17 April 2014

Thinking about Math, Poetry, and Art

The math problem my son shared with me
Picking up my thirteen year old son from school is always a joy because it's the few minutes in our day when he's most talkative.  On a recent afternoon, he spent ten minutes on our drive home telling me all about his algebra class, how much he loves it, how much he's learning, and basically how curious he is about numbers.  Knowing how much he loves numbers, I was excited to tell him about a book I checked out from the library.  When I told him about it, he eagerly replied "What's the man's name?" When I told him Daniel Tammet was the author of the book, he started nodding his head with excitement because he watched a documentary about Tammet when he curled up on his bed one afternoon during one of our snow days this past winter.

 I read Daniel Tammet's Thinking in NumbersOn Life, Love, Meaning, and Math for one of my books of the week in March, but decided to write about it in April since math and poetry connect rather nicely, and April is National Poetry Month.  For me there were many beautiful aspects to Tammet's ideas, but one of the parts that resonated with me most was about mathematics being flexible and not a rigid set of problems and procedures to memorize step-by-step.  That's the way I was taught math as a child and teenager, and I hated it because it allowed little room for thinking or exploring.  It was all about following the directions and procedures to get to an answer one way (and make sure you show your work using the procedure you were taught!).

Beautifully, Tammet references Charles Dickens writing about the dreaded multiplication tables.  Tammet then proceeds to describe different ways to reach the number 56.  A sampling of Tammet's explanation here from page 38-39 of his book.

56 = 28 X 2
56 = 14 X 4
56 = 7 X 8
56 = 3.5 X 16
56 = 1.75 X 32
56 = 0.875 X 64

Tammet goes on to write three or four pages about familiar forms being "simple and succinct but finely wrought."

Another favorite chapter titled The Admirable Number Pi struck a chord with me because of my son's interest in Pi.  Ethan watched parts of Tammet reciting Pi in the documentary.  Seeing my 13 year  old excited about a man reciting Pi was reason enough to like this particular chapter in Tammet's book.  But there's more reason as well.  When Tammet talks about seeing the infinite number Pi in phrases and images, I'm intrigued by the ideas, the art, the humanness of  numbers.  Really, I've never thought about this before now--exciting for me as I continue learning to muse.

Finally, I must mention Tammet's numerous allusions to novels, language, rhetoric, and poetry.  Clearly he's read a wide range of authors and texts as he writes about ideas and topics presented in the works of many authors in the Western Canon, including Dante.  Specifically, he writes about one of Dante's sestinas and he dwells on the numbers associated with a sestina.

"Which is to say, the final word in line six of the first standa (1 2 3 4 5 6) reappears  as the last word of the next stanza's opening line (6 1 2 3 4 3), and at the close of the second line of stanza three (3 6 4 1 2 5), and so on.... (page 184)."

His explanations are too remarkable for me to tell you about in a simple paragraph, so all I can do now is recommend that you read the book for yourself and maybe then share your reading with a child who is interested in numbers.

15 April 2014

Learning About the Battle of Perryville

 "I would like to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky." 
                                                              ~Abraham Lincoln

As a lover of nonfiction texts from my early childhood days until now, I recall many a biography I read about women.  Around third grade, I read a biography of Clara Barton and that experience established my interest in the American Civil War.  Barton's involvement as a civil rights activist and her work with the women's suffrage movement were significant issues for me as a young girl.  Drawn to ideas of Barton's humanitarian efforts, I learned about the Union and Confederate sides, and I was impacted by the hatefulness of slavery in ways I couldn't fully grasp, other than to know it could not be okay to treat human beings as property.  Over the years, my understanding of the issues expanded, but honestly I don't think I fully grasped the significance of border states until helping my ten-year-old son with a recent research project for History Day.

Isaac loves history especially the American Civil War.  Since he was seven or eight years old, he's been interested in the people and the strategies behind the battles.  For his third grade biography project a couple of years ago, he researched Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln has continued to be one of his favorite people from history.  For his fifth grade history day project, he decided to research the Battle of Perryville since it was the largest Civil War battle fought in Kentucky and it was a turning point in the War.

Since I have never previously studied Kentucky history and wasn't initially excited about moving here nearly eleven years ago, Isaac and I learned together about an era in Kentucky's history.  We learned why Kentucky was such an important state during the American Civil War and why Abraham Lincoln said he must have Kentucky on his side.  Since it was a border state politically and geographically both the North and the South wanted Kentucky on their side, and Kentucky citizens were apparently divided with some of the residents sympathizing with the South on economic labor issues (they wanted free labor from slaves) and others sympathizing with more progressive thinkers from the North who opposed slavery.

Highlights from what we learned

  • We learned that the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves from all confederate states, but not the border states, including Kentucky.  
  •  We learned states rights were important to the South because they wanted to preserve their way of living and if slavery was abolished, their way of living would change.
  • We learned about a drought in the region that drew both the Union and Confederate armies to Perryville, Kentucky where they had access to many creeks and rivers for troops and their horses.
  • We learned about the aftermath of the battle and about a teacher from the School for the Deaf in Danville who was alarmed by the large number of soldiers who were killed and lying dead on the battlefield without a proper burial.  This man went back to the school and brought his students back with him to dig graves and bury the dead soldiers.

Clearly the bulleted points above do not encompass everything we learned, but these were the facts that stayed with both of us, and they are the details making me want to learn more about Kentucky's history.

Incidentally, Isaac and I had the opportunity to learn more about history in Kentucky when he represented his elementary school at the Lexington History Museum's History Fair in downtown at the historic Lyric Theatre in downtown Lexington.

----Sources Consulted----

1.      Wertz, Jay. The Civil War: 1861-1865.  London:
Sevenoaks, 2011.

2.      Sanders, Stuart W. Perryville Under Fire: The
Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012.

3.      Noe, Kenneth W. Perryville: This Grand Havoc of
Battle. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

4.      www.civilwar.org

6.      Library of Congress. www.loc.gov/item99447187

14 April 2014

Why I Won't Make My Child Complete a Word Search Worksheet for Homework

"We know it works with Alzheimer's patients" was the reply provided to my husband several years ago when he asked the teacher if there was any research to support a word search puzzle as homework for one of our sons.  Yep.  That's what she told us--it works with Alzheimer's patients.  Keep in mind, our child was seven years old, not eighty-seven.

Being an educator and a parent is not always easy, especially when you work in the same town where your children attend school.  I try to meet teachers each year as a parent and leave my educator hat at home when I meet with or email them.  As an educator, I try to see the teacher's point of view first when working with my sons.  In fact, I often second guess my own sons at home when we're talking about homework because I want to give the benefit of doubt to the teacher.  However, as a mom who is passionate about education,  I recognize that it's my duty and privilege to advocate for my children to ensure they receive the best education possible.  I believe strongly in my children and their abilities and want them to learn, to enjoy learning, and to feel like school makes sense.  I want my sons to know that I believe in them and will support them in their learning journey, but they will also have to accept responsibility and face any consequences associated with non compliance.

This weekend when I checked the online grades portal, I noticed one of my sons was missing an assignment.  When I asked him about it and the corresponding zero he received.  His reply was "oh--that was a word search worksheet, so I chose not to waste my time doing it."  I told him he would have to suffer the consequences of that one worksheet bringing his grade down two full letter grades, and he said he didn't care.  I struggled with his response because I want him to care about school, but when he assured me that he was respectfully not doing the homework and that he didn't say anything disrespectful to his teacher, I decided I would support his decision to not waste time completing a word search worksheet. 

I've been thinking about this issue all weekend because I'm struggling to know if it's the right decision to support his choice not to complete the word search. Generally, we require all homework to be completed by our sons, but when it comes to children completing meaningless tasks, I struggle.  I struggle big time.   I don't want meaningless tasks for any children in our education system including my own.   Over the years we've required our sons to complete even tasks that were meaningless because in life we have to do things we don't like to do.  But this time when the second word search worksheet came home within a one semester for the same child, we are supporting his decision to not complete it--at least this time.  Not sure what we'll do if the word search worksheets continue to be sent home for homework.  If you have any suggestions, please share them here.

25 March 2014

8 Takeaways from Better Blogging Training

An opportunity to receive coaching from expert writers and bloggers in our Nation's Capital? Sign me up!  Actually, the opportunity required me to apply, so in December just before Christmas, I sent my application and by January learned I was accepted for a one day blogging training for educators from around the country.  Bellwether Education Partners hosted the intense full day training last week at the Sofitel at Lafayette Square.  We received interactive writing coaching and participated in a seminar on marketing and social media, all with renowned authors from organizations such as The Atlantic, The Daily Caller, RealClearPolitics, Bellwether Education Partners, Bully Pulpit Interactive, and Inside Higher Ed.  The coaches were direct, honest, and extremely knowledgeable.

Spring 2013

Here are my top 8 takeaways from the day--

1.  Dedicate time each day to writing.
As an educator and writer, I instinctively know this.  But, do I do it?  Matt Lewis from The Daily Caller walked us through photographic day in his life, starting with his morning coffee and writing.  Write at a time of day when you're at your best and take frequent walk breaks before publishing anything.

2.  Dedicate 50% of your writing time to promoting your writing.
Again, this one was from Lewis.  He suggested shamelessly promoting your work--to get it out there and read by many because it sometimes takes tweeting it 3 or 4 times before the story catches on.  This one is hard for me and for many other educators I know because we're not used to "bragging" about our work.  Plus, I've personally found it annoying when someone tweets the same link so many times it feels like I'm being spammed.  Guess I'll have to figure out how to strike a balance between self-promotion and spamming people.

4. Read. Read. Read.
All of the writers at the training told us we need to be reading all the time to be better writers, to find ideas for stories, and to be aware of what's happening in the world.  We can also capitalize on timely content for our own blogs.  Carl Cannon from RealClearPolitics told us we should also be reading our own work aloud all the time, multiple times, and always before we press publish. 

5.  Write interesting headlines and ledes.
We received small group and one-on-one coaching for headline and lede writing.  They gave us a fake press release and asked us to write in response to it for our own blogs.  My first stab received feedback of "boring." I realized I'm not incredibly fast with my writing either because I spend so much time thinking about it before writing about it.  Eleanor Barkhorn shared a few tips with us telling us to "draw our reader in and not to mislead, annoy, talk down to, or otherwise turn off a reader from reading."  Further, she said it's best to be straightforward and offer a headline that tells readers what they're going to get if they click. 

6.  Tell stories.
So much for David Coleman's statement that nobody gives a sh__about our stories.  In fact, people care very much about stories, and we have to use them effectively and embed them into our arguments and expository writing when blogging. According to Carl Cannon, part of sharing a story includes "making sure people on the other side of an issue recognize their argument in your characterization of their position." We can do this with stories.

7.  Know your content.
Cannon shared a Joel Garreau quote with us--"I was there & this is no sh__" Really, better writing happens when you're part of whatever you're writing about, so if you're trying to write about an event you didn't attend, you're likely to have poor content, and as Hemingway said--"readers are bullshit detectors."  Part of knowing your content means you can become known as a go-to source on something, too. This way if there's a major event happening, people will say "I can't wait to read Learning to Muse to hear what Renee thinks about innovative school design or effective teaching strategies" (or whatever your area of expertise is).

8.  Be obsessed.
 Given that I'm rather passionate about education, this shouldn't be too difficult.  I'm already obsessed with learning in ways that make sense and push on traditional boundaries.  Bully Pulpit Interactive led this section of our day on social media and branding.  This was the toughest part of the day for me, but it was also intriguing to learn about branding, marketing, SEOs--all relatively new topics for me, given my background in education for the past fifteen years. Blogging, however, has brought these topics more front and center for me because I do want my blog to be great, so that means I have to pay attention to my audience and I have to help the internet find my content by adding tags and using keywords.  I also need to organize my content in ways that make sense to my readers (something you might notice I've been working on more lately).  If you have any tips or feedback--feel free to share.

On my way home from this fully exhausting day, I downloaded another e-book on blogging.  This one, titled "How to Blog for Profit without Selling Your Soul," was interesting and I finished it quickly.  I'm not really trying to blog for profit, but I did learn many ideas similar to the ones suggested in this training that should help me continue improving as a blogger.

23 March 2014

Driven by Passion, Curiosity, and Dedication: Creating My Personal Mission Statement

For a work project, we were asked to develop personal mission statements and create Individual Development Plans.  As a former classroom teacher, I'm well familiar with Individual Growth Plans, but never before have I worked so diligently to consider my personal goals and mission because those forms previously created as a teacher were driven by the school's mission statements or the organization's overall strategic plan. Over the past few weeks I've been reading texts that I thought would help with my task of developing a personal mission statement, and I've been musing on my personal attributes, goals, and values.

One of the websites I visited suggested asking friends to tell me my top three attributes, so I asked my family and friends on Facebook to respond. I cut and pasted their responses to create a word cloud, so I could visualize my greatest attributes.  Other tips suggested by Gala Darling were similarly suggested on Franklin Covey's site as well. Using all of the sentence starters below, I drafted a somewhat cohesive mission statement to keep me going on this personal journey.

I'm at my best when...
I'm at my worst when...
At work I really like to...
In my personal life I really like to...
My natural gifts and talents are...
3 people who have influenced me most & one attribute they possess...
On my 80th birthday I hope people say....Renee is...
The image I'd like to project is...


Since I'm reading a book a week, I selected Susan Cain's Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking to read last week.  Learning more about my introverted self and how to leverage my strengths fed directly into my Individual Development Plan.  I especially enjoyed the sections on the differences between shyness and introversion.

"Many people believe that introversion is about being antisocial, and that's really a misperception. Because actually it's just that introverts are differently social. So they would prefer to have a glass of wine with a close friend as opposed to going to a loud party full of strangers."

"Now, shyness, on the other hand, is about a fear of negative social judgment. So you can be introverted without having that particular fear at all, and you can be shy but also be an extrovert."

As I proceed with my Individual Development Plan and living my personal mission statement, I suspect I'll benefit from knowing the power of my introversion.

17 March 2014

Will all the National Board Certified Teachers in the Room Please Stand?

Sandwiched between big name leaders such as Secretary Arne Duncan and North Carolina's former Governor Hunt were delightful speeches from former National Board Certified physical education teacher--Barbara Kelly, and Susan Hopgood, President of Education International.  Delightful speeches by these women brought inspiration amidst political and controversial conversations that  take much of the stage in the follow up blogs and news articles about the Teaching and Learning Conference last week in Washington, D.C..

With tears rimming my eye lids, I listened intently as Barbara Kelly shared a story about a recent tennis match where her tennis partner asked her to come to net because they were about to lose if she didn't step out of her comfort zone and approach the net. She spoke of the early years of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards where at meetings they regularly asked all NBCTs to stand, and then she asked us all to stand if we were NBCTs.  Hundreds of teachers stood and were then encouraged by Kelly to step forward as teacher leaders and raise our voices to make an impact on education in our country.  Barbara Kelly was honored with the James A. Kelly (no relation to Barbara) Award for demonstrating clear, consistent and convincing evidence of her ability to foster the legacy of accomplished teaching.

Just when I thought my tears would dry up and I could move on to listening to the politicians speak of education reform in our country, Susan Hopgood from Educational International approached the podium to speak.  Her comments about gender equality struck a chord with me given my study and efforts over the past year.  Her call for a global campaign around more just, peaceful, and tolerant societies to set the stage for education goals around the world appealed to my interests as well.  In America, it's easy to get lost in our own world of education reform and to forget about the millions of women and girls around the world who have no access to education.  When we consider the statistics, we realize we must do something at this critical time for the world to make decisions that will affect children for many years to come.

"Together we can make a difference for the education of girls around the world" 
                                                                        ~~Susan Hopgood

Hopgood's organization believes teachers are at the heart of education, so it was fitting that she spoke to thousands of teachers because quality education for all cannot be attained without investment in teachers.
Children from Lexington perform in event planned by Mahika

Because her short speech was so inspiring on day one, I selected to attend another session where Hopgood served on a panel day two.  In this session on Lessons Learned from High Performing Countries, Susan Hopgood, Pasi Sahlberg Mary Cathryn Ricker, and Dan Montgomery talked about the lessons we should learn from other countries.  Sahlberg suggested instead of comparing our PISA test results from country to country like a competition or beauty pageant, we should dig deeper into the patterns and trends of our own systems. 

 One of the biggest differences between America and other countries is that many other countries hold teachers in higher regard than we do here, and if you have been reading my blog since I started it, you will recall that one of the reasons I left the classroom was because I was tired of the lack of respect for the profession.

 A lack of respect was not obvious at the Teaching and Learning Conference.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Over and over there was a celebration of teaching and learning by everyone, and there was special recognition for all National Board Certified Teachers, especially when Barbara Kelly asked us all to stand.

16 March 2014

Where Knowledge Meets Inspiration: Learning & Networking at the T & L Conference

Where Knowledge Meets Inspiration-a germane tag line for the 2014 Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C. last week given the inspiring and informational sessions offered. As a National Board Certified Teacher, it was incredible to be surrounded by two thousand other knowledgeable and inspirational education professionals at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.  

Though my flight was delayed and I missed a pre-conference workshop at the National Geographic Society, I wasted no time connecting with fellow educators via Twitter for a dinner at Pi Pizzeria for a day early celebration of Pi Day.  Our conversations ranged from discussing our own NB
certification process to our own children and families at home holding down the fort while we were off to our Nation's Capital to learn with and from fellow educators.  Before leaving the restaurant, we had each mapped out the next day and shared our plans with one another.

On Friday morning, a friend and I met up with the Director of NBCT from Kentucky's Education Professional Standards Board (EPSB) to attend a session about the SEED (Supporting Educator Effectiveness Development) grant of which Kentucky is a part.  In this 8:30 am informational session, we learned about work taking place over the next three years to transform systems of support for encouraging more NBCT candidates in high-needs schools.  We also learned about the redesign of the NBCT process, including a total revamping of the assessment center part of certification and a redesign of the portfolio entries, with the primary change being an opportunity to complete only one or two components per year over two years rather than squeezing the entire NBCT certification process into a single year.  With this, new NBCT candidates will be able to spread out the hefty payments for certification as well.  All told, a very practical session focused on not only logistics and what needs to happen but on why we need to make these changes--a more intense focus on the 5 Core Propositions.  The new process also allows candidates to reflect thoughtfully and maintain high levels of teaching during the certification year.  An additional session on the SEED grant and Instructional Leadership later in the day brought occasion to learn more about how we can encourage and support more NBCTs as teacher leaders in our respective states.

The Plenary Session with Bill Gates was by far the most popular session of the day, with people lining up to gain entrance an hour before the doors to the ballroom opened and security checking tags for everyone who entered.  His speech focused on encouraging us to remain steadfast with the Common Core State Standards.  He mentioned our great state of Kentucky when citing examples of effective CCSS implementation because we all know poor implementation and too much focus on standardized tests are what's causing much of the recent backlash against the Common Core.  Following his speech, Gates was joined on stage by George Stephanopoulos who asked questions previously submitted by teachers, allowing a response from Gates.

A few of my favorite quotes from Bill Gates on 3.14.14

"...I'm not politically sophisticated, so I made the assumption people opposing them would have actually read the standards..."

"...the Common Core State Standards give every child an equal chance..."

"...handing out a worksheet will not be seen as a way to provide homework..."

"...I hope people are willing to read long books..."

Each of these quotes is significant to me because they speak to many of the topics I address in my own blog as well as to philosophies of teaching and learning I appreciate, so I linked each quote to a previous blog post I've written on a similar topic.

Our day ended with another plenary session, this one with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Again, a Kentucky reference.  Secretary Duncan referenced a Kentucky teacher who divides his time between teaching and providing professional development.

We also learned more information about new initiatives such as Teach to Lead and T3 (teachers leading efforts in turnaround schools!).  This project enticed me given that I've taught in low performing schools and know that the test prep mentality often employed only brings temporary success at most, and it does nothing for real learning and engaging students toward the futures they deserve and desire.

Debriefing the day over Indian food and beverage with a teacher friend included conversations about our experiences with the Common Core, travels with students to foreign countries, and family life, all in the name of keeping ourselves healthy and balanced individuals, something teachers often need reminders to do.

**Stay tuned for another post on the conference because there was too much to say in just one post**

09 March 2014

Lexington Teen Inspired by Girl Rising

Sixteen year-old Mahika left the Kentucky Theatre on a rainy evening several months ago determined to take action after seeing the film Girl Rising.  Upon leaving the theatre, Mahika's father told her--"talking is great, but taking action is even better."  The film and her father's statement spun Mahika into action, so for the past few months she and her friends worked to organize an event to take place around International Women's Day.

When Mahika emailed me a few weeks ago to tell me her plan, you can imagine my excitement knowing Girl Rising inspired her.  Indeed, the film did inspire young Mahikha and her friends to create, perform, and organize an event and performance.  Seventy five people from our Lexington community came together this afternoon at the Bharatiya Temple and Cultural Center to watch twenty young people (girls and boys) put on a production as part of a book drive designed to support the education of women and girls in underprivileged areas of our world.

 The event was superbly planned and the performances were fantastic.  Mahika and her friends carefully narrated the entire ninety-minute performance which included beautifully delivered monologues, world music with startling statistics presented on posters, slide shows of pictures of girls and women from around the world, a film clip from a school in India, and biographical sketches of young girls separated at birth with one girl telling her story of growing up in the United States and another girl telling the story of a sister who grew up in India.  The girls were careful to note the differences in living status, education, equality, and freedom because of one's home.

 A young 4th grader wrote and read an original poem inspired by the film.  A line from the poem that stayed with me--

 "we go to school to be educated and to live a free life..."

Lexington girls delivered speeches from memory by women from around the world including--

Malala Yousafzai
Sunitha Krishnan
Mother Theresea
Michelle Obama
Sonia Sotomayor
Harriet Van Meter

The transitions from sequence to sequence in the program were thoughtfully planned.  For example, the program transitioned from the monologues ending with the one by a Lexington girl delivering the words of Hariret Van Meter to a presentation by Dr. Vijayaraghavan speaking about International We Serve Foundation.  Mahika and her friends met with Dr. Vijayaraghavan to share their dream, and he realized Mahika and her friends shared his vision of promoting global prosperity to empower citizens.  When he rose to give his presentation, he was clearly moved by the inspiring program and performances of the young people at BTCC, as were we all.

01 March 2014

February 2014 Reads

February brought more nonfiction, but that's not a surprise since I'm always drawn to it.

Monkey Mind:  A Memoir of Anxiety
amused me while I traveled in the early part of the month.  A tragicomedy by Daniel Smith,  the book made for a perfect read while traveling because it kept me smiling. Smith's narrative reminded me of the stories I enjoyed by Oliver Sacks during my college years as a psychology major.  An intense desire to learn more about self and others can drive a person to major in psychology.  Indeed, my degree and psychology studies have proved useful in multiple aspects of my career and work in education.  While reading Smith's memoir, I thought about my students and family members who cope with anxiety, and I realized even while lauging at Smith's hilarious portrayals of anxiety, that it's not funny when you're helping someone who deals with massive amounts of debilitating anxiety.  If you are a teacher, parent, spouse, or friend of someone with anxiety disorders, you should consider reading this book because the raw material Smith describes might help you better understand people who suffer from anxiety.

Hatching Twitter inspired an entire blog post of its own because of my fascination with the world of business and start-ups and my lack of experiential knowledge around either.  The book still has me thinking about the power of social media, and I'm even dismayed when I hear of others who think social media is a useless waste of time given that entire revolutions began in places around the world because of social media.  The activists and educators who use Twitter for making change are most interesting to me, I guess because those are ideas that matter to me in the grand plan of making a difference in the world.

Formative Assessment:  Making it Happen in the Classroom fed a professional need to revisit a topic for a post on this important aspect of a more balanced approach to teaching and learning.  For my book a week goal, I didn't set out to read a certain number of professional books, nonfiction or fiction, I just knew I would read what was most relevant to me in a given week.  The week I read this book began with a Twitter edchat (#nctechat) about formative assessment, and instead of speaking only from experience and knowledge I've gained over the years, reading this book by Margaret Herritage reminded me of important pieces of research that have been written to prove the impact formative assessment can have on student achievement and learning.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport, the only work of fiction I read this month, was not my favorite read of the month.  Initially when I purchased this book by Cathleen Schine off a bargain table at Barnes and Noble, the blurbs on the back sounded interesting, literary, and reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel.  The book has won awards and is listed as a New York Times Bestseller, but it's not one I would ever read again or recommend.  For me the contemporary version of a genteel society is not one for which I have any care or interest.  Had I known the book is classified as "chick lit" I might have known better than to pick it up since that genre typically does not appeal to me.  I'll make a better choice next time and pay better attention to why a book is on the bargain table in the first place.

23 February 2014

Why I Read Hatching Twitter

While on a recent trip to San Francisco, my colleague mentioned the Twitter offices to me when we drove through the section of the city where Twitter Headquarters is located, so on my flight home I downloaded Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton and read the entire 600 e-book pages in a single weekend. Why?

Curiosity.  As an avid Twitter user for my work in education, curiosity about the business world and start-ups caught hold of me, especially since I'm working for a brand new nonprofit aimed at transforming education.  Thinking about how Twitter revolutionized communication and interaction motivates me and feeds my curious nature.  A single day in San Francisco left me wanting to know more about the history of tech start-ups.  What makes the ideas for products and services turn into multi-million or billion dollar companies?   Clearly, not every start-up successfully morphs into a money-making, world-changing company, so what happens to the rest of the start-ups that are less successful or that never make it at all?  Is Twitter an outlier in a sea of failed start-ups?   What made Twitter a success?  If someone starts a business following Twitter's business model, will it be successful? 

Okay, so none of those questions are answered in the book because the book is about relationships, drama, betrayal, power struggles.  Plus, Twitter supposedly lacked a real business plan in its earliest years.

Stories.  A conflict filled book based on real life interviews with individuals involved in the founding of Twitter sucked me right into the story about Ev, Jack, Biz, and Noah.  The book includes sections devoted to each of the founders and his story of rising and falling with Twitter. I enjoyed reading the varying viewpoints of each man's ideas for the purpose of Twitter--from individual status updates to connecting with the world and giving equal voice to people from everywhere/anywhere.

Surprises.  Since I had never previously read anything about the founding of Twitter or about starting a technology company, many surprises came my way while reading Bilton's book.  The power of money and investors was new and surpirisng information for me as were the hiring/firing procedures.  Basically, if the investors/board members decided the leader wasn't directing the company the way they preferred, the CEO would be fired, even if he was one of the comany's founders.

Learning Ev Williams was the founder of my favorite blogging platform, Blogger, was exciting, too, especially since the reason for creating blogger was for "to tell stories.  To disrupt media." Twitter is a tool for disrupting media, starting revolutions, building new businesses and electing government officials.  Twitter is also a tool for creating a network--a professional learning network or PLN.  Personally and professionally I have experienced tremendous growth since learning how to use the tool effectively.

Renewed Learnings.
Relationships matter most.
Stories are powerful and important.
Leaders should respect their employees.
Social media is changing the way we work, interact, communicate, learn, sell, build, and connect.

22 February 2014

Formative Assessment--A Process--Not a Thing

While lurking in the #nctechat about formative assessment last Sunday, my book-a-week reading decision was made for me even as Franki Sibberson was requesting individuals to send her links to any blog posts.  She requested we send her our links by the following Sunday, so I knew I had my work cut out for me since I planned to read Formative Assessment:  Making it Happen in the Classroom and also revisit the NCTE position statement on formative assessment before writing my post.  My journey to this particular book choice began long before the #nctechat, but my determination to write about formative assessment was solidified after reading all the excellent tweets by educators from around the country. 

Eight years ago, school administrators walked into the library where we we having our weekly faculty meeting carrying posters displaying three questions. 

We were told to hang the poster in our classrooms, and then teachers and students in the building where I taught recited these questions regularly. Hanging the poster did not improve my teaching or my students' learning because I had no idea why we were required to post these questions. What I saw and experienced were mandates I assumed were being passed down to help our students perform better on the state standardized test, and I can assure you that I did not, still do not, nor will I ever believe the sole reason to teach anything is for students to perform well on a standardized test.  The first problem with this scenario is that I did not own new practices or embrace these questions.  The second problem with this scenario is that it's a perfect example of poor implementation of great ideas. 

Make the most of a situation--that's what I do, and that's what I did with the above scenerio as well.  Always, I wanted what was best for my students, and I wanted them to think, to learn, to read, to write, to debate, so we accepted the policy and we learned. We learned together, with me learning more about what my students knew and could do and my students learning more of the literacy skills they needed to be successful.

Years after seeing those three questions for the first time, I began working for the state education department and began reading and learning more about formative assessment. As a state we used Classroom Assessment for Student Learning:  Doing It Right, Using It Well.  The questions I had been introduced to years before began making more sense to me as I learned and studied this text and participated in office-wide trainings in preparation for our state content leadership network meetings that would be our statewide system for implementing the Common Core State Standards.  Our office leaders understood the need for new standards to be introduced within a larger context of highly effective teaching and learning and balanced assessment practices.

One of the highlights of the three years I spent working for the state education agency was my assignment as Kentucky's representative to the FAST SCASS.  Our group, led by Margaret Heritage,  convened quarterly in different locations around the country to discuss formative assessment and to learn from one another about how formative assessment (in practice & policy) looked in our respective states.  Working with Heritage was a life-changing opportunity for me professionally because the three questions that were introduced to me all those years before as a teacher made complete sense in a deeper context of learning.

This week I re-read Heritage's book and revisited my many pages of notes from our FAST SCASS meetings.  I also reviewed the NCTE position statement and the Twitter responses by so many teachers who know and understand formative assessment as a process in their classrooms daily.  Resonating with me this week is the stance made by NCTE (and the FAST SCASS).  Formative assessment is not a test or a thing--it is a process.

Effective teaching and learning is clearly the goal for the teachers represented in this book on formative assessment in the classroom. Throughout the book you see specific classroom examples of learning goals and success criteria as well as specific questions teachers ask in various math, science,  and English language arts classrooms.  For example, a sixth grade math teacher "thinks carefully about the questions she uses throughout her lesson both to scaffold learning and elicit evidence (p.60)." Her questions for the start of a lesson, middle of a lesson, and end of a lesson are shared along with her notes for what she's looking for during the lesson so she can make adjustments based on student responses.

Student self-assessment also plays a prominent role in the practices of the teachers represented in the book, and readers even see charts and examples of sheets teachers use to help students assess their progress toward learning goals.

One of my favorite parts of the book though is the chapter on formative feedback for learning.  Here I read more examples, reviewed additional charts, and learned about additional resources on effective feedback that empowers learners.  This chapter emphasizes teachers and students answering three questions--Where am I going, where am I now, where am I going next?

10 February 2014

How My Son Taught Me to Appreciate STEM

Lucky me.  13 years ago today I became a mom, and this parenting journey couldn't be any better.  From an early age, my oldest son has had an interest in STEM fields, and through him, I discovered that I have a great appreciation for science, technology, engineering, and math.  From my own perspective, art was already appreciated, and I enjoyed sharing art appreciation with Ethan. Together we appreciate not just STEM but STE(A)M (A--art).

Earlier this year, I read an Atlantic article by Jessica Lahey in which she shares how her dad taught her to appreciate STEAM, especially the design and creativity aspects needed to implement scientific and mathematical concepts.  Since reading this article, I began thinking about what I have learned to appreciate. I realized that I started to appreciate the STEM parts of STEAM about the same time I became a mom.

As a baby, Ethan's interest began with all things in nature...worms, caterpillars, trees, flowers, the ocean, the mountains, the stars.  He taught me to look and to listen when I carried him on my back as we hiked trails in the mountains of North Carolina, and he taught me to stop and observe the
greatness of our universe when he was walking on his own.  As he grew older we moved on to thinking more about how things work and move. We built with Lego blocks, looked through telescopes, rode trains, made energy from fruit, assembled circuit boards, made homemade bubbles and play dough, read books about everything science and tested a variety of energy sources.  Always, art was an essential part of our exploration as well.  We drew, painted, and created things for holiday gifts.

Since learning to count around age two and a half, it was apparent that numbers made sense to him.  Ethan didn't just count, he understood from an early age what numbers mean.  Mathematics became an area of strength for him,  and for some reason, he understands and makes sense of mathematical problems that I don't even contemplate (but I do appreciate!).

Around second grade an increased interest in all things solar powered took hold, and we soldered solar panels together, attended E-day at the University of Kentucky, and worked on a science fair projects for school.  In third grade he researched Thomas Edison and built a cardboard monograph for his biography presentation. Edison was his favorite because of his fascination with electricity, and for Halloween one year he even dressed as Edison, his favorite scientist and inventor.  His fourth grade science fair project investigated solar power versus battery power for toy train lights.

Toward the end of elementary school, a stronger interest in computers and video games developed, and everything Ethan knew about science, design, and art fed directly into his interest in technology.  Like many other children his age, Minecraft is a popular pastime.  With this video game, he's able to use all of his design creativity along with mathematical concepts and technology know-how. His next big plan is to build a computer, and he said this will be a father-son project.  I guess my role as mom and explorer is changing as my son grows and matures.  Even with these changes I will forever be grateful to this boy who has taught me to appreciate all things STEM because this is not an appreciation I expect to lose, only one I expect to continue developing.

09 February 2014

Only a Day and Two Nights in San Francisco

When we were informed our Common Assignment Research Study would be having a meeting for all the partners in San Francisco, I was immediately excited at the possibility of finally seeing City Lights Bookellers in person. I, like many other twenty-one year old students, was inspired by the Beat Generation while I was in college.  Specifically, I remember writing a paper on the San Francisco Renaissance poets (and I had never been to San Francisco).  Jack Kerouac's traveling experiences were alive in my head as I made my travel reservations.

It was a relatively short work meeting, with just one evening dinner meeting (II Fornaio) and then a full day meeting on Friday. I purposefully scheduled the earliest flight I could get out of snowy Lexington on Thursday, even though our dinner wasn't until 6pm PST.  With the time change heading west, I landed in SFO by 10:30 am, and after a short stop at a popular food truck Bacon Bacon on the San Francisco State campus, my colleague (who just moved to Kentucky  from San Francisco) drove me to City Lights and left me to explore while she lunched with friends.  Two glorious hours in this historical bookstore were an English teacher's dream.  I sat upstairs in the poetry room and read for about 30 minutes, and I browsed the vast assortment of poetry collections from every generation, and naturally with a special section dedicated to the Beat Generation.

I also browsed fiction and nonfiction on the other floors of the bookstore, and each time I moved from section to section, I thought about the great authors of an earlier generation who shook up the city and the country with their counterculture movement.  The history of this generation was well represented, not only with their great works of literature, but also with the posters, pictures, and postcards that adorned the walls.

Leaving the bookstore, I walked again by Jack Kerouac Alley before making my way across the Broadway/Columbia inersection to The Beat Museum.  Here I found artifacts and memorabilia like a shirt Kerouac wore, Ginsberg's typewriter and organ and loads of photographs and books from the era.

Since I live on the eastern side of the USA, traveling home Friday night would have required me to take the red eye, and I just wasn't up for that experience.  With only a few free hours on this work trip, my only big goal personally was so see City Lights,  so when I also was able to hear live jazz on Friday night, I felt my San Francisco trip was complete. It was serendipitous because I was stuck at the hotel on my own since others in the group had planned better than I did for a Friday evening out and about  (or they lived locally--our Stanford partners) and went home to their families.  

Determined to make the best of the situation, I went to the hotel restaurant for dinner (Brussels sprouts with bacon crumbles & an Ahi burger). While I was dining, several musicians came in to setup equipment.  I didn't have high hopes for what I would hear, given that I was at a hotel restaurant near the airport.  However, when I asked my waiter what he knew about the music to come, I wasn't disappointed when he told me old school jazz.  Indeed it was old school jazz with three local musicians and all improvisation since they did even know one another before they played together. Three hours of lively jazz music and conversations with locals.  On their break, the musicians talked to me and asked if I had any requests, but they laughed when I asked for Coltrane's Giant Steps or Gillespie's Salt Peanuts. Bebop was clearly not high on their list of usual requests.  Not long later, though, they looked at me and said..."you asked for bebop, so we're going to play some for you," and they played KoKo.

A woman from the San Francisco Bay Area came over to talk to me and to share that she was there at the airport hotel to hear jazz and celebrate her 89th (!) birthday. What a joy she was! The band even played a jazzed up happy birthday in her honor, and she stood up to dance in her sparkly pants and leopard print top.  She was there with her daughters who looked to be my mom's age, and I loved that they brought their mom to hear jazz on her birthday.

All told my day and two nights in San Francisco was the perfect work trip with a splash of personal fun thrown into the mix.  We accomplished our work goals, and I saw City Lights and heard live jazz. Can't get much better than that.

02 February 2014

Why I Support the Common Core

 With continued backlash against the Common Core State Standards, I decided I should take some time to blog about why I support the standards as a parent and as an educator.  I do not support all the scenarios I've seen/heard regarding implementation (and companies trying to make a profit) but for the standards themselves--I support them.  Here's why--

My Point of View as a Parent

1.  My son's writing has improved because he's writing in his content classes (English, science, social studies).  He's not writing fluff either.  He's writing academic essays and research papers, the kind of writing he will do when he goes to college.

2.  My son gets to read the nonfiction texts he enjoys.  Because of the push to include more nonfiction texts, he's reading both fiction and nonfiction now, and that makes sense to me.  He also gets to select what he reads for indepedent reading (he often chooses fiction) because his teachers support effective literacy practices that encourage student choice in reading.  Now some would say that's the opposite of what the CCSS require, but I would argue that it's poor implementation and poor instructional practices that lead people down the path of no student choice in reading.

3.  My son is learning math that will help him as he pursues his interests in STEM fields.  Because he started learning the new math standards in elementary school, by the time he started middle school, he was ready for more intense math courses.  He's learning math now that I didn't learn until my high school years, and it's working for him.  He enjoys it and even gets up early to go to school for extra help if he needs it, and the teacher is there to provide that support.

4.  My son is creating digital projects as called for in the Common Core.

5.  My son is rising to the high expectations set forth in these College and Career Readiness standards.  He's being challenged, and he's learning.  Isn't that the goal of school--learning!?

My Point of View as an Aunt

My nieces and nephews are also rising to the challenges of the Common Core at their schools in North Carolina.  However, because of poor implementation and in some situations poor instructional practices or poor decisions made by the schools and districts, my young nieces and nephews are spending hours each night on homework.  In my sisters' eyes, this is because of the CCSS.  I can't blame them for thinking this, especially since the schools tell them it's because of the standards.  This, to me, screams of poor implementation and poor decisions made by people working with the teachers.  As committed parents, my sisters are pushing through the situation and are willing to consider this distinction between the standards themselves and poor implementation of them.

My Point of View as an Educator

As an educator I support the Common Core State Standards.  I have spent countless hours (hundreds) working with the standards beginning before they were published in their final drafts.  Throughout these hundreds of hours I've worked on understanding, helping others understand, deconstructing, creating lessons and assessment items and teaching the standards.

In these hundreds of hours, I've met middle and high school teachers who like the Common Core, are implementing the standards and are pleased with the results.  A benefit as a teacher is the common language and collaboration across schools, districts, and states.  Too often teaching becomes a place where you feel like you are on an island by yourself.  Because of the common language and learning standards, teachers can now collaborate across state lines and share best practices in teaching.

In my teaching life (teaching pre-service teachers) I have taught the standards as a way to model what my students will teach in their middle and high school classrooms.  The benefit in this situation is that as pre-service teachers, students can practice teaching lessons they might actually use in their classrooms when they are hired as teachers.

My Questions

My biggest questions for those who oppose the Common Core State Standards include
  • How much time have you spent with the standards?  
  • Have you taught any of the standards yourself? 
  • Are you opposed to the standards or how they are being implemented and tested on a large scale?

30 January 2014

January 2014 Reads

Since December doesn't count for my 52 books in 52 weeks reading journey, I'll begin my notations and reflections about the books I read this month.  You can read more about my decision to begin this journey here.

The first book I read in 2014 was 46 Days:  Keeping Up with Jennifer Pharr Davis on the Appalachian Trail by Brew Davis, and really my decision for it being the first book to read came from my impatience in waiting for Called Again to arrive in the mail.  You see, while I was visiting my family in Western North Carolina during Christmas break, I learned about Jennifer Pharr Davis from my sister, Beth (who is also a hiker).  While we were in North Carolina I finished reading Wild and talked to Beth about how much I was enjoyed Strayed's journey of her thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Beth grew more interested in the memoir and then told me that she heard of a woman from the Asheville area who had hiked the entire Applachain Trail in 46 days. Naturally, I was intrigued, so Beth and I spent the next hour or so searching the internet for information about this woman who hiked the AT in 46 days.  I found her blog, and since I'm a blogger and hiker, too, I added it to my regular reading list. This month there was even a post by her husband who compared his wife's first book Becoming Odyssa to Cheryl Strayed's Wild.  I encourage you to check it out.

Upon returning home to Lexington, I immediately checked our local Lexington libraries for copies of Called Again, but they were all checked out, and I didn't want to wait, so I used a gift card I received at Christmas to order the book.  Still impatient to read about her story, I looked for an e-version, and that's when I learned about the book written by her husband.  I promptly purchased, downloaded, and proceeded to read 46 days in its entirety in a single evening.  I appreciated the details about the amount of calories she consumed per day, the number of miles she hiked, and the lack of sleep she endured all to accomplish her goal of setting the record for fastest thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

When Called AgainA Story of Love and Triumph by Jennifer Pharr Davis arrived in the mail a few days later, I felt already familiar with the story and the details and was able to enjoy the author's writing and reflection of the journey.  I relished in the descriptions of the places along the trail because I have hiked sections of the AT in Georgia and North Carolina.  I read this book in exactly one week.

Knowing I was leaving for a week long work related trip, I decided to grab a longer book to enjoy on the plane and in the evenings at my hotel.  A friend had previously recommended The Aviator's Wife to me, so that was next on my January reading list.  I started reading it the Saturday before leaving on my trip, and honestly, spent the entire day struggling to enjoy it.  I kept talking about it with my husband who reminded me--"you know--it's okay not to like a book!"  I decided to give it a few more chapters before setting it aside in search of something I would enjoy more.  I'm glad I kept with it because by the half way point, it became much more interesting and engaging to me.  I still wouldn't rank it at the top of my personal favorites, but I'm glad I read it, and I did enjoy it by the end because I liked the characters and the time period.  This book took me a week and half, and I finished it right after returning home from my week in Colorado.

Yet another trip was on my calendar, so I checked our bookshelves at home for books I hadn't yet read.  Luckily, my husband is also a reader, so there's always something waiting on the shelves for me.  I pulled Girl Interrupted for my plane ride to Washington D.C..  By the first night I had finished this short (and excellent) memoir by Susanna Kaysen.  Topics of mental health have been intersesting to me since my college days and all my psyhology/counseloing courses.

Obviously, I couldn't be on a trip and out of reading material, so I purused my saved New York Times articles and book reviews for something I might enjoy.  Cheryl Strayed's review of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala immediately caught my interest, so I decided to give my e-reader another try on this one.  The rich and powerful story of Deraniyagla losing her entire family in the 2004 tsunami was beautifully written, taking me into the author's thoughts and life for the past 9-10 years.  Her sons were just slightly older than mine at the time of their death, and her husband, an academic, only slightly older than mine.  The story was heart wrenching, but I couldn't put it down.  Something inside me needed to know Deraniyagala would work through her grief and that she would share that process in the memoir.