Sunday, December 6, 2015

Why do we spend so much time talking?

I remember listening to my friend Manya (Mrs. Frazier) telling me that the most important thing language learners do in ELD class is to talk.  And, ever critical, I wondered to myself... yes, but shouldn't we spend equal time listening, reading and writing?  As so often happens, with experience I've come to value my colleague's insights more and more.  I've come to realize that talking is fundamental to other language skills.  So, yes we talk more than anything else, because talking is the way we process all other learning.

Speaking and Listening
In the earliest stages, speaking reinforces listening skills.  We ask students to learn vocabulary through call and response exercises. Students repeat words and phrases in song and rhyme, using rhythm and repetition to reinforce patterns of English language  and to practice pronunciation.
As students become more skilled at speaking they recall vocabulary to describe a scene to a friend, or in giving instructions to complete a project. Students move from repeating to re-voicing to demonstrate listening comprehension. And later kids realize that in these listening to understand exchanges, they need to become more precise speakers to clearly make a point. The more students practice speaking, the more they are able to demonstrate their creative and complex ideas. And, isn't this what most of us desire? We speak so that we can heard.

Speaking and Writing
One of my favorite pre-writing activities is the brainstorm. Students activate prior knowledge, connect their ideas, and build a resource for writing. At the end of a brainstorm session, my students have a shared word bank to refer to as a resource for more nuanced vocabulary or simply spelling.
Students rehearse for writing by orally presenting their thoughts in an organized way. I come often to an activity I learned in a Step-Up-To-Writing workshop in which students walk themselves down a path of visual clues prompting for a topic sentence, then an idea with explanation, another idea/explain, and a third idea/explain, before landing on the cue for a conclusion. This exercise is visual and auditory and oral... the process becomes more concrete and writing is improved!
I caught myself making a mistake last week, when time was limited. As I looked around the room at a a group of writers, hoping to check in with each one I missed the opportunity to use speaking to improve writing.  I've done this more than once. I will look over a shoulder and tap a spelling error, or say "check on this sentence here". However, the best learning occurs when students self-correct and the more effective strategy is to say "Please read your writing to me." As students read, they find their own errors or omissions and fix them on the spot.  One way to make the most of time, and to shift the ownership of learning to the students is to have them read their writing to one another.  I often use the inside-outside circle cooperative learning structure for sharing writing.

Speaking and Reading
In ELD class we do much more reading aloud than we do silent reading. In my prior life as a reading specialist, I might have prompted students to silent reading sooner than I do now as a language teacher. I believe it is really important for language learners to "hear" the words they read. I am not saying that we should always read everything whole group, in fact I hope to get students doing more partner reading. When students sit side by side and take turns to read, especially if it is expected that there is some conversation and peer-coaching going on, kids will practice listening, speaking and reading all at once!  I am also sure that the ones who practice more, learn more.  So, if I have the whole class listen along and we "popcorn" read around the room... there is a whole lot less practice going on for every student than in paired reading.
A favorite speaking/reading lesson that I believe is valuable for language learners is self-assessing reading fluency.  Reading poetry is tons of fun! With a fluency-self check, students can intentionally focus on different aspects of language as they read aloud.  Students can use technology to record and listen to their own voices, and set their own goals.  Which aspect of fluency have I mastered, and what areas should I practice?
Fluent Reading Self-Check
  1. Does the pace of my reading sound like talking? Students practice reading quickly.  By the way, singing is a super way to practice making words flow together naturally too.
  2. Do I read in phrases, and pause for punctuation? Students learn the cadence of English language patterns.
  3. Do I read with inflection? Students practice making their voice rise and fall to appropriately demonstrate meaning of the sentence. There are connections and comparisons to be made here between native language and English.
  4. Do I put meaning in my voice? When students read to understand, and then read aloud with true comprehension, they make the meaning clear by the way they express certain words.
  5. Do I read so that others will understand? This is very connected to number four, but it presents a slight change of perspective. Students need to enunciate clearly, pronounce words correctly, and make the reading interesting for a friend or audience who is listening.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Let's get them talking!

Reading, Writing, Listening... Speaking!

I am an English Language Development teacher.  Teachers all through my building send their kids to ELD and to NLD (and other classes like PE, Tier 3, Title I, resource room).  In my job I think about words a lot, and I wish we didn’t use so many acronyms and abbreviations.  They are confusing! Once in awhile a student who doesn’t come to my class asks me “What is ELD?”  I’ve had parents, and even teachers who’ve asked this question.  Sometimes folks will get them mixed up. 

I teach E.L.D.

E is for English - It’s the language some of our ancestors brought to this country from Great Britain many years ago.

L is for Language - Language is used for communicating with one another, usually with words, through speaking and listening or reading and writing.

D is for Development - To develop is to grow. In this class students are growing in their ability to use English for communication, and for learning. 

To become proficient communicators in English, students need lots of practice.  So every day students in my class will read and write, talk and listen.  But, it doesn’t help if we just say… talk more!  Read more!  

Visitors to my classroom will find students engaged in very intentional activities designed to help them with their language practice.  This week, I will share a couple of ways that I encourage students to practice speaking.  If you are a teacher who already does these things, think about ways that you can do them with greater purpose or intention.  Share your ideas with me, because I am constantly thinking about how to do this better.

Speaking: Turn and Talk / Talk at your Table

There have been times in my classroom (after demonstrating a scientific principle, or in a pause during an interesting read aloud, or during mathematical conversation) when I’ve stopped my class, because I know this moment provides great potential for thoughtful dialogue.  I want kids to think more, to talk more about an idea.  But, too often I’ve let this opportunity for language growth slip by my English language learners.  When I say… “turn and talk” or “talk at your table” I’ve noticed that some kids do all the talking.  These have been great opportunities for my confident speakers, and a likely moment for quiet types to reflect on the words of friends.  But, for my students who most need to practice their language, the time wasn’t well spent.

I’ve been thinking about why these students don’t talk, and about ways I can encourage every student in the room to use this turn and talk time well.

The Talking Stick  

With careful planning, each person has their moment to talk as the stick is passed around the group. I might add a sentence frame such as “I heard __ say ___, and I would like to add __.”  Or, “I heard __ say ___ and I agree/disagree because ___.” 

Whose turn is it anyway? 

I want my language learners to have good language models, so I carefully arrange my table groups.  I will say “Red speak first, then pass the stick around the table clockwise.” In this case, my language learner is not in the red seat.  He will have heard a sample response from a friend, and now he can repeat or add on. Table groups can be arranged to switch talking partners.  Sometimes I might have “elbow partners” or “corner partners” or “neighbors across the table” discuss.  I usually guide the turn taking with suggestions such as “Voices on the west side of the room speak first. The student on the East side should be able to re-voice what his partner said.”

Can you repeat the question?  

By using sentence frames and a question answer format, students who need time to process language will hear and see the target language form multiple times.  I might post a sample response on my white board, with a pass-it-on question attached.  For example I might say… “I noticed ___ about these shapes. What did you notice Sara?”  Then Sara responds, “I noticed __ about these shapes. What did you notice Michael?”

Talking partners and shared responsibility.  

Again, I have found it helpful to carefully assign talking partners.  If both partners are close in language ability, there is often more conversation and mutual support in the talk than if one is much more advanced.  This feeling of “we’re in this together” seems to make students less concerned about making mistakes with language, and similarly they are more likely to correct each other’s errors.  Also, when sharing out is randomized, and kids know that either could be called on to share out their common understanding, both are held accountable.  Teams will practice language to make sure both partners can correctly summarize the conversation.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Integrated Curriculum - Everything is Connected

Integrated Curriculum - Everything is Connected
a #sunchat conversation this morning
I am so honored to have been asked to guest-moderate!

What do you think of when you hear the term integrated curriculum?

What content areas are most easily integrated?

With CCSS there has been a shift to reading/writing in the content areas:
Has this been occurring more intentionally in your schools?
What curriculum areas, teams or departments are doing it best? 

Do elementary teachers have block schedules? 
How does this impact your work to integrate curriculum?

Are there content areas that should not be integrated?

What about balance of direct skill instruction and thematic teaching?

Does teaching with an integrated curriculum lead to efficiency or confusion?

Does integrating curriculum lead us on “bird walks” away from our intended goals?

How to organize and plan?  Does your grade level, department, district, curriculum map all content areas?

How does teaching integrated curriculum support student choice, project and problem based learning, service learning?

Does integrating content lead to professional teams working together better, more efficiently?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bringing Creativity and Choice to Language Learning

For 7 years, I worked as the title I reading specialist at Eccles.  I loved the work I did, bringing confidence to struggling readers.  I formed relationships with students and their families over years of working together, and I learned new things every day.  I was curious about how kids learn, and what causes them difficulty.  I got to delve deeply in the specific struggles of my students, in order to pin point the aspects of reading to be developed and strengthened.  One of the things I enjoyed most about this teaching and learning, was the opportunity to work with small groups. I know of no better way to individualize for student strength and need.

But, in this setting, of targeted and specific intervention, I didn’t get to see my students integrate these skills and apply them to the real work of learning.  I didn’t get to see students dig into deep thinking about the world around.  And so I met the move to 2nd grade with enthusiasm and excitement.  I spent the summer creating thematic units, studying the standards to find connection and relevance.  I looked forward to creating and curriculum mapping with my teaching partner.  When I discovered that every 2nd grade teacher doesn't share my belief in integrated curriculum planning, I continued my journey and found professional conversations in other places.  In district-wide grade level meetings, and in Saturday morning twitter chats we talked about next generation science standards and literacy in the content areas.  In my 2nd year of 2nd grade a third teacher joined my team, and we learned together about innovation in the Maker Space and the power of choice in Genius Hour projects.  Just as I was planning for meaningful Project Based Learning in 2nd grade… my career turns another corner.  

Next year, I will be the English Language Development specialist at my school. This Summer, I find myself reflecting on how I can bring all of these exciting ideas (of creativity, relevance and choice) to my English Language Development groups.  In language instruction, as in reading intervention, my role shifts again to targeted instruction and specific skill building.  I will work with small groups of students for 30 minutes each day.  I will need to get to know my students quickly, to identify language strengths and provide kids with strategies for learning and communicating when they leave my class, when they walk out my door.  

So, this blog continues to be my place for reflection.  It is my learning space.  I’m sure to try some strategies that flop, but hope also to discover teaching practices that inspire.  I am hoping that as my students develop their ability to think, learn, and communicate in English I provide them opportunities to make connections, find relevance, and express their creativity.

I have some hopes and dreams…
  • I hope that teachers will share their plans with me (curriculum maps, thematic units) so I can plan language instruction that will enable my students to ask questions and discover with their classmates.
  • I hope that teachers will look closely at the language needs of our students, so the skills my students are working on are reinforced and practiced in home room classes.
  • I hope that whatever curriculum our district uses will allow for flexibility and adaptation, so students can make choices and express genuine curiosity in meaningful contexts.
  • I hope that the district team of English Language Development teachers continue the commitment to professional development I believe they are pursuing, so I can be part of this learning community.
  • I hope that the team of educators in my building works well together with great communication and common goals, so students find consistency and efficiency in their time “pulled out” of home room classes.
  • I hope that the parent community of English Language Learners feels supported and valued, so they become a stronger voice in our school.

And I have some plans…
  • I will share my students language goals, progress and current learning with teachers, so that dialogue and communication are invited.
  • I will communicate with teachers about the specific language levels of their students, so they can apply appropriate scaffolds and strategies to support growth.
  • I will create a daily routine that integrates reflection and self assessment, so students feel confident in their goals and know what they need to practice.
  • I will incorporate language goals that come directly from student reflection into the curriculum, so that learning is meaningful and relevant.
  • I will invite my ELD colleagues to the #ellchat on twitter, and bring questions and resources to our PLC meetings on Wednesday mornings, so I contribute to an attitude of life-long learning and professionalism in my district.
  • I will ask my instructional assistants to reflect on their own learning strengths and needs, so I can plan professional development opportunities for my team to grow together.
  • I will communicate often with parents (making use of translation services, standard notes, and student voices) so they feel connected to the program and the school.
I am ready for a Summer of preparation and planning.  I look forward to finding ways to bring creativity, choice and meaning to my language learning classroom!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Change is Coming!

Last week’s #edchat topic was change.  The question: What changes do you see coming to your school in the future?  

There really wasn’t a lot of response to this question, no big innovative ideas on the horizon for schools and districts (at least among the teachers chatting on Tuesday morning).  And, I wondered… do teachers have nothing to say because change creeps up on us slowly?  When change becomes institutionalized, it no longer feels like change.  And no one really wants change to be imposed on us, it should rise from within the community in response to a need or a better vision of the future.

So… teachers in their individual classrooms are doing innovative things.  They are applying creative ideas in the course of their instruction, making changes to their environments, altering routines and planning differently.  But we can’t say it is a school or district-wide change that is occurring, because these things are happening in isolated corners of buildings, at the end of my hallway, and behind someone’s door.  When my colleague shares her innovative practice with me, and then our whole grade level jumps on board, this isn’t school-wide change (yet).  Then another grade level joins in, and finally when everyone is doing it… it can no longer be called change!  If we are doing what a friend was talking about last year, that's nothing new.

So, I see no big shifts occurring suddenly in my school or district.  But, I can make some predictions about the future.

Testing - I believe we will see a day, in the not so distant future, when students no longer sit in a computer lab for hours doing state testing. In my opinion, the opt-out movement will be the catalyst for innovation here.  Maybe, the idea of formative assessment (smaller, quick checks along the way) will become the model for school assessment.  These can be valid and reliable, norm referenced and administered with fidelity… but they will be quick peeks to check the temperature of our schools.  Academic screeners will determine whether more diagnostic assessments are required in specific cases.  There will still be oversight and accountability, but it will become more manageable and less intrusive to our teaching and learning environments.  

Personalized Learning Opportunities - I think we will see a greater shift from content based instruction to the development of skills, attitudes and habits that can be applied across learning environments.  The job of teachers of the future will be to teach strategies for questioning, thinking, investigating and solving problems.  We will provide the environment, the tools and opportunity to explore, inquire, create and communicate. We will teach kids to learn rather than teach kids “stuff”.

Flexible Schedules and Learning Environments - I believe we will see more blended learning environments.  Students in early grades are likely to spend the day at “school” because parents are working, but they will move about the building and the grounds.  We will see more community gardens at school and interactive playgrounds.  We will have maker spaces and workshops in the library.  Students will interact across grade level and content area as they pursue learning projects that make a difference for their community.  We will see more involvement from community members and businesses, and kids will make connections.  In middle and high school, I envision students attending “classes” on a fixed schedule as needed, but also independently from their home online in the evening so they can work or volunteer in the community where they will practice skills that can’t be measured on a standardized test.

Integrated Curriculum - Teachers and businesses are advocating for 21st Century Skills, and more STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).  And, as folks get excited about the potential for future scientists and engineers other folks are saying ”Hey, what about me?” And so STEM becomes STEAM to include art.  STEAM becomes STREAM to indicate the need to read across content areas.  A friend shared her excitement for STEAM but the A stood for agriculture in her enthusiastic telling.  All of these changing acronyms say to me that we are still thinking in boxes and isolated curriculum areas.  But, I also believe this debate and dialogue is an indication that we are coming back to the “integrated day” that I learned about 24 years ago in my education program at Hope University.  We are coming to realize there isn’t time in the day for a 2 hour reading block, then 1/2 hour writing, and 45 minutes of science.  When will we fit math in the schedule?  Besides… we learn better when skills are practiced in meaningful context.  

Change is coming!  Either it’s creeping up on us slowly and we aren’t calling it change, or the pace of change in the world is so fast that when everything is changing … it’s hard to say what change is really settling in.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Invitations to Learning

My colleague told me I am a master at “Invitations to learning.” I was honored for her to give me such a compliment, and a little curious because I have never heard the term before.  She used the phrase to describe the way I encouraged a student (I will call him Ben) to join in our writing sharing activity (inside outside circle , I wonder painting).

I wonder… did Joan invent this phrase?

I thought, I’m not a master… you just happened to be here to see my Ben work through a difficult moment.

Ben had been arguing with his table mate… "I didn’t push in the line, I was there first."
When I asked about it, the friend (call him Chris) defended himself and my Ben cried.
Chris looked like he felt bad.  I said, I’m going to leave you two friends to take care
of each other and fix your friendship.

Writing time began, and I introduced the lesson.  I raised my arm with the stack of 
paintings and wonderings in my hand. “Remember that we did whole class I Wonder 
About the Sun, and private Wondering about Earth and moon?  Today you get to share your thinking in the inside outside circle.”

Ann, told me Ben was crying.  I said, “Yes… I know, lets give him some space, he will 
join us when he’s ready.  He just needs a minute to feel calm inside.”

Reminding the class Laura is new, I asked for a volunteer to explain inside/outside circle and Rachel explained the process.

I placed paintings around the room to make the outside circle.  Coming to Ben's I 
placed it like all others.  Ann said, “Mrs. Davies,  Ben is still upset.”  I said, “It’s ok, his 
painting will be here when he is ready.”

We made outside circle, then I asked Ben if he’s ready.  He shook head no, but was

I stood in the place that would be Ben’s and said, “I will take your place and 
share my wondering, but when you are ready your writing is waiting for you.”

After one rotation, I said “Your spot is ready… are you coming?”  Ben said yes, and
joined in the activity.

Joan asked in her observation notes after visiting my class, “Would you lead a workshop on invitations to learning?  I thought, there are no strategies to teach. This isn’t planned.  And, it certainly doesn’t come up every day.

But on reflection….

This morning Elizabeth said “Mrs. Davies I think my stomach ache is because I am nervous about swimming”  I said, “I was wondering about that!” She had been asking to go home about 10am each day for 2 days (swimming starts today).  I said, “You know Elizabeth… the teachers at the pool are fantastic.  They want you to learn and they want you to have fun too, just like I do.  They won’t make you do anything you are not ready for, and they will not ask you to do anything hard without being right there to give you whatever help you need.  It’s just like in reading.  I want you to try new things, work on tricky words.  I will only ask you to work on things you are ready for.  You know how sometimes I tell you the word but other times I ask you to use a strategy?  Or I ask you to work on part of the word, but I help with another part?  We will only ask you to do what we know you can do, and and we will be right there to help if you need it!”

Same day… with another Ben.

Each trimester we get a new group of 5 high school helpers during reading.  I provide activities, and kids are paired with a helper for 30 minutes.  Today Ben said, “I don’t want to do it!” when I called his name and introduced him to Marie.  Marie got materials together and Ben hid behind the classroom door as HS helpers and buddies walked into the hall to work together.  I knelt down to talk with Ben, who immediately said “I don’t want to go with her, I don’t want to read.” So, I said to Marie the helper (while Ben is listening in) “Let’s set you two up inside the classroom right here.  It’s ok if Ben doesn’t want to read at first.  Marie can read, and Ben, you show her what word to read by pointing with your finger.  You get to set the pace for Marie.  Marie will read and re-read and when you are ready you can join in.”

So maybe this happens more often than I first thought.  These three incidents took place on Friday.  I will reflect on Monday’s class to see where else this is occurring.

What makes all of these interactions similar?
  1. I start with the premise that every student is needed in this community.
  2. I meet each student in the place where they are, right now.
  3. I offer a choice that will bring this child one step closer to the goal I have in mind.
  4. I give decision making power to the student.
  5. I check in, and encourage the student to move a little closer.
  6. Yes, Joan, I invite the student to learn!   

So, some research... Joan didn’t invent the phrase!
And, thank you Joan for the wonderful compliment!

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development Article 
Invitations to Learn by Carol Ann Tomlinson

That’s a familiar name!  Gotta go look on my bookshelves, I might just have one of her books.

So… its about differentiation!

Carol Tomlinson Ed. D.

A Teacher's Guide to Differentiating Instruction

Differentiation - definition

Methods of differentiation in the classroom

Saturday, March 28, 2015

To Flip a Card, or Not to Flip a Card? That is the Behavior Chart Question!

One afternoon, when Thomas was tiny and had just learned to  toddle around in his Nanny’s garden, I stood chatting with a neighbor who suddenly shouted, “Get out of the flowers before someone smacks your bum!” My baby burst into tears, and I experienced my first moment of righteous parenting anger.  No one had ever shouted at my son!  This led to a conversation about corporal punishment in which I assured Nanny’s friend that I will never spank my children - not to keep them from touching a hot stove, or even to teach them to stay out of the road. 

Several years later, I was having a heart to heart with Thomas the teen about cleaning up the kitchen.  I just couldn’t understand. How can I explain, ask nicely, and gently remind day after day and still come home to warm mayonnaise on the counter, and crusts of bread?  He can watch me wipe away tears of frustration and still leave a mess the next day.  But when an angry voice booms down to the basement all the boys come running to clean the mess, and the kitchen is clean for a week.  Why did an angry voice work more efficiently than my rational words?  There are times when I feel that if I were to slam a door, I would get a better result than if I try to rationalize using words. And I this leaves me so utterly disappointed.   

Punishment works!  Humiliation too.

Afraid to make Mom mad, the boys keep the counter clean.
Ground them for a month, no more t.v. bad guys get squirted with water guns.
A walk of shame to turn in the cell phone, no more texting in class.
The flip of a card, no more sassin’ the teacher.

But.  Instead.
We have boys who drive to Taco Bell to spend money for their afternoon snack.
Stir crazy kids somersault off the back of the couch.
Now, she leans back in her chair to reach around Chris and tap Maritza on the shoulder but crashes to the floor.
No more smart talk, but a grudging conformity.

I have heard, that negative reinforcement can extinguish an undesired behavior.
I’ve read that it is most likely replaced with another.
I’ve noticed, that this seems to be true.

I have also done some research, and been inspired by educators who’ve been doing this work before me.  I believe in the philosophy of Restorative Justice, and our community circle meets every day after lunch.  When we build a classroom community where each person is valued, kids are eager to do the hard work of coming back to the circle.  We bring our concerns and our frustrations to the group, and great ideas come from these kids!  They reassure one another that team work is hard, and make suggestions for what to do when a disagreement turns into an argument.  “Instead of coloring on her castle, you could ask if you can make the rainbow.”  They suggest compromise and practice listening.  “I heard Hayden say he wanted to make a puppet show in the snow, and I think that would make a good part two to your story.”

I’ve seen skill building work.  My student who can’t stand to be excluded will sometimes push or hit her way into the group.  Now, she refers to the chart on the wall to select a sentence frame to fit the situation.  “Would it be ok if I play wall ball with you at recess?”  “Will you be my partner for __?” And she has been rewarded with acceptance.  

This student is one smart little girl!  When we sit together before she heads to recess, and acknowledge that this is a difficult time, she can brainstorm three or four ways to get other kids to listen to her ideas.  They don’t work every time, and she still makes mistakes, but she is not giving up because she is also finding success!  What joy when two girls asked her to sing their made-up song during sharing time. The Think:Kids approach on OHSU Department of Psychaiatry’s website describes the underlying shift in mindset that comes with a Collaborative Problem Solving approach: We used to think “kids do well if they want to” but now we believe that “children do well if they can”.  We trust kids to do their best, to be their best.

So, I remain true to my ideals.  I resist the pressure to conform.  I try to work within the system that my school has adopted, but sometimes I feel like I am alone.  I defend myself when someone says, “I know you don’t make them flip cards.”  I assure my colleague that I am following the guidance I have been given… I will ask a child to flip his card, if after meeting and reflecting, talking and some teaching, the behavior continues.  The only students who continue the misbehavior after plenty of teaching are those who are on their own special plan, and are exempt from the card chart.  So… my chart stays green.

The terrible consequence…. the punishment, the humiliating walk of shame… only comes to those who have been instructed well, and still have not learned their lesson.   And, well… I am a teacher after all.  That is what I do.  I teach.  And, I think I do it pretty well.  They are kids.  They make mistakes and they learn from them.  And, I think they do it pretty well.  Nice job kids.  No card flips around here.


OHSU Medical School: Department of Psychiatry, Think:Kids

Lives in the Balance, Changing the Conversation about and with Behaviorally Challenging Kids

Peace Circles: Listen to the Children

Restorative Justice Online

Saturday, March 7, 2015

What if ____?

Two questions inspired my imagination this morning.

The first question was, “What if we stopped giving homework?” 

This question came to mind after reading an article by Heather Holland about a school in New York that decided to stop giving homework.  Here is a link to the article:

The second question of the day was “What would happen in your school if kids could go to any class they wanted to, all day long?” 

It came at the end of today’s #satchatwc on twitter, guest-hosted by @McLane_Ryan.  I was thinking that this should have been the only question because it could have inspired so much interesting discussion.  Maybe it will be a future stand-alone topic, you never know!  Then, Shelley Burgess shared a link to Ryan McLane’s blog post about what happened when he really tried this in his school.  Here is the link that she shared .  And, just to be thorough in citing my sources of inspiration and thinking… McLane’s Teach Like a Pirate day grew from the book by Dave Burgess who blogs at

What if we trusted kids to be who they were created to be? 

These two questions really come down to one idea for me.  I am an idealist at heart.  My feeling is that we are born with some innate sense of right and wrong.  It is also part of human nature to be curious and inquisitive.  I want to believe. I want to trust that people will be good, will do good.  I know that to be human is also to be a learner. It's who we are, it's what we do.  So, I wonder what would happen if we assumed these things to be true about our students.  I think, they will find and sense the intrinsic value of these pursuits.  What if… 

Out there on the playground. 
What if we let kids… build things, climb things, go UP the slide?
What if we let kids… solve their own problems, create their own games?

I don’t mean leave them alone. I mean give them space and time and tools. I think we should be available to help and support and to provide.  People out there on the internet, in schools, and even on Facebook, are talking about, writing about, and advocating for more recess.  And, parents and teachers are protesting the withholding of recess as punishment.  We want kids to move.  We're concerned about the over-diagnosis of ADHD. We are fighting an epidemic of obesity. Maybe it starts with our concern for healthy movement and the need for exercise, but I think the benefits of recess freedom and more recess are even bigger. I think recess is about brain development, creativity and innovation. Have you read about open playgrounds?  When I was a head-start teacher, a pre-school teacher, we were encouraged to provide props for play on the playground (pieces of hose, a sheet, logs or boards, wheels…). Wow! The power of creative play, and hours of open ended problem solving!  What if older students were given (trusted with) the same kind of freedom?

Some schools are trying it! Read about Recess Without Rules at

In the classroom.
What if we let students… choose their books, their activities, their projects?
What if we let students… ask the questions, find the answers?

The idea is not new.  Educators have known about the power of choice for a very long time.  When my sons were in elementary school, they had an Imagination Celebration every Halloween.  It was a time when teachers offered a classroom activity that was creative and inspired by their own interests.  Kids got to choose where they went, what they would learn about, and they loved it!  When they were in middle school, they had elective classes offered during a time of the day called X-Block.  Teachers offered interesting classes around ideas that may have nothing to do with their academic topic, their area of endorsement.  Students decided whether to help run a sporting event for the Blind School, to make movie, or to build a sculpture in the art studio...  I believe this elective option of choice (for both teachers and students) is still in place. I hope so.

But, it is easy to get caught up in the expectations, the curriculum goals, and the tests to come. It’s easy to forget about choice as we map out our lessons for the year, with the content standards spread across the teacher desk. 

I also know, that hours can disappear as I search for knitting patterns online, or talk about a book with fellow curious teachers in an edchat on twitter.  If the desire to learn comes from a genuine driving question, a need to know or a true curiosity, we simply have to find the answer!  We can spend hours researching, experimenting, learning…. when the question comes from a genuine passion or need to know.  That is why I was eager to create a maker-space in my classroom.  That is why I love free choice time.  This is why my next goal is to begin some form of “genius hour” and why I am reading Pure Genius by Don Wettrick.  Want to know more? I have read, and you can read about project based learning and choice at  I know that I need to remind myself to make a time and a place for students to choose their own learning adventure.

At home.
What if we let families… spend time as they choose?
What if we let families… make family time their own?
What if families… were responsible for the learning that happens at home?

A few years ago, my school re-worked our homework philosophy.  There was a lot of discussion about the importance of homework, and the need to form responsible habits.  Teachers talked about how kids need to spend more time practicing skills.  We developed a recommendation that students spend 10 minutes per grade level on homework (10 minutes per night in 1st grade, 20 minutes in 2nd grade etc…) but, we also included a nice list of things that could be considered “homework”. The policy, signed by all of the teachers and sent home, included a list of enrichment activities.  It included things like practicing an instrument, discussing a movie, or going for a walk.  Some teachers interpreted this policy to mean they have permission to send homework that will take the suggested time; this math page should take my 3rd graders 30 minutes.  I like to interpret it to mean it’s not necessarily my responsibility to send work or to enforce completion. I offer open ended writing prompts, and reminders that reading is important. I send links to to practice math skills.  I am happy to offer suggestions, lend my books, and give homework.  But, I want to encourage families to use family time to reinforce their own values. The family value being reinforced during homework time might be the pursuit of an academic task, but it also might be something else entirely!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Can You Describe Your Teaching Philosophy in a Tweet?

This week, I was asked to describe my teaching philosophy… and I was caught a little off guard. Can you believe it?  I stumbled a little, hesitated over words. Me, who is happy to talk about teaching any time, any day.

I think it was a hard question for me to answer because I haven’t tried to summarize it, to make it into a brief statement, for a very long time.  Probably, the last time I intentionally described my teaching philosophy was in a PSU class maybe 12 years ago. 

I guess it’s time to update, if only so I can answer this question without thinking, next time.

So… the 140 character, tweet might go like this…

Teaching Philosophy:  Encourage students to discover their gifts, to find joy in learning and confidence in self expression.

And the elevator speech… my one minute teaching philosophy, the what’s most important to express and impress upon the potential employer or customer would go like this…

I am an educator.  It is my job to create an environment where students learn how to learn.  I plan opportunities for my children to interact with ideas, and the world. I give them skills to ask questions, develop ideas, and test their theories. I establish a safe place for kids to make mistakes and keep trying.  I give students opportunities to create, and to share their thinking. I build a community of learners who trust one another and believe in possibilities.

And the essay question response, maybe to present in a class when I decide to go for my phd or my administrative license…

We are all learners, all the time and everywhere.
My teaching philosophy is rooted in the idea of learning as a life long pursuit and process, it is what we do every day as we interact with the world.  We are learning all the time! Some lessons are intentional and carefully crafted, some are sought after, and others are the result of luck or environment or accident.  It is my role as educator, to create a framework for this learning.  I want my students to have the skills needed to seek out and take from these life lessons what is important and relevant, for them to be in control of the lesson learned.
  1. Teach reflection (exit slips, learning logs, journal, blog)
  2. Make connections between home & school (communication, project based learning, invite experts, flexibility in making curriculum connections)
  3. Offer choices (maker space, free choice, discovery time)
  4. Act gently with patience and kindness (reflect on what students are learning about self-worth and identity while in my care)
Each person is unique and special.
I firmly believe that each person is gifted with unique talents and will contribute in a special way to the world we live in. It is my job as a teacher to help my students discover their gifts. I want them to see that they are important members of our community.  I want my students to know that we are better because they are part of this group.  Each of my students is missed when absent, and we are happy to greet each other in the morning, and share our day together.
  1. Teach with learning styles and multiple intelligences in mind (make it visual, auditory, interactive, kinesthetic, independent, quiet, structured, open ended…)
  2. Offer choices for showing how you know (write, draw, sculpt, act it out, answer questions, discuss, present…)
  3. Give opportunities for highlighting non-academic skills (sharing time, community building activities)
  4. Make time to connect with each student every day (confer, check-in, a hand-shake, a smile, keep the door open & make time to talk)
I can teach skills for inquiry and discovery.
I teach my students how to learn, and give them opportunities to practice skills in  meaningful and relevant contexts.  I teach students strategies for decoding and reading comprehension. I teach habits of mind and interaction for mathematic problem solving. I guide them in discovering strategies for making connections and for metacognition.  I teach them the process of scientific inquiry; and isn’t it wonderful that this applies to all of our learning about the world?  Observe. Question. Hypothesize. Research. Experiment. I want my students to find relevance at the end of all this, to tell why this discovery or idea is important to them or in the world.
  1. Integrated curriculum planning (read and write about science, use math to solve problems and answer questions, show understanding in creative ways)
  2. Teach skills explicitly (with guided & independent practice) and give opportunities for decision making about which skill is most efficient in this real context.
  3. Provide access (supports & scaffolds) and extension opportunities in projects and lessons.
We are social beings who need to communicate.
We live in a wonderfully diverse world full of ideas and perspectives, ways of being and interacting.  We want to be understood, and should seek to understand.  Literacy skills are fundamental to our ability to communicate with one another.  Students need to practice listening, speaking, reading and writing in everything they do.  
  1. Listen to students, parents and colleagues.  
  2. Watch for, listen and respond to non-verbal communication.
  3. Celebrate and value the multi-lingual and multi-cultural community in which I live and work.
  4. Share my perspectives, teaching methods & philosophy with students, colleagues and parents (in various ways & in the home language).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Teaching Resolution for 2015 - The Right Hook for the Right Kid

Michelle Davies @LovesSummerSun 2h

Teaching resolution for 2015: make this year's lessons for this year's students! Know these kids, and find their "hooks". #bookclubED #tlap

I love book club conversations, and found two on twitter discussing David Burgess’ Teach Like A Pirate.  So, finally I got around to reading it.  I’m glad I did, and even happier that I found a group of teachers who want to talk about this creative endeavor or ours.  The slow chat of #bookclubED is perfect.  I love that questions come slowly and we have an entire 24 hours to respond.  There is no time zone to worry about.  I am talking with teachers in New Zealand and Australia, Spain, Canada… and all across the United States!  What an opportunity for diversity of thought and opinion.

To be honest, I resisted reading this book for awhile.  I had heard about it.  I’ve seen it mentioned and found it quoted.  But, I have long been a resister of education as entertainment (sorry Mr. Burgess).  I just don’t believe that teaching needs to be gimmicky.  I don’t like the idea that I need to put on a show for my kids.  I’ve mentioned before on my blog, that in my family my sister was the comedienne and I was the bookish one.  I have always found entertainment in thinking, in learning.  I’ve spent years trying to convince my sister that reading is fantastic.  It took 35 years, but finally something clicked and now she is a reader.  She must have found the book with the hook (a nod to you Mr. Burgess), it sure wasn’t me jumping up and down and waving a novel under her nose.  

I want my students to discover that learning itself is entertaining. 

I want them to know that they can spend hours in a book; imagining, learning, thinking… and it’s fun!

I want my kids to find joy in hard work, to feel pride of accomplishment.

I want my children to understand that sometimes you need to pursue a boring or tedious task to accomplish a goal, and the result feels great.

Once I got past the title of Teach Like a Pirate, and turned a few digital pages (I love the page turn feature on my iPad) I discovered that the gimmick is there to bring them in… it’s there for the kids, and the teachers, who have lost the native joy of creativity and innovation and discovery that they were born with.  It’s just to spark interest, to re-ignite the passion.  

When David Burgess started talking about hooks, he had me on the line.  This I could identify with.  Because, I don’t need to put on a pirate suit…or any other costume (but I can if I am so inspired).  It is actually about what I find inspiring… because enthusiasm is catching!  I’ve been known to fill the trunk of my car with props (I might have called it my box of realia or artifacts) and I have tossed out an afternoon of lesson plans to sing, to play my guitar and make up songs with my kids.  So… hooks, Mr. Burgess I’m good at!  My goal though, my resolution, is to get better at it.  I will go outside of my comfort zone and look for hooks that come from the kids (for them I might even wear a pirate suit).

In case you haven’t read the book (but I recommend you do, because there are tons of ideas to go with each of these hooks), and in case I don’t have my bookmarks handy when planning my lessons, here are my reminders:

students as props to illustrate concepts and ideas
go outside
student interests & hobbies
demonstrate real world relevance
authentic interaction with the world
an inspirational message
essential questions
student reflection
student autonomy & choice
current events & hot topics
transform the environment (the room)
spark curiosity
audience (student) involvement
a captivating story
break down barriers between teacher and students (all are in this together)
power of silence
build anticipation by promoting the lesson in advance
active student participation
a hidden object
vary the sequence of instruction
present a mystery to be solved
add ideas of reality tv
utilize technology
create a contest
demonstrate an amazing principle
food & drink
use mnemonics
high-interest or motivating challenge

Looking back at this list… I am reminded of a comment I made to my husband once or twice.  I have said that I couldn’t write a book. I couldn’t fill so many pages with unique ideas because every brilliant idea I have had has been inspired by something I learned or heard or saw somewhere else.  I look at the list of pirate hooks above, and I think about classes I’ve taken, books I’ve read, and theories I’ve encountered. 

Howard Gardner and Multiple Intelligences
Gerome Bruner and Discovery Learning
John Dewey and Learning by Doing
Lev Vygotsky and Social Development Theory
Maria Montesorri and Creative Play
Waldorf Steiner and the Humanistic Approach
Grant Wiggins and Habits of Mind, Essential Questions
William Glasser and Choice Theory
even Pavlovian Conditioning !

I have shared my ideas with colleagues or discussed inspirations with peers. I could write about them and talk about what goes on in my classroom, but I can’t match the idea to a particular theorist or sometimes even name the colleague or teaching partner who initated the idea or inspired the approach.  I couldn’t do the work of giving credit where credit is due.

David Burgess does a very nice job of summing up his knowledge and theory, in a way that can easily be referenced and is fun to read.  The presentation of all these ideas is his.  The educational philosophy of Michelle Davies is my own, but like that my favorite pirate at the moment it comes from many places!

My favorite quote from Teach Like a Pirate, by David Burgess:

“The risk faced by anyone who has achieved a high level of skill and polish in any particular field is that since they make it look so easy, some will assume it was.”

I love his response to the teacher friend who says "you're creative."

“What is she implying by that?  She is implying two things.  First, she is implying I have some sort of inborn character trait known as creativity.  Secondly, and more importantly, she is implying she is not creative.  She wasn’t given this particular trait, so she is excused from doing the same hard work I put in!”

So… my goal, my resolution is to always be a learner, to use what I know and connect it to the kids that I know in order to do my very best for them!