Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Magical Night

I love that moment when sitting in a movie theater, the lights dim, voices go silent and the glow from the screen envelopes the room.  And while you are sitting among strangers, you share something in the darkness for a couple of hours.  I love going to the movies.

Each year I try to recreate this feeling in my classroom as students invite family and friends to room 356 for the evening to premier their digital memoirs.  They have worked for weeks on this project that is more than just demonstrating their skills as a writer.  This first unit of the year is one that builds our classroom community and allows us all to get to know each other a bit better.  Students explore in their writer's notebooks personal topics to find that just-right subject to share something significant from their lives as they examine who they are and why.

While I have done this unit with my 7th graders for many years, I have never followed the same lesson plans.  Each year I rethink, re-tweak, and revise the way that the students in front of me might best come to accomplish this project.  This year, I added a few new memoir examples, or mentor texts, for my students to study.  Three of the seven that we read were written by former students of mine.  Students who had sat where my current students are sitting.  And while these texts might not fall under the category of "rigorous" as deemed by the new Common Core Learning Standards, they were the most important texts that we read this year.  My students were truly inspired by reading the work of other students.  Each year, we have always read examples by published authors, which we did as well this year, but the substitutions I made with writers who my students knew had to struggle with the same task as them made all the difference.

Upon reading my students' first drafts, I was amazed at the quality of work that I received.  I was able to give each of my 114 writers feedback via Google Docs in order to let them know what was working and what they needed to work on.  These first drafts were unlike any other year I had previously though.  While I do have some very talented writers, it was more than that.  It was as if through reading the examples of my former students, my 7th graders felt a greater confidence when writing about their own experiences.  I could hear them through looking at their drafts announcing, Hey, if they can do this, I can too. 

Since we had read these student texts, we were then able to view their digital versions to gain an understanding of how one takes a piece of writing and then creates a movie of it.  This was an experience I had never been able to give my students before.  While we always had watched digital versions in years past (usually my own that I had created in graduate school), we had never read a draft and then had seen it come to life on the screen.  This too I think was extremely valuable to my students as they set off to gather images and photos to accompany their words in order to bring their pieces to life on the big screen.

So as the audience settled back with a treat from those that generously brought something to share and the lights were dimmed, I felt that moment of happiness of sharing time in the darkness watching stories on a screen.  But this night, of course, is more magical than your average night at the movies.  This night is populated with friends, family, my students and my colleagues.  It doesn't get more magical than that.

*This photo is courtesy of Lisa Michaels.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Testing Technology

Below is the statement I presented to my Board of Education on Tuesday, October 23, 2012.

Working in Guilderland is something I am proud of.  Traveling in various educational circles, I came quickly to learn that my district had a reputation as a leader.  For years we hosted the Summer Writing Institute and helped to enrich the writing instruction of not only our faculty but of our colleagues across the Capital Region.  I always knew that I worked in a district that was forward thinking because I was nourished and supported to teach in a way that showed me to how to be a reflective educator and also encouraged me to strive to use methods that didn’t just follow the standards but asked kids to read and write for real purposes.  Instilling in them the idea that it is a life-long process and not something you have to simply do for school.

Now I realize that the world we live in is one of reform and mandates that are, sadly, out of our control.  But I believe like in any situation where one may feel powerless, there is always a way to stay true to who you are and try to enact change.  In adopting the NWEAs, I feel we have stepped off our original path.  This is not the trail we once blazed.  Rather it feels we chose to fall in line with what other districts had selected despite the less restrictive options offered to us. We could have chosen, like our colleagues in Bethlehem did, to create our own local assessments.  We even had the option of utilizing our New York state exam data and creating student learning objectives to meet what was required of us.  Here, students would have only to take one standardized exam and saved us hours of lost instructional time, not to mention money.

Either of the latter options would have avoided the use of computers as tools of testing instead of tools for learning.  Faculty has been unable to utilize the computer labs while all of our students are cycled through to complete the NWEAs.  My students’ work on their memoir pieces has been interrupted, as we have to suspend our work and wait for the testing to end.  This unit culminates in students creating a movie of their written work.  A powerful example of how writing, music, images and voice can make what normally is just another writing piece into a lesson in multi-media literacy.  Sacrificing this aspect of the unit is simply not what is best for students, and so my students and I will wait for the testing to end.

In an effort to do what is right for our students, I am here to advocate for a different direction.  A road that we have laid in front of us.  It will require the leadership and vision of who we have always been as a district in order to move us forward.  I am referring to digital portfolio assessments.  Instead of asking students to sit twice a year for two hours in front of a computer answering multiple-choice questions, we could be showing them the power of technology and exposing them to skills that they truly need to be college and career ready. 

This is a trail we are, I believe, ready to blaze.  My colleagues and I are already taking the initial steps even though it isn’t mandated but because it echoes that Guilderland philosophy of offering the very best instruction to our students.  Last year we were given the tools to move our students further into the 21st century skills that our district holds as the highest priority. 

With Demian’s leadership we launched the use of our secure Google cloud, which gives us access to a myriad of applications to enhance student learning.  I was able realize my own personal goal as students created their own digital portfolio websites.  They displayed and reflected on their work over the course of an entire year.  They had a place for their digital work products that simply never fit in to our current “Blue Folder” system.  With guidance, students were able to articulate their strengths, weaknesses and goals.  This allowed me to better individualize and differentiate their instruction.  Students utilized technology to demonstrate their entire learning process instead of just a one-time performance.  Portfolios create a space for students in assessment as they become more responsible for their learning rather than a passive test taker.  And in doing so, they found more motivation, more self-confidence and satisfaction in their performance that a number simply cannot produce.  Students began to compete with themselves rather than with each other.

Looking into the future to graduation, our students could walk out armed with true evidence of their learning.  Something to show at a college or job interview to demonstrate their skills, potential and personal goals.  The value of this portfolio simply can’t be compared to a list of test scores.

Portfolios are the kinds of learning opportunities that those who attend private schools are offered.  Private schools that are not shackled to the state and federal mandates.  Private schools like the ones our State Education Commissioner’s children attend instead of our local public schools.  Let’s lead our kids into the future, take advantage of the free tools we have at our finger tips and become once again a fearless leader in our area as we weather this educational storm.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Mud Bonding

On Tuesday, our team traveled to Voorheesville to lend a hand to the Patroon Land Farm, which provides produce for the Regional Food Bank.  This trip serves as our team bonding event in order to bring all 115 students together to socialize and give back to the community.  This trip was especially important this year since many of our students had to switch houses.  We hoped that this trip would help kids get to know one another in a shared experience.  And oh what an experience it was!

Upon our arrival, we gathered in the barn so that students could hear from one of the farmers as he explained the work we would be doing.  He also gave some important history about the land, farm and purpose of their work.  There were two important jobs that they needed our assistance with, so we divided up and got to work.

A third of the team entered the greenhouse, where they were picking peppers, boxing potatoes and, luckily for them, keeping warm.  The rest of us made our way out to the fields, where we were asked to harvest rainbow Swiss chard.  We had to break the stalks down low and gather them up into a bunch and bound them with a rubber band.  Seemed like a simple enough of a job.  Little did we know what awaited us...lots and lots of mud.

As one of the teachers who was helping and supervising, I assumed that upon hearing the directions from the farmer who accompanied us that we needed to avoid the muddy trenches and use the the ones on the outer rows that were more dry, that this was clearly understood.  It never occurred to me that students would actually want to trudge through the mud and the muck.  Oh how wrong I was!

One student after another blithely walked into the mud pits and looked up in astonishment as they discovered themselves submerged and stuck.  One student earnestly asked if this was "quick mud" and was that why people were getting stuck.  It quickly became apparent that some in our group had little to no experience with mud.  There were others though that, like the pigs we had to avoid on our drive in, reveled in the mud and the mess it made of them.

I will be honest that my patience quickly ran out as one more student became stuck, as another shoe was lost, as another pair of hands were dipped into the muddy pits.  I underestimated the lure of the mud to a 12 year-old.  Silly teacher!

But as I look back on that day, I think the mud helped to accomplish exactly what the purpose of the trip was:  team bonding.  Peers were going after each other to rescue them from their muddy fate regardless if it put themselves in the same peril.  And while it was the messiest field trip I have ever been on, it was also the one where students were the most dependent on each other.  And at the end of the day, we all learned a great deal about each other.

 Please visit our Hia7A All the Way website to view the entire photo album of our trip!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Bringing in the Professional

While I have only been blogging for a few weeks, I have learned so much.  I felt able to get the ball rolling with my students in guiding them as they make their entrance into the blogosphere.  I certainly do not pretend to know it all though and am only steps ahead of them on their journey.  I am lucky enough though to have my friend Sara Foss, a journalist and professional blogger, to help us all out.

I came to know Sara Foss through my husband, when he was a newspaper reporter at The Daily Gazette.   Sara is also a fellow New Englander, so even though they are no longer colleagues, we share a love of the Red Sox, the Pats and the Celtics.  Sara is a columnist for The Daily Gazette and writes her own blog called Rule of Thumb.

I knew that Sara would be a fantastic resource and guide for my students and I, so I asked if she could write some blogging tips for us to think about as we begin to blog.  She also graciously agreed to allow me to post her thoughts here on my blog.  I have shared this with my students already, and they truly appreciated Sara's advice.  We read, reflected and discussed her blogging tips, and I could hear a large sigh of relief as I sent them off with the task of writing their first blog post.  Thank you so very much, Sara!

Some Blogging Tips

By:  Sara Foss

Blogging can be a lot of fun, especially if you like the idea of writing for an audience. You can blog about just about any topic - entertainment, sports, movies, politics, parenthood, music, science and even yourself. So you should pick a focus that really interests you. If you really like bikes, you can write about bikes. If you like comic books, you can write about comic books. My blog is a little more wide-ranging - I write about a variety of interests, including movies and sports. For some people, a blog can function as a public online diary, where they share details and stories about their life. These personal blogs can be fun, but if you write one, you want to make sure you don't share information about yourself that you'd rather keep private.

Writing a blog is a little different from writing a paper for school, or a newspaper article. The blogs I like tend to be well-written and thoughtful, but they often lack the polish you might find in a magazine story or a book. Bloggers write quickly and frequently, often providing commentary about events and news soon after they happen. This is part of what's fun about blogging: It gives you a quick glimpse of people's thoughts. I find that my blog is a bit like a notebook - a place where I might tell a story or discuss an idea that I'm not ready to write about more formally. For example, I might write about a book I recently read and post those thoughts on my blog, and then discuss the book in my newspaper column. Basically, don't worry about making your blog perfect. Blogs can be a little messy.

A good blogger writes and updates regularly. Some people might worry about running out of things to say, and getting writer's block, but my feeling is that the best way to prevent writer's block is to write. If you're having trouble coming up with a topic, just pick something and start typing. (I find that surfing the web and seeing what people are talking about in blogs, online magazines and newspapers can help me start writing.) I've been amazed by the things I write when I'm short on ideas, and the reaction people have to them. I once wrote about a disastrous attempt to make an apple pie, and people thought it was hilarious. The only reason I wrote this blog was because I couldn't think of anything to write, and it came out pretty well.

Which brings us to one of the most important things about blogging: your writing style. Since blogging is informal, many bloggers have a more conversational writing style - my friends often tell me that when they read my blog, they can almost hear me talking. If you develop a good style, a topic that could be potentially boring - like making an apple pie - can become a humorous story about how bad you are in the kitchen. Some people think that writing about pets is lame, but if you can tell a good story about your pets, people will be entertained - even people who might think the topic is lame. Of course, some topics are serious - there's no need to try to be funny all of the time.

Bloggers often link to other websites and blogs to provide their readers with additional information and resources. For example, a blogger who writes about music might want to link to a YouTube video of the band they're writing about, or the band's website.

A good blog has personality, and this personality comes from the person who writes it. So when you blog, be yourself and say what you think.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Assessing all the Assessments

For our second language arts class, I administered one of the many assessments students will have to face this year.  This one was not purchased by a testing company nor is it state approved, but it is the one that I value the most.

Due to the new teacher evaluation system adopted by New York, teachers in all subject areas will have to give pre-post assessments in their courses.  When you do the math, it is troublesome about the loss of actual teaching time that will be lost across the state.  Teachers now must demonstrate a student's growth over the course of the year in order for their "teacher score" to be calculated.  Under this new system, teachers will now receive a grade.  And while the start of a new school year is always a bit crazy and hectic, this one was particularly difficult as teachers had to add to their lengthy to-do list  things like developing student learning outcomes (SLOs), creating a pre-assessment, creating a post-assessment, making sure they were able to accurately calculate how much time students are in their class, and other things that took the focus off of what we usually work on in those first few days.  I know for must of us, it was an exhausting week.

For me, I have always started the year with my students with a writing assessment to determine the kinds of skills they have.  It contains no multiple-choice questions; there is no scan-tron sheet to bubble in.  It consists of only one direction and requires some loose-leaf and a writing utensil.  I simply ask each student to create a piece of writing and turn it in at the end of class.  The only wrong way to fulfill this task is to turn in a blank piece of paper.  Students almost always look at me as if this is a trick.  I can really do whatever I want?  Any question they may ask is met with a shrug of my shoulders and the response, "What do you think?"  After a few minutes, everyone has zeroed in on that sheet of loose-leaf and begins to fill it up.  The room gets very quiet and we all enter what my friend and colleague refers to as "the writing zone".  It is a feeling that I relish in my classroom.

You might ask what it is exactly I learn from something that can elicit so many different types of responses.  The knowledge I gain about my students as writers is profound.  The assessing begins immediately for me as I can see just by my observations, who began writing immediately, who took their time before beginning to write, and those who were clearly frustrated.  This year was actually the first year in all my years of giving this assessment that I did not have to give any additional help to someone who just didn't know where to begin.  I can see by glancing over their shoulders and seeing what direction they went those who are comfortable with writing and those who might be more unsure of themselves.  I learn who might have a lower stamina when it comes to writing for an extended amount of time and for who writing is clearly a pleasure.  And this is all before I have collected a single page or read any of their drafts.  You can imagine the kinds of things I learn when I actually read their writing:  clarity of ideas, paragraphing, spelling, mechanics, etc.  Not to mention some of the personal information they choose to include.

Now this is clearly not something I could "score" in the traditional sense.  For it is not about points.  Rather, it is about getting to know my students, assessing where their skills are at, and making a plan for the year that will work on areas that students struggle with and build upon their strengths (for I have new students each year, which means my teaching must adapt to those in front of me).  Having a team of 116 students demands that I figure these things out sooner rather than later as it can be a daunting task to find one-on-one time with each in the course of the first month.  This piece of writing serves as an initial conversation with each individual student as we move forward and work on making them a stronger, more confident writer.

Students will see this piece again next week, as I ask them to revise and edit their piece.  Again, this is a single direction on which I do not expand on.  Understanding the difference between these two writing moves is an integral part of our writing year, and so it helps to see who already knows the difference and who doesn't.

Students will actually see this piece for a third time as it functions as a post-assessment at the end of the year.  But I don't want to ruin that surprise just yet...

But in October, April and May, we will be faced with our state-mandated 7th grade assessments.  Some will be be administered on the computer, some on bubble sheets.  These will turn each child into a number and give me data on where there skills are at on that particular day.  Some of these scores I won't have until next year, which makes them all the more less useful to me as their teacher.  And while I can appreciate the intent of all of this, all I can see is how it gives me less time to have my students do the real work of reading, writing, speaking and listening in our classroom. 

As this crazy year continues and students are asked to sit for all of their pre-post assessments, I hope that we will be having conversations at home about all of this.  We need to as citizens let the politicians who are making all of these education reforms (none of whom are educators themselves) know how it is going.  Inform them on the impact that it has on our children and our schools.  We must, in essence, assess all of the assessments. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

1st Day of School

First day done.  But this was not just any first day of school.  The day began as usual greeting students in my homeroom, handing out lockers, going through supplies, explaining student schedules, etc.  My day was interrupted though with something very special.  Today was also the first day of school for my daughter Janie Bea.  When I usually would have been eating my lunch, catching my breath and meeting with my teaching teammates, I jumped in my car and drove down Western Avenue to join my husband and daughter for the first day of kindergarten in Mrs. Krell's classroom at Westmere Elementary.

I got there just in time for the bus ride, which I thought I would miss.  It was so fun to sit with Jane as she experienced riding in this big yellow bus that she had only had seen from the outside.  We then made our way to her classroom, put away her supplies and got familiar with all of the fun things the room had to offer.  We were able to talk to Jane's teacher and some of the other parents.  As the kids gathered on the rug with Mrs. Krell for a story, the parents went into the hallway to fill out some paperwork.  (The stuff, up until today, I only had sent home to my own students' parents.)  Before we knew it, we were done and I was racing back to FMS to greet my last two classes for the day.  (I was thankfully able to eat my lunch after school!)

Today felt like I was leading an exciting double life.  First as teacher and then as parent.  While it made for a tiring day, it was definitely one I will never forget.  One of the best parts was sharing with my students about my daughter, seeing who attended Westmere and who also had Mrs. Krell.  I even discovered that one of my student's brothers is in my daughter Jane's kindergarten class.  How cool is that? 

I know that every day can't be as exciting as today, but it sure was an excellent way to start the year. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Sibling Effect

I spent several days setting up and cleaning my classroom this week.  One of the final tasks that I did was to go through my incoming students' blue writing folders.  These folders follow each student as they move through our school district.  It is filled with work samples and mainly their writing.  It takes all of my energy not to pour over them and look through each one, but I reserve that for later on as an activity that allows me to get to know who I have with me in our classroom.  But first, I must simply compare the folders I have been given to my class lists to determine who I am missing and which folders I have that do not belong.

While this can be a mundane activity, I truly enjoy it because it is the first time that I see everyone's name (116 to be exact!).  As I cross off names and place folders into homeroom piles, I get my first glimpse of the group of 7th graders who will read, write, talk and learn with me this coming year.  I get excited when I see first names that mirror another person in my life.  This year, I have a Samantha, which is also my youngest daughter's name.  I also have a Molly, which is my own first name.  But it is actually the surnames that get me excited the most.

I have always enjoyed the moment when I realize that a new student is the sibling of one of my former students.  That they may have been told things about me (good or bad) puts my mind at ease for some reason.  And while I realize that they may not have the same exact experience in my room as their brother or sister did, I relish the fact that even though I have not met this person, we already have a connection.

I come from a big family.  I have five brothers and one sister.  I am the sixth out of seven children, so I know that feeling of having a teacher that a sibling of mine had already had.  In fact, I could probably count on one hand the teachers who in having me as a student were introduced to the Hull family for the first time.  (Hull is my maiden name.)  I was used to the look I would receive on the first day when the teacher would call my name for the first time, would look up and smile and say, "Oh, I had all of your brothers..." or something to that effect.  It usually didn't bother me, but I always had to prove myself in those first few days so that they got to know what kind of Hull I was.  My brother Andy was only a year ahead of me and was always getting into trouble.  I tried hard to prove myself that while we shared the same last name, that was where our similarities ended.

So when I peruse my new list of students, I look forward to taking attendance on that first day.  Asking if they are related to so-and-so, so that I know to make a special effort to get to know 'them' beyond who they are siblings with.  I am sure my teachers didn't hold any prejudice against me because of who my brothers and sister were, but I felt a pressure as a kid to demonstrate what set me a part from them.  As a teacher, I want to make sure that my students know that I am interested in who they are and that the fact that we already sort of know each other is pretty cool.

As these final days of summer wan, I am so looking forward to the first day of school. But for now, I will relish these last two days of freedom.  All five of my brothers and my sister are in town.  We are getting together today...the first time in two years since distance keeps some of us away for too long.  I know that we will probably reminisce about our days in school together.  Remembering funny stories, good friends and, of course, the teachers we all shared through the years.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Classroom Comes Together

I spent several hours unpacking yesterday in my classroom.  I got a lot accomplished and putting things in their place always helps to heighten my enthusiasm about the first day of school and soften the blow that summer is ending.

Now that I have my daughters though, I feel tremendous mommy guilt bringing them into school (especially on an afternoon when it was 86 degrees and beautiful outside) when we have so few days left together before we are back into the swing of our school-year routine.  I have to give mad props to my girls though.  They absolutely LOVE going to room 356.  At ages 5 and 4, it is a place where "big kids" go.  The desks seem huge to them, and it is more of a playground than a classroom.  (Not to mention Mrs. Bouteiller has a candy box she is always generous with!) Their favorite part, which I find is also true of my students, is all of my furniture.  They especially love my desk chair, which is an ergonomic chair that (drum roll...) has wheels.  They race around my room sometimes timing one another, sometimes giving each other rides.  The best part by far, for me at least, is their laughter.  You would think they were on the tea cup ride at Disney! (Which they have never been...yet.)  As I dust, put books on shelves, display my teacher knick-knacks, they fill my room with joy and excitement. My girls actually made us stay for an additional hour because they weren't done playing.  True story.

I want to hold on to the memory of that noise as my new 7th graders enter the room.  First, it is a beautiful moment with my girls that I can think on as I miss them each day while at school.   Second, it is a reminder that my classroom, our classroom, should be a placed designed just for and excitement.  We are there to learn of course, but if I can create an environment where my students are laughing and ecstatic to be there...then the learning will come. 

Thanks Janie Bea and Sammy for teaching Mommy one of the most important lessons there is for an educator.  XOXO

A picture of my ergonomic desk chair.  Do you know what ergonomic means?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Day 2

I thought I should say something about why I started this blog.  This year with my 7th grade students, I will be asking them to begin their own blog.  While I have done lots with technology over the years, I seem to always try to add something new each year.  Some people can't understand why I would do this to myself.  "Don't you just want to do what you did last year?  Isn't that easier?"  I guess I just don't do 'easy'.

I think the blogosphere is an ever increasing important part of our world.  One that I think broadens our horizons and allows us to explore and reflect on our lives in a new and exciting way.  My goal this year is expose my students to this world, invite them in and see what happens.

Another important aspect of the blogosphere is the community that it provides.  It allows bloggers to not only share their ideas and experiences but to connect with others have similar stories.  It also gives us the opportunity to expand the horizons of others who may have never heard of what we may be blogging about.  Through the comment feature on our blogs, we will interact with each other to create what they refer to in the blogging world as "the ripple effect".

For my blog (which is actually my second attempt at other blog has a total of 3 posts and I have not written in a couple of years...sigh), I have decided to focus on sharing stories from my classroom.  My audience includes my students, who are where my stories will come from, students' parents, who often feel disconnected from what goes on behind these middle school walls, other teachers, those that can share and relate to my experiences, and parents in general.  What makes my blog unique is that this year, I am not just a teacher in my school district but I am now a parent of a student as well.  My daughter, Jane, is entering kindergarten.  I think this will make this a special year as I will get to experience school from a new perspective.

Yesterday, I spent a few hours in these last days of summer with another 7th grade ELA teacher from my building who is also embarking on this blogging adventure with her students.  We are both nervous and hopeful for what this year will bring.  As you can see from my first entry, I was brief and didn't say much.  It wasn't that I was pressed for time but rather terrified at putting words down knowing they would be published for all the world to see.  Are you feeling the same way?  If yes, good.  I don't feel so alone.  If not, then you will probably help to lead us on our way as we start down this road they call blogging.