A Little Wind Beneath My Wings

Almost nothing invigorates me more than when grown-ups outside our school take our kids seriously.

Our school district uses a vendor assessment system called i-Ready to track our students’ growth throughout the school year. Generally students spend about an hour on math lessons and an hour on reading lessons on i-Ready per week. We do a lot of incentives, like teachers giving raffle tickets for each lesson passed and then doing a drawing for a special lunch with the principal.

Even with incentives, many students hit a wall with i-Ready, motivationally speaking, in January and February. They just got burned out, and I can’t really blame them – it’s just how it feels. Teachers ramped up encouragement and incentives, but even they were getting frustrated with repeated issues running i-Ready in Google Chrome browsers.

So when students logged in this morning, they were thrilled to see new games had been added. It was a very different atmosphere in the computer lab! One student in particular named Zakhary was so excited, he said “thank you” to every adult in the room. I said to him, “Actually, we didn’t turn those games on. The people at the i-Ready company did. Want to say thank you to them?”

Of course he did! He was so excited!

He dictated the message and I wrote it down. He held his message and I took a picture. Then, I tweeted it.

Now, even just this much was invigorating for Zakhary. But then, at the very very end of our school day (we were lined up for dismissal), I got a Twitter notification.

Luckily, Zakhary’s homeroom is just across the hall, so right before buses were called I went to their doorway, laptop in hand. His entire class gathered around to see the photo and listen closely as I read out the message. (Having a class quietly listening at dismissal is nothing short of a small miracle, by the way.)

So now not only is Zakhary excited about new i-Ready games, his whole class is excited for him that he was acknowledged by professional adults who created the games. And as a teacher, I’m exhilarated that someone outside our community took my student seriously. I too have a renewed investment in this product.

It’s a little like the zoo project we did last year – it makes a huge difference to student engagement when others are also engaged with them as partners in their learning.

“Boring but Important,” Plus Additional Thoughts on Engagement

Today a blog post from The Confident Teacher entitled “Boring but Important” popped up in my Twitter feed. In this post, Alex Quigley reflects on teaching when the subject is indeed important, but perhaps not as fun or engaging as other topics.

I am not advocating intentionally being more boring that we otherwise may be, but we should be wary of the notion that engagement should be the daily pursuit of teachers. We should think a little differently. Instead of trying to eliminate boredom – pretty much an impossibility in the real world – we should consider how we help our students manage it…

His point is that information is not proportionately interesting based on its importance. (Hence the popularity of trivia as a hobby – it is literally the stuff that is interesting and yet not important, unless it’s a question at the pub quiz.)

I am inclined to agree, from both a teacher perspective and from a student one. So the point of the post is that we should equip students to handle boredom, which I feel is a very good idea. I frequently need such strategies, even as an adult.

I would also add that, when you are fully engaged with material, it can be exhausting. So I’m not sure it’s a reasonable expectation, especially at the elementary level, for all students to be fully engaged in class content at a given time. I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation to have of children; they need breaks. That’s the case for whether they’re naturally engaged, or not. If they’re really engaged, they may not ask for a bathroom break they need; they might be thinking about one topic when they need to re-focus on another; they may not make the best choices on how to manage their time when it involves something they’re hyper-focused on. So, in addition to teaching strategies to deal with boredom, it might be good to nurture methods for moderation as well.

School Week Round-Up: Week Twenty-Three

I meant to post at least once more this week. I did not do well on the self-motivating.

Lessons: I had my second formal observation this week. I think it went well. Mostly, it’s just nice not have that hanging over my head. And, I’m glad we did it when we did it. I was observed Tuesday, with first graders working on Google Drawings/Sheets. On Wednesday, our internet connectivity went all spotty and I had to go with a backup activity. So, thank you schedule gods for that!

Support: I actually did end up taking a sick day this week, but it took one coworker several hours to notice. I had my work laptop at home, and she was sending me emails about issues I was having. I kept up until we bumped up against one I couldn’t fix remotely. That was when she realized I wasn’t in the building.

Things I Did Well: 
I thought I did a pretty good job being flexible during lessons, especially as it was the type of lesson this week where some kids finished right away, and some kids took a lot of time. Somehow we didn’t end up with too much wasted time.

Things I Will Do Better: Keep track of important things. Outside of school, I lost my wallet. But, I didn’t even notice. I only found out because my mother called me. The local police had contacted her (after being unable to find my contact information) to let me know they had my wallet. I must have left it at a restaurant or dropped it while walking home from the restaurant. Somebody found it and kindly dropped it in a mailbox so it found its way back to me before I even missed it. So, happy ending! Still, it shakes me a little. I don’t want to get into a habit of irresponsibility.

Cold Prickly: Betsy DeVos.
bitmoji35935645Warm FuzzyA student asked me to sit with him at lunch. I had noticed in the lunch line that he was really struggling with the behavior of another student who was annoying him. While we ate together, he told me that he can feel when he starts to lose his temper, and he sometimes loses control and might punch or hit someone. The kid across the table told him that when he gets really mad at his brother, he runs upstairs and puts his face in a pillow. So we talked about different ways we could handle anger. We can’t change the behavior of other people, but we can still make good choices for ourselves.

On Blogging as a Teacher

I have had some sort of blog, off and on, since high school, when I had a Xanga but coveted getting a code to start a Livejournal. I spent a lot of time navel gazing, deep in the grip of  adolescent crises. Writing about my problems helped me work through them; writing publicly about my problems sometimes created more of them.

I write now, mostly related to my job, because I find it does help me reflect on my practice. I understand that I will not always have the most polished, pretty products to present to my audience; that’s actually very important to me. Part of my audience is me from the future. I want to be able to, when facing new challenges, revisit old posts to help me illuminate my possible paths.

Back when I was student teaching, my budding professional life sometimes found its way into entries. At least once, I had to edit or take down some information because it came too close to violating my students’ rights to privacy. Besides, the audience of my personal life blog? A few friends, none of whom were also studying education. Any feedback they might have provided would have been emotionally supportive but otherwise lacking insight.

My first year teaching in my current position, I was paired with an experienced teacher who mentored me. Our content areas were not quite the same, more like an overlapping Venn diagram; our schedules coincided even less so. But, we use Google Drive at school; it became very easy to keep a Google Doc journal and share it with my mentor. This was several years ago, so I would write in one font; he would leave feedback in a different color and font. I didn’t need a wide audience; in fact I’m relieved I didn’t have one. Much of what I wrote was, well, self-indulgent or downright gossipy. But, it was a phase I needed to work through, a phase where I was resisting genuine reflection and genuinely needed to be coached through it. As Descartes wrote in Meditations on First Philosophy:

I am like a prisoner who is enjoying an imaginary freedom while asleep; as he begins to suspect that he is asleep, he dreads being woken up, and goes along with the pleasant illusion as long as he can. In the same way, I happily slide back into my old opinions and dread being shaken out of them, for fear that my peaceful sleep may be followed by hard labour when I wake, and that I shall have to toil not in the light, but amid the inextricable darkness of the problems I have now raised.

Reflecting is difficult, multi-step work, and I was always that kid who loved finding and taking shortcuts because I thought that meant I was clever. And the learning process for it was not a good look, just like being woken up when you want to sleep in is not a good look. I needed some time to make myself somewhat presentable before I shared more of myself with the world, imperfect as I (still) am.

Now I use my blog for longer form reflection, and the principal audience is still mainly me. When I crave participation and feedback, it’s much more instantly gratifying to hop into a Twitter chat. But I am a little older now, and I’d hope a little wiser — and much more comfortable in my skin, blemishes and all.

School Week Round-Up: Week Nine

Week Nine! You know what that means, right? End of the first nine weeks, or — end of the first quarter! Report cards!

LessonsI think my feedback issue is improving. I used Alice Keeler’s Epic Rubric script to deliver our rubrics to all third graders’ email addresses so they could see for themselves how they did. The first two classes, I tried to have them leave comments on Google Classroom with new, focused goals. For reasons relating to time management and scaffolding, that wasn’t working; so I made a Google Forms exit slip  for the last three classes that worked a little better for me.

I also had my first “substitute” of the year. It was actually only for one whole class, plus two half classes, so that I could attend meetings. And, my class was covered by a colleague, so not a true sub experience. (I have missed half a day so far this school year for a dentist appointment, but it managed to get done during my lunch and prep period so I didn’t actually miss any classes.) Anyway, I am sometimes a little skittish about subs; I have had a gamut of experience with them. But I told my colleague, “They all know how to get to Google Classroom, and if they don’t know, they all have directions by their seat. The directions for their activity is on Google Classroom. They should get their on their own, they should read and follow directions on their own, basically you’re just there to facilitate.” It went really well for second grade! It was a slightly bumpier experience for third grade, because there were more steps and expectations (that’s actually why I changed the lesson mid-week). But things got done, so I call it a success!

Support: My spreadsheet went over really well with my colleagues. So that was a plus. But, I felt like this week, I used up all my brain cells and energy during the first few days. By the time Friday arrived, I was running on empty. And that stunk, because that was the half-day set aside for us to work on report cards. There were some elements that weren’t showing up as they should have, and I couldn’t wrap my tired mind around troubleshooting. At least once, it was a simple drop-down box messing with me that I just wasn’t seeing.

Things I Did Well: I’m going with the spreadsheet on this one.

Things I Will Do Better: Self-care. Part of the reason I burned out midweek is that I over-scheduled myself outside of school hours. I need to be protective of my “me” time, sometimes. I am the kind of person who needs seven or eight hours of decent sleep a night and good food in my belly, and the way I stretched myself this past week, I didn’t always get everything I needed to keep my energy up.

Cold Prickly: 

We have gnats.

I think due to unseasonably warm weather. I guess our custodians were hunting for food being left in places it shouldn’t be, but I was noticing gnats everywhere. In fact, my mom recommended this gnat trap when I went to her house and realized she was struggling with gnats too. It’s apple cider vinegar with a dash of dish soap, and you create a paper funnel from the mouth of the jar or cup down to the liquid. Tempted by the apple smell, gnats venture down. But, wet, they can’t fly back up. They can’t crawl back up either because the dish soap on them makes them slippery. Not all gnats were trapped this way; others were flying around the top of the jar but their escape route was still blocked by paper. The above photos were “before” and “after” just one eight hour period. After a couple of days I had dozens and dozens of dead gnats in my jar. And now, luckily, the weather has taken a turn, so hopefully the gnats will go away for a while.

Warm Fuzzy: We had our Spirit Week this week, where we dressed up according to different themes each day, culminating in some high school athletes visiting us Friday morning for a pep rally. Though I loved Superhero Day (because, really, any excuse to wear my Captain America outfit), I think my favorite was actually Sports Day. If you know how non-athletic I am, you would be shocked, but my sister Rose — err, I mean Youngstown Tune-Up — started playing for Burning River Roller Derby this past summer, and I became a super-fan. I figured most folks would be representing football, baseball, soccer… so I decided to represent roller derby! I didn’t wear skates (that seemed distracting and dangerous) but I did borrow padding from my sister’s teammate Sophonda Drama. (I also borrowed a rainbow tutu my sister wore for a pride parade, because really, who can resist a rainbow tutu?). Kids asked about my sport all day, and I got to teach them about jammers and blockers and pivots. At one point a student asked me, “What’s roller derby?” just as our custodian Mr. Barber walked by. “IT’S AWESOME!” he cheered without breaking his stride. He misses the banked track, though.

So my thanks to Youngstown Tune-Up and Sophonda Drama for helping me become my roller derby alter-ego, Drisco Inferno. (A joke that most kids don’t get, but they still think it sounds cool.)

I’m Spreadsheeting My Heart Out, Part 2

Yesterday I wrote about using a spreadsheet to help me track student progress and identify reasonable goals over the course of monthly cycles. Today I’m going to write about how I am delivering feedback to third grade students.

First, I used Alice Keeler’s Epic Rubric. I tested it out a few times with my own email address instead of using student addresses. I’m glad I did; my first few tries would send the wrong rubric to a student. Chris would be opening his email and clicking on Trisha’s rubric. I couldn’t let that happen! It turns out, the spreadsheet could not handle as many students as I was entering. When I chunked them into smaller groups, it worked way better.

I also adapted the rubric itself. I didn’t particularly need the percentages or to display weights. Plus, if I wanted to easily copy and paste details from my central spreadsheet into the rubrics, I needed them to be horizontal and not vertical. I also tweaked some other things.


I color-coded the pants off it. If spreadsheets wore pants.

So I color-coded the criteria into three groups; yellow is for organization criteria, blue is for using evidence from the passage, and pink is for conventions such as grammar and spelling. To show whether or not they had met a criteria, I did the same thing as I had on my central spreadsheet: if I entered any text at all, the cell turned green, and empty cells turned red. And I actually just copied and pasted the “invisible ones” into it. In fact, once I had worked out how I wanted the rubric to look, I just had to copy and paste from my central spreadsheet.

The “comments” section is even a conditionally formatted custom IF formula. If the student got a score of five or less, the comment that appears is “Your goal is to get two more points next time.” If they got between six and twelve, the comment that appears is “Your goal is to get one more point next time.” If they got a perfect score, then the comment that appears is, “Your goal is to keep up the good work!” Those comments are all actually written in there, it’s just the text turns black when the conditions of the IF formula are met. The text is orange otherwise, and therefore blends into the color of the cell.

Then I used the awesome function of Alice Keeler’s spreadsheet to email the rubric out to all my students. And since we use Gmail and Google Classroom on a regular basis, it’s a cinch to get kids to dig these up and take a peek.

I think this will help my big student-feedback challenge. I’m weirdly excited for the next time we do a prompt!

School Week Round-Up: Week Five

We’ve already had twenty-three days of school already?! Whaaaat!? Time really flies!

LessonsThe single hardest thing is only seeing kids only once a week. They get routines just fine, but it’s making it hard to get feedback back to students in a meaningful span of time. Even if I assess quickly, I might not get it back to them until the next week, because I can’t get back to twenty-odd kids in fifty minutes. And by then, it might not be relevant or memorable to them, depending on the context. I have got to figure something out here. And, this is a sort of “good” problem to have, because it means so many other things are going well enough that I can focus on this.

Support: We got progress reports sent out! And I only had to fix and reprint some of them! Amazing! (We switched to a new online gradebook last year. It was a steep learning curve. We’re getting better.)

Things I Did Well: I used to look at photos proud teachers posted of their beautiful classroom spaces with narrowed eyes. I devalued their hard work decorating, imagining to myself that they were focusing on the more frivolous parts of the job. Now, I think I was just jealous. Interior decoration is not my forte, professionally or personally. But instead of seeing those wonderful spaces and feeling jealous, now I look at those same spaces and think, “I can do that.” Or, at the very least, “I can try to do that, in my own way.” I obviously have limits in terms of the space I get to work within. But I’m actually trying now, and not just making excuses. My birthday calendar takes up an entire (huge) wall, and I recently got rugs to help with first grade dismissal. (It’s a process. Trust me that this makes sense.) I’m slowly working towards creating a space that I want to keep working in, and I hope students feel the same way about it.

Things I Will Do Better: I must find a better way to give meaningful feedback to students more immediately. I must, I must, I must.

Cold Prickly: One of the school buses was so late one day due to mechanical problems that a group of students who particularly like computers missed most of technology lab time. Luckily, we were able to schedule some make-up time later.

Warm Fuzzy: Raider Buddies. That’s an old article, and also about a different school in our district. But the person who started the program at that school works at our building now, and brought the program with her. So this week, our school was extra filled with college football players, coming to eat lunch and enjoy recess with kids. One football player couldn’t find his second grade buddy, so I helped track him down in the nurse’s clinic. Turns out the kid had a terrible tummy ache because the kid who sat next to him at lunch had sour cream on his elbow. Elementary schoolchildren very are prone to mysterious ailments. Luckily, the cure was having a Raider Buddy. He made a miraculous recovery and was able to enjoy recess after all! The kids really like having Raider Buddies, because even if they don’t find a lot of common ground with them, it’s really amazing for them to be the focus of someone else’s attention in a completely positive light, even for a short time just once or twice a week.