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Student learning is no accident!

Classroom Teacher: Reality Check

The view from down here.
“It all falls on the classroom teacher, it always does” she reminded me. This was my mother. A retired elementary school teacher, who had made it the long haul. In the classroom for her entire career, advocating for kids, mentoring new teachers- reminding me when I express frustration in the system that, I shouldn’t be surprised because “other people just don’t get it. Everything is the responsibility of the classroom teacher.” In other words- s#!t rolls down hill. I’ve been hearing it for years. But, honestly I didn’t quite get it until recently.
I’ve spent most of my career as a middle school teacher. I guess I have that genetic mutation that appreciates the sass and limit-testing of the adolescent. Anyway, after a few years of moving around, including coaching and mentoring new hires to “fight the good fight,” I opted for a change. Something I admired about so many of the elementary classrooms I had visited as a coach, was the deep sense of community that I watched develop within those four cheerfully decorated walls. In my ever idealistic dreams of the next chapter of my life as a teacher, I thought- that is where I belong. If I teach in an elementary school classroom, I can have so much more of an impact! I can foster a sense of community, encourage students to work together, develop their character, their leadership skills, and of course… differentiate instruction so they don’t end up in middle school with so many gaps in their learning. Yes- if I meet them each exactly where they are (in grade 2) and do my job, I will change the course of the future.

Last night at dinner, a friend was telling us about the new job she’d be starting as her maternity leave comes to an end. She is taking a position where she will work three 10 hour days, instead of five 8 hour days. While it will be a decrease in hours, it will work for her family, and for that we were celebrating. My mind wondered… thinking about all of the ten hour days I had been working since September… Someone interrupted my thoughts with a question. “So… I know teachers work a lot more than the hours they have to be at school… but how many hours is the actual school week anyway?” As I answered, “Umm… 35ish, I guess…”  my mind raced with the math of my typical work week. 7-5 most days, 7-6 some… there was that day I made it to my 4:00 dentist appointment on time. That felt like a holiday.

And yet, almost every morning (while I race around hoping that the hour before my students arrive will tick by more slowly) I chastise myself for my lack of preparation, for everything I’m not doing. And most afternoons, I leave wishing I could just find three more hours to prep, to  plan… or maybe even (dare I say?) to think. On the way home, I beat myself up about the administrative tasks I’ve pushed off yet again- logging those scores into the database, filing last week’s evidences into student folders. And then I offer myself some consolation- if something’s gotta give, at least it’s not your face time with kids… But let’s face it- I judge myself solely on what I haven’t accomplished in my classroom. Don’t we all?

So during the rest of that celebratory dinner, I multitasked, making some mental lists, doing some serious math. What was it that was getting in the way of the real work I wanted to do with kids? Why hadn’t I helped every student choose a “just right” book from our classroom library yet, met with reading groups regularly, held enough writing conferences and completed a running record for every student? I found my answer in the math. My students are at school for 6 hours and 15 minutes each day. They attend a specialist class, eat lunch, and have recess- all outside of our classroom. This brings our time together for teaching and learning down to just 4 hours and 25 minutes. Next, we visit the lav as a class- twice a day. While I wish it were faster, it takes a solid 15 minutes each time. We practice our math facts in the hall because I’m trying to squeeze every educationally productive minute out of the day possible, but these necessary bio breaks bring our time together to 3 hours 55 minutes. Next is snack. Seven and eight year-olds need a healthy snack during the day. I dreamed of protecting this time for reading aloud while students munched. I imagined kids eating their snacks on the edges of their seats waiting to hear what would happen next to Junie B. Jones or Charlotte, the spider.

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Fruit cups however, are killing me. Every day at least three kids bring a fruit cup for snack- a very healthy option for sure. The seal though… they can’t open it themselves. And even when I open it for them and suggest they drink the extra juice first- the end of our snack time always brings the “sticky desk sweep.” I race around the room spraying down the desks of every student who had a fruit cup or yogurt. This is a new routine for me- and quite genius, I think. It saves me instructional minutes later, when students would regularly raise their hands mid lesson to say, “my desk is sticky. I don’t know why.” This would cause a much more serious loss of instructional time… but alas- the read aloud snack time dream was just that- a dream. After accounting for snack time, we’re left with 3 hours 40 minutes, on a good day. Let’s subtract 15 minutes for classroom jobs and cleanup at the end of the day, and 15 minutes for the morning meeting that helps us remember we are all individuals, that matter- and care about each other. (I will foster a sense community!!)

I have 3 hours and 10 minutes. And thank goodness- because I am going to need every single one of those minutes! My “job” is to design opportunities for these amazing second graders to learn math, reading, writing and science or social studies concepts each day. Oh yeah, and I have to deliver a 40 minute phonics lesson each day- that luckily I don’t have to design…so… 2:30 it is!

What did I do so irresponsibly with those minutes this week? How is it that my “to teach” still feels so long?? Monday we had an assembly… one hour gone. Tuesday, I was out learning about the phonics program. Enlightening? Yes. Necessary? Definitely. Wednesday was picture day. Thursday, we had chorus rehearsal and our hearing tested. And Friday… why was Friday so hectic? Oh right… it was Halloween, hat day and we met with our fourth grade reading buddies. And thank goodness we did- because I definitely did not sit and listen to each student read this week.

So, kudos to all of the elementary school teachers who have the systems in place to juggle these demands. Those of you that juggle them and don’t sleep at school- you are my heroes! I’m watching and learning from every single one of you, every single day!

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Using Google Presentations for What??

Using Google Draw

Place Value in Second Grade

Here’s how we’re getting our senses involved as we determine the value of base ten blocks in second grade!

Using Screencastify

Teaching with Online Discussions

I decided early this year that I have a responsibility to improve the quality of online discussions. As a teacher, I often feel responsible to improve the world I live in. Knowing each year, that I will spend so many hours every day with so many impressionable, mold-able citizens of the future- can sometimes feel like a lot of pressure. I know my time working on digital citizenship is well spent though, because my students have digital footprints that are growing faster than they are!

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Teaching students to have respectful, productive academic discussions online follows the same construct as teaching anything else. Students need to be taught explicitly. Students need clear, timely feedback. Students need to play an active role in creating/ designing the expectations. Students need to be exposed to and evaluate samples of the work they are being asked to create.
My students used Edmodo a great deal this year to have online discussions. Sometimes we discussed a current event, other times a shared novel. One reason I liked using Edmodo was that I had the ability to give students feedback on their posts. I also liked that I could create small discussion groups. Here is a snapshot of a reading group discussion.

Edmodo Screen Shot
I found this threaded discussion rubric online and love it! It came from Educational Origami, a blog and wiki dedicated to 21st Century Teaching & Learning. You’ll want to bookmark their page!
Based on this rubric, threaded discussion posts should:

  • Refer to posts and thread
  • Enhance the discussion
  • Be clear and concise
  • Add own opinion based on thread
  • Develop an argument (supportive or opposed)
  • Develop suitable questions
  • Critique other posts
  • Answer questions and defends stance or position

If I could go back in time, I’d have this list in mind as my goal, as I elicited student ideas about what threaded discussions should look like. We revised and narrowed our expectations as a group this year, and ended up with a similar list, but starting with the end in mind always helps!

Do you have any advice for teachers who plan to dive into online discussions this year? Have a rubric to share?

7 Ways I’ll Work Smarter in my Next 1:1 Classroom

After using a class set of Chromebooks for the whole second semester of the school year in my sixth grade Humanities class, my brain is spinning with all of the “next time I’ll…” ideas. Here are a few:
1. Simplify & standardize the creation of students’ usernames and passwords. If students are creating an account that is linked to their Google account (GAFE), having them sign in with Google was great! No password or username needed. However, it wasn’t until we had dealt with the annoying, “Um… Mrs. Sullivan, my password’s not working” too many times that one of my students mentioned that there’s a  rule in the library. My school’s amazing media specialist had already trained my students that when creating any online account they had to use their email prefix for the username (complete w/ a sequence of numbers, so no one ever got a message that their username of choice was already taken) and their lunch number for their password. As often happens in middle school- once my students walked out of the Media Center and into my classroom, they disconnected the part of their brain that they used in the Media Center. Luckily, someone had a moment of clarity… followed by a collective, “Oh yeah…” from her classmates!
2. Collaborate in product and credit. Very often I’d assign students to work together on a digital creation. As a partnership or small group they’d present their analysis of a character or pitch a new idea. While working, the students would be using one person’s account, which meant that later if one of the group members wanted to access that product they wouldn’t be able to log in and see it. This really didn’t pose many problems, however at the end of the year it occurred to me that we could avoid problems with a simple procedure. Each time students work collaboratively, they sent an email with the link and embed code to me and all group members. In the subject line, they wrote the assignment title. This was helpful because many students wanted to embed a Powtoon or Amimoto video on their blog or in their digital portfolio, and would need the embed code to do that. Note: this was not an issue when working in Google Docs, as students can easily share access.

3. Classroom Jobs: Technology Managers pass out and collect Chrome books and manage easy to tangle plugs. Help Desk Staff- These are students you can go to for help and who manage a Help Desk webpage to answer Frequently Asked Questions through text/ video tutorials.
4. Have students create and keep a Digital Portfolio Page on their website as a place to display (and reflect on) all of the digital creations they make throughout the year. I wish I had done that along the way, instead my students added it at the end of the year. I’m sure they missed some of their creations.
5. Comment on each others blog posts more often. Next time, I think I’d establish a time frame to keep this going all year. This year on a few different occasions I grouped students (across classes) into groups of 4 students. Each was responsible to comment on each of their fellow group members posts and respond to a certain number of comments. They LOVED doing this and I wish I had done it more. It increased the pride students took in their own published work when they knew they would actually have an audience, and they loved checking the stats to see how many visitors they had, which posts were most popular etc. The possibilities are endless here!
6. Encourage students to be each others’ editors more often. Here’s a rubric that students used to peer assess websites. Here’s a digital presentation rubric that my students used to both peer and self-assess their Genius Hour projects. (I adapted these from others that I found somewhere on the web… sorry that I don’t remember where! If you are the original author- thank you! I love your work, please get in touch so I may credit you!)
7. Don’t reinvent the wheel! Essay questions make great platforms for digital creations. Instead of adding an assignment, try replacing one that’s tried and true. For example, I love this assignment that I’ve been giving for a few years now, where students have to take the perspective of either the North or the South the day after the election of 1860. They used to write an editorial that would have appeared in the local newspaper. At the end of the unit, my students would also find a similar essay question on their test. I still love the assignment, the thinking and the discussions! This year though, they worked in groups… and instead of writing an editorial, they created a video that would have gone viral in either the North or the South the day after the election. They still found the same essay question on their test. This was by far- my favorite assignment of the year.

What advice do you have for someone ready to take the edtech plunge?

Got a Case of Website Amnesia?

I frequent a Sunday night Twitter chat, #edchatri, where amazing educators from all over the US help me approach the coming school week with the right attitude. During these chats, I discover amazing resources shared by fellow educators, who I now consider to be my colleagues, despite the geography that separates us. There are some Sunday nights that the quantity of resources shared can be daunting, especially if you battle web-amnesia or web-déjà vus like me. I find myself wondering “What was that page? Was it a .org or .com…” or thinking, “wait, I’ve seen this before!” much too often.

It was during one of those more resource-heavy chats that my relationship with Learnist began, and my world of organization changed forever. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were chatting about Response to Intervention (RTI in teacher-speak), one of the many current educational initiatives with which teachers all over the country are wrestling. I knew that I would certainly lose track of some of the resources being shared. I had no fewer than 8 windows open between the two browsers running  on my computer, each window holding tight to the web address of one more resource I was sure I couldn’t live without.  As I clicked and Tweeted, I kept a legal pad on my desk for extra insurance. I scribbled the URLs that seemed most important and a brief description I hoped would help me remember why I wanted to visit again later.

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As I scrolled back through the Tweets I had missed while scribbling, I saw my first ever Learnist link. Dawn Casey-Rowe had Tweeted, “#edchatri I’m making a learnistboard to summarize RTI links from chat. Helps me use later. Will finish. Here’s link http://bit.ly/SUPSWp.” Clicking on Dawn’s link helped me find the courage to close those windows, stop writing on my legal pad… and actually think about the discussion we were having.

In the coming weeks and months I would use Learnist to support the beginning teachers I was coaching, teachers I supported through Professional Development workshops, and later in my own sixth grade classroom. Read More

Let’s Get Blogging, Kids!

Getting my sixth grade students set up with their own individual blogs was a lot getting myself in the water for the first time on a beach day. The worst are the days I never make it into the water- I regret it all the way home! And just like when I finally take the plunge at the beach, once we set up our blogs, I wished I had done it sooner.

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What worked? To start, I really wanted printed out step by step directions to hand students. In order to make them as accurate as possible, I created a practice web page using my dog’s name, and took notes throughout the process. These tangible directions seemed to be valuable. Many students were able to help themselves, as Read More

The Wait is Over

What a productive week it has been… in terms of my thinking. I feel like I have made incredible progress, even though nothing tangible has happened… yet! I knew before this school year began that I wanted to get my students blogging. I also knew I was in love with the idea of Genius Hour. Here it is, January- and I cannot check either off of my To Do list. I feel confident though, that all of that will change for me this week. And the best part is, that once we begin, forward motion will ensue no matter what. What happened in the last week to push me forward from dreaming to doing? Just right collaboration, and faith… that’s what! A couple of months ago I brought my nagging “I really want to have a genius hour” plea to my high school teacher friend, who was further along in the process than me. I listened to her stories, her “what I’d do next times” and gained confidence as she reflected. Read More

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