Taking a Walk

I like to exercise in the mornings. This is for a couple of reasons. One, I like to wake up and start with something that makes me feel good. Two, I like to “get it over with” and not have it hanging over my head for the rest of the day. What if something fun comes up? Three, it’s Texas, so the morning is the only time it is pleasant enough to be outside and be more than a few feet from a pool. Four, I really only like to shower once a day if I can help it.

I took a walk this morning, and it was not a nice morning for a walk. It was (still is) very overcast and drizzly. I walked along a long, dead-end street with a very unusual collection of houses. It is the kind of neighborhood that my husband describes as “urban-rural”. I live in Austin, and this neighborhood is off of a busy street. But the houses are on big lots and there isn’t a lot of traffic along it. In fact, that is something that I love about this street; you don’t have to get very far down it before the hum of the busy street disappears.

There are houses with big fences and passcode-protected gates. There are houses with horses and at least one house with llamas. There are houses with cars in the front lawn. There are houses with dogs in the front yard. There are manicured lawns and overgrown ones. There is a hand-made sign warning drivers to slow down for “fawn crossings”. There is one house being completely rebuilt and another one that has recently been remodeled. There is also a house that looks mysteriously empty, with an electric fence in front of it. There are side driveways that promise more than one house if you traveled down it. There is a hint that there is some kind of bridge tucked in the back, since someone’s house is “on the left past the bridge”. There are thickly wooded areas and wide open fields with dilapidated sheds scattered around.

I like the cognitive dissonance I experience when I walk around this neighborhood. I am not even half a mile from my house, yet I feel like I am miles away from Austin.

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So Many Books, All the Time in the World

One of my favorite parts of summer break is all of the uninterrupted time I get to read. Of course, I read during the school year, but I can power through books in the summer like it is my job. Because, well, it kind of is my job. As a teacher, I need to read a lot of books so that I can make recommendations to my students when they are looking for something to read. I also need to keep up with the latest in teaching pedagogy so I can go back in the fall a better teacher than I left in the spring. Or, at least, a teacher with a bunch of new ideas to try; not all of those ideas pan out and make me a better teacher.

A few days into summer vacation, and I have read some good books already. Thank you, Goodreads, for keeping track of them for me.

I read The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras. It’s the June selection for the Middle Grade at Heart Book Club, sponsored by MG Book Village. I have to admit, I was not super excited to read this book–I wasn’t really in the mood for a questing, adventure-type story–but it was very engaging. I shouldn’t be surprised; I have really liked all of the books I have read for this book club. This story is about a girl, Drest, who is the youngest child and only daughter of a man who leads a war-band with his sons. When her father and brothers get captured, she goes on a journey to rescue them. She encounters all sorts of helpful and harmful people along the way, and she discovers her own strengths. I thought it was funny that she had her brothers “speak” to her in her mind, giving her advice and guiding her through her challenges.

I also read Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead. I had heard a lot of buzz about this book, and its slender size was perfect for a quick read at the pool. Bob is an alien-like creature that Livy finds in her closet at her grandmother’s house. Apparently, he had been waiting five years for her to come back, and she doesn’t remember him at all. Their journey is to figure out where his home is so he can get back to his old life. The fantastical and realistic elements of this story blend really well together, as well as the dual narration of Livy and Bob.

For my nonfiction selection, I read A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger. While not exactly a teaching book, it has a lot of ideas that would work well in a classroom that is trying to bring in more student inquiry. I found it on a list of books recommended by IB PYP coordinators (I work at an IB school) because inquiry and student-led learning is a huge part of IB. I found this book easy to read and very interesting. It was the kind of book you could pick up, read for a little bit, and then put back down with plenty to think about. The book talks about different questioning strategies, how it can be used in both business and education, and why we should question things in our lives. Even if you aren’t in business or education, this book is a good personal development book. There are a lot of innovative and creative people highlighted throughout.

And finally, I read a teacher book called Comprehension That Works: Taking Students Beyond Ordinary Understanding to Deep Comprehension by Timothy Rasinski and Danny Brassell. It was certainly a quick read, but I found it a little too beginner for me. I have been teaching for seven years, and while the book provided a good reminder of some of comprehension strategies, most of them I had heard of and were already using. It’s also ten years old, so the research in it is a little out of date. It’s slim size and easy-to-reference chapters would be good for a beginning teacher. I was hoping for something beyond the basics, however

So, those have been my accomplishments since school got out last Thursday. I am currently reading:

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Some Reflections on the Year

It’s the second to last day of school today, and I am feeling nostalgic about my class. They were a difficult class in some ways, and they had a lot of live up to following such a special class last year. But there were also some great things about them:

  1. They were so close. It was a small class for two years in a row, and they all genuinely liked each other. They played together every day. They rarely got into arguments or even disagreements. They were mostly kind to each other and were supportive of each other’s successes.
  2. With a small class, I had a lot of one-on-one time with them. I got to know them more than any of my other students. And they really grew so much. I have so many memories of sitting and talking with each of them about math and reading and writing and science and history. It is amazing how much personal attention I could give them.
  3. My ratio of boys to girls was 4:1 which ended up being a really drama-free year. No cliques or giggling about crushes or “mean girl” stuff. I know I am stereotyping some here–of course not every girl is like that–but I have taught a class with the ratio in reverse, and there was a lot more drama between the students.
  4. My students’ parents were really supportive. I only ever heard positive things from them, and they seemed to support my mission of increasing their children’s independence and self-management before heading into middle school. They seemed enthusiastic about what their children were learning and let me handle things at school the way I felt they needed to be handled.
  5. We read some amazing books together. In fact, one students mentioned how his favorite part of fifth grade was all of the great books we read. Between book clubs and independent reading and read aloud, we covered a lot of territory in both fiction and nonfiction. This was a group that loved reading and talking about books. Here are some of our favorites:
    • The Thing About Jellyfish
    • The Boys Who Challenged Hitler
    • The City of Ember
    • The Giver
    • Hatchet
  6. This group was funny. They understood my dry sense of humor and weren’t afraid to joke back with me. They groaned appreciatively at my corny jokes and shared equally corny jokes back with me.
  7. They (mostly) knew when it was time to be serious and get stuff done. And we did learn a lot this year! We learned about human rights and economics and conflict and energy and art. Not to mention all of their individual units where they got to pick their own topics.
  8. They liked talking to me about their lives. From our Morning Meetings to lunch time to walking between different specials, they wanted to tell me about what was going on with their new house or their siblings or their soccer game or the video games they were playing. I learned a lot about their interests outside of school.
  9. They played soccer every recess. I am not exaggerating. Many of them played on the school team and on their own teams as well, and they got students together from a bunch of different grades to play soccer every day. I think I saw them play tag maybe once or twice, after they played a little soccer of course. It was such a defining feature of this group.

Sigh. As usual, I will miss them a lot. I don’t know if I will see any of them again as they all head off to middle school. In general, it was a good year.

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Writing Partnerships

I have wanted to have this kind of writing workshop all year, and I finally have it.

  • My students have chosen a writing genre (mythology, narrative, poetry) and have started drafting. Student choice: check.
  • My students have written rubrics for their writing projects.  Student agency: check.
  • My students are making decisions about their writing without asking me for help at every step. Self-management: check.
  • My students are actually excited about writing and are sad when we have to stop for recess. Let that sink in…they would rather write than go outside and play. Happy teacher: check.

All of this has created a happy writing environment. But today, it leveled up. And it was all because of the rubrics.

I have had students create their own rubrics for writing in the past, but this time, I had them do it at the beginning of the unit rather than at the end.  This is so clearly a better way to do it, so why didn’t I think of it before? Now I know exactly what kinds of mini-lessons to teach my students, and they have a ready-made tool to get feedback throughout the writing process, and not just at the end, when they can’t use any of the feedback to make their writing better.

Today, everyone started giving and receiving feedback. It was like magic: some asked me, some asked a classmate, some asked more than one classmate. It was amazing to see students discussing their writing, asking good questions, talking through their feedback, using the the language on the rubrics. I didn’t “assign” any feedback; it just happened naturally. #teacherwin

It’s so nice to see this at the end of the year, because it makes me want to try it right from the beginning of the year next year!

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Would You Rather…?

My 5th grade students love answering “would you rather” questions. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but they find choosing between two difficult scenarios endlessly engaging. Sometimes they are serious, and sometimes they are silly.

I started using these questions as icebreakers from Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy. She had would you rather questions, called This or That, in her Icebreakers That Rock. And if my students are any indication, these definitely rock.

Now, we got through the ones from Jennifer Gonzalez pretty quickly, because we used them not just as ice breakers but as Morning Meeting shares, brain breaks, rainy day games. Sometimes we sat down and talked about our choices; other times we moved around the room to show our preferences.

The current would you rather questions we are working through are from Rachel Lynette. We did a particularly funny one this morning in our Morning Meeting.

We were split 50-50 on our preference for this new classroom management strategy. We all laughed a lot at the idea of me throwing water balloons in the classroom, and some of my loudest students were very self-aware in how often they would get hit by a water balloon, which made us all laugh harder. My room is not very big, so using a whistle would be so loud!

Then, someone suggested we use water balloons to encourage people to walk in the hallway. I am unlucky enough to be the classroom in the middle of the long hallway that students love to run down. It drives me crazy! My students suggested that I throw water balloons at students that run past my door. We all giggled at the thought of second and third graders being surprised by flying water balloons out of my classroom door.

Of course, I would never do this, but it was fun to imagine it in a hypothetical discussion with my class. It was definitely the highlight of our Morning Meetings this week. I love starting the day with so much laughter.

What is Art?

We started our last unit of the year today by asking the question, “what is art?”. I posted several different types of art around the room and asked the students, in partners, to think, write, and talk about whether or not these examples were art. It was enlightening to hear their discussions, because some students said that basically anything was art, while others were much more selected about what art was to them.

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I want to have a comparison for the end of the unit, so I asked all of the students, in light of their discussions, to define “art” and to list the characteristics of “art”.

IMG_6990IMG_6991IMG_6992 They seem very into the idea that art has to have pattern. It will be fun to see what kinds of patterns we can find in some of the art forms that they don’t think are really art, like music, dance, and poetry. Challenge accepted.

 

Rubrics

It was a day for making rubrics today. I love student-made rubrics, because they get the students thinking about the goals of their project and what makes a good project.

Here is one of my student’s writing rubric for an informative essay about mythical creatures. She borrowed some of the language from our Unit of Writing informative rubric.

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This is another writing rubric for an essay about the Sun. This one included some open-ended questions at the end.

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This group is teaching a P.E. lesson to the first grade class. Here is their assessment for their game about robots.

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This is another lesson that a student is teaching to the second grade class about the Bermuda Triangle.

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One of my students taught a lesson yesterday, and the third graders gave him some hilarious (and sometimes useful) feedback.

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Plus, it’s fun to see them act like a bit like teachers. 🙂

I Thought These Were Better…

As I was looking through their essays, one thought kept popping into my head: I thought these were better.

My current class is writing introduction and conclusion paragraphs for their informative essays, so I pulled examples from last year’s class to use as models.

My former class had amazing writers.

Their essays were so strong.

They made great connections in their conclusions paragraphs.

Their introductions avoided all of the useful pitfalls of 5th grade writing.

 

This is what I was thinking. But once I started looking at them, I realized that they were not as good as I remembered. It was hard to find four that were good enough to share with my current class.

I know that I have rose-colored glasses when I think about last year’s class; I just loved them. But of course they weren’t perfect. Jennifer Gonzalez talks about this in one of her blog posts, The Danger of Teacher Nostalgia. I have definitely been guilty of this this year, so it’s funny to see that last year’s class actually doesn’t hold up to my glowing memories of them all the time, in every activity. They were human after all. And apparently, so was my teaching.

But this year, my students’ introduction paragraphs are going to be so much better!

We’ll see how well they hold up under scrutiny next year…

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Sharing the Load

Imagine you had five students and 10 teachers to help them.

For the next few weeks, that is what my classroom is going to look like.

Of course, it’s not exactly like that, except for the fact that I do have five students. And in our current unit, they are utilizing the expertise, organization, and support of nine teachers, in addition to me, their class teacher.

Each student is doing his/her own unit of inquiry, chosen and researched entirely independently. There are a number of different components that the students need to complete to show their learning at the end of the unit. That’s where these lovely mentors come in.

  • The 2nd grade teacher is brainstorming ways that one student could come in and lead a lesson for her students.
  • The 3rd grade teacher is suggesting additional ways for one student to learn more about his topic.
  • The 4th grade teacher is discussing different ways for the students to take action with their knowledge.
  • The art teacher is helping them create unique, original, content-related works of art.
  • The P.E. teacher is creating an action plan for the next steps of one student’s writing and performance.
  • The IT/STEM teacher is guiding them through the engineering process as they use technology to explore their topics.
  • The 1st grade teacher is encouraging them to focus their performance and bring all of their disparate topics together in a way that is both informative and engaging.
  • The learning specialist is brainstorming possible topics for a paragraph in one student’s essay.
  • The Spanish teacher is focusing one student on his plans for his action project.

I didn’t use mentors last year during this unit, and I realize now how valuable it is for my students. They have another adult to talk to about their ideas, another brain to pick if they need help, another support if they need to change something. It is also helpful for me, as I have a bevy of adults that are helping me guide my students through all of the expectations of this rigorous unit. I am also very invested in these projects at this point (we are five weeks in to a seven-week unit), so the perspective that these new brains bring is invaluable at this stage.

Thank you to all of the teachers at my school who are helping me share the load.

A Bright Spot in a Dark Day

Yesterday was just not a good day. There are many reasons why it wasn’t, but there was one particularly bright spot that I feel compelled to share.

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One student created a mythical beasts version of snakes and ladder (or chutes and ladders). While there were a lot (a lot!) of rules, we all had so much fun playing together. Each of us got to be a mythical creature as we moved around the board.

Pink and grey squares were question squares, where the game’s creator asked you a multiple choice question about a mythical creature. If you got it right you went, forward 1 or 2 spaces (depending on the color of the square), and if you got it wrong, you went backward 1 or 2 spaces (depending on the color of the square). Going forward or backward might land you in a lot of other situations including:

freeze (lose a turn)

unicorn (go up one row)

mermaid tail (go up to the end of the tail, like a ladder)

trident (go to the bottom of the staff, like a snake/chute)

thunderstorm (go back three spaces)

My class loved this game. They were so into it, and it was fun to see something that one of my student’s creations engaged the class so well. It has definitely inspired some future games that my students are going to create.

Thank goodness for my students. They always make the day better.