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Sunday, April 29, 2012

No Longer Afraid to Fail

I was inspired last year as I watched a teacher that I follow on Twitter take on something big and pull it off. , aka 'The Nerdy Teacher' (follow him on Twitter @TheNerdyTeacher), took on something big last year, and if you read his blog posts, the project had a bigger impact on him than his students. You can read about the project, which begins here: The Epic Romeo and Juliet Project 

I like big ideas, and admire people who think that way, and I am inspired by their ambition as they throw their heart into something. (see @ktenkely who founded a school this year) Unfortunately for me, the ability to try something just for the sake of trying something is no longer one of my strengths. I enjoyed thinking that way in the early part of my first career. Big, bold, and innovative thinking was recognized and rewarded, as long as it got results. Over time though, let's just say it got beat out of me. Checklists, conformity, and superior's "better" ideas were among the many factors that made me understand that my creativity and risk taking were no longer valued. So I towed the lined, filled in the check-sheets, and emailed reports on worthless soul sapping activities.

Then I became a teacher and I got my creativity back. It didn't happen quite that fast, but teaching has reawakened the creative forces and drive that had been stamped down. When I realized that I wasn't going to lose my job or ruin a kid if an idea, lesson, or project failed, I was off. Freed.

I realized after getting settled in at my new school this year, that we didn't have a science fair. In November I started putting out feelers to gauge interest and to get an idea of the reason why the largest Elementary School in our district didn't have such a memorable childhood event.

I took a flier and proposed the idea to our principal, rolled out the idea to our supportive staff, held a parent informational night, then signed up the kids. Then, began an 8 week journey that all at once was stressful, draining, uplifting, and inspiring. During our school-wide recognition assembly, I thanked my wife for letting me turn her into a "Science Fair Widow". Throughout the project, the journey was shared with a blog, Twitter, website, and Facebook , and this past week I had the pleasure of presenting the kids and their learning with our district's School Board.

After a brief introduction on the purpose and focus of the fair, I transitioned to the gym's stage. While The Alan Parsons Project's 'Sirius' played to a rising curtain that revealed our school's young scientists, their smiles were all that I needed to validate the hard work. I interviewed students who took a risk and weren't afraid to fail. We shared more than moment, we shared the challenge of taking on something difficult, and pulling it off.
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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Removing Fences

Over the past couple of weeks my 6th graders have spent time reading and discussing John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It's a story of two young boys who meet each other, by happenstance, at a fence and over time, befriend each other. They come to share and enjoy each other's company over the course of a year even-though the fence keeps them apart. Despite the boy's shared birthdays they are not only separated by a physical barrier, but by the social lottery as well.

Bruno, is the naive son of a German officer in charge of a Nazi concentration camp; Shmuel, a Jewish prisoner in the camp who is described by Bruno's father in the movie of the same name as "not really people at all." The fence prohibits physical contact, except to pass the food that Bruno smuggles to his unlikely friend. The fence's forced separation is both literal and symbolic for the characters. Shmuel knows very well the  limitations that his circumstances prescribe, while Bruno's naivete' and innocence prevent his full understanding of the barrier that separates the boys. In the closing section of the book, Shmuel lifts the fence, while Bruno scampers underneath so the boys can go on an adventure in search of Shmuel's missing 'Papa'.

The book and movie are remarkable for a number of reasons and Boyne is a gifted story teller that allows the reader to make meaning from the text without explicitly stating it for the reader. I highly recommend the book and the movie to both adults and upper elementary or middle school aged students; used in combination they make a powerful lasting impact.

On Friday, the 6th grade watched the movie together and aside from the power that this shared experience brought, I was struck by the silence at the conclusion of the movie as the credits began to roll. I quietly asked my room to line up and follow me out of our school's "Little Theater". We took a right turn instead of the normal left as I split the class into two groups. I handed my school keys to trustworthy Nate and quickly gave him instructions on how to get back into the building and sent his group outside to meet us at the far corner of our playground. When I walked outside with my group, the weather conditions had changed dramatically for the worse from the morning's warm and pleasant conditions. The wind was howling, the sun had disappeared, water spit from the sky, and the temperature had fallen 17 degrees in the two hours since we started watching the movie. Actually perfect. As the group I was leading approached the group standing on the other side of the fence, my remarkable group of 12 year old kids had already started to make the connection that I was going to try to make.

They faced each other through the moistening grey steel weave and looked at a classmate who at the same time is very different and very much the same as they are. Our playground fence didn't separate atrocity and innocence as in the story that just moistened our eyes just minutes before, but it still divided us. I asked the kids to consider the metaphorical fences that they will encounter during their lives. The fence of ignorance that prevents inclusion, empathy and compassion of others. The fences of fear that prevents the undertaking of something difficult that could result in failure. Fences of misconceptions and judgement that prevent us from our potential in making a positive impact on those in our circle of influence.
I told my kids that the person across from you did not have a choice as to where they ended up. They could have just as easily ended up protected and safe, instead of exposed and on the outside. I asked them to try and remove the fences in their life that will keep themselves and others from being happy. Even if we can't  find a way to tear down a fence, at least try to find a way to lift it just a little so that love, friendship, and happiness can pass through.
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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Erasing Meanness

When my kids came back from spring break this week, they were greeted with shampooed carpets, new collaboration desk clusters, fully stocked common desks, rotated book titles, and one less fish. I forgot to bring back Skittles, our classroom fish, who was still sitting on the entertainment center at home.

It was very much a fresh start for everyone after the winter grind that brought long streaks of indoor recess, multiple rounds of state and district testing, and a consistent escalation of what my kids call "drama." I call it meanness.

For the two weeks or so before spring break, there was a noticeable increase in student counseling , calls from concerned parents, and tears in the 6th grade. Student factions were constantly shifting their allegiances, leaving what were once friends, literally and figuratively standing out in the cold. The evidence and impact of rumor mongering, which causes emotional pain and hurt feelings, had increased. To me, the meanness was starting to erode away some of the classroom community that we had worked so hard to build together over the last eight months.

Monday, as the kids began sleepily doing their morning work and listening to welcome back announcements, I started to clean the main whiteboard. The task  got their attention, because it is something that they have never seen me do before. Tasks like those don't take place when kids are supposed to be learning. I removed all of the 'stuff' from what is normally our main board for instruction. All the magnets, signs, attendance sticks, etc were taken away or placed on the auxiliary board. I used the 'special' overpriced whiteboard spray and some rags to achieve a perfectly white surface. Nothing.

Just before lunch I showed the kids a short video on how to subtly stand up for someone who is being treated mean or bullied. I tried to not sound old while offering them suggestions on how to verbalize  a "stop it" message to someone choosing to be mean.

The following morning I had written, just one word on the board. mean. I then shared some more videos on how bullying happens and how it continues. The lessons were short, focused and sometimes intense. I didn't want to lecture, I wanted to inform. I wanted the kids to make the connection between the words and actions they choose and how those choices impact others.

Wednesday morning, as the kids entered the room, they immediately noticed that the big board was filled with meanness. Mean words, actions, and descriptors filled the space. I choose to write the words in black and blue, to symbolically represent the physical harm that meanness can rise too. After answering the most frequently asked question of "how long did that take you?", they began to notice the breadth of the words. Many of the words the kids didn't know, like avarice, scorn, and nefarious. However, when placed alongside more familiar words like mean, taunt, and pain, the variety of words helped them understand that there is more than one way to describe unkindness.

On Thursday, even-though it took me over an hour  to put the words up just the day before, I erased a bunch of them and created a space to write 'How do you want to be remembered?' smack dab in the middle of all the meanness. I shared my personal story of some events and people from my childhood that I still remembered. Life events that still bring me pain when I recall them. It was difficult at times to tell the stories, but I think my emotions helped land the message that the pain caused by others can last.

Friday we were visiting the middle school that my 6th graders will be attending next year, and with it, a glimpse of another new start. Before we left we watched a powerful video of a young boy who was changing schools and was afraid that he would continue to be bullied and called names. The video message ends with him making a decision to keep fighting for who he is and a recognition that he matters.

Once the video was complete, I silently walked to the board filled with mean words and characteristics, erased one of them, and replaced it with Love. I wanted to give them an opportunity to define themselves, while at the same time realize that they were in charge of their choices and legacy. I handed my marker to one of my students and asked them to help me erase meanness and replace it with a word of kindness or a word that they wanted to be remembered by. Over the next few minutes, as the rainbow of dry erase markers were passed around,  the words on the board began to represent their aspirations. I was so proud of these young people and the respect that they were giving the process. They sat quietly and watched their classmates slowly transform the black and blue board into one of color and hope. It was an amazing and touching experience.
We then headed off to their new school for a morning of  tours and lunch. We had a blast seeing all of the resources and activities that will be part of of their academic lives in 7th and 8th grade. When we returned I shared the activity with my science and math sections. Powerful moments were created each time. We began to see how we can change the world with just a little kindness.  Our world prism widened as we began to realize what we could become.

During dismissal procedures, when my kids returned to gather their things and head home, they noticed that all of the harmful words weren't gone. Still visible were words such as envy and detest, but then a powerful observation was made. Yes there was meanness still present. Sadly, we can never get rid of it all, but kindness and caring can overwhelm the unkind. When we looked at the colored words of kindness that now represented our 6th grade, you barely noticed the words of pain.

We literally "Erased Meanness" and replaced it with kindness.

Update May 2013 : The reply I gave to a reader's request.

Thanks for reading, I appreciate it. And yes it was an amazingly powerful lesson and one that I hope they never forget. I've never included the specific videos that I used in this post, because I picked them out specifically for my kids to address some of the things that I was seeing in my classroom. I guess I didn't want the lesson to be copied verbatim if another educator wanted to use the idea. I would rather have them tailor it to their classroom. I see know that that may have been shortsighted. I used a variety of sources and clips and have included them in my October Post "Charles Adler Show" here

The word list I use to create the whiteboard is available here in this Google Doc

Update August 23, 2014 - Launch of EraseMeanness.org ! I started a non-profit organization to spread the lesson of Erasing Meanness beyond this post. Kids really respond to this lesson and it is something that they remember. I like that. 

Join us by visiting our site. EraseMeanness.org
Follow us on Twitter or https://twitter.com/EraseMeanness and Pinterest

Update August 13th, 2015 - New materials for 2015's Worldwide Erase Meanness Day posted at http://www.erasemeanness.org/join-the-movement.html Join us and kids around the world as we try and make the world a kinder place.

Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Saturday, April 7, 2012

You Never Know

"That's Mr. Johnson, he's nice"
That was my informal introduction to a young student's parents recently while I was transforming our gym into a Fun Fair for the PTA. The little girl, probably in 2nd grade, had run up to me in an empty gym and pointed me out to give me her smiling endorsement. I introduced myself and shook hands with her parents, then thanked them for coming to help make that night's event a success. I replied that it was nice to be characterized as "nice Mr. Johnson" and not "mean Mr. Johnson", which got a courteous laugh as I went back to work.

The problem was that even though that girl was one of my students, I had no idea who she was.

I treat every student in my building as if they were mine. I say hello to them in the halls and at recess transitions. I gently remind them to walk, not run in the halls. I hand out high fives like Rockefeller gave out dimes while the kids are lined up for morning entry. I model that you only need one paper towel to dry your hands. My stockpile of stickers, leftovers from my 1st grade class and undervalued by my 6th graders, head towards my second grade friends at random intervals. Kids know me from attendance at volleyball and basketball games on the weekends and special gatherings during the week. So do their parents.

My efforts are earnest, but have a purpose. I figure if I'm going to spend 10 months with these kids and their home partners at some point in the future, I might as well start building a foundation for our learning relationship now. I think a high five, a sticker, or a "good morning Susie" is a pretty good investment. The relationships with students and their home partners are important to me. It's nice to know that sometimes that relationship is important to them as well.

You never know when you'll make a difference.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Organize Your Classroom Library...finally!

I've been looking for a library organization system from the time that I started my journey into teaching a few years ago. I want my classroom environment to immerse students in a literature rich environment, and books are are big part of that culture. I've spent considerable time (and of course money) to build a library worthy of my students varied interests and pursuits. I've obtained books from garage sales, library sales, parent donations, and traditional booksellers. For my students, quality, variety and significant quantities are good things.

However, for their teacher, the challenges of an ever-expanding offerings has always been problematic:
  • How do I keep track of all the titles, genres, and quantities of each title?
  • How do I effectively manage location change? What titles are in THAT box up in storage?
  • How do I make sure I don't over-duplicate titles?
  • Isn't there an easier way to log books into your 'system' or scan items in without spending $400 for a infrared scanner and the corollary software and tags to make it work?
  • How do I know which books are in need of replacement?
  • What do students think of a particular title? What's the latest buzz book?
  • If a student checks a book out, how can I be sure to get it back?
  • Who has all of our books?!
  • and so on. If you are a teacher, you know the list of problems is much, much longer.
I've tried excel spreadsheets (too confusing to parent helpers and labor intensive) and Beth Newingham's system (not self sustaining enough for me), but never really found what I was looking for. Cue the U2 music, that is until The Booksource announced the launch of their Classroom Organizer earlier this year.

The Booksource is a family owned and operated bookseller located in St Louis. I've followed them on Twitter for a while, since they always seemed to have great book recommendations and always seemed supportive of teachers. I like that.

What caught my eye with this particular library organization system, was their goal to help classroom teachers organize and manage their libraries. The cincher was the accompanying app that allowed the user to scan books into their library using their phone. I was one of the first 50 to sign up for the application and register on the site. The Booksource sent those early adopters a small promotional pack as a thanks. (not in exchange for or to provide an impetus for this post)

I've been using Classroom Organizer for a couple of months now and there are several features that has solidified its position as my chosen system for organizing my 2000+ volumes in my library (about 1/2 are boxed up and rotated in/out out the classroom stock). I like it so much that it was chosen as the topic of March's Tech Tuesday PD session that I host for my fellow building teachers.

Classroom Organizer features:
  • Easy entry of books into a central database. Stored in the cloud, it is customizable with several teacher-friendly options that allow organization of books by author, fiction/non-fiction, Lexile/AR or guided reading level among many others. All choices can be set by the teacher.
  • Allows teachers to set up library rules on checkout length, number of books allowed out, and more.
  • Allows teachers to track book condition to help be proactive towards repair or to help budget for replacement.
  • Easy maintainable locations and can be changed as needed due to student interest and usage.
  • Easy title management, along with quantity indicators to avoid duplication, with an easy to use Administration section.
  • That allow students to rate books and enter reviews of books that they have read, which remains tied to the book for use by future students. How cool is that?!
  • That allow students to easily check-in/check-out books on their own. Overdue notices can be sent to teacher or student email as reminders.
  • Creation of student checkout reports by levels, groups, checkout frequency, number of books checked out, and mix of non-fiction to fiction checked out by students.
  • The use of a smartphone (Droid or iPhone) to scan in books into their library. Although more an art than a science, once scanned, book information (title, etc) is uploaded  automatically. Scanning efficiency may depend on your device (my wife's LG Optimus works better that my Motorola Expert), but once you get 'rolling' it goes pretty smoothly. One of my iPhone teachers reported no issues after the PD session. Update 7/29/12 The app's latest update greatly increases scanning speed. I was able to move through about 125 titles in about 50 minutes as I watched the Olympics volleyball match. A noticeable and welcome improvement. Additionally, our of those books I only had to manually input (1) book. It appears that The Booksource's database is very large and has very little difficulty finding the book information that corresponds to the published ISBN.
    Like this

Book Input is an attractive alternative to gloomy wintry recesses and can allow a teacher to take advantage of cheap labor.

Classroom setup is easy with the use of excel files (.csv format) and teachers can easily setup reading groups, lit circles, and book clubs.

Library Rules are set up by the teacher and guide student checkout.
Reports - The power of the system can be realized with the reports that can be generated to help teachers keep their library relevant and monitor book usage.
I have found The Booksource 's support to be very responsive and useful as well, which is nice thing to know for teachers who might have questions. They are also very receptive to feedback.

I think you'll find that Classroom Organizer has a lot of well thought out features that will help classroom teachers enhance their classroom's culture of reading and give their teacher back some much needed time.
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