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Saturday, August 9, 2014

How Summer Yoga Inspires My Teaching

This summer, my friend, Rina, and I decided to take weekly yoga "field trips." I have been practicing yoga for….well, forever, and have practiced at the same studio for many years. As a result of taking a few classes this summer with new teachers in new places, I found myself growing in my practice in ways that I have not grown in years. At my usual studio there is a sameness from one practice to the next. While I find each class challenging and enjoyable, I had become too accustomed to the routine.



What can I learn from this that I can bring into my own classroom? How can I create the daily rituals and predictability my students need to feel comfortable without creating an environment that is slightly stagnant? Too much routine creates too much of a comfort zone and can stifle learning.

Here are some thoughts...

Change it up!
Predictable routines are a necessity in classrooms, and both students and teachers rely on them. Bringing an element of fun or surprise, though, will keep everyone on their toes. Beautiful day? Why not hold class outside? I remember one day last year spontaneously holding a plank contest with my 4th graders. A small thing, but it brought smiles, laughter and requests to do it again.

Set the bar REALLY high
One of the hardest things for me is to push kids just the right amount. I tend to set a high standard and to know that everyone is capable of achieving it through hard work. However, some kids have not internalized habits like persistence. It is my job to push them just enough that they see their own potential, but not so much that they go over the edge. Because I am dealing with unique individuals, this point is different for everyone, and everyone responds differently to being challenged.

What I don't agree with is setting the bar low so as not to make anyone feel bad. I would much rather see kids strive and fall short of the goal than to see them make the goal easily and be cheated of working hard. Learning to challenge oneself, try, fail, get back up, try harder…that is the essence of learning to learn.

Remember that growth isn't always a linear process
In yoga practice it's normal to be stronger on one side of the body or to be able to do different things from one day to the next depending on how you're feeling, what else has been going on, the frequency of the practice. With school learning, everyone expects a linear progression. But there may be reasons why the 4th grader who knows the rules of capitalization, messes up on a particular day. Teachers know this, but it is very hard not to feel disheartened sometimes when it seems that progress is not being made in a straight line with students moving right along mastering concept after concept.

Create a space for practice
Deep, lasting growth is developmental, with some steps forward and some steps back. I like my classroom to be a place of practice (like my "regular" yoga studio) but with opportunities to try new skills (like my yoga field trips). Once you've experienced what you are capable of, it changes future practice, giving opportunities to integrate the new learning into the established practice.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

App List for Year 2 of 1:1

Last year, as I headed into teaching in a new 1:1 iPad learning environment, I shared our app list. Now, heading into year two, we have revised the list, based on what we actually used, as well as adding some new apps that we discovered throughout the year.

App Advice-
My best advice is to keep it simple.
It's not how many apps you have that make the program successful. Really, how many apps does anyone use on a regular basis? The idea is to model the use of the tool to create, connect, communicate, organize, document, collaborate and share. Once students understand the process, they can continue to use the suggested apps or can explore new apps. As teachers, we are able to focus on content and skills or whatever else we are teaching.

I feel that my 1:1 year was a great success. The students and I really enjoyed the freedom, versatility and creativity afforded by 1:1 iPads.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

My Life as a Reader Infographics

Reflection
Visual Communication
Thinking of oneself as a reader
New forms of writing
Presentation skills

These were some of the goals Karin Hallett and I had in mind when we decided to end the school year by having 4th graders create "My Life as a Reader" infographics. The process was simple and engaging, and the results were beautiful. Even my most vocally negative-about-reading student was talking happily about his earliest reading memories as he created his graphic.

We used Piktochart. It didn't work on our iPads, so we had to check out laptops which students enjoyed as a novelty since we have used iPads all year. I had them create accounts with school email so that they could save their work.

Although I feel like I already know my students really well as readers, I learned new things about each child and those books and experiences that define their reading lives.







Friday, May 30, 2014

#eduawesome #eduwin

Teaching is a lot of things. 
It's hard fun. 
It's a meaningful life's work. 
It's frustrating and uplifting, discouraging and encouraging all at the same time. It is quality that can't be quantified (but that everyone feels a great need to quantify). 
What matters most can not be tested with #2 pencils and fill-in-the-bubbles. 
That's why educators use #hashtags like #eduawesome and #eduwin to share those positive moments that are worth sharing. 

My 4th and 5th grade language arts classes have really enjoyed read-alouds this year. The last book I read to my 4th graders was Chris Grabenstein's new book, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library.
We enjoyed this book a LOT (many of my students said it was their favorite or one of their favorite books ever).  With all of the puzzles and games, it was an especially fun book to read together as a class.

A few days after we finished the book, one of my students, Allie, came to me to tell me that she was checking out Chris Grabenstein's website and,
"LOOK what I found! Chris Grabenstein Skypes with classes for free!"
She asked if she could email his assistant to set up a Skype for our class.

Let me repeat that.
My excited 4th grade student asked me IF SHE COULD EMAIL CHRIS GRABENSTEIN'S ASSISTANT TO SET UP A SKYPE VISIT FOR OUR CLASS.
And that is what she did. She wrote a beautiful email. I love how her voice, personality and enthusiasm shine through her words.

As a language arts teacher, I also happen to notice how much Allie's writing has improved over the year. But what delights me most is her choice to include information like, "Our class loves to read books and write." 
If you are wondering what is meant by students "owning their own learning," this is it. 

PS- I don't quite know how to thank amazing authors such as Chris Grabenstein who care about helping to create the next generation of readers and give generously of their time. We have already scheduled our Skype visit for early in the fall, and my students can not wait!

Monday, May 19, 2014

MEROS Academy: Innovation From the Ground Up

Today is a professional development day at MJGDS. Our assignment was to visit another school and reflect afterwards on our faculty NING. I tried reaching out to several local schools, but was told that today wasn't a good day. So I reached out, via Twitter, to MEROS Academy.


I didn't know much about this new, innovative private school, but I follow, as best as I can, whatever new things are happening that challenge the business-as-usual model that has, for too long, passed as education.

What I found out was that MEROS is not yet an up-and-running school. MEROS Founder, James Smith, and I met at a coffee shop in Riverside where he shared his passion and vision for innovative design, relevant learning, a "structure that is wide and open enough to give kids growing room," and real-world models and mentors. As we spoke, I was reminded of Ron Berger and his craftsmanship culture outlined in An Ethic of Excellence, which remains one of my go-to thought models for teaching.

MEROS vision is built upon these 8 Elements:
I find myself becoming more and more drawn to the idea of building innovation from the ground up, as opposed to working to transform more "traditional" (for lack of a better word) models. There is a lot happening right now, and a few schools that have captured my interest are Avenues School in NYC, Academy of Global Citizenship in Chicago, and, closer to home, Seaside Community Charter School, a new Waldorf-based charter school in Jax Beach.

Education is becoming much more market-driven, and I believe that is a good and necessary thing. Education is the transmission of values, and I'm pretty sure that we all have different values. Is it easier and more truthful to take a non-compromising attitude right from the start? Starting a school is anything but easy. I have so much respect and admiration for those, like James Smith, whose mission it is to go forward and try.

So what do I bring back to MJGDS? I feel a little more energized (and it's not just the super-strong coffee), a little more courageous. It is important to get out of my routine once in a while, to look around, to open my eyes to the choices and alternatives that exist, even in Jacksonville. I feel that for all my experience, I still have so much to learn. But I love learning, and it is that love of learning that I feel should be what is shared in a learning community.

I urge anyone local to learn more about and to support MEROS Academy's crowdfunding campaign to get their summer program up and running. The more choices there are for students to be educated in different ways, the more we all will benefit.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Teacher-Led Evaluations: Do They Help Build Reflective School Culture?

I wrote last year, at this time, about our school's move to teacher-led evaluations. This year there was a committee who designed the parameters and made it "official." No more administrator watching a carefully prepared lesson, twice a year, for a high-stakes write-up. If we are to truly become a culture that values self-reflection and the habits of mind that are part of a reflective culture (goal setting, prioritizing, lifelong learning), it is time for teachers to take ownership of our strengths as well as those areas we believe are a work in progress.

Using our school's Target for Teaching and Learning as my guide, I created a slideshow of artifacts documenting my journey of growth throughout this year.


Teacher-Led Evaluation, Spring 2014 from Andrea Hernandez

I summed up my reflections on the process on one of my final slides:


Certain artifacts fit obviously into certain domains on the target, but others were less clear. It became glaringly obvious how much learning environment overlaps with task which overlaps with role of teacher, etc.

You can't really tweak one part of your instructional process without it affecting the big picture.





I also tend to be a "half-empty" reflective practitioner (when it comes to my own practice), and I am always focused on what I need to improve. It was impossible to complete this reflective task, reviewing my entire year, without being able to recognize how much was accomplished.

What now? 
My own "next steps" are rather broad strokes, like "document more and be more organized." I need to create more specific goals and figure out the appropriate structure in which to achieve those teaching goals.

But what about the next steps for the reflective process of the teacher-led evaluation?
How can this process be elevated to help all teachers become more reflective, connected and collaborative
Is one teacher sharing his or her process only with an administrator truly transparent or growth-minded? 
I am curious to know what my colleagues gleaned from going through this process. Was it more an act of self-promotion or a true and honest look at practice through the lens of the target? What about sharing? What about connecting our own goals with those of others. Who, for instance, on our faculty might help me achieve my goals? 

Is this part of a growth process?
How can teacher-led evaluation lead to better teaching?




Thursday, March 20, 2014

Personalized Learning in a 1:1 Classroom: A Tour Through My Inbox


I know there is a lot of buzz about personalized learning these days. Lots of it comes at a cost where some service will assess your students and provide just-in-time learning. It is tempting to purchase one of those and feel comfortable that the curriculum is being covered at a pace that is right for each student. Although I do use many tools and apps,  that's really not what personalized learning looks like in my 1:1 language arts classroom.

So, what does it look like?

I don't think I can answer that question in a short post. However, I believe that a little tour through my email inbox may provide a glimpse. It hit me last night when I opened my school email.
Literacy= communication, and I do use email as one tool for communicating with my students. 

We read. We write. We edit.  We discuss. We think. We reflect. We create. Why would this look identical in a group of unique individuals?

What follows represents a sample from my current inbox. These are waiting for my reply, feedback or next steps. I have not chosen anything on purpose. I'm just sharing the process. This represents the ongoing learning conversation between my students and me. 
A 5th grader emails to tell me what salary he would like for the documentarian job. He also suggests two new jobs.
A 5th grader shares his updated narrative writing with me. Below is a short snippet of  an 8 page story

Another  5th grade narrative
a 4th grader shares a link to the book quiz he wrote on Goodreads
A 4th grader wrote an epilogue to Wonderstruck using Book Creator

5th grade character trading card
4th grade "visual vocab"
This conversation and creation, this journey, is why I love my 1:1 iPad classroom. 


Sunday, March 16, 2014

5 Things I Wish Everyone Understood About Educational Technology


1. The technology isn't the point
Still….STILL….all these years later (it's 2014 and the internet is 25 years old) when we all know that technology isn't the point in education, there is still so much talk about the technology, the apps, the devices, the new shiny stuff. True, if it's new and shiny and cool it might enable me to redefine a task, that is if it's not too expensive or too difficult to learn or to manage.

2. The technology isn't the lesson
The students in my 4th/5th 1:1 iPad class do not need lessons on using their iPads. They are faster and more adept than I am at using most of the apps. However, they are young and still have a lot of learning to do when it comes to using these devices in a balanced, useful way. They have a lot to learn to become literate users of these powerful tools. They need guidance in understanding and creating work that represents quality in a time of anything goes.

3. The technology isn't the problem
When the kids use social media or chats in ways that hurt others, the technology is not the cause of their mean spirited behavior.

4. The technology isn't the answer
Technology is wonderful and amazing. I love my digital devices and appreciate all the ways they have changed my life for the better.  It's hard to imagine teaching without Google, Pinterest, Twitter, Wordpress, iPads, etc., and I believe that being a connected educator has helped me grow into a better teacher.
However, technology has its dark side. Many people are becoming distracted and unbalanced, spending less real time with real people. There are some serious human health, safety and environmental consequences caused by the manufacture, use and disposal of these devices we love so much.

5. The technology isn't going away
Whether you or I love or hate technology matters not one iota. The world is changing in ways we can barely imagine. Hang on for a wild ride!

Book Whisperer Wannabe

Once in a while I read a book that I wish I'd written. It's like seeing myself in the mirror and thinking, "Hey, I look alright." This was the gift of reading Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer. I am so grateful for this wonderful book. It should be required reading for anyone who teaches or will teach reading.

There are plenty of reviews of the book (see Karin Hallet's great review and infographic). My purpose for writing is to reflect on what this book made me think about and the changes I might make as a result.

I am a lifelong reader who reads any time, any place. Literacy is my biggest educational interest and the desire to share my love of reading was the motivation that brought me to this career in the first place. I believe so strongly in authentic literacy and learning through practice.

I am doing everything in my power to make reading real and enjoyable, to match readers with that perfect book, to lead the way by modeling and sharing my own reading experiences. I still have those few students who view reading as a school thing, not a life thing. Reading Miller's book, I wonder if all of her students truly found pleasure in reading. It certainly sounds as if she created an amazing reading community.


Reading in the Morning
One thing I have already adapted is to use that time first thing in the morning, when students are still arriving, for reading. I used to allow conversations and other activities. I only have my students first thing in the morning twice a week, and I love having that as reading time.

AR
There are so many things I dislike about AR and just a few things I like. Our school uses AR school wide, and compared to other practices I think it's not the worst. It uses real books, and it gives me a type of numeric data that many parents seem to really want. What the various numbers actually mean is a whole other blog post and something I have spent quite a bit of time trying to understand this year. What I dislike about AR in a nutshell is the low-level recall questions that determine comprehension and the fact that kids (and parents) sometimes become overly focused on the levels and points.

Goodreads
Using Goodreads instead of reader's notebooks is another whole blog post. I have struggled to get everyone to make Goodreads a habit, but I am going to stick with it. It is authentic, serves the same purposes as Miller's notebooks, and I like it.

Book Projects Vs. Reflection Letters
I love the weekly, written reflections! Stealing this! We may still do book talks and reviews and such, but I am going to rethink the structure.



Friday, March 7, 2014

A Teacher's Ode to Read-Alouds

One of my main goals this year as a language arts teacher is to build a community of readers, writers and thinkers. I am employing several different strategies in pursuit of this aim. One of the most exciting and pleasurable is class read-alouds. A few months back, I read Principal Joey's post "Stop Trying to Make Your Kids Read." It really struck a chord with me, and I left this comment (which I am only partially sharing here because it was SO LONG)
I completely agree with you about reading aloud. In fact, I devote a LOT of time to read aloud with both my 4th and 5th grade classes, and that time is probably having the biggest impact of anything I am doing in my quest to create a true community of readers.
Some of the reasons I think that read aloud is so powerful in my classroom are:
•I give the students choice. I keep an ongoing list of recommended middle grade books that I am interested in reading. I choose about 5 of those and have the students privately vote via Google form. This way, each student can choose the one they really want, and no one knows who voted for what. This creates a feeling of ownership and excitement before we even begin reading.
•I am an avid, lifelong reader. Not only do I read very fluently, but I know where, when and how to stop and teach. I do not pre-plan my read aloud “lessons.” However, I use read-aloud to teach almost everything, from literary devices to vocabulary to reading strategies. I am able to do this because of the confidence I possess from being a real reader.
•The more we read together, the more shared history we have as a reading community. We naturally make text-to-text connections, and no one is left out.
I ended that comment with:
I have much more to say on this subject…I think I will write a post about read aloud!
I have so much to say about this I don't know where to begin!!!!

As a Teaching/Learning Tool
In my experience, reading aloud is a vital tool for teaching everything and anything about reading. I recommend reading the classic Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Keene to understand how the act of making our thinking transparent during reading aloud helps children become better thinkers and readers. I also like the book Constructing Meaning by Nancy Boyles. These signs, which hang on the wall all year long, are from that book and we refer to them frequently during discussions.

We also have great opportunity to discuss vocabulary strategies, and often students will request to add an interesting new word to our growing word wall. 

My Non-Lesson Plan How-To
I do not write lesson plans for my read alouds. They evolve spontaneously. I attribute this to the fact that I do not "teach" reading so much as I share a genuine love of reading with my students. We choose, together as a class, books that no one (including me) has already read. I get recommendations from our fabulous school librarian, as well as some amazing members of my PLN who are avid readers and reviewers of books for this age group. 
The student librarians for each grade add the book to our read-alouds wall, and tag it "currently reading." After we finish the book, we go around the circle, and each student rates the book 1-5 stars, saying why they gave it the rating they did. The librarian keeps notes of each rating, figures out the class average and adds it to the wall. 

Most activities during or immediately after reading are focused around discussions and written responses. 
We have Skyped with other classes who are reading the same book, which has been a really fun experience. We have taken visual notes, written blog posts from the point of view of a particular character, written reviews on Goodreads, watched the movie and compared/contrasted book and movie, and in two weeks we will be Skyping with Holly Goldberg Sloan, the author of our latest read-aloud, Counting By 7's
We have discussed author's purpose, genre, metaphor, symbolism, word roots, and how authors sometimes "break the rules" of formal writing (which they are allowed to do because, presumably, they know the rules really well). 
We use these books as "mentor texts" for our own writing, which is getting better and better as we grow our understanding of and appreciation for the craft.  

What Do the Kids Say?
As much as I adore read-alouds, they do take time. And, like every teacher, I worry that there is never enough time to do everything. As a student-centered teacher, I value the input and opinions of my students, and I use surveys to gather this data. So I recently surveyed my classes to find out THEIR opinions of read-alouds.







Of my 30 students, I had one student say no and one say yes, after a short break. I also asked them to explain, in writing, their choice. Here are some of their responses:

I love read-alouds! I don't even want to think about stopping them, even for a short period of time. When you read aloud, you and other classmates help me understand things that I wouldn't understand if I read that book on my own. - Julia, 4th grade

I love the fact that I have been exposed to different genres that I wouldn't even think of checking. I think we should keep it going and read more. GO READALOUDS!!!!!!! - Jagger, 5th grade

I want to continue read alouds because when we finish a book, we want to read more books that are related to that book. I think it really helps people find the right books for them. -Nahila, 4th grade

I think we should keep doing read-alouds because it's a chance for everyone to settle down and get comfortable. For me, it helps write in different types of ways. -Arin, 5th grade

I would like to continue because they are fun to listen to and the story is always good. -Evan, 5th grade

Communities Share Stories
If you are still reading....you may be as passionate as I am about this topic. So you may enjoy this story that illustrates how reading aloud connects us as a community in special ways. I just finished reading Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick with 4th grade.  This incredible story is told partly through illustrations and partly through words. Towards the end of the book, the characters in the two stories meet up and the words and illustrations combine to tell the rest of the story.

When we got to this picture, I stopped reading for the day.


I challenged my students to use their iPads and what they knew to see if they could find out where the characters were. Several of them were excited that they were able to figure out that the characters were at the Queens Museum.

A few days later, I flew to New York for a conference. As the plane was landing at LaGuardia, I looked out the window to see that we were directly over this sight! My seatmate must have thought I was crazy as I scrambled to find my phone so I could take this photo for my students.


Further Reading


How a Reading Promise Can Forge Families and Shape Lives

Read Aloud: Why 15 Minutes a Day Matters

Matt Renwick's Top 10 Takeaways From the Read Aloud Handbook

The Warmth of a Shared Experience