 and one of our keynote speakers said, this is a true story, not the story they set out to make, but one that needed to be told. If you go into it thinking this is another movie like Mr. Holland's Opus, you will be disappointed... because after all, for those of us in the classroom today, many days are a struggle to do what we feel is best for our students.

When the film ended I had no words, but so many emotions. I think one reason it is so emotional is because to some degree, we can identify with their challenges. We've been there. We've felt their tears and their frustrations. Now I'm going to attempt to put some of these thoughts into words.

One of the major things that I took away from the film is the impact that one teacher can make. One teacher led the charge to make a difference in her school. She started encouraging fellow teachers to change the quality of their teaching. Twenty teachers agreed and they began their two year journey that was documented in the film. These teachers met together to discuss the changes they had made in their instruction and the impact it was having on their students, and ultimately on their community.  Several times throughout the film the different teachers talked about how it changed their relationships with one another. Before they were colleagues who only knew one another by speaking in between their teaching; now they had become a family as they all worked towards the same goal.

I've heard several times that teaching is a solitary profession. To an outsider, that may seem strange as we are in a school filled with people. I know at times we feel like we are alone in the fight to not only improve our teaching practice, but also continue to provide the best quality teaching for our students.Like the teachers at the Mitchell School, we may struggle against policy and practice mandated by those outside the classroom, but it's a struggle we are all facing. By banding together, we can work together to find solutions. When you see the results that the students reaped from their journey (one many of us have seen in our teaching as well) you know that all of the hard work was worth it.

Their journey wasn't an easy one. Once they started speaking out and not accepting the status quo, things became even more difficult for them. What was different? They had one another. We know that when you start speaking out, sometimes there is push back. Truth is it isn't fair. Who ultimately suffers? Our students. It is our responsibility to speak up for them to give them the best opportunities that we can. One quote from the movie that stuck with me was that "We need to let our students know they can be anything that they want to be. Nothing can stop them if they have that conviction." And what better way can we teach them that than through our example? We can speak up; we can make their world a better place through our teaching; we can be the change that our students need.

To read more about MITCHELL20, here is a blog post written by Kathy Wiebke on Talk Priority Schools. To schedule a screening see will be released on DVD in March. I highly recommend you schedule a viewing for the teachers and  educational leaders in your area .  

Monday, January 23, 2012

PLN: The Power to Perfect Your Practice

As I've mentioned in previous blogs, one of my goals this year is to put some literature back into our classroom. Now to many educators that may not sound like a very difficult thing to do. However, when you have a scripted reading/language program, a strict schedule, and very little leeway within those confines, really teaching your students becomes difficult.  When things are so tight in your schedule that students literally beg to skip lunch, come to school early, and stay after school so that they can write, there's precious little time to squeeze in anything else.

As I looked at my schedule to find a place where I could squeeze in some reading time, I found a ten minute window before we go to P.E. Granted that is not a lot of time, but I was determined to make it work. We were already trying to read books as a class at the end of the day while we waited to be dismissed. My fifth graders love our time on the carpet reading a novel or trade book even though some days we're lucky to get in 5 minutes. They work all day to try make a little reading time at the end of the day.

I didn't want to change that routine, so I figured my best bet was to do a read aloud of a picture book each day. I have a huge library of pictures books that "pre-reading program" I used to give my students as mentor texts. Many of them are for teaching Social Studies and Science. However, as I started examining them, the ones that I could actually read aloud were in a vast minority. Many of them had so many text features that  by only reading them aloud much of the meaning was lost.

There are so many wonderful children's books, where should I start? On Twitter and in my Google Reader, I follow some excellent teachers who specialize in children's literature. The first one I reached out to was Cathy Mere. She responded with a link to August 10 for 10 Picture Book Event. This site had a collection of blogs from educators/literature lovers who blogged about their 10 favorite picture books. This kept me busy for hours discovering all kinds of picture books that would be appropriate for my learners (I would love to participate in this event this year).

Next Cathy tweeted out my request to some of her Personal Learning Network (PLN). I got so many responses and emails from them. I had discovered and re-discovered a treasure of  books to read aloud to my students. So although I have received a real crash course in titles and authors, the real winners here are my readers. These books have been popping up in their blogs, they are constantly reading them (many have a waiting list) and students have begun searching for other titles by the same authors.

So while you are spending time on Twitter and reading blogs, be sure to build relationships with those in your PLN. Be willing to give to them as much as you are learning from them. In the end, the real reward is reaped by those amazing kids in your classroom and we are all thankful for Cathy and all of those who shared their knowledge with us.

photo credit: your neighborhood librarian via photopin cc

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Weebly to the Rescue

As my students were putting the finishing touches on their collaborative PSAs that they were creating with students from across the country, we were reading There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar. One of my goals this year is to bring more literature into our day in spite of our rigid schedule and prescriptive reading program. (See blog A Book in a Day) I select books that have high interest for the students in my class, that spur great conversations, and that reinforce the standards that we're studying. This book has many of the themes that that go along with the Coast to Coast Chronicles Edition 9's theme. The 200+ students wanted to create and collaborate on the theme of "Making a Difference." These PSAs were for The Coast to Coast Chronicles.

As we finished up our book, my learners asked if they could create different projects to go with the book that would also connect to their collaborative work on the Coast to Coast Chronicles. That's right...they asked to do these projects. They brainstormed all kinds of ideas about what they wanted to create. As with everything else, we only had a small amount of time that they could work on this project from start to finish. They wanted to publish "a digital poster that would hold their different projects." My first thought was that we would use Glogster. But after a few minutes, we discovered that it was blocked at school. One student said, "I wish we could just create a website or something." Great idea. That's when Weebly came to the rescue.
Weebly is a free site (there is an upgraded paid version) that allows one to create websites. It has a very easy drag and drop interface that my students navigated very quickly. There are preset themes and templates to get you started. While two of my students started setting up the page for the class, the other students broke into pairs and began planning and writing their projects.

I conferred with each pair several times throughout this project. They knew that they were responsible for explaining what they were creating and why it supported the themes of the book and the Coast to Coast Chronicles. Several of them wanted to tell about the story and the themes through a certain character's point of view. After writing, and conferring with me, they decided that Voki would be a great way to publish this. (See blog on Voki). Another team wanted to use the camera and act out what they had learned from the book about bullying. They decided to publish is as a Voice Thread. Others wanted to write poetry. They wanted to create songs with their poetry. We pulled up Songify on my smart phone, they selected the music that they wanted to use, read their poetry into the phone and published their song.
My learners were so excited about what they were creating because they felt like it was going to be a surprise to all of their collaborative Coast to Coast partners....a little something extra for this edition. Of all the tools used, the one that's holding it all together is Weebly. It may not be as flashy as a VoiceThread, Voki, or song, but without it my students' planning would have probably stopped short. It housed all of their creativity and supported so much learning. So although it probably won't be discussed much when the other students see our Weebly, my students know that it's the tool that made it all this student-directed learning possible.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Be the Mirror

I've recently been nominated for an educational award. As part of that process, I am required to provide at least three references recommending me for this award. I was a bit uneasy asking people to do this for me. Just like most teachers, we don't get into this career for rewards and praise.

Yesterday, as I was preparing to come home, Staci Hawkins, a fellow teacher, told me she had left her letter in my teacher box. I thanked her and headed out, making a stop a the teacher boxes. As I started reading, I was moved to tears. She outlined all the characteristics she felt that I possessed that made me a good teacher. I was seeing myself through her eyes.

Once I composed myself, I began to reflect on how many others never get to see themselves through others' eyes...especially our students. In the community where I teach, many of my students go to home where they are the caregiver of younger siblings. They are responsible for making sure everyone gets their homework done, everyone eats dinner, and everyone takes a bath before going to bed. Many of these parents are working two jobs to try to keep their heads above water. I even have students who are homeless. As a majority of my students are living in the poverty level, their family's primary focus is on survival.

I started to wonder, do my students see themselves for the amazing people that they are? At school, we all get overwhelmed and rush from one thing to another in an attempt to get as much accomplished as possible with our students. I have to admit that I have been guilt of saying trite things like "good job" or "way to go" without being more specific in identifying what they did. I realize that I need to make time for them to see themselves the way that I see them. Without me, they may never realize all the potential that they each possess.

For me, seeing that letter made me resolve to live up to those eloquent words. Our words will do the same for our students. So tomorrow when your students enter the classroom, be sure to actually SEE them and REFLECT back to them who they really are. Be the mirror for your students.