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.