Sunday, September 14, 2014

3 Tips to Help You Survive as an Innovative Teacher

Recently I saw the fantastic movie Chef.

I am not a big movie-person, but this was my kind of upbeat, feel-good movie (with a super-cute kid).
I would have liked it no matter what, but it especially touched me because I really identified with the chef.

He was passionate and creative, but not everyone appreciated his passion and creativity.
He had innovative ideas about food, but his boss (Dustin Hoffman) wanted the same old, same old. Ultimately, chef realized that he could not be true to himself while cooking someone else's menu.

I am the chef. My beliefs about learning and literacy are strong and passionate. I can not, in good conscience, serve up the chocolate lava cake just because it has always been on the menu. But I realize that, while I was rooting for the chef,  this was not a battle of good and evil. The chef was not right. He simply had to follow his passion. The people who wanted the boring, traditional food were not wrong. They wanted what they knew would give them comfort.

Everyone got something to eat, and everyone was satisfied. As a diner, I would never eat the exotic food the chef cooked, no matter how beautiful it looked or smelled, no matter how many rave reviews it got. That kind of food is out of my comfort zone;  I'm not going to try squid tentacles or animal innards. This perspective helps me have compassion and understanding for the parents and colleagues who want learning to be served up as worksheets and spelling tests. It's familiar. It's comfortable. It may even, for some students, get the job done.

As a teacher, I want everyone to be excited about my "cooking." Like the chef, I work hard to create fresh, innovative and delicious learning opportunities for my students. Like the chef, I pour my heart and soul into my work and feel devastated when the haters hate.

How do we, who believe in kids over content, stay strong despite the fact that teaching is one of the most disrespected professions of all time?


I've been advised to smile more. I am pretty serious! I'm working on smiling, even if it is fake, because I believe in fake it til you make it. I think of it as a yoga pose. Turn corners of mouth upward. Breathe. Calm the mind. When I have to deal with difficult people, it does no good to argue with them. They want chocolate lava cake! I am not going to change everyone. I can smile and try to stay calm inside even when people are rude.


It's bizarre how I can feel so crazy in one setting and so normal in another setting. It's all context. When I am talking to the chocolate lava people I start to question myself. Give kids a wide selection of books and time to read? Try to meet individual learning needs? Am I insane?  It would be so much easier to have closed-ended, easy-to-measure goals. I could "cover" what's in the book (created by someone who doesn't know MY students!) and call it a day. I could go home and have a normal life. It wouldn't matter that my students would wait passively for me to tell them what to learn. It wouldn't matter that some students wouldn't be challenged. Life would be simple. 

It is only when I connect with other educators that I feel that what I am doing is right. Twitter chats are an amazing place to find your people. Critics call it the echo-chamber. Maybe,  but there is something fortifying about spending time with people I respect tremendously and seeing my work reflected in their ideas. It gives me the strength to go back to my "real world" (which is NOT the echo chamber and where I feel like #1 freak) and carry on. 


We know so much about why we do what we do. Most innovative teachers spend hours and hours (and hours and hours and hours) reading, writing, listening, learning, presenting and connecting with other teachers in the never-ending honing of our craft. It is frustrating when people who know little about education have strong opinions based on nothing substantial. I have started parent education sessions at my school, and I believe they are as important as the work I do with kids in the classroom. Most parents are interested in learning more, as well as experiencing the type of learning their children are experiencing. 

Being a teacher will never be easy. Being a teacher who thinks, questions and pushes against the status quo requires great perseverance. Never will we all agree on the best way to educate or the purpose and meaning of an education. Remember, we all eat differently. As long as the food is healthy, it's ok. Education is as basic as nutrition; it's a building block of human life. 
Do your best, keep learning, and stay true to you. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Daily 5: Implementation Checklist & Other Resources

Use of The Daily 5 for literacy learning continues to evolve at my school. Like anything new, there are questions and concerns, pushback from various stakeholders. As a leader who brought the Daily 5 to the school and a teacher who believes in choice literacy and meeting the needs of individual learners, my response has been to create resources that might help.

I share some of those resources here, with hopes that other teachers and schools might find them useful. For more resources, follow my Literacy board on Pinterest.

I also just made this video showing a little of the intro to read to self with my 5th graders.

This infographic can be used as part of parent education.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mentor Sentences: Teaching Language as an Art

We are very fortunate to have an amazing art teacher at our school, Shana Gutterman. There are many reasons why she is amazing, but one of the most easily noticeable is that she gets all of the kids to create impressive artwork. I have been able to observe her teaching process, and she often uses a "mentor piece" (I don't know if she calls it that though) to inspire the students.
image used with permission: Shana Gutterman
For example, in this lesson students look at self-portraits created by Van Gogh and Rembrandt, with attention drawn to what makes those mentor pieces exceptional. Then, they are invited to create their own self-portraits, using the same technique used by the masters. 

Many teachers of writing also use mentor texts to inspire students' writing. I have some favorite mentor texts that I use for certain types of writing, and sharing quality examples is always part of my process for teaching writing. However, I became more interested last year in the idea of using mentor sentences for the teaching of writing conventions, as well as writing style. 

I tried having students search for wonderful sentences during their reading, but it didn't catch on. I don't think I set it up properly, and the idea just didn't make sense to 4th and 5th graders. But the idea still had a grip on my mind. So when I discovered this video of Jivey using mentor sentences to teach grammar and writing to her 4th grade students, I purchased her mentor sentence lessons, and I began using the lessons and notebooks on the first day of school this year.

What I like about this approach:

  • I love that it focuses on what is right instead of what is wrong with writing.
  • I like that it is a holistic approach that explicitly connects grammar to writing and, specifically, to sentence structure.
  • I like that the notebooks give students some practice with note-taking, as well as handwriting. Last year, with the iPads, my students got very little handwriting practice, and I felt that they needed a bit more of that. 
  • I love the way that this elevates grammar lessons to the critical-thinking exercises that they truly are instead of the memorization of series of rules.
What I am wondering/worrying about:
  • I am spending a lot of time right now on the daily mentor sentence activities. I am always worried about the best use of time. I am hopeful that, with practice, the process will become more routine and will take less time. 
  • Some students are struggling, which is ok. This is thinking-intensive, and I find that thinking is stressful for many students. They look for a work-around such as one student who, for Monday's "invitation to notice" what makes the sentence exceptional wrote, "I don't think this should be a mentor sentence." 
  • I am wondering if it is too much whole-class, frontal teaching. Again, I hope that with more practice, it will become quicker and more student-centered. 
  • I am wondering how to reinforce the practice of particular concepts for students who need more work. I have been looking at different tools, and I think that noredink holds great potential. You easily create assignments and quizzes focusing on specific concepts. Students are guided with hints as needed, and teachers can easily see who has mastered the skill. I am excited to start using this.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The 1st Week: Building a Foundation

My simple reflection from the first week back in the classroom is this:

Building a foundation for learning takes time.

The pressure to "start _______ (fill in the blank yourself)" is great. And yet, in order for the learning community to function smoothly, the foundation must be carefully built. The way I explained it to my students is that you don't build a house on the dirt; you first pour a foundation that will support it.
I spent this first week with my students building the foundation that will support our learning community and help us thrive. I'm amazed (always!) how much time everything takes.

This is the FOURTH blog post I've written today (!) as we reflect weekly on a faculty Ning, and I update both the 4th and 5th grade classroom blogs. In each of those posts, I reflected from a different vantage point (and for a different audience) on this creation of the foundation for learning.

From the 4th Grade Classroom Blog (parent audience)

One main difference between learning in school and learning outside of school is that in most schools, students are consistently grouped with their same-aged peers. Imagine having the same eighteen people come to your house every weekday! The opportunity to learn together extends beyond academic subjects and into developing the important life skills necessary to be a positive member of a community. Building a foundation for social learning is one of my main teaching goals for the first weeks of school.
To this end, we did many activities this week including introducing classroom norms, mentor sentence of the week and “read to self” which is the first component of the Daily 3.

From the Faculty Ning (colleague audience)

I will confess that I am a notorious "step-skipper" meaning I have little patience for detailed procedures and drawn-out step-by-step plans. My mind works creatively and I am very non-linear, which can be a blessing or a curse. So, it may seem odd that I am such an advocate of the Daily 5, which is nothing (in the beginning) if not detailed, linear and repetitive. 
I know that this is good teaching, and I know it because I have seen how well it works. If we had time to teach and model everything this thoroughly it would be great, but the truth is that teaching is a constant process of deciding what is worth the time. As I am beginning the process of building the Daily 5 foundation with my students, I am again seeing for myself how well this series of lessons works to create a structure for personalized literacy instruction. 

I also asked my students to reflect on the week.

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

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.
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?