Fall is in the air!

24 Sep

It must be fall. The weather has turned and I had a desire to bake some apple bread. My grandma’s apple bread, mind you! It is amazing. I find a wonderful sense of connection whenever I make it, as if I am there with Grandma in her kitchen baking it. Grandma was a great baker (lousy cook, but amazing baker) and I have many fond memories of her making us boys cookies and cakes and pies over the years. The smell of the cinnamon from the apple bread brings it all back. I also know it much be fall because I am finding myself being reflective. Some do it at New Years, I do it in the fall. Maybe it is because I am a teacher, the whole “new school year” thing, I don’t really know. But still. . .

My friend Mike posted on Facebook that he found the patent his Great Grandfather obtained online and that he has a table in his house made using that idea. What a wonderful connection. What a treat to have that link to a bygone era. My home is filled with antiques as well and looking at them, and at the drawing Mike posted, really got me thinking about what will my children remember when they are as old as me. Will it be trips we have taken? Games we played? I know what I hope it is, but still one can never tell, can they?

This year marks my 22nd year of teaching. For ½ of life, I have been working in classrooms with classes of my own. What will they remember from their time with me? Will they remember the lessons I taught? I hope so. Will they remember the projects we did? Maybe. But I guess what I hope for most is that they will remember the relationships we had during the year. All good teachers know that at the root of good teaching is a relationship between the child and the teacher. We see it in our classrooms, in our media, in the movies. Relationships. It makes me wonder, with such an emphasis on data these days – collecting, analyzing, using – will our students have the opportunity to have as strong of relationship with their teachers as they did in the past? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it keeps me up at night. That and wondering who will be kicked off Dancing with the Stars next. Bill Nye? Really? Come now. He has got to go. Anyway, I digress.

The need for a better outcome in education is real. The world that our children are going to inherit is different from the one Mike’s Great Grandfather entered. It is no longer good enough to work hard and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. No, children must be better educated today than ever before. This requires hard work, and the political and social climates dictate that there must be measureable outcomes. I get all of that, and even agree to a certain extent to most of it in principle if not in practice. But I worry that in our quest for ever higher standards, ever higher test scores, ever higher achievement we will lose the part of teaching that is so powerful, the relationships.

In my heart of hearts, I know good teachers will find a way to make it happen. But does it make a hard job just that much harder? Is it worth the risk? Only time will tell.


My Wife Needs HELP!!!

2 Sep

A guest post today from my WW (wonderful wife)…


Happy Back-To-School! This is the time of year when the crayon displays make me swoon and I have to check out all the new products on the school supply aisles. I have an uncontrollable love for school supplies and office products and the local stores do a nice job of giving me my “fix” this time of year. I am giving you this background as I move onto my topic today so that you know that I am not a hater when it comes to the topic of organization. I am as anal retentive as they make ‘em… and those of you who know my husband are probably shocked by this revelation because that is one thing that he is not… anal or organized… oops, that was two things. {Sorry, honey, I say it with love. But they do say that opposites attract, so that must be why we work so well together!}

So imagine my swooning when a class I took this summer on the Common Core State Standards handed us another pretty binder that contained all of the background information on the standards as well as the standards themselves. As we delved into this binder, I realized that this pretty binder was a great resource and had plenty of valuable information contained within its’ prettiness but after spending a couple of days flipping through a couple hundred pages, post-it noting {sticky note swooning} the really important pages and trying to make sense of the document, I hit an uncomfortable impasse. This binder sucked. And that was a painful reality because I don’t like to talk about my lovelies like that.

All I could think about was how this document was going to join the others in the binder graveyard of manuals/standards/curricula-of-the-moment that occupy so many of our shelves. Even though there was a lot of good stuff in this binder, the reality of day-to-day teaching and planning got in the way of all this post-it noting and page flipping. Why not condense all the standards into one document that teachers could simply slide into a plan book? As I trolled online, looking for such a document, I came up empty.

In an attempt to problem solve, I created a flip chart for each of the ELA CCSS. That way a teacher could simply look at their specific grade level standard as well as the grade above and below their grade level to see the way the standard was scaffolded for the learner from grade to grade. With a simple at-a-glance tool, all of the teaching stakeholders (classroom teachers, teacher-librarians, administrators, special education teachers, SLPs, Title teachers, LAP teachers, etc) could be on the same page when it came to planning and aligning the standards to their current curriculum.

I would love to say that I simply typed the standards and inserted the cut lines to make these documents. However my uncanny lack of spatial reasoning went through an entire ream of cardstock in an attempt to figure it out. But I think I finally have it… something I can slide into my plan book and refer to when discussing CCSS alignment.

WW’s amazing flip chart!!!

Each ELA area has its own flip chart so I can look up the standards as we are collaborating on lessons. But more importantly, by creating these documents, I truly got to dive into the standards and look at how they build upon each other and I do believe I have a greater understanding of the expectations for our students. While a lot of what is found in the standards is what teachers are already doing and is what I would call best teaching practices, some of the standards truly surprised me.  A fourth grader who can produce a minimum of a one page, typed, piece of writing in one single sitting… that is definitely going to be challenging for a majority of our fourth graders!

Regardless, having the standards easily accessible for me was my end-goal and I finally finished it. However, in looking at it, I realized that others might be able to benefit from my anal-retentiveness and want a copy for themselves. I had Tim put it up on his TeachersPayTeachers account if you would like to purchase a copy.  Proceeds will go to paying down the Staples bill.

God Bless the Eternal Optimists

23 Aug

It is that time of year again. For the past ½ of my life, I have spent the last part of August getting ready for the new school year. Tables need to be put out and bulletin boards need to be readied.  Books need to be passed out and tubs labeled. It is the time of year that all teachers love and hate with equal emotion. We hate that our summer is over, our time with our family to be replaced with time with our other family. We hate that the stress of teaching is replacing the relaxation of being able to just breathe. We hate the loss of reading books for fun, and the addition of being “on” at a level that many simply do not understand.

But we also love it. We love the smell of freshly rolled out butcher paper (don’t try and deny it!) and the look of pencils all freshly sharpened. We love the idea of watching our children walk into our classroom for the first time and the comfort of plans freshly made. We take joy in the notion that nothing is impossible and that special feeling that comes with the promise of the future. For those who are reading this who are not teachers (why?) there are two things that you must realize about teachers. First of all, more than anything – our love of learning and kids, our secret joy when we see fresh crayons – teachers are optimists. We look at the beginning of the school year as a fresh start with endless possibilities. We see our new students as a new start. There is nothing we cannot do. There have been no disappointments yet, no frustrations, no angry phone calls, no silly district meetings (none planned by my principal, of course) or state mandated requirements issued by well-meaning but clueless politicians.

Instead, there is only the feeling that the world is our oyster. We have the power to make a difference. We have the chance to really change the world. OK, so that sounds hokey, I get it, but I have never met a teacher worth their salt (sorry, I am just having a Sheldon Cooper moment here – dying not to explain where that expression comes from. Must. Not. Be. Super. Nerd!) who did not feel like I do at this time of year.  I think this is really the reason for summer vacation. Sure, it may have started as a way of helping in the fields, but the real use of summer vacation is that it allows teachers to recharge their batteries. It allows us to remember why we are a part of this amazing profession. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on our craft, to learn more and better strategies, and get ready to give our best to the 30 souls who enter our classroom.

The second thing that you should know about teachers is so secret, so classified that I run the risk of incurring the wrath of the STS (Secret Teacher Service. Never heard of them? See how secret they are?!). It is at great risk that I tell you this, but I think you deserve to know. So with no regards to my personal safety, here goes. All teachers, every single one of them, has at least one (and usually more) nightmare before school starts. Often these involve showing up for class only to find that your lesson plans are lost, your class of delightful students has been replaced with a heard of rabid dogs, you have forgotten to wear pants/shirts/etc. or that your principal has changed your assignment from 5th grade to developmental kindergarten (throwing in some diapers and gloves to help you out) with 1 day until school starts. I remember one particularly bad dream in which I found myself in a BD classroom helping when voices came out of the ceiling (or was that real? I can’t remember). Anyway, everyone has the dreams. Promise you won’t tell anyone, please?

So, for all of my fellow optimists out there, enjoy your first days of school. The future is really there in front of you. The work you are doing today, with your students, will make the world a better place. Have a wonderful school year!


Top 5 Back to School Activties

12 Aug

WW and I have a very good friend (our first babysitter!!!) who is about to start her career as a teacher. We have known her for more than 10 years, trusted her with our children, and she has become a part of our family. I worry about her like a daughter, and am so excited for her to have her own classroom. The babysitter will be teaching 2nd grade this fall. We are also in the middle of cleaning our my daughter’s room. Oh My GOD! Where did she get all this stuff?! That really has nothing to do with anything, but still… MY GOD!!! I think Happy Meals toys, Barbies, and Polly Pockets have started reproducing underneath her bed.

Anyway, back to The Babysitter.  She is so full of excitement, so full of energy. She has not been beaten down by reality yet! I saw at TheTechieTeacher a linky party about the Top 5 Back to School activities. So for The Babysitter, and anyone else, here are my top five back to school activities. Drum roll please. . .

#5: Preamble. Artist Mike Wilkins, created an amazing piece of art out of license plates from all fifty states. When I was in Washington DC, I saw the piece at the National Museum of American art, and knew it would be a cool project.

Preamble Copyright 1987 Mike Wilkins

Copyright 1987 Mike Wilkins

I purchased 10 postcards with the piece on it and use it at the beginning of the school year. Groups are given the postcards and asked to figure out what it says. Working together, they start to decode the message. It has teamwork, US history, and art all rolled into one

#4: Where the Wild Things Are. I remember going to the bookmobile as a kid. I realize that makes me about 100 years old, but still. It would park at Cocopah elementary school and my Mom would take all of us down to it. I would always check out the same book: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I would read it and read it and read it. I loved the way Max made a world of his own and how no matter what, his supper was still waiting for him. I have read it to every one of my classes. Each year this is the first book I read to my class. I share with them the story of reading it as a kid. I share it with them because I love that books can stay with you and that after 100 years (OK, maybe a few less) they can still be as powerful as they were the first time you read them. And, I tell the kids that the “wild rumpus” is about to start!  Talk about foreshadowing…

#3: Numbers About Me. Kids are surrounded by numbers without realizing it. I start each year by making a poster for myself using Wordle. This site allows you to make a poster that is really cool looking using whatever you like. I make one with numbers about me: my age, number of children, number of schools I’ve worked at, etc. After I show it to my students, I have them try and figure out what each number

Can you tell which one is my number of years teaching?

Can you tell which one is my number of years teaching?

represents. Hopefully they do not say that 360 is my age (area code), but still. After they have worked as a team to try and figure out what each number means, they create their own number poster on a piece of paper. We then take a few minutes, and each person gets to share 2 or 3 numbers from their paper. I think this would also make a cool bulletin board… cue up the Cricut, darling WW!

#2: What did you do on your summer vacation? Did you write that essay? Did you love it as much as I did? “I went camping” or “I played with my friends” or “nothing” always seem to be the crux of most kids’ essay.  But this essay is really a great way to learn about kids and their writing skills. How to make it not quite so… so… so boring? I change it a little. Instead, I ask kids to write to the prompt: What would you have done this summer, if you could have done anything? Now that is a creative writing project. The burdensome notion of reality is taken away. Replaced is the chance for kids to go to Mars, become spies, or travel in time. I have had kids write about their spin as President of the United States and about their visit with the dinosaurs. What a kid writes about when given that freedom can tell you a lot about them as a student. Are they adventurous? Grounded? A black and white thinker or a free spirit? It’s all there. I can assess their writing skills, get to know them as a writer, while they have some freedom to let their mind wander, and I get insight into the personality I will have for the next 180 days.

And finally, my number 1 thing I like to do with my students at the beginning of the year. . .

#1: DNA-GO! I developed this activity as a “get to know you” type game for the beginning of the school year. See, I am convinced that a class that all principals must take when they are getting their certificates is “Touchy Feely Games 101”. They all have them. Some are better than others, but basically they are all in the same vein. I never really loved those games… sorry… I will be turning in my “Warm Fuzzy Teacher” card in just a moment.

Anyway, DNA-GO is like BINGO, but in each space of the DNA-GO card (see what I did there? I changed BINGO to DNA-GO! Clever!!!) with a genetic trait. The students then go around the classroom looking for someone with that genetic trait. Pretty soon you have kids looking to see if their second toe is longer than their big toe, if they can turn their tongue into a taco, and which thumb goes on top when they clasp hands. It is great! It combines science curiosity with the warm fuzzyness of getting to know our new classmates. WW did an amazing job of making it cute. I’d give you the activity… really I would… but select soccer is making our bank account hemorrhage, so you can find the whole write up here.

So, there you have it. My top 5 Back to School Activities. I hope you enjoyed them and to The Babysitter  – you are going to do great! Just remember to breathe, enjoy, and take time to remember how lucky you are to be a part of your students’ lives!

School Starting Again?

10 Aug

OK, so I may not be good at this whole “blogging” thing. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of excuses as to why I have not written more. I’ve been busy. I had soccer practice. I had end of the year stuff to do. I had typhoid, malaria, and African Sleeping Sickness (damn tsetse fly!). But the reality is that I just was not feeling like writing. Why? Darn if I know. It just was not the front thing in my conscience mind. But as we get towards the start of the year, I find myself thinking more about what it means to be a teacher.

We all come to teaching from our own path, with our own baggage. For some (like WW) teaching is a family affair. WW’s mother was a teacher, and together they spent a great deal of time working in her classroom. I think she always knew, deep in her heart, that she was going to be a teacher – although she might very well deny this. For some, my good friend Andrea for instance, it was something she knew she wanted to do from a young age. But for me, teaching was something I fought against. I hated school. OK, so hate is a strong word, perhaps too strong, but I really did not find school all that inspiring. With the exceptions of some very fine teachers (Mr. Marsh and Mr. Perry come to mind) I found that once I got older than about 6th grade, school really did not touch my spirit.

I was what you might call an underachiever. You might also call me lazy and a class clown, but that would be mean. Why would you call me that? I am hurt! Anyway, I was not one of those teachers who loved school and was a good student. I did not take notes (still don’t), rarely studied for tests, and my grades reflected this approach. It was not because I could not do the work, I simply did not have a connection with my teachers strong enough to make me want to work And when you get down to it, that is what is about – connections.

Now that I have been teaching for more than 20 years, I find myself thinking about how important it is to make connections with my students. I don’t mean with them as students, although that is important, but as people. Without sounding like I am tooting my own horn (get out the ear plugs, the tooting is coming pretty quickly), I like to think that I am able to show my students that I care about them not only as students, but as people as well. I learned this from my father

My Dad taking flight - he never lost the love of trying new things!

My Dad taking flight – he never lost the love of trying new things!

(yes, Dad comes into this blog again.  I miss him, so sue me). You see, my Dad was a man of few words. However, his actions spoke more about what he thought was important than any words could do. Dad understood that every person he met knew something that he did not. He understood that listening is more important that talking and that when you did talk, the words you chose had power. I always said that Dad could talk to anyone ; from a CEO to a gas station attendant , from a Mayor to my Father in Law. His secret? Make a connection.

School will be starting in a few weeks (NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and with it the demands of a new year, new expectations, new mandates, and new initiatives. I am busy now planning my year, figuring out what I am going to do that first week (I know I will be playing DNA-GO!) and getting back to a school time schedule of going to bed early! But regardless of who comes into my classroom, regardless of their background, what is important is that I make a connection with them as people. My TeachersPayTeachers .com page lists my personal quote as: The art of teaching lies in the hearts of children”. Not in their test scores. Not in their minds. Not in their gall bladders, but in their heart. For only by touching the heart of your students can you ensure that they will leave your classroom as a better person that when they entered.

Science. . . not just for nerds anymore!

26 Feb

So, I just looked back over my blog and what do you know? It has been nearly a month since I last “mused”. What happened? Where did the time go? My only possible explanation is that I was abducted by aliens at some point during the last month and held captive without the ability to blog. Yeah, that’s it. That’s what happened. I was abducted!!! But now I am back, and ready to go, ready to blog, ready to share my thoughts with those who are foolish enough to read them. In other words, here is a new blog post.

In the last post I promised that this time I would actually talk about teaching stuff and that is what I intend to do. You know how sometimes you are just sitting there and BOOM, the perfect thing falls into your lap. You find a $5 bill in your pants pocket that you forgot or you arrive at class to find that the one student who makes your classroom crazy is home sick today? Well, I was pondering what to do with my post when all of the sudden, there in my email inbox, was the answer. From NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) there was the perfect topic. The Horizon Report (http://science.nsta.org/nstaexpress/2012-NSSME-Full-Report1.pdf for those who want to read it for themselves. It is riveting, I assure you!). For those who are not science teaching nerds, the Horizon report survey over 7,000 math and science teachers across the United States to measure the state of math/science education in the United States. And what did it say? Frankly, it scared the hell out of me.

Among other things, it showed that:

  • More than 80% of elementary school teachers feel very well prepared to teach reading/language arts while less than 50% feel the same about science.
  • While math is taught in nearly all elementary classrooms daily, fewer than 1 in 3 fourth–sixth grade classrooms are teaching science daily, and only 1 in 5 K-3 classrooms receive daily instruction in science.
  • Few teachers, at any level, feel prepared to teach engineering – a key component of STEM.

That is alarming. That is scary. That is preposterous!!! What happened to the education system that helped put a man on the moon? What is going on? The answers are really too complex to be addressed in a humble blog post, but what ever the reason, there needs to be a change if we are going to compete in the future.

I live in the Seattle area and here, Boeing is king. You cannot swing a dead cat (I am in no way supporting the swinging of cats, dead or alive, by anyone) without hitting someone who works for Boeing or is related to someone who works for Boeing. And guess what? Within the next 5 to 10 years, it is predicted that nearly 60% of Boeing’s technical workforce will be at the retirement age. Who is going to replace them? And that is only one area. What about computer science? What about general science? Who is going to work to cure cancer or solve climate change issues?

So, here is my solution! Teach science. OK, so maybe it is not quite that simple. But really, when we get down to it that is what it is about. If we are to educate our kids, we must educate them in all areas that they are going to need in the future, not just those that are tested in the spring on high stakes tests. So, I challenge each and every one of you to step out of your comfort zone and try an experiment with your kids. A quick Google search will show a host of lessons that you can do with little prep time. Heck, it can be as easy as taking 2 playground balls (a small one and a big one), and dropping them. Then drop them with the smaller ball on top of the bigger ball and watch what happens.  The energy from the large ball will be transferred into the small ball, sending it flying up high (this is best done outside). Or make a hovercraft out of a CD and a balloon (http://sciencesquad.questacon.edu.au/activities/cd_hovercraft.html).

It does not need to be complex to be exciting for kids. It doesn’t even need to be 100% correct the first time. But if we don’t take on this work, if we don’t at least try, then what is to become of science education in our nation? Yes, it is scary. Yes, it can be intensive. Yes, it can be daunting. But it can be done. I believe in you. And I believe in your students. They deserve it. And truth be told, you do to. You deserve to share with them the wonder around them.

All you need is love!

1 Feb

OK, so I get that this blog is supposed to be about teaching. To be perfectly honest, though, I am just not feeling “teachy” right now. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and I love my students, but every now and then, I find myself just not wanting to think about teaching. So, if you will indulge me, I would like to talk about something else. I promise, the next post will be about a lesson. Maybe math? Hmmmm

Archetypal lovers Romeo and Juliet portrayed by Frank Dicksee. Art from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg

Anyway, today is February 1st. Where did January go? I was looking at it just yesterday! Anyway, it is February 1st and that means it is the beginning of one of my favorite times of the year. . . the 14 days of Valentines. I love the chance to get WW a little something each and every day between today and Valentine’s Day. Each year we look forward to these 2 weeks. Each day we give each other a little something. It could be a silly Valentine’s balloon or a pack of heart stickers or a hand made card. It could be really anything (including an office chair one year!) but the point is that these two weeks are about WW and I.

Those of you who know me (by the way, thanks for reading!) know that I am a hopeless romantic. I wear that crown proudly. You also know that I love my wife. I am pretty damn lucky, to be sure. So, put those two things together and what do you get? That’s right, the 14 days of Valentines. Now I know that many people believe that Valentine’s Day is a Halmark holiday, a day made to sell cards between Christmas and Easter.

According to the receptacle of all knowledge, Wikipedia, “St. Valentine’s Day began as a liturgical celebration of one or more early Christian saints named Valentinus. The most popular martyrology associated with Saint Valentine was that he was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentine’s_Day)

Let’s think about this for just a second. There really was a Valentine. He really did sacrifice for love. He really did exist. How is this worse than the Easter bunny? Would you be willing to be jailed because of your love? How about love that is not connected directly to you? Would you be willing to go to jail for another person’s love? How can this be a holiday any more made up than any other holiday? By definition, all holidays are made up.

I get those who say that we should not limit our expressions of love to a particular day. I understand those who feel like society places an undue amount of pressure on this one day. But to those I ask, what did you do the other 364 days to show the person you love that they are special? Is there anything wrong with focusing a day on that most human of emotions, love?

We are living in a unique time in history.  Love has taken center stage in our political culture with three states voting to legalize same sex marriage. Regardless of which side you come down on this issue, I think we can all agree that one thing that makes the world a better place is love. At the risk of sounding like a sensitive guy here, love is really the difference.

So, happy 1stDay of Valentines. Now if you will excuse me, I have to get WW’s 2nd day of Valentine’s gift ready. I can’t wait to see her face when she opens it. More importantly, I get to see that face every day. Seriously, how did I get so lucky???