Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Lessons From a Beginner

I recently started a painting class.  I loved art class in high school a long time ago, but art has never been much more than a fascination as marriage, kids, and career took over my life.  Now that my sons are older I decided it was time for me to start figuring me out again.  So, I'm giving this class a try.

The class is given by a professional artist.  He can splash paint on a page and make it look like a serene Pacific landscape.  The class is for beginners, and I'm joined every Saturday by two other women.  One, Karen, is also in the advanced painting class, but joins the beginners since she only has Saturdays free.  The other woman, Bev, is a beginner like me.

Our first lesson was to begin the under-painting. The photo we'd chosen to put on our canvases seemed simple enough -- a nice summer scene with a field and a barn in the distance.  A few trees.  Some tall grass.
"The first stage is to draw the lines that make up the horizon and other images in the photo," my teacher stated as if this was common knowledge among mankind, and immediately grabbed his paintbrush to draw. I looked to Karen, and then to Bev.  They had grabbed their brushes and started.  My heart fluttered.

What?  Drawing?  Horizon?  Where's that?  How do I find that?  I looked frantically again at Karen, the advanced student, whose horizon appeared magically on her canvas.  I looked to Bev, but she seemed to have it down too!
"How do I know where the horizon is?" I asked sheepishly. I felt so stupid.  It was my first day of class and already I was lost. It was then that I thought of my 7th and 8th graders.  How often did they feel this way in my class?  How could I make sure learning something new didn't make them feel this afraid?  As the class progressed, I realized a few things:

*  The environment for learning is as important as the content being learned.
A teacher being a master of his or her content is lost if the student doesn't feel safe and secure to learn. Students should be instilled with the sense that even if they feel confused, the learning just hasn't happened yet.  There should be a lot of trust that the teacher knows what he or she is doing, and knows how to guide the student to get there. I used to think this came from allowing student choice in how the classroom was run, but I now know this environment is built on strict, dependable structures about what will happen when. A student should come to a class expecting to learn something he or she didn't know before, and know that the teacher will do what it takes to get him or her there.  It comes from watching the teacher model the same skills he or she is asking the students to perform, and showing the steps it takes to get there.  I want my students to feel that the skills I teach aren't magic.  Learning is a process, and it just takes some work.

*  The teacher needs to not just know the content, but the scaffolding of skills needed to learn the content.
As I painted my first tree, my opinion was that it looked like a grape with some mold on it.  But, my teacher assured me that it would turn into something amazing.  
"Stand back a bit from the canvas," he said.  "Sometimes you just need to step away a bit."  Sure enough, I took a few steps back and my tree looked, well, like a tree!

"Wait until we put in the leaves," he said..  "You'll be amazed how it turns out!"

My teacher knows where I'm headed. He knows the variations of each step along the way.  If my tree really did need help, he's know and give me the help I need.  Maybe my painting wouldn't look exactly like his, but it would be good.  I would be proud.  I would take skills with me so I could paint another picture a different day.

I realized how important it is for teachers to not just know the content students need to learn.  Teachers need to know what it looks like when that content is being applied correctly in a way that is generative; a way that those skills can be applied to other areas.  That involves knowing what the learning looks like in each step of the way, in a variety of ways.

*  Students use their peers more than we know.
My teacher is good, but he can't be everywhere at once.  And, there are only three people in my art class! What about a class of 30 (or more!)?  

When my teacher was busy with Bev, I looked to Karen.  I watched her mix colors that looked just like the teacher's so asked her to help me mix.  Even when Karen didn't know I was watching, I paid attention to how she shaded and used her brush at just the right angle to make her blades of grass.  I mimicked her work in my own painting.  Even when the teacher was working with Karen, I looked to Bev, who is about the same level as I am.  Rather than modeling, Bev and I put our heads together to figure out how to get just the right shade of purple.

Student need each other.  What we take as chatting and being off-task is often just the support and feedback students need to move forward.  We forget that students know who to look to in order to do it right, and maybe sometimes they need each other even more than they need us!

*  Learning means something you don't already know.
Perhaps the best part of my class is that I'm learning something I didn't already know.  Any prior knowledge about painting I apply, but my teacher fills in the gaps.  He lets Karen, who knows more than I do, move ahead, and catches me up when I need it.  I never find myself bored because I find myself taking on information and skills that I didn't even know I didn't know, and applying them in ways every day.  I look at the horizon differently when I'm outside, considering how I might draw it on a canvas. I'm noticing just how much purple there is in the world, and thinking about how to get that shade.  I'm noticing landscapes and how they might look as a painting.  I think about the tools I could buy that will make me an even better artist.

When teachers implement the same curriculum year after year, it becomes difficult to remember what it was like to learn it for the first time.  It becomes frustrating and stressful.  I urge teachers to learn something new. Try reading a magazine on an unfamiliar topic.  Try writing a genre you've never attempted before.  Watch yourself learn, see what you need, see how you feel.  Then look to your students -- they learn just like you.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Change Your Story

I read an article the other day that discussed how a parent used a growth mindset with her children.  When something wasn't going right, or negativity seemed to be overpowering her child, she'd tell him, "change your story."  Instead of noticing all the horrible problems or failures, he should tell his own story in a different way, one in which those negatives were positives.

My own sons are already sick of hearing this phrase after the inspiration this article gave me, but I've also started saying this to myself in my classroom and in my life.

After 16 years of teaching, you'd think I'd have it right.  But, with the implementation of Common Core Standards and the push for a curriculum rewrite from my district, I feel like I'm in my first year of teaching all over again.  Every unit of study this year has been brand new, an experiment I collect evidence from to improve next year.  It's a slow, tiring process.  One in which I often feel like a failure.  

In our narrative unit, when it was finally time to get our drafts and brainstorms into serious realistic fiction stories, it was like my students hadn't learned a thing!  Where were their developed characters? Where were the conflicts that were so well planned out?  It was like the last 5 weeks of lessons had never happened!  I was telling myself a negative story, for sure.

So, I decided to change my story.  If I really took a look at their writing, and held it up against their original narratives they'd written before the unit started, I could see them in a much more positive light.  Originally, their narratives had been simple bed-to-bed events.  Ones without much meaning or depth.  "A Day at the Beach."  "When My Grandma Came to Visit This Summer."  These were what they considered narratives.  But when I changed my story about their current writing, I saw some pretty amazing words on those papers!  Just that there WAS a conflict jumped out.  That characters had dialogue, or that they had a personality and a face was light years ahead of what they originally wrote.

This should apply to all aspects of our lives.  Seeing our positive stories can have profound impacts on the happiness we feel every moment of our days.  It's these kind of beliefs about how our lives play (and have played) out that create opportunities or close doors.  We should always work to fill that negative space with positively everything (to quote the great Edie Brickell) -- tell a story of "yes" rather than "no."

Today, as I look outside and see another 6 inches of snow on the ground I muster all the willpower I can to see positive!  But when you find it, it sticks with you.  It changes your view.  It changes the views of others around you.  Imagine starting your day in a place where everyone decided to tell their stories with optimism and gratitude.  Such a small change can indeed shift the world.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

If Only I Had a Do Over

I had an interesting conversation with my principal recently.  We were discussing the upcoming summer, and the hope that my department would be ready to write curriculum.  As department chair, I was excited to share our ideas about reading and writing workshop, and the benefits of this instructional framework at the secondary level.  I expressed my belief that authentic reading and writing immersion for our students would not only create lifelong readers, writers and learners (my hope), but be noticed in our state test scores (his hope).  

"That sounds nice. But, does all that really matter?" he said.  "I made it to being a principal, and I didn't really learn anything like that in middle or high school. Did you?"

"No," I replied honestly. Where was he going with this?

"So what makes you think it's going to be any different for these kids?"

Is this conversation really happening? I thought.  Is he seriously suggesting that how his faculty teaches doesn't matter?  "But it doesn't have to be that way!" was all the thousand red flags waving in my brain would allow me to muster up as an answer.

"You just know too much," he smiled, as if complimenting an annoying over-acheiver to get her off his back.  "You need to not take your job so seriously, you're just going to stress yourself out."  

My husband says he loves that I am not quick to react (mostly because he is), but boy do I wish I had a quick comeback that day.  The best I can do when this happens is mull the situation over and over in my mind and come up with what I wish I had said.  Here's my favorite do-over-that-will-never-happen:

Principal:  "So what makes you think it's going to be any different for these kids?"

Me:  "Any different?!? The amount we have discovered about effective teaching and learning since we've been in school is immense!  There is no excuse for secondary teachers to be spending their 45 minutes lecturing to a group of students who robotically copy notes off the board!  There is no reason why students should go through an entire school day without reading or writing for a real reason besides writing a note or text to their friends!"  And that's when I burst from my chair and make a dramatic exit from his office, leaving him to think about that.

If only it had happened that way.

Maybe I should have let his words go in one ear and out the other.  But, being me, I took them personally, as so many of us in this field do when someone questions our passion for our job.  Does a student's middle school experience in my classroom really matter?  Do I just take my job too seriously and "know too much," which may be starting to slowly drive me insane?

YES.  To both questions.

The experiences in my classroom, albeit one puny year in a student's grand educational career, does matter.  Every single day is an opportunity to strengthen a reader and writer that really can make a difference.  Just one book can change the way a bigoted young mind views the world.  Just one connection with a book can create a lifelong reader who then reads to his or her child and finally knocks loose a pulley on the conveyor belt of poverty that illiteracy creates.  Just one spark of a writer hearing how she's connected to a reader can forever change the way she communicates to the world.  These experiences are more than a score on a test or an "I survived school" attitude.

Seemingly obvious answers to those of us who teach it, but what about to somebody like my principal who sees no worth in it?  A person who believes he is successful in spite of his lousy education.  Who still views school as a place where young people go to watch old people work?

I suppose that's the whole reason why many of us take our jobs so seriously, and slowly go insane.  For me, it goes back to what my principal was talking about when he asked what I learned in school.  I was honest in my answer with him.  I hated school.  Hated it. I was bored all the time, did what I needed to do, and moved on.  No teachers ever connected with me.  No subject sparked my interest or made me love to learn.  What makes me most angry about those years is that it didn't need to be that way.  I can't imagine the doors that would've opened for me if my teachers had "known too much" or "taken their jobs too seriously."  I can only imagine an education where I wasn't allowed to zone out for most of my classes and still pull off a B average.  My experiences in classrooms could've been better, and because of that, I make it my goal to know as much as I can and take my job as seriously as possible.  If my sanity suffers a bit because I'm caught up in a system that fights me being this way, then so be it.

Maybe someday one of my students will be a principal.  I imagine the conversation in my mind:

"But it is different for these kids.  Our students need rich experiences in reading and writing in all their classes, and it's our job to provide them with the platform to have those experiences.  Everything you do in your classroom matters!  Our jobs as educators can make all the difference in these young lives, whose doors of opportunity are all open."

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Reading & Writing Workshop in 42 Minutes . . . Continued

Today I felt a lot like this poor dog trying to fit through the door.  He could do it, if he'd only take another approach!  It happened with my continuing struggle to effectively fit reading and writing workshop into a traditional (42 minute) secondary schedule.

I keep a status of the class chart on a clipboard in which I record which students I conference with during independent work time, and take notes about those conferences.  I always feel rushed during this time, trying to fit in as many students as possible and scheduling those students who need the most support first.  This often focuses much of my attention on the "squeaky wheels" while those fly-under-the-radar kids continue to do just that.  Conferences are cut short, and often I'm left feeling like I got nowhere at all.

Status of the Class Chart
It occurred to me that there's got to be a better way to get quality conferences with students in the time that I have.  I took a look at my chart and started thinking about the kinds of information I was trying to collect about students.  I realized my conferences were filled with too much:  simultaneously conducting an observational assessment and then developing on-the-spot instruction for the gaps in understanding.  I'd have to decide right there whether or not a student was mastering the objective and then create individualized instruction, all within one sitting.  Whoa!  No wonder I was tired at night!  Why was I doing this to myself?

Going back to the poor dog in the video, I realized that Reading and Writing Workshops (the stick) are meant to be taught in a literacy block (the door).  I was trying to squeeze through that door with too many objectives for my conference.  I would have to find another way to get the time a literacy block offers.

I decided to give myself that time by stretching my workshop lesson over two days instead of trying to squeeze it into one.  So, on Day 1 of a lesson I'd give my minilesson, guided practice, and begin independent work time to apply the reading or writing skill. Then, that independent time could stretch over to Day 2.  On Day 1, my conferences were simply assessment:  who is mastering?  Who is struggling?  Why?  I took notes about what my teaching conferences on Day 2 would need to be about.  This gave me time to examine my observations and form small groups where possible and individual conferences where needed.

Plans for small group work and conferences

Why did I not think of this before?  Although I know that taking two days for a lesson that used to take one will eventually lead me to making some tough choices about curriculum, my gut tells me that depth is more effective than width when it comes to immersion in a skill.  I'll gladly scale back on what I teach to become more effective in how I teach it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Writing About Reading -- What's the Real Goal?

My 7th graders have been working in their Reading Notebooks to "write about reading."  I never used to think that this was an authentic genre, but rather writing to learn:  the process of building understandings about a text (or topic) through writing about it.

This year I've got another angle that brings some authenticity to our work --- companion books.  This whole unit has been quite an experiment, and I have to keep reminding myself that there's an end in mind.  But, what is that end?  Yes, I want kids to create companion books for their self-selected texts, but what generative skills will they gain as writers along the way?  That is where the real objectives lie.  Although there are so many skills embedded in this unit, the major take-aways are:

  • Ladder of Abstraction.  I love this symbol from Lucy Calkins Units of Study.  She suggests that writers need to include both ends of this "ladder" in their writing; one end being the "big ideas" that are universal or theories and the other end being "details" such as quotes, descriptions, names and /or objects, etc. that create those big ideas.  In order to be at both ends of this, students need to discover big ideas in their texts through paying attention to the details presented to them.  

  • Various Text Structures of Informational Writing.  Informational writing doesn't really fall into any one structure.  It's a combination of structures.  This requires students to think in these ways about a text.  Students should be able to include description in some parts of the text, but also know when it's appropriate to include problem/solution, narrative (chronological), comparison and/or cause and effect.  It requires students to recognize how all the parts they include work together as a whole text.

  • Writing for an Audience.  Students need to be able to take their thinking from entries with notes and quick thinking to "writing long."  This requires free-writing to think through those big ideas and details that drove them there as well as structured writing that will make their ideas clear to a reader.

If my students can stash these in their writers' toolboxes, I know they can apply them in many different writing situations.  I'm guessing that as I work my way through this unit, I'll be adding to this post!