Posts Tagged ‘elementary education’

Keep Reading Aloud !!!!


My school is a “Teacher’s College Project School”, which means that we are all following the strict interpretations of Lucy Calkin’s reading and writing programs.

That wouldn’t be so bad, given that Ms. Calkins knows what she’s talking about, believes in the wonder and magic of the written word, and used to have great respect for actual teachers.

In the world of “TC”, though, we are reduced to such inanities as, “We teach reading strategies, we don’t teach BOOKS.”

Really.

As an old lady teacher and a long time speech/language specialist, I firmly believe that children learn to love great books when they hear them read aloud with passion and excitement.

When my own kids were small, I remember reading “The Hobbit” out loud to them.  They loved it, and couldn’t seem to get enough.  When the book finished, we went on to “The Lord of the Rings”.  I remember, very clearly, closing the book so that I could make dinner.  When I came back into the living room a half hour later, my then 9 year old was reading the rest of the chapter out loud to her little brothers.  “We couldn’t wait”, they explained when I came in to ask what was going on.

I once had a student tell his mom that he wanted to improve his reading skills, “Because someday I want to do “read aloud”.

It’s the best part of the day.  The kids forget the class hierarchy of coolness for those twenty precious minutes. They forget that they are trying desperately to be mature.  Instead, they curl up like a pile of puppies on the rug at my feet.  They listen with such rapt attention that I can’t look away from their sweet faces. They lie still, so unlike their usual bouncing selves.  They plop down together, a head on a stomach, a leg stretched over a leg. They are a beautiful woven fabric of childhood imagination, and my voice is what animates them.

I am nearing the end of my teaching days.

I have only so many “read alouds” left in me.  I have begun to make a list of those books that I simply MUST read to my class.

“The Liberation of Gabriel King”

“Granny Torrelli Makes Soup”

“The One and Only Ivan”

“Heartbeat”

But what about “Tiger Rising”?  And “The Hobbit”?   What about the beauty of “Mr. Lincoln and His Boys”, such a poignant portrayal of war and power?

There are so many wonderful books.  The library is the same rich treasure chest that it was when I first discovered it at the age of 8 with my best friend, Sue.

There are so many beautiful, touching, moving, powerful books.

May every child hear at least one of them read aloud by a loving and attentive adult.

May every child find himself falling in love with the sound of the sounds of the language, and my ever one of them think, “I can write a story, too.”

So you think we’re exaggerating?


Dear Standardized Testing supporters,

I am writing this post after having spent the past two days administering the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System- Math, Grade 5.

I have a few little anecdotes and insights for you folks, given that you believe all this testing is actually useful.

Let me give you a very brief description of the absurdities of the educational testing world.  If you still believe that High Stakes testing is good for anyone who spends his/her day in a school, then you are either delusion of on the Pearson Payroll.

Scene 1.   As a public school teacher in my state, I had to participate in an “MCAS Security Training Session.”  I had to watch a Powerpoint presentation, and then sign my name on a document swearing that I had watched the presentation.

Scene 2.  On Day 1 of the testing, every teacher who was giving the test was required to come to the school office to pick up our materials.  Materials were available for pickup from 8:45 to 9:00 AM.   All 18 of us showed up in the office right on time.

Scene 3: Before we were allowed to take our Boxes of Test Materials, every teacher had to count every test booklet, answer booklet, MCAS Approved Reference Sheet and “any additional materials”.  We then had to sign a document where we recorded our counts. Then an office staff member had to repeat the process and write the same numbers, and sign.    This took a long time. To say the least.

Scene 4: We read the directions.  We are instructed to tell the children that the test session is scheduled to last for two hours, but that they will be given as much time as they need, up until the end of the school day.

Scene 5: We tell the children, our sweet, trusting eleven year old kids, that “cheating in any form is forbidden”.  We tell them that they are not allowed to use cell phones, game consoles, music players (?) or any other electronic devices.  We tell them that they can’t use scrap paper, but they can scribble all over their test booklets.

Scene 6: The test has begun.  A very bright, hardworking student raises her hand.  I signal for her to come to my desk.  She does not recognize one of the many words that mathematicians use for “number”.   I am forced to give the scripted and MCAS approved answer.  “I’m sorry. I can’t tell you what it means.  Use your best judgement.”

Scene 7: My wonderful, smart, exceptional Chinese student, who started the year with exactly one phrase of English is working very hard at her desk.  Uh, oh.  I notice that she is using her everyday Chinese-English dictionary, given to her by our ELE teacher.  She is supposed to be using the MCAS Chinese-English dictionary, given to her by our ELE teacher!  This could be a violation!  I hurry to her desk and crouch beside her.  Her beautiful dark eyes rise to meet mine. I can see by the flush in her cheeks that she is anxious.

“Honey,” I say, “I’m sorry, but you can’t use this dictionary.  You have to use THIS one.”   She frowned a bit.  “But this book doesn’t has the math words.  THIS book has.”                                                       “Yes, I know.” I say, “But you have to use this one.” I hold up the everyday dictionary.  The one with no academic vocabulary.

My student frowns harder.  She is a very diligent student.    She holds up the forbidden dictionary, given to her on the first day of school by her English Language teacher.

“This book has math words.  THIS book,” she holds up the official MCAS Approved dictionary, “THIS book no has this important words.”

My heart sinks.  “I know,” I say, as I take the forbidden dictionary away from her.

Scene 8: The room is silent.  22 kids have completed the test.   One is still working.  I have to keep the 22 silently in their seats, reading books.  No talking.  No walking around the room. No pulling out your unfinished work.  No writing in your journal. No drawing or sketching or painting.  Why not? No one can tell me.  This goes on for nearly an hour.

Scene 9:  My colleague and close friend texts me in the middle of the test.  Her husband has been taken to the hospital with chest pain!  She isn’t sure what to do!  The MCAS Security training has told her that she can’t leave the room while the kids are working.  But she wants to go to see her husband!! Luckily, our fifth grade assistant is in my room!  She has worked for this school for almost 25 years. She has subbed for us all, she has taught small groups, she has come on a hundred field trips.  She offers to stay in the classroom while the kids finish the test.  “Sorry”, she is told. “You haven’t taken the Security Training.  You haven’t signed the papers.”  She cannot monitor the test.  My friend and her husband must both wait.

Stay tuned for tomorrows set of “Scenes from an Insane Asylum”.  They are even crazier.

Why do people DO that?!


Get ready.

Rant alert.

Last night was the first night of school vacation.  The day before I had cleaned up my classroom and packed up the math book (to spend vacation on lesson plans), the Narrative Writing Rubrics (so I can score the 24 Mystery Stories that my class finally finished) and Book One of the Lucy Calkins Reading Program (so I can desperately try to figure out what I’m supposed to be teaching in my “mini lessons.”)

I had woken up yesterday and decided to try to just relax; it was a beautiful New England spring day, and I raked the garden, turned the compost, walked the dogs.  Aaaahhhhhh.  My knotted neck muscles began to relax.

My husband had gotten us tickets to a concert at one of our favorite venues, and we headed for dinner, drinks and great blues with some friends.  And my cousin, whom I’ve known my whole life, but have rarely seen socially.

We chatted about music, our kids, beer.  We had some apps.  We had a great time!  Then someone mentioned the teachers in Atlanta who will spend 7 years in jail for cheating on the State tests.

And we were off.

My cousin, who last set foot in a school in about 1980, launched into the usual attack on public schools and teachers.

You know what I mean, right?  People who haven’t ever, ever taught anyone anything are suddenly experts on curriculum.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve been teaching for 30 years, have a Master’s Degree and 25 years of graduate courses beyond it. Nope.  Everyone feels totally comfortable lecturing me about testing, discipline, teaching math, handwriting and the use of technology.

“Teachers should” are my two least favorite words.

Last night’s diatribe started when my friend asked if I had heard about the teachers in Atlanta. I expressed my shock and outrage at the sentence, commenting that it wasn’t surprising  to find people cheating when they’ve made passing the tests the most important part of teaching.

In the next ten minutes, my cousin, the guy who doesn’t teach, made these brilliant comments as I talked about my objections to the standardized tests.

“They should throw out the tests of the kids with disabilities.”

“They shouldn’t count tests for any kid who has been in your class less than half a year.”

“They shouldn’t depend on one test a year; they should give a standardized test every 30 days.”

“If teachers don’t like the tests, they should say something.”

That last one was the one that did it.  I slammed my fist on the table, shocking the hell out of everyone sitting there, then I jumped up, said, “You don’t know that the fuck you’re talking about!” and ran out of the room.

Seriously?   SERIOUSLY, folks????  WHY does every asshole on earth feel like its OK to lecture teachers about teaching? They don’t try to lecture doctors about medicine, or engineers about bridge building, or baseball players about hitting.  So why the HELL do I always end up being talked down to by people who know literally nothing about what I do every day?

WHY???

And how can I avoid them the next time I decide to give myself a tiny break from the pressures of teaching?

It was the bed head.


I don’t always feel like I am doing this the right way.

I have the big boxed sets of Lucy Calkins reading and writing lessons, but I haven’t actually been able to make sense of them yet.

Our school is a “Teacher’s College” pilot school, or lab school, or something. I’ve watched the TC lady teach two “mini lessons” but I still don’t know what exactly it is that I’m supposed to teach them.

I have my big binder of rubrics, but I don’t use them very effectively. Or very often.  Truthfully? I’m still not sure what is means by “The student develops character, plot and setting through out the story, especially at the heart of the story.”

Um.

“Heart of the story”?

Ah…..they’re ten.

Yeah.

I mean, I sort of feel like I know how to help kids develop a sense of themselves as writers. I feel like I know how to help them think about the plot and all that.  But…..see……I look at them, and I see little ones. Kids.  Wicked young kids.  I don’t expect them to produce more nuance in their writing that I can manage in mine.

So last week, when my “evaluator/administrator” popped into my classroom for the first time in ten weeks, my heart sank.  We were in the middle of “writers’s workshop”, where kids were working on various pieces of writing, depending on what they had already completed.

It didn’t fit the kit.

Gulp.

I pretended to be calm, but I hated watching that man talk to my kids, asking them about their work.  I hated watching him take notes on his stupid iPad.

See, the problem is that when your “evaluator” doesn’t like you, its kind of depressing to know that he is popping in at a time when you have already set everything up, and have already done your lesson, and the kids have already gone on to work independently.  You know his view will be sort of skewed. He won’t get it.

How could he?

He hasn’t been here in WEEKS. Now he expects to evaluate my teaching in ten minutes.

I wasn’t feeling very happy or very confident when he asked me to meet with him the next day to go over his observations.

Gah.

So stupid.

He had talked to two of my students, and had a lot of concerns about their writing skills.

Really.

One of these boys goes to the Learning Center 7 times a week to address his learning disability in writing and math.  The other sees the ELA specialist twice a week because of his low reading/writing scores.  My boss didn’t bother to check in with the kids who have above grade level kills, of course. He only checked with my strugglers.

Gag.

So the day after I had my “evaluation/observation” meeting, I sat down with my struggling writers.  I sighed, feeling defeated because I had obviously failed these kids.

The first little guy sat beside me, chewing his lip as we looked at his “Mystery Story”.
“OK,” I began, “how are you feeling about your story?”    He shrugged.  I turned my eyes to his computer screen and began to read.

Wow!  Punctuation, capitals, dialogue marked by quotation marks.  I read about the crime in his story, saw how he described his detective and his criminal.  I thought about the first piece of writing he did for me in September. The one with no punctuation, no breaks in paragraphs and no actual logic to make it understandable.

I was thrilled with his progress!  Wow!    I thought it was probably the work of the learning center, but I didn’t care. Good boy!  Good work!

And I kept going. I reviewed story after story, comparing progress from September in one child after another. And I saw improved syntax, improved mechanics, improved story line, improved word choice.

I wasn’t sure what to think, but it certainly seemed to me that these kids were learning to write, in spite of my inability to figure out the boxed kits.

Finally, I called up a sweet little boy who is one of my favorites. He is gentle, funny, smart but not a scholar. He is good at math, but makes those tiny mistakes. He reads a lot, but doesn’t always think hard about the themes or messages of the books. As a writer, he is what we call “a minimalist”.  Why use a complete sentence when one word will do?  His writing thus far had lacked organization, clarity, sequence. It was rudimentary at best.

I called up his story, with a little sigh.  And began to read.  And my mouth fell open.

“No I won’t!”             

“Why won’t you, we could strike it rich?”

“I already told you, we’d get caught.”

“We won’t get caught.”

“You are planning to kidnap Liam Smeel, lead singer of ‘The Kings’ right before his performance. Do you think you’re not going to get busted?”

“Are you questioning my magnificent plans?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I am. If you think I’m going to help you with your stupid plan, I’m not. Count me out.”

What???  My little guy had written this introduction to his mystery? Seriously?   I read on, following the events of the story, recognizing the “red herring”, wondering myself who did it. I got to the end, the logical, interesting, funny conclusion to the 5 page mystery story.  I looked at my little student, and I was speechless.

“I….wow…..I…..”  I took a deep breath. “Honey, this is fantastic!  Your introduction is amazing!”

He looked up at me with his gentle sky-blue eyes.  He was twisting his fingers with nerves.

“What do you think of this?”, I asked him, curious to see if he was aware of just how far he’d come in these few months.

He shrugged, his thin shoulders looking fragile as birds’ wings in his blue T shirt.  I wasn’t sure what to say to him.  I looked at his face, his elfin features and nervous smile.  I looked at his head, so close to my shoulder as we both peered at the computer screen.

It was his head that got me.  The swirls and tufts of little boy bed head that formed the delicate halo around his face. My eyes filled with tears as I realized just how young, and how tender, and how fragile he is.  I put my arm around him, at a loss for words. I gave him a gentle hug, my eyes still resting on the golden crown of his head.

“I’m so incredibly proud of all of you guys today!”, I said to my class as I struggled to control my voice.  They looked up in some surprise as they did their everyday work.

“You are my heroes”.  My voice was a little bit thick, so I took a drink of water.  I checked off the boxes in the rubric, and got ready to meet with the next little tiny literary hero.

I had a dream


Last night I had a dream.   It wasn’t a typical teacher dream (I was fully dressed and the kids weren’t screaming and ignoring me).

But it was a dream that embodies my teaching life right now.

I dreamed that I was in our school conference room (where I have been trapped far too often this year) with one of the “literacy coaches” who have been hired to train us in teaching kids to read and write.  Just like in real life, I was seated at the table, faced with a cheery, young, fresh faced woman who spoke to me in a high pitched voice with a distinct rise in intonation at the end of every statement.  You know what I mean, right? Like this, “Readers need to learn a variety of robust skills? Like learning to identify text features?”

Anyway, in my dream, just like in life, I felt my frustration mounting.  In my dream, I sat there as reading was described as a series of discrete, separate skills to be taught in isolation.  I started to steam as I heard that I was supposed to teach kids the most complex task of their young lives by cramming a lesson into ten minutes and then making them practice what I had preached.

But here is where the dream diverged from reality.

In my dream, I sat up straight and I asked to see the research behind the method.  In my dream, I spoke eloquently and clearly.  I talked about my background in speech and language development and my 30 years of teaching children to communicate.  I expressed my feeling that young children learn best when they are allowed to wonder, to inquire, to test out their own theories.  In my dream, I asked how it could be the best practice to tell the children exactly what skill to practice as they read. I pointed out the fact that it seemed forced and inauthentic to assign children a partner to talk to, and then to impose a topic on them.  I questioned the value of those conversations.

In my dream, I expressed my belief that children need to try things out, including books. I talked about the fact that I never, ever tell children their “Guided Reading Level” because in my experience, children take labels very much to heart.  They hold themselves back when I tell them that a book is “above their level”.  I talked, in this dream, about my experiences with children who challenge themselves and who read wonderful books that capture their hearts and minds, even if they don’t understand every word or phrase. Even if they don’t full grasp every nuance.

In this wonderful dream, I told the “coach” or “facilitator” that reading is the most neurologically complex task that my students are attempting. I tell her that I can’t parse it down into separate tiny skills.  I also tell her, somewhat firmly, that I find it nauseating when I hear the cute phrases and buzzwords going around our classrooms. “Jots” instead of notes? “Wonderings” instead of questions? “Noticings” instead of observations?

What did the English language ever do to you, I asked in my dream. Why torture it this way? How can it help children to encourage them to use inaccurate, made up words to describe their thinking?

Furthermore, I said in my dream, it seems completely ridiculous to me to have us teach the exact same minute skills in every single grade from k to 6.  How efficient is our teaching if we have to do the same lesson seven times in seven years?  And how on earth could it be useful for us to all use the exact same “mentor text” for every lesson?  “I believe,” I said in my firm, assured dream voice, “that it is supremely disrespectful of children to act as if they need to see the same book five years in a row.  And I think its wrong to limit kids exposure to good books. There are a million books out there that could teach us to notice the story arc. I refuse to pull out the same book they’ve seen in the past two years.”

And here is where my dream really differed from reality.

In my dream, the cheery coach and my school administrator allowed me to express my thoughts.  And in this fanciful dream, they listened.

This Old Teacher


Sometimes it gets a little bit tiring to be an old teacher. Sometimes you look at the pile of math papers, the writers’ notebooks, the science journals, the 57 emails, the field trip forms, the Puberty Movie letters and the Lost and Found socks, and you just want to give it all up and go sit on a beach in a muumuu.

Sometimes it just seems so futile. And relentless. And so incredibly frustrating. You think you’re done.  You can’t go on.

But sometimes you get to work, and you see your colleagues.  And you look at how much energy they still have. You see the one who is really excited by a new art project, and you remember when you used to feel that way. You see the one who is carefully planning an amazing science lesson, and you feel a little buzz of excitement.

Sometimes you get to school, and you peek into the classroom next door, where the colleague-who-is-younger-than-your-children is getting ready for her day.  And you look at her for a minute.  You see her bright spirit, her love of learning, her crackling joyful energy.

And you feel a little bit renewed.

Sometimes, just when you feel like all of this hard work is a big farce and nothing much is going to change for anyone, you spend a few minutes listening to your young team-mates as they plan the next writing unit.  And you smile inside, thinking of what a huge difference these two will make in the lives of dozens and dozens of kids in the future. And you give yourself a tiny little hug, way down in your heart, because you know that you are watching two teachers, two honest-to-God teachers, as they spin the silken spider web threads that will weave themselves into a love of learning for the little ones in these classrooms.  And you’re happy just to be there, watching. And you remind yourself of all the faces and names and hearts that you have touched over all these years.

And you realize that it doesn’t really matter which curriculum is used in which year. It really doesn’t matter if you teach the 6 + 1 traits or the Lucy Calkins kit or the “Write Out Loud” book.  As long as you love the kids, and share your joy and passion with them, as long as you keep telling them that you believe in them, they WILL learn to write.  And read. And calculate those damn fractions.

And you understand that the art of teaching is just that: it is an art.  Just like children, it cannot be measured or quantified or reduced to a data point. Teaching is an art.

And you are pleased with yourself, because you understand that fact.

Even if those in positions of power don’t.

Teaching is an art.  And you suddenly realize how lucky you are to be one of the artists, and to be in the presence of the artists who will both follow and surpass you.

 

What I KNOW to be true


Good God. I have just about had it.  I am at the end of my rope, the last bit of my patience, the final smidgen of my compliance.

I am being forced to teach my kids to read using a slick for-profit kit, written by the much admired Lucy Calkins of Teacher’s College.  This kit tells me that I have to reduce the great glory of reading to a series of minute, thinly sliced “skills” like “recognizing text features”.  I’m supposed to sit the kids down and overpower them with a “mini-lesson” where I cleverly explain/show/demonstrate/advertise the target skill.  In TEN minutes.

Then I’m supposed to have the kids “turn and talk” about the topic that I just taught at warp speed. Next in the script, I tell the kids “off you go!” and they are supposed to happily and successfully employ the teeny little micro skill as they read on their own.

Um.

I’ve been reading since roughly 1963 and at no time in my life have I ever stopped myself to ask if I am recognizing the story arc.

I believe, with every fiber of my being, that reading is a complex and wondrous human skill that evolves differently in every young child.  I believe that at the very same time that we are decoding, we are also making inferences, wondering about the motivations of the characters, recognizing the conflict and predicting the resolution.  I believe that children slowly and hesitantly grow into each of these skills.  This complex web of cognitive and linguistic processing skills is a marvel.  It should NOT be reduced to its smallest parts.

I believe, I truly do believe, that none of these “skills” will mean a thing to a child until the moment where he or she has fallen completely in love with a story.  If the child isn’t walking home from school while picturing himself as the hero of the adventure, no “mini lesson” on earth will get him to care about reading.  If the child isn’t soaking in a bubble bath and holding the book above the water to see what the bad guy does next, it doesn’t matter how carefully I follow the cookbook reading program.  If that child isn’t dying to know what happens next, all the “turn and talk” in the world won’t get her to really truly read.

I do understand that Lucy C is a reading guru.  She is clearly smarter than me, and I am sure that she’s done tons of research and is a major player and all that crap.

But here is the simple truth.

She has come up with a product that matches the “Common Core” and she has found a way to sell that product for a whole boatload of money by marketing the entire Teacher’s College pre-packaged literacy kit.

I’m not a guru. I’m sure as hell not an educational entrepreneur.  There is no shiny, glossy, expensive box of lessons with my name on it.

But I know kids.   I know language development, and I know reading.

And I know, beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt, that you CANNOT break a complex neuropsychological task like reading into the tiniest threads and try to teach those threads as discrete lessons.  It makes no sense to do it this way, because unless the students go on to synthesize those skills, they won’t be reading.

Or writing.

Or learning.  Or thinking. Or problem solving.

When my babies were little, they learned to walk.  I helped them.  But I didn’t try to separately teach them to flex their calf muscles and then a day later teach them to relax those muscles. When they learned to talk, I didn’t show them how to make the sound “b” and then wait a day to teach them “a”.

Complex neurological tasks cannot be reduced to their component parts if they are going to be mastered.

And that’s why I am frustrated beyond belief by the lessons I am being forced to teach.

 

 

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