24 December 2012

One School's New Focus on Literacy

On December 14th I was looking forward to the weekend and the opportunity to write about my full week of literacy team planning with one of our middle schools in the district, but in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown tragedy my reflections on our literacy work didn't matter that weekend.   More pressing issues were on the minds of everyone.  Several education bloggers I follow posted thoughtful responses and reflections.

In a twitter exchange, one teacher shared  with me that he processes through writing, and so do I, usually.  For the past two weeks my thoughts have come in fragments typed into my phone or on my iPad, whichever I had available at the moment the thoughts arrived.  Two weeks is longer than I've ever waited to pull those fragments together into one cohesive unit for a blog post.

While adults across the United States argue about much needed gun control, I am hopeful for the kids at the middle school where I worked the week of December 14th because their new literacy leadership team is celebrating the work ahead with reading, writing, discussing, learning new vocabulary, and creating remixed poems.  In a thank you email, the principal of the school where I spent my week leading to December 14th, sent a modified version of 'twas the night before Christmas.  She and her staff (known as staffulty) wrote it and read it to students on the last day of the semester before they left for winter break.

The best part about my time spent in this school is that under new leadership they are focused on literacy and student success not just band-aid fixes to improve test scores.  They are changing their culture and making it cool to read and succeed.  Check out a few lines from their poem--

He was dressed in maroon, and white you can see.
With this LMS attire, a Charger he must be.

A bundle of books he had pulled from his case.
He handed them out and picked up his pace.

His eyes
how serious, His demeanor, how humble
His expression had everyone ready to crumble.

He started his speech about vocabulary and reading,
Things Chargers must do, to be succeeding.

...and a few of my favorite lines are here--

Specifically he spoke about the reading left to do,
By everyone there
students, staffulty, and administrators too.

The reading and vocabulary I will definitely support,
And I will see great results as I analyze reports.
To hear these sweet words, how they caused such delight.
LMS  students read and achieve, with all of their might!

But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight.
Merry Christmas to all and read every night!

What a fabulous way the leaders of this middle school ended the semester--reminding everyone to read over winter break.


09 December 2012

Wonderwork Replaces Homework

As I approach the one year anniversary of my blog, I find myself reflecting on how I’ve grown as a learner and leader over the past year.  The very idea that I will continue to learn and reflect on education practices, reform, literacy, and the arts is nestled in my blog title—Learning to Muse. 

My second blog post, 3 Meaningful Homework Practices, developed the way many of my posts develop—after conversations face-to-face and virtually with friends, family and colleagues or after reading various articles, novels, and nonfiction books.  Interestingly, this post on homework brought only one comment on my blog, but it also brought a comment via twitter, and this comment has had me thinking and reflecting  all year on the purpose and value of homework.  Who would have known last January that I would one day, in the same year, begin working side by side with the very person who has caused me to reflect in 2012 on the value of homework?
As a result of all this reflection and reading on the purpose and value of homework, I entered last week’s twitter #wonderchat already wondering about how we can provide more interesting and meaningful opportunities for children and teens when they are at home.  The site Wonderopolis offers a wealth of possibilities as do many other engaging sites for children and teens.  To my delight, a twitter friend—Paul Hankins— suggested the possibility of wonderwork to replace homework.  Check out some of our conversation on this topic last Monday night.

What will it take?  How can we get the idea of wonderwork to replace homework?  I'm not completely sure but I’m going to start by signing off to help my sixth grader finish his wonderwork right now.  He’s working on a science fair project where he’s wondering which hand soap will be most effective with eliminating bacteria.  Stay tuned this week as he collects and analyzes his data.

Feel free to share your own ideas for wonderwork in the comments below.

08 December 2012

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (for vocabulary instruction)

Vocabulary instruction has been on my mind for a few months, so I decided to spend two weeks listening carefully to conversations (both face-to-face and virtually) among family, friends, and colleagues.  Below are the results of what I’ve heard and seen in the past two weeks.

Examples of worst practice shared with me by family, and colleagues friends from across the country

·         A high school student was asked to define 130 words before reading a short story in English class.

·         A group of middle school students were asked to copy dictionary definitions from the teacher’s powerpoint.

·         A middle schooler was still (it’s December) on the letter A for lists of words to define (using the dictionary) and take rote memory vocab tests over every Friday.

·         An elementary student was provided a list of definitions to accompany spelling words.  The definition provided for the word enclosure = the art of enclosing.

·         A middle school student was given a crossword puzzle worksheet and asked to define words.

·         A class of middle school students watched (while doing nothing) a video with kids talking about definitions for a paper topic.

·         A class was assigned a list of words for each chapter of a novel--words to be defined and memorized.

·         A science class was asked to define all the bold words in chapter of science textbook.  Memorize definitions & be prepared for a quiz on Friday. 

Examples of best practice as experienced by family, friends, and colleagues
from across the country

·         Teachers implementing Marzano’s strategies in a middle school classroom

·         Teachers facilitating class discussion of words in context from novel being read

·         Teachers modeling academic vocabulary when explaining directions and conducting think-alouds

·         Teachers demonstrating word analysis during study of Greek & Latin root words

As schools acknowledge the instructional shifts for literacy required in America’s schools because of the Common Core State Standards, we are seeing a need for an increased emphasis on vocabulary instruction.  With all the research and access to information via the World Wide Web, I find myself wondering why I continue to see and hear worst practice in vocabulary instruction.  Why is my list of examples of worst practice longer than my list of examples best practice?  Maybe two weeks wasn’t long enough for me to listen and record what I was seeing and hearing about vocabulary instruction?

01 December 2012

Thoughts on Being an Educator and a Mom

 Since before he could read fluently, my now nine year old son, Isaac, has been interested in writing.  He keeps journals, writes lists, creates stories with his Lego characters, and creates scenarios to share with me in conversation.
Unfortunately, with increasing pressure for students to perform well on standardized assessments, and with Kentucky’s abolishment of writing portfolios as part of the assessment and accountability system, writing is often demoted to worksheets, quizzes on the computer during writing time, practice for the state’s On-Demand Writing assessment, contrived personal narratives, and writing sentences for each spelling word.   
Experiences for our children can be much more than this though, if we are thoughtful with our approaches and we continue to use our voices to emphasize the importance of creativity in education.  At the 2012 National Council for Teachers of English Annual Convention, I had the joy of hearing Sir Ken Robinson speak on the importance of creativity.  He went as far to say “creativity is as important as literacy.”  I believe this statement and think we should use our voices as parents and as educators to remind our community members and policymakers that we need to promote creativity by letting students study and explore topics that interest them.  We need to allow more time for creating, performing, dreaming, and thinking.
Thankfully, Isaac has a teacher this year who is interested in helping students develop as better writers and thinkers.  It’s a hard job as a public school teacher, and I speak from experience, but I also know the importance of encouraging students to write about topics which interest them.   To encourage this interest, I recently arranged for Isaac’s class to Skype with a nine year old author (Eva) from Bismarck, North Dakota.  

Below is a video clip from Isaac’s experience Skyping with Eva.  In the interest of my personal blog showing only my own child and Eva, the video has been edited.  We enter the video after Eva asked the class if there were any writers, artists, or dancers in the class.  (Side note--I love her focus on the arts as a whole—fits perfectly with promoting the importance of kids performing, creating, and dreaming)   Isaac is answering her question by describing the way he creates stories with his Lego characters.  Eva confidently affirms his approach to writing and proceeds to answer questions from Isaac and his classmates. 

It’s my hope that creative experiences such as this will become more a regular part of all classes, not just for my own children but for all children.  Eva's mom, Gwyn Ridenhour, has this same hope, and she uses her expertise and experience to promote more creative opportunities for children in North Dakota.  By collaborating with others, listening to children, and using our voices, our hope will be realized.