Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Year End Thanks to My PLN

I've been on twitter for almost three years now and eventhough I haven't evolved to a full-on collaborator as illustrated in this The Learning Nation post by Cale Birk (@birklearns), I'm lucky to have these folks in my PLN.

Here they are. Here's why:

Resource Contributors and Inspirations

Richard Byrne, @rmbyrne: Richard is an educator in Maine (my choice of retirement locations someday) and is the sole reason my browser has crashed or caused my underpowered system to freeze several times over the years. His site is often a launching point for my day and I can never visit without having multiple tabs open or contributing several resources to my delicious bookmarks. His free ebooks offer invaluable help to educators who want to get started and advance their knowledge in specific areas such as Googledocs or serve as introductions to a wide variety of useful web tools. His new site , Android Apps 4 Schools puts the spotlight on apps that teachers and students can use in schools. The first educator I followed when I created my @handle and he is the first person I recommend to teachers who want to get better at integrating technology into their classrooms and expand their own technological talents. He has helped me become a better teacher and has helped my students learn. He also loves his dog and likes to spend time outdoors and he gets bonus points for those attributes in my book.

Kelly Tenkely, @ktenkely: I'm not sure when she sleeps, but I'm glad that she stays up. Her blog (one of many actually, including Dreams of Education ) iLearn Technology is a must read for any teacher who wants to learn about web tools and resources. The reason I think her blog offers more than some other sites that shares these types of resources, is that hers tells you the why and the how to use them in your classroom. She's not afraid to think big (Learning Genome Project) and her humor, enthusiasm, and genuineness come through in her writing while adding value to your reading. Her journey in starting her own school, Anastasis Academy, this year has been enjoyable journey for her Twitter followers and supporters. She's hands down the best #hashtag #SummonerCreatorWriter on Twitter. When she told me that she put my blog in her reader earlier this year it was one of the highest compliments I've received all year.

Nicholas Provenzano @thenerdyteacher A fellow Detroit sports fan who teaches High School English in the Detroit area. His enthusiasm, humor, and willingness to try new things to connect to his students is admirable. His journey in taking on a massive project (The Epic Romeo and Juliet Project) and the unsuccessful courting of Taylor Swift's permission this year was not only entertaining, but inspiring as well. His efforts in that undertaking taught me to not be afraid of trying things that seem to be too big, especially if they benefit your students. New father of the tweeting @babyprovenzano (in and of itself hilarious) and still the third most powerful blog in my bookmarks.

John T. Spencer @johntspencer His blog Education Rethink will not only make you think about your views on education and prescriptions for its health, but will also add to your own perspectives. His writing will make you smile as well. I connect with his priorities, although a slight re-order for me, Husband. Dad. Teacher. I love to read good writers. He is certainly in that category.

Larry Ferlazzo @larryferlazzo Whether with his tweets, his blog, his webinars, or direct messages of gratitude, few people have consistently aided my quest more than Mr Ferlazzo. An extraordinary resource for anyone who wants to get better at teaching.

#Chat Moderators
Greta Sandler @gret ( blog ) and Tania Ash (blog) @tcash are dedicated facilitators of #elemchat that occurs most Saturday evenings.  (updated 1/10/12 often helped by Edna Sackson @ehatedsaid, @CliveSir & Joan Young, @fourishingkids; & Louise Winsor, @louwinsr; The conversations and connections I have made during that hour each week has continued to inspire and renew my aspirations in becoming a better teacher for my kids. Highly valuable and relevant topics ensure that my time is well spent when I can make the slot. It will be worth your time as well. Visit the archives here to see what I mean http://elemchatarchive.wikispaces.com/

Lisa Dabbs @teachingwithsoul, The founder of #ntchat is helping education with her tremendous support of new teachers. Her chat offers support and insights that help a new teacher with information and resources ( http://flavors.me/lisamichelle ). If you are a new teacher and new to Twitter, Lisa should be one of your first follows. #Ntchat is also a great place for experienced teachers to offer support to Lisa's "newbies" Wednesday evenings at 8 EST.

People with Just the Right Resources at Just the Right Time

Jerry Blumengarten @cybraryman1 Another entrant in the "I don't know when they sleep category" Jerry is seemingly participating in every #chat that has to do with education on Twitter. AND he always has a relevant and useful page for the topic. An amazing resource.

Paula Naugle @plnaugle An innovative and imaginative teacher in New Orleans and frequent contributor to #elemchat who always seems to have JUST the right resource to share. Just a perfect follow for classroom teachers who want to reach their students in interesting and innovative ways. http://pnaugle.blogspot.com/

People that help me to become a better teacher

Lee Kolbert @TeachaKidd A self described hockey Mom who is not afraid to use the power of Twitter to guilt her children home for a visit. Educationally, she is a well of interesting thinking and commentary. She tells it like she sees it. Which is why I read her. A Geeky Momma's Blog

Catherine Douthard @mrsd5107 Any parent would be lucky to have Catherine as a teacher. I feel lucky to have her in my quiver of amazing teachers. She is caring and sharing defined. http://www.teachersclass.net/douthard/

Melissa Edwards @mwedwards A supportive, sharing educator who owns "The Cutest Blog on the Block". Consistently interesting, sometimes surprising, but always worthwhile. Her encouraging words of support were much appreciated this past year.

Lyn Hilt @l_hilt A principal that I would work for in a heartbeat. Read her very worthwhile blog here: The Princinpal's Post

Edna Sackson @WhatEdSaid Her advice and insights are not only spot-on and are offered without any hint of self promotion.


People that Make Me Smile

Anthony Purcell @MrP_8thsci Seemingly the only other educator that is up as early as I am, is as dedicated as he is inquisitive. He is crossing into "Veteran Teacher" status this year as he completes his sixth year of teaching. His openness and sharing of his uneasiness with his transition to 'first year science teacher' this year helped me realize that we all struggle with uncertainty at times. Thanks for being interested in what my class is going to do at 6 o'clock in the morning. 

Michelle Baldwin  @michellek107 She once told me to put me down the homework that needed to be graded and play with my puppy. She was right. Funny and passionate about education. Here is a sample of what she's about These Are My Kids 

Melanie Gray @sassysunflwr A Michiganian (it's a word) whose enthusiasm is catching. Wants to get better at what she does. I like that. 

Tracy Mercier @virtual_teach The holder of probably the best avatar on Twitter always has something useful and/or interesting to say. Click follow 

Amanda Dykes @amandadykes Her tweets from the beach are envious. Her tweets on all things education are worthwhile. 

People Who I Value - Thank You for Contributing to My learning
(I'd tell you how, but this post is getting long and I don't want to diminish what you have done for me by writing too short of a recap, thanks) If you want the full list, click on who I follow. Here are some highlights.

Corrie Kelly @corriekelly (How positive are you!)
Jennifer Felke @jenFelke (A former classmate who is making a big difference in a small district)
Linda Yollis @lindayollis (Quirky and fun)
Jamie Josephson @dontworryteach (Inventor of Holidays and passionate about teaching Social Studies)
Aaron Mueller @aaronmueller (another North of the Border resource)
Justin Stortz @newfirewithin (I hope you find the balance you hope for)
Shannon Miller @ShannonMiller (how awesome are you?! Congrats on all your Success and recognition this year)
Kristin Henry @kristinHenry1 (Someone that I'm sure I would like to work with)
Autumn Laidler @MsLaidler (Her replies and re-tweets are appreciated)
Maggie Cary @maggiecary (A terrific blogger Classroom Talk )
Carol McLaughlin @missmac100 (A fellow Elf lover and second grade teacher who experienced the loss of a former student with grace and compassion this year)

I hope that you follow someone on this list that will contribute to your learning as they have to mine.

Have a great 2012!

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I Demand That You Shoot Me Now!

There are a number of things that I love about teaching. High on the list is the freedom I have to teach in way that excites me and engages kids in the content matter. I absolutely love the fact that I have a high degree of autonomy to perform my job. I love teaching because it is something that I want to get better at and wake up at 5:30 each day so I can be at work by 6:30 (the earliest I can get into the building), and try. I love that I make a difference. Not every student, every day, but I try. I don't make a lot, but I make a difference. The 26 stories that bring students to our door each morning matter to me. They are my purpose. I didn't understand why I was so happy until Dan Pink and RSA explained it to me a while back.
Anyway, I was preparing for a lesson this week on understanding the narrator's point of view and their role in fiction, omniscient limited/objective etc. Included in the lesson was how the use of pronouns are a key to determining the narrator's role in the story. I thought I would reinforce the teaching point that improper use of pronouns can have disastrous results. Pronoun trouble indeed.
And with that short introduction, we were off on another learning adventure.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Break the Bat


I recently watched another team win the World Series and it was not enjoyable. I sat and watched the games, wishing I was wearing my lucky hat and cheering on my guys. My team, the Detroit Tigers, beat the Yankees, but they couldn't get past the hot bats of the Rangers in the American League Championship Series. It's not that the the team that I have held close to my heart since I was a child wasn't trying, their best effort was just not as good or maybe as timely as the eventual Pennant winning Rangers.

There were a couple of times where I questioned the wisdom of the opposing team's manager, the entirely likable Ron Washington. The Rangers had runners in scoring position and they chose to bunt or appeared to just be trying move a runner to the next based with a swap at the ball. I certainly wasn't rooting for them to succeed, but I was surprised to see what my armchair coaching determined to be as a half effort. Of course, the Rangers knew what they were doing and won the series, and their strategy didn't diminish their effort. The situations did get me thinking though.

I talked with our class about the series the next morning. After announcements, the pledge, and the crucially important topic of lunch choices took up valuable instructional time yet again, I started talking about always trying your best. I told them to make the most of opportunities, and never do something worthwhile with less than your best efforts. Then I got on a roll.

We were going to be late to our special period that morning, but I wanted to make sure I got my point across. I work hard to make sure we feel safe in our room. We want an atmosphere free from ridicule, meanness, and physical harm, but also free to voice opinions, freely share ideas, and our laughter. I also want them to take hold of their own path, to be free to express or demonstrate their learning.

Then I told them I wanted them to fail. As my silence helped let that sink in to their 6th grade brains, I softly told them,  "that it was ok to fail." I want them to not be afraid to fail in our room."What's going to happen?", I asked. The outcome may not be what you would've wanted, but you'll learn what you can do better next time. When you fail, you will learn what you can change, add-to, or take away to make better. That's how you'll grow in your learning. "Don't worry about what your grade will be, worry about what you have learned", I said.

Make mistakes. Fail. It's ok. You're safe.

I want my kids to make their best effort in what we do in class. Well, maybe not all of their energy is required in spelling , but don't just try and get by. No half efforts. Don't just advance the runner. Swing the bat as hard as you can and try to break it. The splinters you will create can be used to build something great.
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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Always Teaching


Last minute communications had been issued, exit conversations were held, and end of day high fives had been handed out. A hectic, but fulfilling school day had concluded. Because I was still talking to my kids as we made our way downstairs as they began making their way home, I uncharacteristically found myself on the first floor, where I spied our  principal who was monitoring one of the street exits.

She had recently returned to our school after a couple of days away for training or meetings. I made my way over to  sarcastically introduce myself  and genuinely welcome her back. While reaching out to shake her hand, I said, "I remember the face, but I don't quite remember your name."  She replied "Mrs Smith, and you are?" We laughed, shook hands, and I turned around to head back upstairs. Then a bloody murder scream snapped me around to see a little girl led by her mom coming back in through the double doors.

The mom looked frantic. The girl, flushed with pain and confusion, had blood streaming down her face. There was a request for a band-aid, but I met that request with a "come with me." I scooped the little girl up, which was met with an seemingly impossibly louder scream, when the little one couldn't see he mom, who I asked to follow me upstairs to my room.

In the same drawer that I keep confiscated student distractions, various contraband, and my secret stash of candy, is a quick pack of medical care supplies. Rubber gloves, bandages, cotton balls, alcohol wipes, etc, all at the ready for minor elementary wounds. I sat the girl in my desk chair and handed her a couple of the many Spongebob's that adorn my desk in an effort to calm her down. It worked. Of course it worked, everybody loves Spongebob, even when sweat and blood have made your child-fine hair stick to your face.

A little swabbing, a little cleaning, and a fresh new band-aid fixed the little one up. She handed back the yellow toy that decorates a grown man's work space, gave me a little hug, and grabbed mom's hand to leave. I hadn't really noticed through all the chaos that a couple of my students had stayed afterword to help recover our classroom and set-up some morning elements for me. "That was so amazing Mr Johnson!", one of them exclaimed, "You were like a doctor", said the other. Of course it was neither, I was just doing what came naturally. I've seen much worse and I have had a lot of practice with such minor incidents as a father of a thirteen year old boy. I saw a kid that needed help. I helped.

Then the realization that even though the school day may be done, I'm always teaching. My helpful students made the connection to some of the lessons on community that we've had this year. "You showed that little girl such compassion" the students observed, saying further "just like our community circle on compassion."

As a teacher, you don't know if you reach the kids with your words. That day, I was sure that I taught my kids through my actions. I'm always teaching.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fun Formative Assessment - Socrative.com


 My 6th grade class isn't a 1:1 classroom, but when I noticed at the beginning of the year that my school's laptop signup sheet hadn't even been created yet, I thought I would take advantage of the omission to see what 1:1 could be like. For the first couple of weeks our computer time was extended from it's weekly session of 40 minutes on Friday, to all day access and use. That extra time allowed us to get rolling much faster on our web tools than I had planned and  was like being given the gift of time. We used that gift to try out a new web tool, Socrative. (thanks to @coolcateacher for sharing the resource)

From the Socrative website:

Socrative is a smart student response system that empowers teachers by engaging their classrooms with a series of educational exercises and games. Our apps are super simple and take seconds to login. Socrative runs on tablets, smartphones, and laptops.

The site accurately promises 'real-time' formative assessment and seeks to provide a student response system that is easy to use while driving student engagement. It makes formative assessment fun (yes, fun). The teacher sets up a sort of control room where you can set into motion activities that kids can respond to and can immediately view the results 'live' as they come up. Kids log on and join the room and wait for the teacher to begin the activity. Once we begin, kids are instantly 'hooked in' to what is going on in the classroom discussion. I noticed immediately that I was even getting responses from the most reserved students in my class. That fact alone should be enough to get a teacher to try the site. A demo is available on the site.

There are a number stand alone activities available such as true/false, multiple choice, and short answer polls. Socrative also features quizzes that allow me to take a quick snapshot of student learning. I can easily create and store quizzes. Initially, I only used the tool at the end of the day or lesson, but I have grown more comfortable using Socrative during a lesson. I also like to use the tool at beginning of a lesson to help quickly determine prior knowledge for the topic, and the instant polling results help me point the lesson in the right direction. Socrative now has a permanent folder on our class' Edmodo sidebar.

I've used the tool during science, grammar, and math instruction, but the student's favorite activity is the Space Race.  In the Space Race, students can click assigned teams or choose 'rockets' as they answer questions from  lesson questions. Our room is usually 'dead' quiet as teams work together and quietly (so as not to tip off other table teams) to choose the correct answers. Their rockets move across the screen and I can monitor completion on their terminal or watch with the students on the projected screen at the front of the room. Very exciting! At the conclusion of the race, results are sent to the teacher's email in a Googledoc or Excel spreadsheet, scored and graded by individual respondent.
 The site is in Beta currently and promises to make more devices compatible soon. Sign up and give it a try. Your students, and you, will be happy you did.
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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

VocabularySpellingCity

Full disclosure: Due to my enthusiastic tweeting and parent communication of my class' use of the FREE elements of VocabularySpellingCity, the site reached out to me and offered my students a free premium membership for the upcoming year. I was not asked by the site to blog about it or sing its praises in exchange for this membership ($49.99). I think the site has a lot to offer and I think other teachers and students can benefit from using it.

I discovered  VocabularySpellingCity quite by accident. I had to retrieve the lower grade's COW (Computers on Wheels) from the 3rd grade teacher who had used the laptops earlier in the morning. While trying to navigate the mammoth and ridiculously hard to steer cart, I noticed a personalized student certificate laying on top. The certificate congratulated the student for their achievement on a recent spelling test and indicated the number and percentage of words that the student spelled correctly. In the corner was the VocabularySpellingCity logo and address. That was all I needed to start exploring.

Nancy, from VocabularySpellingCity  describes the site as "a free educational website that allows teachers and parents to register, enter, and save their student's own word lists that the students can then use to play a variety of fun, interactive learning games." Registration is easy and free, only requiring an email and some school information that helps users find their class' list later on. Once registered, a teacher can create a custom message to their students and parents, welcoming them to the class' lists.
List creation is simple. You can easily add word spaces individually, by 5's or 10's. Provide a name,  description, pick a grade level for your list and enter the words in the field individually or in a batch with the words separated by commas. Once all the words are entered, the teacher can choose to have the list displayed as entered, random, or in alphabetical order. The site sorts them automatically. Be sure to 'publish' your list so that it appears on your page and can be searchable.
The next step, Word & Sentence Identification, is a really nice  feature of the site. The site allows the teacher to choose the word's definition and usage in a sentence. The site also allows sentences to be customized so that they can match lessons or vocabulary usage in the classroom. For example, you might be teaching homophones during the week, you could chose or create sentences that make the lessons clearer or to help struggling students.
Once you have a list created, students can practice words and meanings through a great variety of activities and games. I always have my students start with the teach me feature. The 'Teach Me' feature not only displays the spelling word letter by letter as its dictated by a real person, it then uses the word in a sentence. The student can review the word (by clicking on it) as many times as they wish, or can advance to the next word. The student chooses the pace for their learning. A teacher can use the 'Teach Me' feature a number of ways. For handwriting practice, I had the computer dictate the word as the students wrote the word as it was said.

I created a sample list for you to try here: YourKidsTeacher

Free activities include Match-it, Which Word, Word Search, Alphabetize, and our class' favorite HangMouse, a hangman-like game in which the student try to guess the correct letter before the cat catches the mouse. Premium games include Vocabulary testing, Word-O-Rama, Letter Fall (lots of fun!), and Speedy Speller that supplements your regular keyboarding practice. (I also used BBC Dance Mat Typing quite a bit last year).

The 'Test Me' feature scores student tests and stores them by student id.The speller can review which words they missed and receive a Certificate issued by Miss Write and John Spellcheck. Neat!

A Premium  membership ($49.99) gives your students access to premium game activities, flash cards, and expanded vocabulary features. The biggest benefits of a Premium membership might be its unlimited list management feature and the automated student record keeping. These features allow a teacher to save paper resources and precious time.

The site also does a great job at generating special holiday and content area (St Patrick's Day, science, math, etc) word lists that adds some fun into the usual spelling routine. The site's Teacher Resources section has a lot of resources that helps further student learning. Included in this section is the Teacher forum, an area to share ideas and share class lists that can save a teacher even more time.



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Saturday, June 18, 2011

I Don't Know Who My Dad Is



I'm a teacher for a number of reasons and I know that 'love of children' is supposed to be at the top of the list, but it's not. There are a number of reasons why I choose to make a difference in children's lives as a teacher. For me, the profession can't be reduced down to simple hugs though. For a number of years I was happy to make a difference in the life of just one child, my son.

I like to tell people that the reason my wife and I have only one child is because you can only hit the lottery once. The boy has always been perfect. He possesses a great demeanor, a tremendous sense of justice, is conscientious, caring, kind, and is a gentle, sensitive soul. I've thought for a long time that I should do my best to not screw up what is innate in him. If I could do that and have him still wanting to talk to me at age 24, I will have succeeded at least in part in helping him get off on the right start. Being a Dad is certainly more than just getting a child off on the right start, but as the old saying goes 'you can only construct a building one brick at a time.'

When I came home from my last day of work recently, our different school systems shared the same last day of class, I called out "Where's my new eighth grader?" It was an attempt to congratulate and recognize his accomplishment at the same time. As soon as the words left my mouth, I immediately wished he was three years old again. A rare emotion that hadn't made its presence known in years rushed to the forefront of my thoughts and I had to fight a lump in my throat.

The same feeling made an appearance at his ninth birthday while I tried to sing the 'Birthday Song' to him just before blowing out his candles. At that moment of celebration, I realized that half of my daily life with him was past and I began to weep mid-song. The thought that once he reached 18 years old, I would no longer have the luxury of spending part of everyday with him and it made me instantly sad. College, work, family, and other adventures would then get his daily attention. Time with Dad would be occasional and almost certainly somewhat infrequent. An event, not routine.

I've tried to be aware of my limited daily time with him since he was born and made conscious efforts to not take for granted my time with him. Time matters. I don't believe in the concept of 'quality time'. I think that my son deserves 'quantity time.' Life moments occur from being there, going there, doing something, and even the mundane with your kid. I try to be aware that setting a positive example on how to be a good person is something that is important and long lasting.

When he was younger he helped me occasionally repair some neighborhood boy’s bikes. My son would 'work' on his bike while I attended to flat tires, stripped stems, loose seats, etc. The five brothers lived with their grandma at the end of the block. We knew one of the boys because he attended school with my son. Xavier was a quiet and polite boy, easily one of the smallest kids amongst his peers. We knew his brothers because of their volume. We also knew them because our driveway was the perfect turnaround pad for a scorching bike trip to the end of the street. There was no doubt they were instructed to not go further than the house on the corner. One day I stopped one of the older boys because his handlebars were dangerously loose. I could see how he struggled to keep the bars in place on the deteriorating sidewalk, with its bumps and cracks, in our neighborhood. With a makeshift shim and a hefty wrist crank over torque, the bike was at least a little safer than when I started repair. Soon, the boys were stopping by frequently to have their mechanical needs taken care of. Occasionally, I bought some tubes, used some lube, pumped-up some tires, and twisted some wrenches to keep the brothers rolling. Even though I wasn’t aware, my son was witness to these minor efforts to help somebody else’s child remarking one time, “that it was nice of me to help them out.” He also said “that it was nice to have a Dad that could fix things.”

I’m reminded of these boys as we get ready to celebrate Father’s Day, because I know that not all kids are able to spend the day with their father. I asked Xavier one day, if his Dad knew how to fix anything similar to the way I knew how to fix bicycles. His pause in answering made me realize that I probably shouldn’t have asked. The awkward silence hung for a moment, then he replied, “I don’t know who my father is.” It was a good thing I had sunglasses on.

I’m not going to pretend to be anybody’s father, but I can be a figure of importance to children.  Being a teacher allows me the opportunity to impact children’s lives on a daily basis, to help kids get better, and lead better lives. I don’t make a lot, but I make a difference. That’s important to me. It is also important for those kids who didn’t win the Dad lottery.

Happy Father’s Day



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Monday, May 9, 2011

An Up and Down Thrill Ride


I know roller coasters. I'm a Midwest boy and one of the things that get a number of us through the winters is the hope of getting thrown around on wood and steel structures in the heat of the summer. Gemini, Beast, Maverick, and Raging Bull are names that are stored in mid-westerner's memory banks as rides that momentarily suspend the rider into a weightless form, experiencing joy and fear at the same time. The sensations and emotions that roller-coaster rides provide can only be obtained at the big parks, unless you are a teacher.

This was my first school year teaching my own class. In other words, a first year teacher. A moniker that I initially avoided, but came to accept, while never hiding behind. I never wanted my ideas, passion, or energy to be discounted or dismissed by the label. I had spent the previous year (April '09-April '10) completing a Graduate Transition to Teaching program with the primary goal of obtaining my elementary license and the corollary goal of completing two-thirds of my Masters Degree in a truncated time-frame. That story is being reserved for a later post, but I'll say the pressures and sacrifices required for that program set-up me up well for wild ride that I would undertake once I got the keys to my own door.

After being selected as a finalist from an applicant pool of over 245 teachers, in a state where the Governor had recently announced 300 million in budget cuts, I was just happy to be offered anything in my newly chosen field. Fortunately, I had the unusual opportunity of expressing my preference for my first classroom and I chose first grade and its six year olds.

So began my slow, clanky, anticipatory ride to the top of the drop. My room just had just been repainted, so my box was, vanilla'd out, to use a remodeling term. Just desks, chairs, and potential. I spent about 32 hours implementing my classroom design and feel as the anticipation built towards the first day. The non-student teacher report week was devoted to professional development, other training, and clerical tasks. The dull before the roar. The school open house closed out the week and held the promise of a new beginning. Then my slow ride picked up speed as I crested the top of the school year and I sped towards the thrills, the fear, and the ups and the downs

I was fortunate to have an administrator that had previously taught the age level and grade. So early on I received a lot of good ideas, tips, and support. It was nice to have a sounding board of someone that I could trust as well, and I felt she had mine and my students best interest in mind. She talked me down off the ledge to be sure or in roller coasterease, held my hand through the corkscrews. The times where I felt upside down. All of a sudden it was October, then very quickly winter break. Whew.

In January, I felt that we were starting to gain some momentum and doing some great things. The ride seemed a little smoother, akin to riding a steel coaster as opposed to a wooden one. We started blogging and were doing some great discovering in our science and social study units. There were days where the early year preparation, modeling and practice of our classroom procedures made it seem as if I was barely needed. I would introduce the concepts, foster the skill practice, and when possible, allow the students to demonstrate how they learned in the best way they could.

There were days of course, where I felt that our classroom car was heading towards the ground and I couldn't see the track ahead of us. They were mostly self-inflicted, terrifying moments where I felt that I had run out of ideas, or when I felt the weight of my conscious incompetence. There were times of sadness, when a student impacted your life without you even realizing it and times of tremendous joy . Of course, the plunging, pitching ride is always connected to something, but it often felt like I was coming off of the rails.

To be sure, I've learned more than my students and will almost certainly owe them an apology someday because I know that I'm capable of more. I came to realize that there was no such thing as a cast off moment, that I was always teaching. And even-though this year isn't quite over, I can't wait to strap in with the next group of students to take another wild ride. Both hands in the air the whole way.



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Friday, April 29, 2011

THE Wedding Through the Eyes of a 6 Year Old

photo by Andrew Milligan/AFP/Getty Images

I like to give my kids exposure to things that they might not see on their own. People they'll remember, events that they'll probably never attend, places that they'll likely never see. Our laptops have made the world smaller, our world view larger, and our understanding of others deeper. My classes have attended rocket launches, festivals of color, tomatoes, elephants, and visited some of the worlds great museums and zoos just to name a few.

I wasn't sure how my first graders would react to today's Royal Wedding though. Appreciating the concept of a wedding is a bit far off for the age group. Sure, some of them might have been ring bearers or flower girls, but I really couldn't picture them being too interested for very long. Once again I was reminded that I should never under estimate a six year old.

I set aside the normal morning routines this morning and just put a simple message on the morning welcome board, "Have a seat, enjoy the Royal Wedding!" I remembered Charles and Diana's wedding and I thought this might be something these kids might remember as well. We watched some of the wedding live (when they walked out onto the balcony) and some of events ( their service, vows and processional) on replay later on in the day.

Predictably the girls identified with the princess and a few of them relayed the fact that they were up with their moms watching the Prince and Princess in the dark hours of early morning. A number of the boys, including me, were taken with the horses and the pageantry. All of us were impressed with the 'bigness' of the whole affair. During one of the overhead shots of the processional, Justin shouted out with his singular vocal frequency that cuts through even the loudest of crowds, "Are those ants?" I replied, "No Justin, those are people", which resulted in a chorus of "ooohs", and we were off. The comments were coming so fast that I grabbed a stack of post-it notes and tried to keep up and focus through the tears of laughter.

Here's a glimpse at The Royal Wedding through the prism of a first grader."Mr Johnson, start at the beginning where she graduates"

At the church
  • As the couple met at the front of the church "This is going to be a complete disaster"
  • A response to one of the vows "For richer or poorer?!?, look at all that gold!" (my personal favorite)
  • Scanning the church crowd during one of the songs "Where's Oprah?"
  • "There's that old man again...no wait, they're all old men"
  • "No one's smiling!"
  • After the vows, "How come he didn't kiss her?" "Aren't they married now?"
  • "How come they're walking so slow?"
During the Processional
  • "I want a horse!"
  • "That's a lot of people" "Do they know all of them?"
  • What's up with the hats?" (Beefeaters)
  • "I thought she (Kate) was 85?"
On the balcony
  • "Just kiss her already, this is taking forever!"
  • "That was the best thing I've ever seen"(flyovers)
  • "Is she still a princess?"
A great day, a terrific experience. The wedding wasn't too bad either.



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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Teach Me Something I've Never Seen

Sometimes the best part of my job are the little moments that occur almost exclusively random and unexpected. Affirming moments when you realize that you have made a difference in a child's life and the moment comes back and makes a difference in you.

I've always tried to be conscious of situations where a overreaction or an improper reaction might create a life moment for one of my students. In other words, kids are sometimes messy, frequently noisy, and sometimes lose their minds for brief periods of time, but those situations don't need to remembered for the rest of their life. Some of them get enough of that at home, like the child that came to school with bruises for spilling juice on the carpet, or the child that was forced to wear the same soiled clothes everyday because she didn't do her chores. I'm not about to intentionally create a life moment in my room for anything that is negative. I try to make my room a safe and reliable  place where kids feel comfortable to explore and take responsibility for their own learning.

The life moments that am not aware of are  the ones of which the kids create themselves. The moments when they make a connection to what I've presented or exposed them too, something they have never seen, knew existed, or how to do.The only thing that I can control in that equation of learning is by trying to present content that makes meaningful life connections in a fun and interesting  way and maybe inspire them to learn more. We recently used the Iditarod Sled Dog race in Alaska to teach measuring, graphing, observing, teamwork, prediction, and distance.  We also viewed photos from around the world during the recent Carnivale. The reactions and the occasional silence while looking at the selected photos (MSNBC Carnival From Around the World) were indications that I was sharing something that the kids hadn't seen before. Silence, when unleashed from amazement and wonderment is a pretty terrific sound.

Unfortunately, I don't always know if I made a connection or inspired a student to look further into a topic that might have excited or inspired them. Those moments may come long after they have walked out of Room116 for the last time, but I do know that when a student wants more learning to come their way, it makes my day.

The other day I was behind in some of my correspondence and non-teaching stuff, not like I ever seem to be caught up. Anyways, I decided to take my laptop down to dismissal and get some items ticked off my list as the kids names come over the loudspeaker and head through the gym door for home. My job is pretty simple during dismissal, I just make sure that when my kids names are called, they get their things and go. A perfect time to perform some mindless tasks. Miguel saw that I was working on my laptop and came over to sit down next to me. He asked me what I was up to and quickly learned that the task was nothing important. He had a better idea on how to spend our last moments of the day together and asked "Mr. Johnson, will you teach me something I've never seen before?" I looked at him, opened a new tab in my my browser and replied, "Yes Miguel, where do you want to go?"

Miguel had just created a life moment for me, one that he'll never recognize as more than a casual question. The moment helps to illustrate just how big of an impact my role as a child's teacher can be and helped me to understand that no interaction between student and teacher should be regarded as a cast off moment. All the interactions have the potential to mean something, have an impact. Even to a six year old while he was waiting to go home.



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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Don't Say Can't, Say How Can I?

I use a lot of inspirational sayings in Room 116. Some are verbal, some are printed. Some are for me, some for the kids. The one on the wall opposite of our whiteboard that says "Don't say good luck, say don't give up" came from a song by "The Roots" that resonated with me this past summer. That sign is for me, and was also painted on the roads of France this past summer by Nike's chalkbot during my beloved Tour de France. The phrase aligns with part of my personal philosophy that you can't count on luck to come your way. Make your own way by working hard. The sign with a big red circle and red bar crossing out "Boring Words" is for my aspiring writers. A visual reminder to not be an ordinary in your writing.

The spoken inspirations are more familiar to my students, probably because I repeat them often. Some phrases though, veer into frequent-flier territory. One of those phrases, "Don't Say Can't, Say How Can I?", is one of my favorites. I want my students to believe that they can do anything, that sometimes it is just a matter of finding a way. If saying "I can't" becomes a habit at six years old, well...it scares me. I use the phrase as a challenge, for encouragement, and for celebration. Many times I just use my "Don't say can't, say how can I?" look, and yes, I have a "Don't say can't, say how can I?" look. The kids know that the "Don't say can't, say how can I?" look is asking them to find a way, figure it out in their own way, take hold of their learning. When I say the phrase, they know that it's time to get back to work.

Recently we were reading "Frog and Toad - the Kite" as we learned about cause and effect. The story was not helpful in landing the concept, which didn't happen until we read the 'Itsy Bitsy Spider". Frog and Toad did give me a bit of inspiration though when very few hands were raised when I asked if they had ever flown a kite. It was a moment similar to last when year a 4th grader told me that he had never been to a zoo. It broke my heart. I quickly arranged a virtual field trip to some of the finest zoos in the world. Matt thanked me later for making the effort, but he still wanted to see my favorite animal - the African Wild Dog - in person. My kids were not going to leave 1st grade and be able to say that they had never flown a kite.

I was hoping that last summers $2 specials were still laying under the bike racks, paddles, and assorted summer gear in my truck. I retrieved them and assembled them during lunch and shared them with the class just prior to our specials block late in the day. The class favorite was Buzz and Woody although the Bumblebee one from Transformers was a hit with some of my car crazy boys. I showed up at the Art door with kites in hand and told them that we had to make it back to class at "Fire Drill" pace, pack up and get down to an empty gym, because we were going to fly our kites. "Mr Johnson we can't fly a kite inside!" Out came the 'look' and they quickly realized that I had found a way. The squeals and cheers erupted when they realized what we were going to attempt, but the jubilation had to subside before we could travel in our school's usually hallway.

We quickly packed up the day's papers and packs and made our way to an empty gym. I held the kite over my head and ran as fast as my leather bottomed dress shoes would let me on the slippery floor as 20 or so six-year olds ran screaming and laughing behind. Pure joy. Of course we were never able to participate in one of the joys of flying a kite outside, when you just watch the wind play along with you as it makes the kite dance and sway. Webster's needs to add kite flying to the definition of calm as a e.g clarifying detail. 

The kids loved it.  I was disappointed though, just a little, until after dismissal when I found a way that might recreate a more authentic kite flying experience. Our school's upstairs drinking fountain had recently blew a line sometime after 6pm on Friday and the time that first teacher came in on Saturday to do some extra work. The water had completely flooded the first floor, creating which I'm sure was a nice little cascade down the stairs to the music room, which got it from the bottom and the top as the water made its way through the drop ceiling as well. The emergency cleanup crews equipment was set up along the back wall of the lobby awaiting deployment once the kids had left for the day to try and dry us out. The armada of large fans would clearly create a high volume of air once turned on, in fact they sounded like an airplane sounds in a movie. Clearly enough to hold Woody and Buzz aloft, as it turns out.

I hauled four of the behemoths to our class during lunch and set them up on a couple of desks. I didn't have time to test out the product of my inner mad-scientist before the kids got back, but how could it fail? Well it turns out you have to have them facing the right way Einstein. After that minor adjustment was made we were off on a learning exploration. I turned on the fans one by one until there was a small roar coming from the configuration. I held the kite in front of the indoor windstorm in various positions, on my knees, crouched down, hunched over, long string, short string until I found consistent and predictable flight. I actually tried to teach a mini-lesson on force and velocity, but classroom management was blown away as well, and I gave in to the jubulation.

"Mr Johnson, you can fly a kite indoors." Yes you can! Did. Awesome.



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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Well, I Wasn't Expecting That.

Our school is remodeling our bathrooms so that they have commercial grade plumbing fixtures and I shouldn't have to explain to anyone why those fixtures are necessary to an elementary school. The upstairs boys room was the first phase to be completed and ready for use. Our principal sent out the all-staff email telling us that it was ready.

My first inspection revealed that we gained a stall, an extra hand dryer, and that the painters might have rushed in the corner adjacent to the entrance. I thought I would try out the new faucets and soap dispensers and it was then that I noticed something was missing.

The old bathroom had a large mirror spanning the length of the sinks and counters, but now I was standing there looking at very durable vandal-proof walls. I mentioned the omission to my classroom aide, and she said that boys don't need mirrors. I strongly disagree. What if my tie is crooked, miss a belt loop, or is food in my teeth? Six year olds don't let that stuff go and don't yet contain the tact to not mention those things. So I decided to mention the issue to our principal. I told her of my concern without trying to sound too much like a fairy princess. Based on her email reply, it was apparent that I was not successful.

 It made my day.




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Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Empty Desk, an Unexpected Change

I'm a teacher, but I'm not the only one that gets an education in Room 116. I recently learned that the culture of a classroom can change in unexpected ways, when a student suddenly leaves.

I've had students come and go, and student changes are part of the gig. I don't want that to sound dismissive of a student's absence, but when our class walks in the next day, we have to get back to learning. Before the student leaves, I try to make an opportunity for everyone to tell them how much they meant to our class. We have a community circle and ask each student to say something meaningful about the departing student. I'm always touched with how expressive and caring a young child can be towards another. So many of my first graders have a natural kindness, that when given a chance to express a farewell thought, their words can be really very moving. While sometimes we get to share our thoughts over cupcakes, the time-frame of a departing student does not always allow for casual reflection. Sometimes the period of time to say goodbye can be quite short, even brutal.

I walked into class on a Wednesday and executed the normal pre-dawn routine of getting our room ready to facilitate learning for my six and seven year olds. I reset the attendance/question of the day sticks, set out the morning work, changed the morning greeting/date and looked once again at the recently vacant fish tank. I was still uncommitted as to what to do with the 10 gallon classroom attraction after my attempt to dress it up made for an unfortunate and unexpected end to all of our class fish. Something on the decorative shells I recently added, tainted the water to the extent that all of the fish, including the newly added plecostomus, died sometime during our third and fourth snow day of the season. It was an unfortunate end for my son's  $.50 prizes from a school fair three years ago.

When the loss of aquatic life was discovered sometime between fact practice and problem solving during a math class the week prior, the most vocal critic was predictably Celia. With her hands on her hips and her perfectly raspy little girl voice cutting through the mummer of numbers she confronted my mistake with "Why did you do that Mr. Johnson?" That pointed, unfiltered remark was what I had come to expect for Celia (not even close to being her real name). Celia wasn't in my class the first few days of school, but I had already been introduced to her personality through anecdotal accounts by some building teachers before the start of the school year.

Several of my peers, either out of curiosity or schadenfreude, checked on me after the first couple of days of class. "How was Celia?" "Was Celia here today?". Apparently, she had quite the reputation, but I wasn't that interested. I'd have the next ten months to get to know Celia and figure her out on my own. For the first days, Wednesday and Thursday, of our first week of school I couldn't figure out what everyone had been talking about. Celia was attentive, respectful, quiet, and from what I could see 'whip smart'. Then came Friday.

We began our literacy block after rehearsing/modeling our morning procedures to get our new school year off to a smoother start. The sound of a pounded desk and loud clacking of braided hair erupted from behind me while I was covering the /d/ sound at the whiteboard. When I turned around, I saw Celia having her own little rock concert. I'll never know the song she was rocking out to, but based on her intense motion, volume, and intensity, it resembled a Rolling Stone article's description of attendee behavior at a Deep Purple concert in the 70's. I never thought I would utter the sentence "Please keep your hair quiet", but from my mouth, out it came. This type of behavior would continue at various times, with various triggers over the next several months. Sometimes Celia would thrash so hard that barrettes and beads would fly off of and out of her hair, not dissimilar to the Witch Hazel character in the Bugs Bunny cartoon "Broom Stick Bunny". I began to understand what the other teachers were trying to warn me about. As disruptive as the behavior was to the class instruction, she lovingly, instantly, earned her nickname for the year, Rockstar.

I would get to know Celia pretty well over the next several months. She would frequently come into our day late, if at all. Her tardy slips inflated her file that is held in my desk drawer. When she did arrive, she was often exhausted, hungry, and more than a little ornery. I learned that a nap behind our kidney table curled up with an oversized stuffed bear would get her on track for at least part of our learning day. More than once I walked down with her to get some breakfast, if still available, from the closed lunchroom. More often though, a granola bar and juice that I have stashed away, had to suffice for her breakfast. I learned that she sometimes bounced around and stayed the night in three separate homes during the course of a week. She complained that her brother's loud music kept her from falling asleep sometimes, along with the parties and the yelling. Celia was the only one who raised her hand one day when I asked for another word for cop. The hand raising was mostly a formality, because she was already spelling P-O-L-I-C-E out loudly before I could even call on her. It was clear that her life experience had already familiarized her with our local law enforcement.

I worked with her on understanding her personality and how she was a leader in Room 116. She was someone who people wanted to be around.I think that she began to use her powers of attraction for good and not using them to boss people around like she was doing in the beginning of the year. Bossiness was still her default, but she was trying. She was developing her reading and writing skills rapidly. Her leveled reading assessment and benchmark testing in the the beginning of the year showed where she needed some skill building and she was responding wonderfully. Math facts frustrated her a little bit, but once she made the connection of why there were important, she was on board and was progressing on pace. She grew to understand me and I, at times, thought I had her figured out. Until dismissal that Wednesday, when her sister came up to me and said that today was Celia and hers last day. I had a similar conversation earlier in the year, that the girls were going to move permanently to a new place, but nothing came of it. I asked Celia what she knew about the move and she just shrugged her shoulders. Not quite sure. Then their names was called over the PA, indicating that their ride was here, and she ran out the gym door.I went home and told my wife that Celia might be moving and that I hoped it wasn't true. Her knowing question of "Wasn't she a pain in your butt?" was true, but she was my pain in the butt.

Thursday morning came and with it the same morning prep routine. However, there was a air of doubt and anticipation hanging in the air. Morning assembly came, and with it several turns over my right shoulder to see if Celia was arriving late, dragging her back pack across the gym floor. We started the days learning, but I always had my ear open for her arrival and the telltale hollow sound of her shoe heals hitting the floor as she walked with shoes larger than her feet. Nothing. Around midday it was confirmed that the girls would not be returning and that their withdrawal paperwork had been started. I finished the day and went home.

Friday the room had a noticeable gap, vacancy, space, I don't know the word, but something was missing. Sometime between phonic blends and writing the phone rang with the front desk informing me that Celia's 'granny' was here to pick up any of her things. I went straightaway to the bookcase and frantically tried to find her favorite book from our library. It was a pink and silver sparkly book about some kind of princess and her love of ice skating. A tiny little book that was beyond her reading level, but one nonetheless that she curled up with time and time again during free reading time. I had helped her read some of the pages, but more often than not, just helped her with the hard words. I grabbed a sharpie, wrote my name on the inside cover. From: Mr Johnson, To: Celia with Rockstar written underneath. Handed her Grandma the plastic shopping bag with Celia's desk contents and showed her where I had signed the book and told her to tell Celia that we would miss her. Then, I tried really hard not to cry in front of the remaining kids in Room116. That came later when I told my wife wife that Celia was gone. Told her about her favorite book that I gave to her grandma, then lost it again.

The emotion came out one more time when I came in Friday for the usual morning setup and went to reset the attendance sticks when I saw Celia's laying in the tray. That was all it took to set me off again. Fortunately, I'm usually the first one into the building, so I didn't have to explain to anyone why my eyes were watery and red. The 'lunch lady' has her own routine in the morning and was easily avoidable. The day kinda flew bye and then I went home.

Monday was better. Tuesday a little more so. The classroom culture had changed, mellowed a little. Not as many disruptions, but not nearly as interesting. At some point in the week I stopped trying to figure out when that little girl reached in and stole a little piece of my heart. It probably happened sometime in between "Perfect Strangers" and "Smoke on the Water"in a Deep Purple like time-line, but it doesn't really matter. My little Rockstar can have that piece of me. She needs it more than I do.Thanks for letting me be in your band. Goodbye





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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blogging for 6 year olds?

I think that kids generally love to read. They love books, the things they contain, and the feeling of success they can provide to emerging readers. Kid's natural curiosity in books is one of the things that I love about my first graders age group. Although not universal, reading is a subject that can set off sparks to ignite learning and student engagement.

Writing, is another animal. While there are some of my students that love to write, most would just rather lose another tooth than write something. In Room 116, we use quite a few web tools that provide fun, interactive activities that the students usually don't recognize as a writing assignments.
A few:
  • Storybird Uses great looking graphics and text boxes to create stories in a story board format. A student can publish their story and buy the book they created.
  • Picture a Story The author can place characters and props to support their text.
  • Witty Comics Cartoon panel format with choice of characters and background with word balloons.
  • The Zimmer Twins Users can make their own movie in a storyboard format and input narration and dialogue.
I can assign a purpose to the writing activity and easily assess whether the student needs some support or whether we need to regroup and review what skills we are trying to master. During a recent lesson on quotation mark usage, we used  Witty Comics as a perfect site to demonstrate what we had learned. The characters (the weird bunny heads on human bodies are among my favorites) are facing each other and dialogue is placed into cartoon balloons. I could easily see what kids were "getting it" as I made my way around the 24 laptop screens.

Recently however, my methods were uncovered. "You're tricking us into writing Mr Johnson" was heard by a particularly astute student during one of our Storybird  sessions. Well, kinda. Not really tricking, more like trying to make them recognize that writing happens all the time, everywhere. It was apparent that I needed to up my game. Enter blogging.

I had kept my eyes open on Twitter to see what student blogging services members of my personal learning network (PLN) were using in their classes. I was looking for a safe, easy to set-up, easy to maintain, blogging site that had some advanced features that we could use for the entire class. Kidblog.org fit the bill.

Kidblog.org allows the teacher to have complete administrative control over the class' site with the ability to control access, edit posts, and edit/approve comments. Private by default, student posts are viewable only by classmates and the teacher. If a parent, administrator, or grade level partner would like to view or comment, the teacher can create a guest user with a distinct user-name and password. The guest ID is a great feature for parents that helps build excitement for the student's writing, a parent (or administrator) can see what we are up to in class and fears of 'blogging' and 'online activity' can be eased. Guest comments also provide a motivational factor to student's blogging, because "someone is reading my blog."

It is super easy to set up an entire class room. Once signed-up for a free account, you can to create a class by entering each user individually or use a two column Excel spreadsheet to import, which is what I chose. Super simple. The kid's passwords can be kept simple to ease sign-in. Kids can be blogging in minutes.

Students can read their classmates blogs and make comments, ask questions, or encourage more activity. The ability to leave and respond to moderated comments is a great feature that lets the kids experience a  full blogging environment. The classroom teacher can make constructive comments to encourage more writing, reflection, or expansion of an idea. The control panel allows the teacher (site administrator) to control who may view, post or comment on the blogs, define user permissions, and set comment moderation limits.

The website's easy to understand toolbar makes uploading video clips, pictures, and audio very simple. Our class wrote about their predictions for Groundhog Day and then attached a short Flip Video clip with them speaking their prediction.

When we published our class' first blog, we rang the class bell every time a student hit the publish button "to tell the world", followed by a round of applause and cheers. The energy is the room was terrific. The students had forgotten that they just completed another writing assignment.




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Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Grand Exposition of Learning

The bulletin board outside of our classroom is a 4'x10' space that we use to highlight student work. It is a large area that requires some creativity to display a student's learning. I have always tried to be unconventional in my approach with the space and almost always go big. I like to blow out the borders of the aluminum framed board by pretending they are not there. The last display reflected our concluded spatial knowledge unit and used oversized continents, maps and compasses. It was a big hit with students and parents alike.

The expectations are high each time the old stuff comes down and the canvas is prepped for the next project.The self-imposed problem is how do we top or match our last display. I usually complete the new board on my day off. I like to go from nothing to wow, when no one else is around. I can work messily , turn the music up, and sing without interruptions or embarrassment.
One of the online tools I had saved in my Delicious quiver was Block Posters. The free website allows users to create wall sized posters from their uploaded images. Our recently concluded Water Cycle was the perfect opportunity to give it a try. I chose a student piece that incorporated unit vocabulary and was a good representation of what we learned as a class.

I scanned the work and re-sized it to fit into the website image limit of 1mb. The website accepts formats JPEG TIFF GIF RAW BMP JPG PCX etc. Once uploaded, step two is to slice up your image, choose the orientation, and the final size of the poster. Once the user is satisfied with their setup, they choose continue to get the link to download their file. The PDF file can then be printed, but you must be sure to print so that the image takes up the entire piece of paper. A mistake that I made, that required some paper cutting duties in the library.

Once printed, you piece the prints together in a puzzle or mosaic to form the enlarged image. 
Mine came out at aobut 7.5' by about 5.75'. I added some more student work on the periphery, displayed the standards that we taught and let the exhibit speak for itself.

Block Posters has a lot of potential for teachers. You could use the site to create larger reference posters, class photos, tracking charts, and anything that a teacher might want to 'Go big' with.




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Monday, January 17, 2011

Hi, My Name is Eric and I'm a Charter School Teacher

The title of this post sounds, at once, apologetic and confessional. I'm a teacher and it feels pretty good to say that out loud or write it down, to an extent that I lack the talent to express fully. I work for six and seven year olds, an age that I feel, is one of the most critical ages for a child. The learning gaps between one learner and another that are formed in vocabulary and reading before a child hits second grade, may never be made up. I think that's pretty important and a role I take very seriously. My kids get my best effort each day and I expect their best effort as well. I've watched, benefited from, worked with, and admired great teachers as I have made my way through life. It is my hope that I can humbly be considered within those conversations that center around teachers and the positive difference they have made in the lives of students. I don't think I'm much different from most teachers in this way.

Even-though I know why I teach and why I chose this profession, recently I've felt the need to qualify, maybe even defend, where I teach. A public charter school. I think the real demarcation point for the change in the tone of the conversation, both online and in personal interactions, was around the time of Michelle Rhee's appearance on Oprah, Zuckerberg's 100 million gift to NJ, NBC's education nation, and the release of the movie "Waiting for Superman". The momentum of those combined events seemed to divide teachers into factions. Those divisions may have already existed and maybe I just didn't notice or pay much attention to the lines between traditional school systems and charter schools. Either way, I noticed a change.

I almost always have to explain to a non-teacher what a charter school is and the similarities and differences between traditional public schools and charters. I'm well versed in my 'elevator' pitch, so that the information about my school is clear and concise, so as not to confuse the listener. When talking to a traditional teacher, there is frequently an awkward silence that results from the disclosure when I relay the type of public school in which I work, and find myself breaking the ice that quickly forms.

There are questions about unions, evaluations, tenure, student admission, parental involvement and administrators. I try and take the opportunity to explain all of the good things that happen in my classroom and school and the wonderful environment that I can create with some of the freedoms that I have in my charter school.

Once I can get the other side of the conversation talking again, two questions seem to always be top of mind. First, "aren't you worried about losing your job due to a bad evaluation or adminstrator?" or similar. No. I don't plan on ever getting a bad evaluation and after getting kicked to the curb three times over the last 5 years, through no fault of my own, I no longer worry about things I can't control. Also, my experience is that no matter how good the organization or work environment, there is not much you can do to protect yourself from a bad manager. The second question, more like a comment really, is "I don't think I could work under the pressure to perform" that they perceive to be present at a charter school. Maybe not, but I bet we're not under as much pressure as you think. Make no mistake about it, everyone of my kids is expected to grow, in fact I get bonuses based on their growth, and we assess their learning in a number of ways. We don't use the data to exclude, punish, or separate, but rather as tools to help drive our teaching and to get these kids the instructional content they need. Over the course of the conversation, the teacher across the table or at arms length, grows to understand me and my school a little better.

The online conversations aren't always as polite. Charters, especially the teachers, are not at war with the other public schools. You'd never know this, however, as 'charter school teacher' as taken on a perjorative slant in online conversations, blogs, and tweets in the last six months. I'm not out to put an end to traditional public schools. I don't want to break up your union. I don't want you shown the door if a bad manager/admnistrator feels you're ineffective or too expensive. It would be  nice if people could be as polite and considerate  in the online world as they are face to face.

I want a great learning environment from my students. I want data that helps me understand what my students need from my instruction, so that I can tailor it to their learning needs. I want to be evaluated fairly and frequently and given support so that I can become better. Eighty percent of the students in my school qualify for free or reduced lunch. A number of my kids don't get the support of their education that I think is sufficient. I have 25 different life stories that come to me each day, and not all are happy ones. A charter school can't fix these things and neither can a traditional school, but I bet we are both in this profession to make a difference.

My name is Eric, and I'm a teacher in a charter school. I'm not that much different from you.




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