Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rigorous, Not Ruthless: Instruction That Creates Results

Anxious, I awaited the results of my audition.  I wonder alongside my fellow classmates, "Did I get into the University of Georgia Honor Band?" For months I practiced, hoping for a shot. Then my private flute instructor walked over with a puzzled look on her face, stating "Laura, you got in. You were placed in the honor band." I was so proud and happy that my hard work had paid off! But, then my flute teacher brought me out of my excitement suddenly by stating indignantly, "There must be a mistake. You are not a good enough player to be in the honor band. My other student, Tina, did not get accepted, but you did. I am leaving to speak with the judges immediately!" She then stormed off to check the scores only to be sorely disappointed that I had indeed received the honored status.

"Wow, thank you for that great pat on the back," I thought sarcastically. Although a bit hurt, I was not surprised by her remarks. At the point of that audition, I had been with her for about six years. She was an excellent teacher, and other musicians revered her as the best of the best, but she got thing really wrong, she mistook rigor for ruthlessness.

Jim Collins, the author of several leadership books including Good to Great, Great by Choice, and How The Mighty Fall describes the difference between the two concepts, “To be ruthless means hacking and cutting, especially in difficult times, or wantonly firing people without any thoughtful consideration. To be rigorous means consistently applying exacting standards at all times and at all levels, especially in upper management. To be rigorous, not ruthless, means that the best people need not worry about their positions and can concentrate fully on their work." At first, it may be difficult to decipher how this statement applies to the world of education, but let's examine it further.

My flute instructor often berated my efforts. I believe she did this not to be mean, but in hopes to motivate me to play better. She was indeed ruthless in her attempts. And, yes, as a twelve year old, it worked. She scared me into playing harder and longer, but what was the intrinsic motivator? Well, in truth, her ruthless teaching style only motivated me to work hard enough so that I would not get yelled at or scorned. This type of teaching style worked for a few years, but as I reached 15 years, I began to grow tired of her insults, and I just didn't care anymore. It was no longer a motivator for me. Yes, I practiced, but only because of my own desire to play, not to improve under her guidance. Fear created by teachers is a short term motivator, that does not procure a love of learning. Eventually, it only creates frustration and resentment. The result for many is low performance, and a disdain among those students for academic learning.

On the other hand, as a teacher seeking excellence, I have witnessed the positive results that come from a rigorous academic climate that is also safe and edifying for students. The following is a quick compare/contrast of the two styles.

The similarities and differences between a rigorous teacher and ruthless teacher:

Both teachers want high academic achievement. They want their students to perform, and require high standards to be met.

Rigorous teacher:  The rigorous teacher knows that she has set the standards high, and empathizes with the student, but teaches the student to persevere through it, realizing that it is tough. The rigorous teacher never gives up on the student, and is patient with the learning process. The rigorous teacher reflects on her teaching, always knowing that her instruction may need to be changed depending on the situation or individual child.

Ruthless teacher: The ruthless teacher knows that she has set the standards high, but is impatient with the process. The ruthless teacher wants to give the instruction and expects immediate results. If the student does not perform well, it is obviously his/her fault, and there is just no hope for this poor child. The ruthless teacher does not reflect often on his/her teaching, because it is not the instruction at fault. The fault lies with the inadequacy of the student’s learning capability.

In closing, I do believe, as teachers seeking excellence, we should constantly strive for rigorous work with exacting standards every day in the classroom. Too settle for anything less would be damaging. However, we must also teach our students perseverance, coaching them to know that academic excellence is tough, but that they are capable and bright enough to achieve greatness. Academic excellence will never be created from fear or ruthless behavior.

The following is a clip from the Teaching Channel about the importance of teaching peseverance:

Teaching Channel

The following is the audio version of the book, Good to Great by Jim Collins.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Gratitude From a First Year Teacher: Seven Qualities of a Great Teacher Mentor

As the school year comes to a close, and my classroom stands vacant with not a scrap of evidence of my teaching left, it has left me wondering about all the people who have mentored me the most during my journey as a first year teacher. I believe that mentors come in all different packages, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly what a great mentor does to make them-well-great. But, the following is a top 7 list of what makes up a great teacher mentor, from my experience.

1.    Always Being There: A teacher mentor is there to listen in the good times and the bad. If you have a question, they are ready with the answer. If you had a bad day, they listen without judgement. If you had a great day, they cheer you on just because they are happy for you.

2. Never Acts Put Out: A teacher mentor never acts like they are annoyed by questions that you might have, but are always are willing to stop what he/she is doing to listen and help.

3. Offers Resources: It can be overwhelming for a new teacher to sort through all the "how-to's" within a school. Mentor teachers help new teachers find their way without making them feel bad about asking. Also, they are always ready to offer the latest teaching techniques or books on the market.

4. Don't See You As a Threat: It can be hard being the new kid of the block. There can be days when hardly any adult faculty talks to you at all. Teacher mentors go out of there way to make you feel apart of the team and welcome.

5. Willing to Offer a Helping Hand: Things happen in the classroom at times that a new teacher is just not prepared to handle right away. Teacher mentors know that and they are always ready to lend a helping hand whenever called.

6. Demonstrates Excellence: A teacher mentor demonstrates excellence through their professionalism, attitude, and knowledge of the field.

7. Believes in Your Abilities: First year teachers often feel apprehensive about their teaching. One day you feel on top of the world, and the next day like a total failure. A great teacher mentor believes in your abilities and sees you as a professional in the field, despite the fact of being brand new.

Personally, I feel very lucky. My first true mentor, Mrs. Hudson, told me about the Heard County School System in Georgia, and how much she enjoyed her career there. She encouraged me to apply for an ELA position. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about Heard County, but I knew it had to be a special place, if Mrs. Hudson thought so highly of it.

During the interview, I thought, "Wow, is there really a school that asks questions like, "Tell me about your passion for teaching? How do you do things?" This was very different from the canned questions like, "Please tell me how you differentiate your instruction?" "What is your classroom management plan?" " How do you discipline?" Having had a few interviews already I had grown to dislike those particular questions. Now, I realize that what makes the leadership special at my school is that they think outside of the box, always with the end in mind. Their desire for passionate, professional educators has brought that out in me, and has helped me to succeed.

Yes, my school, the leadership, and faculty are very special to me. I have found many excellent teacher mentors among them. My hope is that all first year teachers are as lucky as I am.

The cornerstone of our school, the principal, Mr. Mike Roberts, is also an author of an excellent book entitled, One on One With America's Most Inspiring Teachers. Go to the following link to find it on Amazon:

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The School Year: Endings Also Create New Beginnings

I am a romantic. I love romantic movies, and I always want a happy ending to any story. But as Diana said to Anne in the movie, Anne of Green Gables, "Life is so messed up in real life Anne. It is never as clear as it is in romantic novels."

Yesterday, being my last day with my first set of students as a first year teacher was great, but it also left me a little wanting. I hoped to end the year with a bang, but it really ended with a warm sizzle. Yes, there were hugs, sweet notes, and fun. But, did I leave them with anything concrete? Did they walk away from my class changed for the better?

That evening as I explained my feelings to my husband, he replied, "You're just too romantic about it." His statement really caught me off guard. I had never thought about it like that, but partly I think he is right. It is good to be a little practical, too. It was the last day of school. The kids were being checked out of classes right and left, which made it almost impossible to teach. Despite all that, however, my hope is that I did make a difference, that they will read this summer, and at least a few bring back their summer reading logs.

Yes, as a romantic, I am not very good with goodbye's. But, my mother gave me some great advice several years ago that applies now. When my first child moved on and grew past certain stages, I got sad and let down that the stage was over. My mother said, "Laura, that's when you look forward to the next child, and you get to relive all those wonderful experiences again." That advice was very comforting at the time.

So, now realizing that my students have moved on, I will turn my sights to my new 6th grade students coming up in August, and feel grateful that I'll have the wonderful opportunity to begin again.

Clip of Anne of Green Gables: A timeless classic that should be shared with between all mothers and daughters.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Don't Forget The Similes!

Today, I was thrilled when a fellow teacher ran into my classroom twice to tell me the ingenious writing she received from her math students. Attempting in full to adhere to the common core's desire for all students to write, her students have been journaling about math for days. She's witnessed first hand that writing has become second nature to them. They are not groaning, but get right to work. The level of excellence has been demonstrated by all levels of her students. Above all though, over the last few days the students ability to add in different types of figurative language has kept her in stitches.

She busted in telling me that one student compared her teaching to a soft summer breeze. "Your teaching is like a soft summer breeze against my cheek." Another student compared her enjoyment of math to butter and toast. "I love math as I love butter and toast." She was struck by how intuitive but also hilarious it all sounded. I explained that, "They are adding in figurative language: similes and metaphors to their writing. They are comparing your teaching to a summer breeze and math to the joy of eating buttered toast. "Ohhh, "she responded. "Now, I get it!"

My fellow teacher continued saying that the list went on and on: similes and metaphors galore! Tears welled up in her eyes from laughter, and I loved it. What a proud moment for my diligent writers. They applied what they learned in my writing class to another subject, and it was working. Yes! The result of writing across the curriculums was two fold. It helped my students get further writing practice, but it also brought us, as colleagues, closer together. How great is that!

The more we embrace the Common Core Curriculum, as a team, I believe the greater results we will see in our students.

So let this be a lesson to all teachers across the curriculums--keep your students writing--and never forget the similes!!


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Teachers: Dare To Stretch It!

As a first year teacher, one of my favorite books to read and reflect back on is entitled, Teach Like A Champion.

I stumbled upon the book by accident as I thumbed through the education section at Barnes & Noble. I looked at the title and thought, "Teach Like A Champion..yep, that about sums it up." I told my husband his Christmas shopping would be complete if I could just have the book--immediately! Hesitant at first, he gave in, seeing the twinkling excitement in my eyes. So, I found a cushy seat near the coffee shop and began my journey through the text. I ran through each page highlighting with fury. There were so many great strategies, and I found it to be an excellent step up from Harry Wong's classic, The First Days of School.

One strategy that stood out to me the most was Technique Three: Stretch It. According to the book, Teach Like A Champion, the lesson must not end with the right answer, we must continue to stretch the lesson by asking follow up questions that extend the knowledge. "The sequence of learning does not end with a right answer; reward right answers with follow up questions that extend knowledge and test for reliability. This technique is especially important for differentiating instruction. "(TLC, p. 41)

Well, I believe that this strategy applies to our classroom teaching, but it also applies to how we approach education in general. We should always be thinking about how we can stretch what we are doing to make it just a little bit better. We have to ask ourselves the questions, "How can I make this lesson stand out a little bit more? How can I make the biggest impact?" One thing that I have learned over the years is that details really do matter.

Currently, I am working on a summer reading program for my upcoming students as well my current students. At first, I thought I would have them read twenty books. I created a reading list and a reading log. I could have stopped there, but then I asked myself, "How effective would this be? How can I stretch it?" So, then I decided that it would be important for the students to create their own reading lists through online research. But is that enough?'s not. Let's do some more stretching.

Currently, their reading summer packets will include:
  • A personalized letter from me.
  • 7th grade Summer Reading instruction sheet
  • Mrs. Farmer's Reading List Suggestions with instructions for checking out books at the local library
  • Their personal reading list (researched and created by the student)
  • Instruction sheet on what is considered a book (100) pages= 1 book
  • Summer Reading Contract to be signed by the student ensuring their goal
  • Reading Log with stickers
Now, is it enough to staple these pages together? No way! To stretch it, I decided to place all the reading information in a 9x12 clasp envelope with a label entitled: Summer Reading Packet along with student's name.

I know...they may still toss it, but isn't a little more difficult to toss a large envelope than some papers stuck together with a stapler? As a parent and teacher, I know that it would stand out more to me.

My hope is that I used these last days of school to stretch my students to their limits. That they make reading a goal this summer. That they will stretch themselves, and come back in August as better students, ready for the adventures ahead.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Hoosiers: A Lesson of Perseverance and Remembrance

Yesterday was Mother's Day, but it was also another special day of remembrance for my family. In 1999, my brother, Jonathan, 16, died of sudden cardiac arrest. Our family was in shock. Jonathan, tall dark and handsome with a quick wit and a smile that could light up any room was suddenly gone from us. Jonathan did well in school, but he had one love like no other, and that was basketball. He played all year round. It was his passion. Before every season he would play two videos for inspiration: A documentary on Larry Bird and Hoosiers. Watching these movies would get him pumped up for the season ahead and make him reflect on how he would persevere despite the setbacks. I love him for that. He demonstrated honor and sportsmanship at such a young age. My hope is that he would be proud of the work that I am doing, and that his spirit will be with me as I teach this lesson in honor of his memory.

My students will read two stories: comparing and contrasting one basketball team that has worked, but not found victory often falling in despair, and the story of Hoosiers, a team that fought and won.

I would like to see what ideas my students come up with from comparing the two stories. How do these stories relate to their own lives, and do they share the common thread of the three P's: passion, planning, and perseverance?

My hope is that they will learn that life is short. We must live our passions now. Steve Jobs is quoted as saying:
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. ... Stay hungry. Stay foolish."

-Stanford University commencement speech, 2005

I love this quote because it's true. We can't worry about failure. We must strive for excellence because what is the alternative? Life is short. Live your passions. Make your life count!

Loss and Hope: A Documentary Presents the Flip Side of Hoosiers
Read more:

Hoosiers [DVD] (1986) DVD

The 1954 Milan Indians
The Real "Hoosiers"

"A basketball hero around here is treated like a God."
-- Hickory High School teacher Myra Fleener in Hoosiers.

   Hoosiers is a cherished sports film, starring Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, and Dennis Hopper, in an Oscar-nominated performance. In the story, Hackman coaches a 1950's Indiana high school team in what could be his last shot at a title.
   This story is loosely based on a real event in 1954, when a team from a tiny high school in the farmlands of Indiana rose against all odds to win the state basketball championship.
   In 1954, Milan was a quiet rural town in the southeastern part of Indiana, with a high school of 161 total students, 75 being boys. But it became the scene of one of the greatest basketball stories in history. Their championship season, immortalized in the 1986 film, had plenty of real-life drama, but, said Angelo Pizzo, the scriptwriter, a great deal of fictionalization was necessary for the Hollywood feature "because their lives were not dramatic enough... The guys were too nice, the team had no real conflict." So changes were made... But how truthful is the film?

1954 Indiana High School Basketball Champs: Back Row (left to right) Glen Butte, Kenny Wendelman, Rollin Cutter, Bill Jordan, Clarence Kelly, asst. coach, Indianapolis policeman, Pat Starke, Coach Marvin Wood. 2nd Row: Marcus Combs, Jr. High coach, Roger Schroder. Front Row: Bob Engel, Gene White, Ron Truitt, Bob Plump, Ray Craft
   In 1954, tiny Milan, with a sharpshooter named Bobby Plump, dominated much larger schools on their way to a 28-2 record and the Indiana state finals. Among their victims was Oscar Robertson's high school team (Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis). In the finals, they shocked everyone when they squeaked past powerhouse Muncie Central for the Indiana state crown on Plump's last-second shot. It was considered one of the greatest basketball games ever played, and has attained a legendary status. In September 1999, Sports Illustrated named this team one of the top 20 teams of the century. The sports writers of Indiana named the "Milan Miracle" the #1 sports story in Indiana history.
   It is a story that bears repeating. Milan's 32-30 victory over heavily-favored Muncie Central has since been a rallying cry for every small school in the state.

In real life, Milan High School didn't come out of nowhere. The Indians had made the state semifinals the previous season.

   But the real story actually begins a year before that championship season. In the 1952-1953 season, their new coach, Marvin Wood, brought a "continuity basketball" program to one of the state's smallest high schools and also taught his young charges a full-court trapping defense and a four-corners offense he called "the cat and mouse." At first Wood was not very popular in the community -- he was replacing a very popular coach, and closed the team's practice sessions to the public while changing the offensive and defensive schemes. This caused quite a bit of controversy. But under his leadership, the Indians advanced to the final four of the state, bowing out in the semi-finals to South Bend Central (the school the fictional Hickory Hucksters defeated for the state title in Hoosiers). The nucleus of that team returned to form the '54 championship team.



Rising Sun 52 - 36 (W)
Vevay 64 - 41 (W)
Osgood 48 - 44 (W)
Seymour 61 - 43 (W)
Brookville 24 - 20 (W)
Hanover 67 - 36 (W)
Lawrenceburg 50 - 41 (W)
Versailles 39 - 35 (W)
Frankfort 47 - 49 (L)
Columbus 52 - 49 (W)
Rising Sun 74 - 60 (W)
Versailles 52 - 46 (W)
Napoleon 41 - 34 (W)
Holton 44 - 30 (W)
Hanover 38 - 33 (W)
Napoleon 61 - 29 (W)
Sunman 42 - 36 (W)
Versailles 48 - 42 (W)
North Vernon 38 - 37 (W)
Aurora 45 - 54 (L)
Osgood 38 - 30 (W)

Cross Plains 83 - 36 (W)
Versailles 57 - 43 (W)
Osgood 44 - 32 (W)

Rushville 58 - 34 (W)
Aurora 46 - 38 (W)

Montezuma 44 - 34 (W)
Attucks 65 - 52 (W)

Gerstmeyer 60 - 48 (W)
Muncie Central 32 - 30 (W)
   The Indians began their rise to the top of the 751 teams entered in that year's tournament, with a record of 19-2. The mighty men of Milan then cruised through the state tournament relatively untested, until the final game against the Muncie Central Bearcats.
   Wood knew that his players would be intimidated in the spotlight of a state championship. So, in a scene recreated in the film, he measured the height of the basketball goal in the monstrous Hinkle Fieldhouse as the team took the floor for a practice, to illustrate that it was exactly the same height as the goal in the tiny gym at the team's hometown school. That act, Rev. Daniel Motto later told the South Bend Tribune, was meant to reassure the team that, despite the enormous size of the field house where the state finals were being played, the team should "cast out their fear." Motto said when he watched "Hoosiers" for the first time, he sat on the edge of his seat, waiting to make sure that scene was in it. When it was, Motto said, he knew the movie was truly inspired by Wood.
   The final game was a bruising, low-scoring affair. The Indians were paced in scoring by senior Ray Craft. However, Coach Wood's delay tactic game plan would place the ball in the trusty hands of another senior, Bobby Plump.
   With the score tied at 30-30 in the final quarter, Plump held the ball at the top of the key for four minutes before firing a shot that missed its target.
   The Indians kept Muncie Central from scoring on its next possession, setting the stage for Plump to redeem himself.
   The senior guard would not disappoint, draining a shot at the top of the key with barely any time left to win the state championship 32-30. "The coach just shortened the game," Craft said. "If we went at the rate the game was going at, he felt that we wouldn't have won. Bobby held the ball once, missed, and then we went back to him. The right guys won."

The Miracle Men of Milan: Bobby Plump (second from right) and his Milan High School Indian teammates celebrate after winning the state championship on March 20, 1954. Picture thanks to: Bill Herman / The Indianapolis News
   Plump's famous final second shot assured the championship victory for the Indians, and the Indiana High School Athletic Association awarded him the Trester Award for mental attitude, sportsmanship, and character.
   "The shot heard 'round the world'" changed his life, his teammates' lives, and his community's image forever.
   "We came from a small community," Ray Craft said. "We wouldn't have gone on to college, unless we had won. I think about nine of the 12 guys on the team graduated from college. It was an important event for the community."
   Even today, the '54 Indians impact is still felt by the community.
   "Bobby Plump is a legend. He could've probably been governor of this state if he wanted to," said Roger Dickinson, president of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Plump was named one of the Most Noteworthy Hoosiers of the 20th century by Indianapolis Monthly Magazine. He was also one of the 50 greatest sports figures from Indiana in the 20th century, according to Sports Illustrated.

   "The community is still celebrating," Don Swisher, superintendent of the Milan Community School District, said in an October 1998 article for the Odessa American. "People come from all over to see the trophy and team picture in the foyer of the gymnasium."
   "It gave the little schools the chance that they could win. It gave hope. It gave dreams to people that we can beat the big guys," Dickinson said. "It made this state great in its basketball heritage."


    And Hoosiers has helped to keep the story alive. In 1998, the current-day Milan and Muncie Central squads played against each other at the gymnasium where the movie was filmed. The game sold out, and was televised across the entire state and Indiana television added additional lighting to the gymnasium (actually in Knightstown).
   Sadly, though, an actual "David vs. Goliath" match-up will never happen again in this state, as the Indiana High School Athletic Association did away with the single-class, "everybody in one big tournament" format at the end of the 1997 season.
   Wood was elected to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971. Wood never stopped coaching. Finally, in 1999, he resigned as the coach of his granddaughter's seventh-grade basketball team because of a recurrence of bone cancer. The 70-year-old Wood submitted a resignation letter to the Kirtland (Ohio) School Board in the wake of learning that bone cancer which had been in remission for more than seven years had returned. He died in 1999.
   Plump went on to play basketball for Butler University where he was the MVP his junior and senior years, and one of the NCAA's best free throw shooters of all-time. After graduating, he played for Phillips 66 of the National Industrial Basketball League. After retiring from basketball he sold life insurance for many years. But he was always best known for his final shot for Milan.
   Finally deciding to make that notoriety work for him, Plump opened a restaurant called 'Plump's Last Shot' in Indianapolis. It's filled with memorabilia from the 1954 state championship.
   Indian guard Ray Craft became the assistant commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association. He has two cameos in the movie: Ray is the person who greets the Huskers when they arrive at the state finals, and the guy who tells the team that it's time to take the court for the final game.

Clips from the Film: Hoosiers


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Six Inventors: Changed Our World By Never Fearing Failure

Many inventors struggle with trying to persevere passed the difficult times. They push due to their love and passion of discovery. Tomorrow my students will study six different inventors that made history. Each group will have one inventor. They will research through the use of a book and reading an article, annotating, and creating a report based on the 3 P's that have been the common thread throughout the unit: passion, planning, and perseverance. Each group will present their findings and we will discuss as a class. The goal will be two fold: students to grasp a greater knowledge of historical inventors, and discover how the they can serve as role models for their own lives.
Thomas Edison

~Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.~
See Caption Below
Henry Ford

~If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right.~ 
Benjamin Franklin
~Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.~
The Wright Brothers
~The Wright brothers flew through the smoke screen of impossibility.~
                                                                         Dorothea Brande

 Image caption following     
Steve Jobs
~If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.~

Mark Zuckerberg


Saturday, May 11, 2013

CRCT: Reflection and Planning

This week, the CRCT results came in, and honestly I am a bit shocked. My 6th grade students did very well, scoring 98% in reading and 96% in language arts according to the report from the central office. The percentage means that they met and/or exceeded the standards on the test. As a first year teacher my mind has been racing. What did I do that was successful for them? What could I change for next year? How can I bring the exceeding scores higher?

Before I attempt to answer those questions I would like to state that seeing the joy of my students faces was one of the most rewarding things I have ever experienced. One little boy in particular was so worried about the test. He came up to me daily, telling me in soft whispers how he was concerned over the results. The concern came from the fact that he was held back last year. Well, I kept telling him he was going to do great. He had come to all the test prep sessions, and taken his time, doing all the right things during the testing. Well, I am pleased to say that he passed every subject. Victory was his for the first time in his life! That afternoon, as the teachers and I walked toward the buses, I witnessed this young teen, almost skipping down the hall. The weight of the world was lifted and he felt free. Wow! That was awesome to see, which also gave me another outlook on the CRCT.

Realizing that the standardized testing is here to stay how can we, as teachers seeking excellence, keep our perspective and make it great for the kids?

First, I believe that the test was successful for my low students especially, by teaching them at the same standard as all my students. All in all, we must teach to the common core standards, and keep the expectations high! We absolutely must believe in all our hearts that they can achieve, but we cannot keep that belief to ourselves. Our students need to hear it. I preached and preached to my lower achieving students (those that struggle in reading/ela) about my belief that they could succeed. I would share stories with them about times when I fell short on a test. I wasn't worried about making a mistake in class. If I couldn't spell a word, I would say, "Oops, Mrs. Farmer is having spelling trouble. Can someone look that up in the dictionary for me?" They would laugh, but I also think it was reassuring to them that learning is a  journey, not a destination. We all make mistakes and fall short sometimes, but we must keep trying. I also worked diligently on test taking strategies. We developed a system, and throughout the review, although tedious at times, we would use it. Most importantly, however, my low class developed the system themselves. I stood as they called out to me what they needed to do with my guidance. Our mantra became..."Eliminate, Evaluate, and Instinctuate." Part of the reason why I believe that they were successful stemmed from the idea that they had control over their learning. Once we developed all of our test taking strategies, we practiced every day.

On the other hand, however, I did not drill and kill. Knowing that the testing time would be difficult. I decided to develop a unit, which we are still working on called, "believe it and you will achieve it!" I thought it might be a nice pick me up from all the stress. As a class, we spent about 45 minutes working through the test prep books, but then we would spend 45 minutes working on the unit. I worried a little about doing this because I witnessed other teachers drilling ferociously. In my heart, though, I worried it might burn them out, and they would begin to develop a negative attitude toward the test. I told them continually to do their best, use the strategies, and not worry about the rest.

As far as what I can change for next year, I am still figuring that out. I know that I would like to get the Language Arts score higher, which I already felt was my weak spot anyway. I've been working on a few ideas. I know that we can get rid of the old Coach books, because the wording on the new test are different. Much of the ELA test had questions like, "Read the passage and determine which sentence does not fit? Or which statement most likely is the main idea?" I knew some of my students would have difficulty with those types of questions. But, overall, my goal is to not teach to the test, because I believe that takes the joy out of learning.

The following are some ideas that I have for next year to increase rigor and scoring next year:

    • Students must develop a love of reading. This week I am putting together packets for my current sixth grade students. The packet will include: a summer reading list (that they create based on their interests), my recommended reading list, their summer reading contract, reading log, letter of encouragement from me, and the wiki information where they can post about their summer reading. The goal is for students to read 20 books this summer.
    • Also, I have e-mailed the contract and recommended summer reading list to one elementary school, but I will e-mail it also to the other two for distribution among the upcoming 5th graders.
    • Increase Classroom Library: I love the book, The Book Whisperer, and I want to use her strategies for middle grades reading, but I must increase my classroom library to do that. That will be a project that I take on this summer.
    • Vocabulary: The students will develop a vocabulary notebook that they will journal in as they read and write. The main purpose will be to find new words that they can use in their writing.
    • My students will write at least one essay a week, with shorter writings throughout. Basically, anything they read about, they will have to write about.
    • I will develop blog sites for my students. My kids this year have loved it.
    • Writer's notebook. To facilitate better writing, the students will develop a notebook that will contain all of the needed resources for effective writing.
    • This summer I plan to read, In The Middle, by Nancie Atwell. My hope is that I will perfect my writing strategies. She is recommended by the best teachers I know including the author of The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller.
    • I've also learned that it is ok to encourage and love our students. During my first internship as a student teacher, my mentor teacher told me several times that I was too affectionate, too caring to be a middle grades teacher. She thought I should teach elementary school. Well, I believe and still do that she was wrong. You don't have to be mean to be a middle grades teacher. Firm, absolutely, but not mean. Kids of all ages need our encouragement and know that we believe in them.
All in all, one of the greatest things I took away from the testing season is to be confident. I know that my teaching strategies are working now. YAY!!! So, it can only get better from here.

I hope that all teachers feel hopeful for the future, reflect on this testing season, and anticipate the exciting future before us!

I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Teachers: Keep Asking the Question, "What if?"

I cannot explain in words, but I will try how much I love the story of Liz Murray, the author of Breaking Night. She is known for her story of going from being a homeless teen to a Harvard graduate. The TED Talk, which I posted previously brings so many different thoughts to my mind. One thought that stands out the most is the question, "What if?"

In the talk, Murray describes her life prior to her mother's passing. Although homeless, Murray would go and visit with her mother, and they continued to have a relationship despite her mother's illness and inability to care for her. During her mother's illness with AIDS, Murray strived to improve her life, often stealing self help books such as Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but she had not taken any real action. She was still just getting by. Then, her mother died.

The death of her mother, made her realize that change happens. Life evolves. It moves. Understanding this, she began to ask, "If change happens, how can I change my life?" With that in mind she took her questioning a bit further. She asked herself, "What if....I finished high school?" "What if.... I got a scholarship?" "What if ....I got a degree from Harvard University?" Then, instead of saying, "No, that is crazy! What am I thinking?" She said, "What do I have to do to make my "what if's" a reality"? So, she started knocking on doors of high schools, day after day, despite constant rejection. She would wake up, brush herself off and hit the pavement. Then, finally she found a high school that accepted her. She finished high school in two years, got a full scholarship to Harvard, and graduated with a degree in psychology.

So, knowing that she opened herself up to the "What if?" question, how can we, as teachers seeking excellence open ourselves up to that same question? What are our "what if's?"

The following are several "what if" questions that I have asked myself lately.

  1. What if my students read twenty award winning books this summer?
  2. What if my students wrote two essays a week?
  3. What if my students created their own college plan in sixth grade? 
  4. What if I connected with the parents whose children I will have next year?
  5. What if all my students pass/exceeded on the CRCT?
  6. What if I wrote letters to all my students telling them what they meant to me this year, and how proud I am of their accomplishments?
As Rudy Ruettiger stated in his biography, "It is one thing to dream, but what are you doing about it?"

We all have dreams. My dream is for all of my students to achieve greatness, because I believe that they all have the capability to be great. But, I cannot just think it. I must act. I must take it from the "What if" question to the "How will I?"

In closing, as the last week of school approaches, I will strive to make my "what if's" a reality. I hope that anyone reading this might do the same. What are your "What if's"?

As Oprah told Liz Murray on her show, "Your future is so bright it burns my eyes." My hope is that we feel that way about all of our students. Determining the "What if's" might be a great place to start.

Liz Murray in 2004In 2004, Liz Murray shared her unbelievable story. Her childhood was consumed by drug-addicted parents, hunger and homelessness. To care for her schizophrenic mother, Liz never went to school, but she taught herself by reading books.

Today, Liz has graduated from Harvard and is the author of a memoir of her troubled childhood called Breaking Night. She is also part of a group that is launching the Broome Street Academy Charter School, a high school for homeless, foster and runaway youth in New York City. "What I want people to take away is they are so much bigger than their circumstances," Liz says. "People have choices in their lives and, inch by inch, you can create a life for yourself that has nothing to do with your past."

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Walt Disney: A Man Who Dreamed and Achieved

Disney World, a magical place that is enjoyed by millions of families across America every year. A place were young children run to their favorite Disney character in hopes of touching what they had only once imagined. A magical place were dreams come true. But, why is Disney World called Disney World?

I asked my sixth grade students that not too long ago as I was researching different achievers to study. I was a bit taken back that not a single student knew who Walt Disney was or that the famous theme park, movie industry, or story books were named after this tremendous innovator. Therefore, tomorrow my class will be exploring the life and achievements of Walt Disney. Hopefully, the study will give them a deeper appreciation of Disney's passion for creativity.

First, we will read the following article, and annotate.

Walt Disney: Ruler Of The Magic Kingdom
Monday, Dec. 07, 1998,9171,989778,00.html

Next, we will have a guided discussion, focusing on the three P's we have studied: passion, planning, and perseverance. What was his passion, how did he plan so that his passion could be realized, and finally how did he persevere passed the obstacles?

The following are various clips that can be used in furthering the discussion.

Finally, the students will write about what they learned from Disney's experience and how that has changed their perception of the Disney company.

~All the adversity I've had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me... You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.
                                                                                                                                         Walt Disney

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Liz Murray: Author of "Breaking Night"/Focus for Achievement Study

“In the years ahead of me, I learned that the world is actually filled with people ready to tell you how likely something is, and what it means to be realistic. But what I have also learned is that no one, no one truly knows what is possible until they go and do it.”
Liz Murray, Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My journey from Homeless to Harvard
Tomorrow, my students will focus on writer and motivational speaker, Liz Murray. She overcame unspeakable odds during her adolescent years to become a strong woman who took control of her destiny, always knowing that no one, no one truly knows what is possible until they go and do it!
We will read the following article, watch the various clips, and write about her 3 p's of passion, planning, and perseverance. My hope is that not only grow as readers and writers, but also envision how their futures can be just as bright!

Your Personal Best: From Homeless to Harvard
Your Personal Best: From Homeless to Harvard