Saturday, September 29, 2012

Can you picture that?

It's no secret that I love picture books and subject my 8th graders to them on occasion.   The truth is they aren't just for little ones anymore.   Sometimes a book's humor, topic, plot twists and word choice are really meant for an older audience.

This week I read a book to one of my classes in which the narrator, illustration style and word choice are geared towards a younger audience, but the subject matter is not.   It grates on your sensibilities like plaid pants with argyle socks.   We examined the book in...who is this book for?

Let me back up for a second.

I've been feeling overworked this year.   But haven't we all?   The days that I don't have a planning period are particularly taxing.   In addition to teaching 5 classes of language arts, I have another class that bookends lunch.   We had a bit of freedom in choosing a course of study for our kids, so I chose picture books, African American themed picture books.   Our minority population is small, but our students take civics this year.   I remember being captivated by the stories of the civil rights movement at their age.   Even so, I was dreading adding one more class and 19 kids I didn't teach to my plate.   Oddly enough, it's becoming a favorite part of my day.   Before lunch, we work on something of my choosing.   After lunch, they may read their own books, or borrow something from our classroom.

So far we've read Tar Beach and The People Could Fly and talked a little about the myth of flight in African American stories.   We listened to the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Hot 8 Brass Band perform "I'll Fly Away."

Although the song was written by a white man who was no stranger to picking cotton, it's a tune that's been embraced by black congregations as well.   (And doggone if the season premiere of Treme didn't launch right into that song last week.   Serendipity.)   We spent a few days making small collages entitled, "If I had wings..."   And I'm thinking of a way for us to dance the second line with umbrellas (and fairy wings?) around the parking lot.

But I digress.

Back to the story at hand.   I don't mean any disrespect, but Bessie Smith and the Night Riders will make your willing suspension of disbelief wear a little thin.   It's a children's book based on the evening that the KKK showed up at a Bessie Smith tent show and Ms. Smith told them where to go.

Yes, the KKK.   Hmmmm.

The author has a young girl sneaking to see the show, spying the Night Riders pulling up tent stakes and alerting Ms. Smith.   Sure, there's a happy ending, as there was during the real incident, but the KKK in a children's book is a little odd.   If you take a longer look at the cover, you will see those nasty Klansman with their torches framing the smiling Emmarene and Bessie.   Well, the kid does like the song "Tain't Nobody's Business," so she can't be a stranger to violence.   No word on if she knows the songs "Kitchen Man" and "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer."

Of course, the 8th graders were spellbound by the truth behind the story and well aware of the multitude of unhappy endings that could have resulted in Ms. Smith's confrontation with the Night Riders.   They decided that the book should be read to children only after the subject of the KKK has been taught in school.   Otherwise, how would one explain the KKK to preschoolers, the usual picture book crowd?

For additional drama, the story of Ms. Smith's death is another real life nail-biter.   If you're ever in Clarksdale, Mississippi, make sure to take note of the Blues Marker at the Riverside Hotel.   It was once a hospital, the one where Bessie died.   You may read the text of the marker here.

I'm going to post a link to a clip from an A& E Biography on dear Bessie, but let me apologize in advance for someone's manners.   Someone couldn't miss the opportunity to call Ma Rainey "the ugliest woman in show business" before remarking on Bessie's beauty.   Not necessary to put one woman down to lift another woman up, and tain't nobody's business if she is.

Well, that's all for my not-quite-midnight-ramble.   Thank you and good night!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

You're my favorite!

8th graders can have the same curiosity about the world as their  kindergarten selves.
It won't take you long to find a good reason to like each one of them.

I confess.   By the end of the year, I've said this a a whole lot of kids.   And it's true.   

Here's a great article on about the subject of teachers who play favorites.   Here's the best part: 

"'I would say, first off, that teachers do their best to treat all kids fairly,' said Dryw Freed, who has taught for 16 years in public schools in North Carolina and Virginia. 'With that said, we are only human and do respond differently to different children.' But it's not as simple as having one favorite. In a class of 27 students, Freed says, the majority of the children would all rotate and have 'moments of being one of (her) favorites.' 'With very few exceptions, each kid has something that endears her to a teacher, so there don't tend to be dramatic, clear-cut favorites,' says Freed. 'It's not a case of a few favorites and a bunch of goats. It's more like a collection of beautiful, funny, endearing little people, a couple of whom happen to stand out slightly at one end of the spectrum or another.'"

That is the perfect way to sum it up.   Here is a short list of personal reasons for liking the children in my classroom:

You're kind.   I've never seen you treat your classmates in any other way, even when you thought I wasn't paying attention.

You clean up after yourself.   When I make time for an art activity, you don't wait for the 10th request to return your supplies and clean your area.   You respect the work of our custodians like I do.

You're calm.   You're in 8th grade; how do you travel in such a bubble of peace?   Once I find out who you are, I feng shui the classroom by placing you near my desk.   The classroom temperature changes.

You're like a dog with a bone.   You don't give up.   Nothing is too challenging for you, even when I know that it just may in fact be a little out of your comfort range.   You're on it.

You love to read.   I don't care if it's a comic book or Dickens.   If you have identified yourself as a lifelong reader already, I love that about you.

You had 10 better excuses than that other kid, but you turned your work in on time.

You were not ready to read when they were teaching everyone else how to read in elementary school, and now you're having to reopen as many of those windows as possible.'re trying.   Love it.

You have Asperger's.   The world is difficult to decode for anyone, but you're finding that you may have some added speed bumps in reading all of the signs when it comes to interpersonal relationships and the life lessons in literature.   Watching your mind work is exciting for me.   Truth be told, your logic and reasoning make a lot of sense to me.   You're amazing and strong.

You wore that to school.   That wacky outfit is awesome.   Your sense of fashion is electrifying.

You come to school regularly.   Do you know how much easier it is to teach a child who is in front of me?   Loads.   Thanks.

You turn in all of your work.   Yes, I assign work for a reason.   I also think I give a reasonable amount of time to complete it.   You agree.

When you don't turn in your work, you don't act surprised when your grade's low.   You understand that I grade with numbers, not good intentions.

You think of yourself as a bad writer and listen intently to instructions on how to improve.   You try the tips out in your own work.   Hey!   What do you know?   You can barely believe what you just created.   You are excited and let me post it on our classroom wall.   You even think of writing as a career choice.   Look at you!

You read every single small book I put in the back of the room, even though you claim to hate reading. Whatever, kid.   I still think you're great.

You're always ready to help me pass papers and supplies to your classmates.

You don't shame me with disrespectful behavior during library visits, fire drills and grade level assemblies.

When you come to class, it's to learn.   Asking for a bathroom pass is rare for you.   Rare.

You unpack your supplies before class.   You are so old school the way you sharpen your pencil before instruction starts.

You never forget to write your name on your work.

You always participate in class discussions.

You never participate in class discussions, but you write the most insightful journals, responses and papers.   It's okay if we keep your ideas to ourselves.

You get out of hand.   I speak to you in the hall.   You cut it out.   I love a kid who can recognize a mistake and make a change.

Your parents cut your hair right before school picture day.   You spend homeroom hiding under a desk, but you still get your picture made.   It's okay.   Retakes are just around the corner.

You're funny.   Your papers are full of personality.   I love a natural born storyteller.

When I play James Brown, you're the only kid brave enough to get up and dance.   You don't care.   You just get up offa that thing.

You're game for whatever I have planned.   Even when I teach you the "Harold and the Purple Crayon" yoga stretch because I think we have spent way too much time sitting and testing, you get up and try it with your awkward 8th grade self.

I tell you that your writing is bad this time, super bad.   You take it in stride and revise and edit.

You laugh when I read silly stories to the class.

I know a little bit of the hand that life dealt you.   It's one foot in front of the other some days.   But every day you do something amazing anyway.   I marvel at your strength.

You do your best on state tests.   Thanks.   

You stand up for what's right.   Compassion.

You rock that band solo.   I can't imagine how many hours of practice got you to this moment.   I admire your dedication.

It's your first year being mainstreamed after being released from special education services.   You are doing your best.   You are excelling!

When you are out and your family asks for make up work, you complete it and turn it in.

You are in my group to watch over for a field trip.   You understand that I am totally OCD when it comes to keeping other people's children safe.   We have a great day, and you always let me know where you'll be.

You come to school with something to write with and write on.

I think you all get the point.   Is each kid my "favorite" at some time or another?   Probably.   There are plenty of reasons that I think that children are fabulous, and all of them aren't related to being academically inclined.   I'm certain that most 8th graders have no inkling of how even the smallest efforts can endear them to the adults in their lives, but I hope that more than a few of them have found themselves appreciated for trying to be the best of who they are.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Sounds loco to me, but okay."

I'm borrowing a quotation from one of my favorite books of all time, Cowboy & Octopus.   Jon Scieszka's created a wonderful friendship between an unlikely pair.   In addition to the earth and water divide, Octopus finds himself having to be the brains of this operation again and again.   But even Cowboy knows when somethin' ain't right.

Do you ever get that feeling?   That feeling that someone has put lipstick on a pig and is trying to get one over on you like you can't smell pork from a mile away?   Makes you a little loco, doesn't it?   When someone's trying to get one over on you, it's really your students who pay the price...and that makes little wisps of steam escape from your nostrils, doesn't it?

Well, take a step back from it and pause.   Why do you think it's a bad idea?   Do you have evidence that it is from research or personal experience?   Who are the stakeholders who came up with the stinker?   Who are the stakeholders who must implement it?   Could it be a good idea after all?   Is it worth a try?   Have other schools/ teachers tried this plan to great success?   If so, does your school have the resources and staff to make similar gains?   Will children be harmed because of this idea?   Do you have a better proposal?   Is part of the idea worth piloting, instead of the whole enchilada?   Can you find someone in your field that you respect to talk this over with?   Is this a battle that you need to choose for the sake of your students, or will your time be better spent on something else?  

And if you've decided that it's a good idea that will benefit children, be the first to get behind it and help others implement the plan.   There's nothing better than discovering a new, effective way to reach learners.

We're all resistant to change once we've found methodologies that seem to work miracles for our children.   We're also a little prickly when people outside of the classroom claim to have the magic answer for us.   I always fall back on WWLD, as in What Would Laura Robb do?  

I think that it's always good to let our minds entertain a new approach to reaching our children, but every now an then someone comes up with something that can only be described as "loco."   And that's not okay.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

We could be heroes...

I've been looking for an excuse to wear a magical cape, so I'm trying to talk our SCA into having a superhero spirit day.   You see, I found this cool idea on Pinterest.   

You know it.

All you need is a big, ol' round necked t-shirt and a pair of scissors.   Basically you cut away everything that is not part of the cape.   Be sure to keep the neck attached!   Set the sleeves aside in case you want to accessorize.

You will have a circle with a cape hanging down your back.   If you are finding this hard to picture, here's a step-by-step tutorial that also includes an option for making a Velcro closure and a wristband!

Just imagine what kind of awesomeness could happen when 450ish 8th graders are wearing these cloaks of goodness.

You could probably find a better way to fancy these capes up, but I like the bargain basement plan.   That way more kids can participate, and I've always loved Captain Caveman's seemingly inadequate scrap of material.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I'm gonna assess the stuffin' outta you, bub!

Can I talk with you about something we used to call effective teaching?   Now it's called Response to Intervention, or RtI.

RtI isn't as scary as it seems.   Its basic premise is differentiating instruction for students without pushing them past their (learning) frustration points.   For example, an eleventh grade student reading on a fourth grade level who is handed an American literature textbook and expected to conquer it without any teacher support...just worksheet after worksheet...well, that's bad teaching.

RtI is about getting instruction geared towards different ability levels within the structure of the usual school day.   The first focus is on tier one...meaning...let's get all teachers to instruct in a way that maximizes learning.   Fair enough.   And a little common sense goes a long way with me.

Kids who still need additional help would be considered to be in tiers two or three.   Your lowest readers may even need one on one instruction with the reading specialist, if you are lucky enough to have one in your school.   RtI is an "all hands on deck" approach to instruction, but your options can be limited if you are light on faculty and resources, as many schools are in our current economy.

RtI is a way of thinking.   Your school decides how to implement it.   I'm over-simplifying the program concepts, but if you are teaching with the intent of having your students learn, you are probably all about intervening when a child needs more support and instruction.   And nobody had to force you to do it.

Here's the bumpy part.   RtI can quickly turn into an avalanche of data.   And the true blue RtI folks would be the first to tell you that data for data's sake, data that is not reviewed or used, is useless since it serves no purpose.   Many of the assessment tools were piloted in the elementary school, but they don't quite translate into meaningful information for the adolescent reader.

Let me pause and remind you that these are my opinions.   I encourage you to seek out research-based articles to make your own judgments.

Many of the assessments that seem to draft the barreling 18 wheeler that is RtI raise red flags more than anything else.   This could be more meaningful in lower grades were there's not a long history of prior assessments.   By 8th grade, we know who is at-risk from day one because we inherit 8 years of test scores and other information that indicate a child who lacks fluency in reading and math.   Using red flag predictors with adolescent readers seems to be putting the cart on top of the horse.   Yes, the cart on top of the horse.   Ouch.

That is all I have to say about that at this point, but I will tell you that if your school runs the Maze assessment, there's a free online Maze generator that you can use to  give your kids some practice before the real test date.   You can paste any passage into the space provided and come up with a text that can be used to remind the kids how short three minutes can be when one is reading and circling.

Assessing a child's learning is important.   But what do we do with that data?   Does it inspire us to change our instructional methods?   Does our school district identify areas in which we need additional teacher training?   Does our district invite presenters to train us in a manner that is in line with best-practices that work with children and adults?   Can teachers even interpret the data and apply it to their instructional approaches in a meaningful way?   Do all teachers have access to the data?   Is the data compiled in a user-friendly document or program?   How will you explain children's scores to them and their parents in clear terms that lack educationalese?

If we do not use the data, we are disrespecting the instructional time of our students.   Assessments are crucial to what we do, but how much testing is too much?   Think about the days in a school year and how much time is given over to assessments.   Are you assessing more than you are teaching?   Is each assessment valuable and valid?   Are they biased in any way?   Can they be scored objectively?  If you are able to preview potential tests for purchase, please don't waste any time kicking a flawed assessment to the curb before your district swipes its credit card.

Lastly, does your opinion matter?   Sometimes decisions are made outside of your learning community that are non-negotiable.   If that's the case, you have to do what you have to do to make the experience a positive one for kids.   Explain how the test is administered and what the results mean.   Tell them how you are going to use the results to benefit them.   Give them time to practice with the format of the test.   Make them comfortable with the process.

And if you teach in a way that causes children to learn, stick with it.   Protect your instructional time as best you can.   Perhaps this is the year that some of your struggling readers are ready to make some big strides.   Hopefully, the next time your school conducts a mass screening, they will see the progress that they are making thanks to your diligence.

When Laura Robb, Nancie Atwell and Kelly Gallagher prescribe an RtI plan, I will hop right on board and complete any assessments they see as vital.   Until then, I will need to weigh all of the options before moving forward.   Children first, right?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Random Acts of Inspiration/ Time to Diversify

Thanks to my amazing Facebook friends, paint chips inscribed with inspirational messages have been placed from sea to shining sea.   And there are still more chips yet to be revealed.

Here's the tag I placed at the Scottsboro, Alabama Home Depot.   It was penned by a student who made her way into my classroom from a meandering life path for sure.

There were many stellar, thoughtful photographic offerings from the volunteers who found our small town tags homes in the big wide world.   Thanks to all of the hands that set this project into motion.

People have contemplated taking on similar projects with their own dear children.   When it comes to being kind, there aren't too many bad ideas out there.

Perhaps some of the younger kids would like to participate in this guerrilla-style undertaking.   Pinterest pointed me to a page that has a few free doodled sayings that you can download as coloring sheets.

Does this mean you have to be in the crowd that likes to eat paste, demands shoestring assistance, insists upon extending bedtime deadlines and exudes 24-7 cute-as-a-buttonness?   No, everyone should grab your favorite colors and make something purty.   I'm partial to this one.   If you don't see one that fits your plan, design one your ownself.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Where will you go for Museum Day 2012?

It's that time of year again.   September 29th is the day that you and a guest can enjoy free admission to a participating museum.   Why?   Because Smithsonian magazine says you can!

Rejoice and follow this link for more information.   Here's an easy way to find a participating venue in your community.   Once you've chosen a destination, go here to tell the nice people who you are and have your free tickets e-mailed to your account.

Don't forget to check out the gift shops.   There's nothing better than some of the stuff and nonsense you can find there.   Ask any five year-old.

Please pass this information on to interested friends.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Chalk...What is it good for?

Chalk doesn't get around much anymore in today's classrooms.   But I found an idea on Pinterest that you will love.   Go ahead and keep that chalk in your desk drawer and add a piece to your make-up/ibuprofen/emergency chocolate tote.   I piloted this technique at home over the summer, and it does seem to pan out.

A piece of chalk can work wonders when you drip grease on your clothes and can't get to the washing machine right away.   Salad dressing on your superhero garments?  Just rub chalk over it and watch the stick absorb the oil.   Yes, you still need to launder your clothes later and pre-treat the stain, but this will help.

Feeling self-conscious about wearing chalk in front of the classroom?   Kids really don't care about that.   In middle school, many of them are relieved when their teacher is the goofiest person in the room.   It takes the pressure off.   And you aren't in the business of being cool anyway.

Here are eight other ways to remove grease stains from Reader's Digest.

If you haven't discovered the power of Pinterest for discovering new ideas for your classroom, give it a trial run.   I think you'll like it.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Just Follow Your Heart

For many of us the day after Labor Day marks the official beginning of our school year.  Maybe it's gonna take a lot of coffee to set your bones in motion.   Maybe it's music that powers you up.  If so, here's a beardless Steve Earle with an old favorite, "The Revolution Starts Now."

What kind of revolution will take place in your classroom this year?  You know that's where the magic happens, right?   Have we all done some time in a workplace where that which occurred beyond our little corners of the world was not so lovely for children, faculty or staff?  Perhaps.  But you can keep your classroom afloat in spite of it all.   You can.

Create a place where your soul is fed as well as the souls of the children in your care. Here's a snippet of Earle's lyrics to set the scene for you:

"Last night I had a dream 
That the world had turned around 
And all our hopes had come to be "

What do you and your students dream about and hope for?  It's worth setting aside time for them to write about their wishes, even if it's just an option for a freewrite journal.  (What's a freewrite? It's anything you want it to be, as long as it's school-appropriate. Still, some kids like a topic to fall back on, if they're experiencing writer's block.)

Good luck this year!  And if you're trying to pick a revolution to start, compassion is always a great cornerstone to any movement.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I'm Still NOT a Cat Person...Maybe

                                                        Starlet Crush...with Eyeliner


This summer I got schooled by felines.   I'm a dog person.  Dogs know it.   Cats know it too.   Cats always know who the "I don't like cats" person is in the group.   They signal this knowledge by seeking said person out first and sniffing around her ankles.   This person is frequently a leo.

I have never understood why cats were ever domesticated and why anyone would want a litter box in their living space.   I have never understood why cats would terrorize their people and their people's guests.

Sure, I've met a few cats I've liked along the way.   Most notably Dulcinea and D'Elbow, felines of the highest order--those owned by English professors.   I was charmed by D'Elbow for the main reason that he did not want me to wear him like a hat or become a painful leg warmer when I walked across the floors...and he was orange, the transcendent color of joy.

So why am I telling you about this in my teaching blog?   Because I finally learned my lesson.   First, the next door neighbor's outdoor cat befriended me.   Baby understood how I felt about cats and behaved accordingly.   She didn't shed all over my shins.   She didn't treat me with any sort of aloofness.   She greeted me when I left for work at 6:30 A.M. and when I returned.   She walked around the yard with me during my summer chores.   When Baby had her litter of six kittens, she danced over to our back door to let us know that she was a mom.   Upon returning from a nearly two week trip to the Delta, we saw her run to our driveway with her last kitten to welcome us home before we could get out of the pick-up.   This was not what I thought cats were about.   Was I becoming a cat person?

Also helpful was a marathon of "My Cat From Hell"on the Animal Planet.   In this show, Jackson Galaxy pops open his guitar case full of tools and techniques and helps folks with their naughty cats.   After a few episodes, I was reminded of all of those parenting shows.   Basically, if you give a cats what they need, they will be happy and well-behaved.   Wow.   That was news to me.   Food, exercise, personal space, flat surfaces, warm flat surfaces, warm flat surfaces with a view and a clean place to take care of business.   When those t.v. cats had that, they snapped right into shape.   Nice kitties.

But I didn't need to know all this to continue my relationship with Baby.   She was an outside cat, and not mine, after all.

For reasons that are a too sad to mention here, we are sharing our living space with Baby's last kitten for a little bit.   So far, so good.   I've added Jackson Galaxy's lessons with a little Google research on nutrition.   Starlet is just plain behaving herself.   She hasn't had a single accident under our very watchful and allergic eyes.

And finally being curious about cats after 38 years of being put off by them, I was surprised by what can happen when you recognize "the nature of the beast" and honor that nature.   You'd think someone who has spent most of her time with 8th graders for 13 years would have already known all about that.   Turns out I was just an old dog who needed to learn a new trick.

The Other Blog

Sunflowers at the Blue Levee
For those of you who are interested in my trip to the Mississippi Delta for The Most Southern Place on Earth seminar, I have a separate blog for that.   Although my trip is finished, I plan to continue updating it as I reflect on the experiences and read some of the recommended books.   Of course, I'll update you when I try a new Delta recipe or listen to some southern music as well.   Basically, there's no telling when that blog will end because learning about Delta culture is a lifelong pursuit.

The latest entry is all about Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer.   Her life's work will inspire you and get you ready for the new school year.

Come on over to The Most Southern Place on Earth, but only if you want to...