Saturday, April 13, 2013

This I Believe

As I might have mentioned before, my eighth graders are working toward writing their own “This I Believe” essays. As part of the pre-writing process, some of my lessons have been inspired by the first chapter of Kelly Gallagher’s book Write Like This. I like the way that he differentiates between “express” (describing details) and “reflect” (looking back to make meaning) and the activities he suggests work well toward my objectives.

We’ve written Six Word Memoirs. We’ve written about what our childhoods tasted like. We’ve written (and drawn!) the places that we call home. We’ve exchanged personal artifacts and created song titles that reflect about the significance of the artifact in the other person’s life.

Now that students are getting the hang of expressing and reflecting, we are moving toward the discussion of values. One of my objectives for this “Values” lesson was for students to be able to define the values and the second objective for this lesson was for students to be able to rank the values and explain their choices.

As I racked my brain (and teacher books and old notebooks) for vocab strategies, I was reminded of Frayer models. For our Frayer models, we put the word in a circle in the middle, and divided the four quadrants surrounding the circle into “Definition (in own words),” “Examples,” “Non-Examples,” and for my visual learners “Images.” My students sit in groups of four, so it was natural to turn this into a cooperative activity where each student was responsible for one of the four tasks.

This strategy worked better - and was more eye-opening – than I could have imagined. Seeing their thinking about the values (honesty, wisdom, creativity, hope, confidence, cooperation, and success) confirmed yet again the importance of students sharing their ideas and understanding rather than steam-rolling them with the “right” definition or answer.

For example, the “Success” group defined their word: “To be good at something of your personal goal; to win in life.” Their examples included “winning a game, graduating school, and winning the lottery.” Their non-examples were “losing in a sports game, staying back a grade, and losing the lottery.” Finally, for their image (as you can see below), they drew and man and woman aboard a boat named “Success” decorated with the Nike swish. The man has spiky hair, sunglasses, club-ready attire, and is throwing dollar bills while the woman has ro“bust” features and is holding a cocktail. This group’s dichotomous association of success with winning, rather than losing, reflects the idea that life is a competition. They seem to idealize money, possessions, and appearance as symbols of success. Considering their frequent conversations about Jersey Shore and rappers like Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa, I am not too surprised by their creation and I am curious about how they will rank success among the other values when we finish the lesson next week.

Another group that stuck out to me was “Cooperation.” Though they weren’t able to complete all of their work, they did list non-examples of “not following rules and not listening” and drew an image (as you can see below) of a teacher saying “Blah blah blah,” and a student responding “Ok” with a smiley face. To them, cooperation is complying with an adult’s requests. When I pressed them for more, they offered another example of a child listening to a parent. Still curious, I asked about cooperation with peers and they said something to the effect of, “Well you don’t have to listen to peers because they don’t have any power over you.” I was pretty surprised (and a bit disturbed) by their response because it is so different from mine; I think of two or more people working collaboratively toward a common goal. What is important, though, is that neither of us is “right” or “wrong.” Based on our own experiences, we have different perspectives. However, as a teacher who believes that power results from cooperation (rather than power being the cause of cooperation), over the next three weeks I hope to design lessons and facilitate conversations that complicate their understanding of the concept.
This I believe: teaching is not about steam-rolling students with facts and definitions. Instead, teaching is an act of hope, carefully designed to provide space for people to share their ideas and develop more complex understandings of themselves and the world.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Four Agreements and "Heart Currency"

I should have taken out my copy of “The Four Agreements” during my team’s RTI meeting on Friday.

Things started out fine, with my team’s teachers sharing updates about students with the RTI facilitator and RTI coordinator. (The RTI facilitator is a fellow teacher at the school who gives up one of her preps once a week and the RTI coordinator is a fellow teacher at the school who is on release from her usual teaching position for the whole year.) Then, when conversation moved to a student I’ll call Sam, things became a bit intense. Earlier in the year, they tried to have Sam keep track of his behavior with a behavior chart, but that didn’t work, so the teachers decided that they would do the charting themselves. When the coordinator asked to see the teacher’s charts so that she could input the data into the computer, the teachers told her that they didn’t have the charts. The facilitator reminded them that they had agreed to do it and if they were not on board with this particular intervention, then they would have to decide on something else.

Some words were exchanged and from my point of view it seemed like there were two different conversations happening between the coordinator and one of the teachers. As a peer, the coordinator was just doing her job and trying to collect the data from the teachers. She wasn’t out to “get” the teachers in any way. She said several times that she knows keeping track of so many students is not easy and that her team last year often struggled with this as well. The teacher, on the other hand, was trying to make the point that she doesn’t believe in the premise of data collection. From the teacher’s perspective, she knows her students from observations and conversations, without this “bean counting.” Unfortunately, the teacher broke one of “The Four Agreements” when she took one of the RTI facilitator’s comments personally, seeing it as an attack.

As an outside observer, the comment seemed neutral, but of course, I am not sure of the history between these two. They are PEOPLE and people often butt heads because of personality differences, previous conflicts, etc. This is where the second Agreement, “Don’t Take Anything Personally” and even the third Agreement, “Don’t Make Assumptions” come into play. It seems like the two weren’t communicating as clearly as they could have, so the meeting wasn’t as productive as it might have been.

Despite the tension that hung in the air, I still left the meeting hopeful because both teachers had Sam’s best interests in mind. Though they have different beliefs about how to best help him, this conflict wouldn’t have occurred if they didn’t care. As Dr. Cook mentioned in seminar, we teachers operate in “heart currency,” and sometimes our hearts put different values on different items and goals…

Monday, April 1, 2013

"Let Me Get Out of Your Way..."

“Let me get out of your way and not limit you to my sorry imagination.”
– Rick Wormeli

This quote has been swirling around my head since last November when I traversed across the country for the AMLE conference. Wormeli, a recognized expert for his ideas about differentiation, formative assessment, and standards-based grading, slipped it in during his session on tiering the instruction of reading and writing. His point was that providing models is important, but the goal of teaching shouldn’t be for students to reproduce their teacher’s work. Rather, the goal should be for students to out-perform their teacher. I think this makes so much sense, and, during my observation this week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Wormeli’s words.

As an introduction to the “This I Believe” unit I am teaching, I decided to have the students create six word memoirs. For models, I first showed them a book published by SMITH magazine called I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six Word Memoirs by Teens Famous and Obscure. Then I played a YouTube video of six word memoirs created by a class of seventh graders (see the link below). I created six of my own examples. And, finally, shared several six word memoirs created by other students on the team.

As I walked around the classroom to show my own examples, one student was especially intrigued by my “Thanks, but something is still missing” card. I drew interlocking puzzle pieces, wrote a word in each puzzle piece, and cut out a puzzle piece from the corner as if it was really missing.

This student, who has trouble sitting still, doesn’t like to write, and is often pulled out of class to have a conversation in the hallway, saw it and couldn’t contain his excitement. He couldn’t wait to call me and all of the other teachers in the room (including Pam!) about his idea for his memoir. He explained that he has some anger issues and when he gets upset, he usually rips paper and throws it around like confetti. So, for his memoir, he wanted to tear up looseleaf paper and glue the pieces back together on his index card.


I haven’t seen a student so excited and engaged in his work.

His idea was brilliant and perfectly unique to him. It was definitely a “Let me get out of your way and not limit you to my sorry imagination moment.” It made me proud. It made my CT proud. And I think it would make Wormeli proud too.

One of the best parts of teaching is providing space for students to show off what they can do. This student is just one example. Throughout the whole week, without even being aware that they are doing it, the students have been providing really helpful feedback that I have been using to improve my lessons. One student asked if she could brainstorm a list of events before starting her “Letter to Me” assignment. Another student made six columns on the back of his index card in order to help himself stay organized when thinking of a six word memoir. And when I asked the students to respond to a closure question on a post-it note, a student asked if they should stick them to the door on the way out. All of these ideas have helped me be a better teacher this week and will be things I keep in mind as I cotinue to teach.

I think it is easy to be frustrated and annoyed by students like my paper-ripper when they continue chattering or when they don’t hand their work in on time or when they never have a pencil, but there is so much genius to go around.

I’ve got my eyes and ears peeled. Do you?
[Link to YouTube video I showed:]