Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How to Make a Living

I read the first chapter of Peter and the Sword of Mercy to my son tonight at bedtime. It's the 4th in Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's great series about Peter Pan. Frankie lent me his copy this afternoon after school. He had already finished it. When he ran up behind me on the bus lane one day a week or so ago, he had shouted, "Hey, Dan, Dan ! I got the new Peter and the Starcatcher's book, it's the 4th one, it just came out this weekend, have you seen it?" I hadn't even heard that it was out, yet. So much for staying abreast of children's literature; I've been spending too much time doing F & P assessments lately, I guess. I had smiled to myself after Frankie walked away. We had talked a bit and I said I was looking forward to reading it, but I hadn't read any in the series to my current class yet I wasn't sure if it would be good to start at the end of the series.

When Frankie had started in my 3rd grade class two years ago his parents had pulled me aside to talk about their concerns that Frankie wasn't reading 'at grade level' yet. His older sister was an A+ student in high school now and had never had any trouble reading anything she wanted to read to date. They wanted to know what kind of tutoring they should get for Frankie to get him caught up. They looked at me a little warily when I said, "Why don't you just let me work with him for awhile, first." As it turned out, I got to have Frankie in my class for the next two years due to the multi-age grouping we do here at Marcy.

Not every student makes the kind of progress that Frankie did in the two years he spent with me, and I certainly can't take much of the credit. Most of the credit goes to Frankie and his parents. They all did their jobs - Frankie did his homework and his parents made sure he did his homework. They called and stopped in frequently over the last two years. His dad's cell phone number is still in the contacts list on my cell phone.

I used lots of tools to help Frankie become a better reader: parts of a Houghton-Mifflin curriculum that the district had sanctioned a few years back (they're now sanctioning the F & P system and scowling at those H-M 'texts.' Anything that looks like an anthology is out of favor these days.) I also used a whole variety of lessons on our Moodle site. Frankie was in my first class to use that great reading and writing tool. I can't even imagine wanting to teach writing without it today.

One of the things that really helped Frankie was the Accelerated Reader system. A.R. has taken some slams lately from the likes of Alfie Kohn; he makes a living slamming this, that or the other thing related to education. Lots of his ideas are worth considering like his take on merit pay, but I don't think he's ever really used Accelerated Reader and its assessment companion, StarReader. A.R. was especially useful to Frankie's parents. They used it to find books in the public library that were at Frankie's optimal reading level. The A.R. list of quizzes is available anywhere there's an internet connection and most of the reference people in the Mpls Public Library know how to help kids and their parents find the right level of book, at least, after I've done a few assessments, had them try a few books, and given them a reading level.

Accelerated Reader is a way of keeping track of where you're at if you're a growing reader; it also helps teachers and parents keep track of how their child is progressing. It's certainly not the only tool that a teacher or parent should use to nudge a child along the literacy path, but it's useful. It's useful like stats are to Joe Mauer, or a stop watch is to Adrian Peterson's coaches. Are Joe and Adrian going to be star athletes without those tools? Probably, most likely, we could even say for sure, but they use the tools anyway. Pros use tools that are useful. Ira Socol has a fairly well developed Toolbelt Theory for Education. Like Ira, I made my living for a short while wearing a toolbelt standing on a ladder with my head above the ceiling tiles punching down 25 pair cable. I've found Accelerated Reader to be a useful tool to help kids be better readers, and I can even go so far as to say that it's helped build a culture of reading in my classroom and in our school.

So, I wasn't that surprised when Frankie caught up with me after school today. He held out the book rather awkwardly. I don't think he's lent out too many $19.00 hard cover books before, and to a teacher to boot. He said, "I've finished it and I thought you might want to read it, but I think you should start with the first one with your class." I said, "Wow, you sure cruised through that book fast." "Yeah," he said, "it was really good." I said, "thanks a lot for the book; I haven't had time to get my own, yet. And, I'll go with your advice on starting with the first one with the class. We gotta get through Hoot first." And then Frankie said, "Oh, yeah, those are great books, too. I read Splash this summer. And do know that Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson have another series about Fighting Prawn and the Lost Boys? It's great, too."

Frankie's mom was there to pick him up after school. I could tell that they had talked over his lending me the book. Her smile told me she was proud of her son for more than a few reasons. It's great having a job where I get paid to read good books out loud to kids.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ed Mn conference was like Twitter

I just reread what I had posted about the Education Minnesota conference and realize that what I found valuable in this year's conference was the same value I get from Twitter. Twitter connects me with other teachers who share my ideals and my frustrations. The frustrations are what Tomaz Lasic writes about in his latest Human blog post. Dean Groom, another of my Twitter partners and who I've linked to on my blog previously, commented on Tomaz's post, as did I. We are part of a very large conference of educators that span the globe. The sharing and connecting will salve the frustrations, eventually. If this can happen for teachers, just think what could happen for students if they all got connected; Whoa there, Cowboy!

Friday, October 16, 2009

What're your scores ? Ed Mn Professional Conference

I spent the day yesterday at the Education Minnesota Professional Conference. This year the highlight for me was connecting with other professional educators for informal discussions. I was in the aisles of the exhibit hall or in the corridors outside the presentation rooms talking with old friends or exhibitors (some them now also old friends) about possibilities and realities. We talked about substantive educational issues and substantive personal issues. This was probably my 17th conference - I went to a couple while getting my license and also while I was subbing that first year before getting a contract with the MPS. Getting affirmations from other pros is so crucial to this job.

One of the big affirmations for me was when a teacher who used to teach in our building met me in the aisle with a big hug and eventually the question - "Are you still doing your St. Patrick's Day Poetry Reading Contest?"and then "I want you to know that I've taken that to my current building and made the whole month of March a poetry month." I did skip the contest this last year because of scheduling conflicts with testing. I won't miss it this year; we'll be reading poems in Room 207 this March 17.

Some years the highlight has been a pep talk by great orators for the keynote; Paul Wellstone, Peter Yaro, and Garrison Keilor are memorable examples. Ray Suarez's excellent talk this year was more of a sober look at what's coming for our profession. I can't remember all of the stats he rattled off about the demographics of our schools past, present and what they're likely to be in the years ahead; I'll want to read his next book. The official theme of his speech was the impact of immigration on US education. He urged us to start paying close attention; things are changing and they're gonna change some more. His comments are summarized on this MPR audio piece which also includes comments on health care and journalism. Serious, researched talk both informs and affirms teachers.

Another form of affirmation is talking possibilities. Our 3rd and 4th grade team is still exploring arts integration opportunities for this year. Angie Keeton, The Minnesota Opera teaching artist, got me thinking about opera. Maybe we'll put my earlier claymation idea to music and sing the story. I've only been to a couple of operas in my life, but I'd like to learn more. David, my colleague across the hall, usually has classical or operatic music playing before and after school, so he'll likely be on board.

One of the uninspiring conversations I had was with a professor of one of the local teacher colleges. When he heard where I teach and that I've had a student teacher in my room almost every semester for the last twelve years (a K-8 close to the U of M and Augsburg gets lots of student teachers; he wasn't with either of those.) he perked up and started talking about an urban literacy program. And then, his next question was, "what are your scores?" I said, "uhh," and he continued with "are you AYP?" I grew up on South Dakota country western, and I like U2 and the blues. So, talk to me about poetry and opera, not AYP.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Useful Tips for Saving Teacher Time

Writing helps me think about things that don't seem to make sense at first.

This morning at our weekly staff development session we learned about some new features that are available to teachers on the district electronic student database. The student database now has an ILP form that was created so that teachers can use it with parents at conferences. Since the IT department doesn't want teachers to have printers in their rooms, printing the completed forms will require teachers to send the completed forms with the information that parents have just shared to a printer down the hall some place. Teachers will need to leave the room and go get the printed form and hope that someone else hasn't sent a big job to the printer or left the printer out of paper or toner. Printers aren't yet considered useful educational tools, at least not useful enough so that a teacher could actually have one in the classroom where instruction happens. Is teacher instruction time less valuable than printer toner?

We learned that "Fractions would be easier for teachers to input into the database than percentages." The fractions are numbers which report student performance on a reading assessment. Fractions like 7/10 and 5/7 are all put in the same list. I'm having a hard time understanding why fractions are better than decimals for this score. I hope there's a reason other than the assertion that fractions are easier than decimals for teachers.

Then, in response to a very good question asked by a teacher, we were told, "I'll check on that and send an email about what I find out to your principal and assistant principal." I suspect that was just a learned response in a system that insists on that kind of response. Why couldn't the response be made to the all of the teachers at our building via the same email and save the principal or assistant principal the trouble of forwarding the response on to teachers? This seems a bit like what Miguel Guhlin recently wrote on his blog about the top down command and control of information? Those old habits of paper passing to reinforce hierarchy are hard to break.

Also today, deadlines were announced for completing the inventory of the collection of books that were recently delivered to each elementary teacher's room. The books cost about $1500 per room. The first two boxes of books contained about 150 books; there's supposed to be another couple of boxes coming soon. The inventory consisted of four pages of book titles and a letter of the alphabet that signifies its F & P level. The ISBN number was also included on the list, but not the author. The list was not organized by any of the fields of the list. It was a list of the books in a totally random order. The list was actually in the order that the books were packed by someone in the warehouse. I discovered that piece of information when I sent an email to the president of the company that was the vendor of the books. The vendor president said that was the way their inventory software generated the list. I suggested to her that they didn't have any business being in business and certainly shouldn't be doing business with the school district where I work and where my kids go to school if that was all the better they could do for an inventory list. I said I thought an electronic list that could be searched and sorted should be sent to each teacher along with the boxes of books that the teacher was required to inventory. The next day, the vendor sent me a pdf file of the list in alpha order. I wrote back that that was better but still not satisfactory. Pdf files are dead-end documents. You can't really do anything with the information in a pdf document except print it out or copy it by hand. To the vendor's credit, I got an Excel spreadsheet of the inventory later that same day, the authors weren't included - "That wasn't in the contract." Was the electronic file in the contract? The person in charge of buying the books for the district stopped in to visit me (I was called to the principal's office during my instruction time) a few days later and said that I was being too harsh on the vendor. I said that I thought asking teachers to inventory a couple of boxes of books with a random list was too harsh.

I'm fortunate to have U of Mn practicum students spend a few hours in my classroom each week. My student teacher suggested that completing the inventory would be a good task for the practicum students; He's showing a real talent for using resources effectively. They did a great job and had the list done in about 20 minutes complete with dividers they made out of card stock separating the different levels. When I showed the random list to the practicum students and asked them if they would have liked doing the inventory using the random list instead of the sorted list the response I got was, " I'd rather wash windows." Now that's harsh. I hadn't thought of that; apparently there's a teacher out there somewhere who's asked practicum students to wash windows - they all compare notes back at the sorority. I'm not sure if my colleagues in the district have received an electronic inventory that can be sorted and searched. I'll ask around.


As it turns out, I've been viewing a problem from my own narrow perspective again. I've done that before. The problem with the inventory of the leveled books library for each elementary classroom, that costs about $1500 dollars per room wasn't just a problem for classroom teachers strapped for time at the beginning of the year (I'm not sure the time of the year makes all that much difference when it comes to time for things that could be done in a more efficient manner.) The inventory was also a problem for someone at 807 (district HQ.) I'm not sure exactly what the problem was; I haven't been told. I only know that the deadline for finishing the inventory has been pushed back indefinitely.

I got to thinking about things beyond the world of MPS classroom teachers and wondered what was going to happen to all of the inventories of books that arrived somewhere. Doing an inventory with a five page random list of books isn't just a problem for the person checking off the books; it's also a problem for the person who then is responsible for doing something with that collection of random lists of books. I think there's about 300 or so elementary classrooms in the MPS. That's a pretty big stack of random lists to sort through. I guess the whole point of doing an inventory is so that somebody can keep track of all the books that have been scattered around the district-about $450,ooo worth of books. Maybe using one of those new fangled computer things that can sort and search lists of things like books might be useful. Can a collection of books that is not organized in any manner other than the order in which they were packed in a warehouse actually be called a library? I'm going to ask one of my cousins who has a masters in library science - at least three of my 64 first cousins are masters of library science , and all of them have the ability to offer opinions, a skill necessary for psychological survival in large Irish Catholic families.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Is There a Whiteboard in this class?

"Is there a Whiteboard in this class?" That was the second un-prompted question asked by a student in my class this year; he's new to our district, having moved in from the burbs. We had just moved into the circle of benches in front of the room for our morning meeting. The question that had come up just before was "what is that flashy thingy?" - the student was pointing to the blinking cursor at the end of the text on the 'Daily Schedule' on the screen.

The second question came (very politely asked with a raised hand first-it was the first day of class) as I was in the process of using that first question as an opportunity to explain about the computer, cable, projector, document camera, and screen combination that I use a lot. (That would be a variation on the standard Responsive Classroom guided exploration model.) The answer to the 2nd question was "not, yet." I then asked for opinions about whiteboards and six students offered why they thought I should get one. Another student new to the MPS had had one in their room last year. Nobody thought I shouldn't and I actually fished for negatives. 'You can have us all write stuff on there and then save it and print it out and even put in on a web page if you want.' I've been holding off on a whiteboard while encouraging my colleagues at Marcy to use them - I've been focusing on making Moodle work for elementary teaching and learning, quite successfully, I'll add, unabashedly.

Then, when I got home my 10th grade daughter excitedly reported "Dad, you're gonna really like my English teacher. He sings Bob Dylan songs and is going to have us use Nicenet" [an early Moodle type of learning collaboration tool.] I started a Nicenet forum for MPS middle school math teachers back in the summer of 1997 (it didn't go anywhere because the heads of the math dept didn't even use email in those days.) Moodle does way more than replace Nicenet, but I'm assuming her teacher is still using Nicenet because there's been such a paucity of support, sometimes actual resistance, for using Moodle in our classrooms.

So, learning how to use a whiteboard effectively in a 3rd and 4th grade multi-age classroom will be on my professional development list this year. Stayed tuned and chime in, please.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Real Life Development

This last week I was able to participate in several different professional development opportunities (I'm still not sure what the difference is between staff development and professional development.)

First thing on Tuesday we, my school's teachers, were shown how to create little tiles using polymer clay. We'll be doing an all school quilt/collage this fall. It was a great hands-on activity to do while we got acquainted again for the year, some of us for the first time at Marcy.

Wednesday morning we followed the directions sent to us on Tuesday evening via email. The email was sent to our principal who then forwarded it to all staff (that hierarchical passing of paper, even when it's electronic, is a hard habit to break.) The directions in the email proscribed the process we should follow to look at the initial assessments of the year for math. Our team did that and then used the remainder of the time adjusting the daily schedule so that it would actually work. We also talked about how we would do six groups of math with only five teachers - we have five classrooms each with half 3rd grade and 4th grade, on average. It looks like all of the 4th graders will be squeezed into two classes for direct math instruction. Those referendum dollars for class size management aren't making it to the 4th grade at our school.

Wednesday afternoon we all went to Olson school where we met in groups of about twenty teachers by grade level. The general topic was again math. We needed at least an hour a month last year that we didn't get and this was a way to catch up, but it still won't be enough to develop real mastery of the new math curriculum as fast as we need the mastery. We read some articles, watched a video and verbalized important points in the articles we had read that were passed out to us during the meetings. We had a 'parking lot' for questions which consisted of a piece of chart paper where we could attach sticky notes with questions to be explored later. I think it would have been much more efficient to do what we did via a Moodle course. Moodle allows learning groups to maximize face to face time by taking care of what can be done via online tools outside of the face to face time. Moodle also creates an electronic record of the interactions.

Thursday we had a great two hour presentation on the new curriculum we'll be using to prevent bullying. I was encouraged that online teacher forums are part of the curriculum. It's too bad that we'll be using 2002 technology consisting of pre-printed picture cards to prompt discussion with the discussion outline on the back of the pictures. It would be nice to have everything online so we could use the data projectors instead of cards; that would make it a lot easier for many kids to see the pictures. There's nothing in the boxes of materials that couldn't be online thus saving paper and making things easier to share.

On Friday, I traded in hour that I spent on Saturday with my student teacher planning lesson plan logistics for an hour at the State Fair where I attended the bacon haiku contest. I was a little disappointed because there was only about 10 minutes or less on haiku. It was impressive, though, to participate in an interactive Twitter discussion. It will definitely obsolete the clickers that we still have only gotten into a few of our schools in the MPS; that is, if we can allow cell phones in schools for kids to use in class. That will be a controversial introduction, no doubt. There was an impressive presentation of facts about just how fast social media is growing. Learning how to use new communications and information tools is not going to get less complex or less necessary anytime soon, I think. We need to teach teachers how to teach their students to become communications and information tool adopters and users. Avoiding the inevitable won't make it easier.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Why


I've been thinking for a few days now about writing about professional staff development. Then just a few minutes ago I came across a link to Dean Groom's blog post, Leave Your Hat ON, about why it's important for teachers to blog. He's outlined very effectively why I as a teacher should blog. I think this is what happens when people are in a network. What Dean wrote almost a year ago is now pertinent to me and I'm able to share that with you because he wrote on his blog. He didn't have to write a scholarly article and get it published, or write a book; he just blogged. I'm not sure now even how I got to that link, although it must have been through Twitter or one of the blogs that I had linked to from Twitter. (Thank you to Brock Dubbels for inviting me to join Twitter last January.)

It was about the time that Dean posted 'Leave Your Hat On' that I was becoming more interested in professional development, or staff development (I'm not sure what the difference is between the two terms but I'll blog about what I find out- I just posted the question on Twitter.) Last fall was the first time I'd been on our school staff development committee. We were told at our first meeting in September that 'we didn't have any money.' We didn't meet as a group for the remainder of the year, but I tried to find out why we didn't have any money. I had been under the impression that the state required school districts to spend something each year on staff development. What I've found out and have yet to find out about why 'we didn't have any money' has been a lengthy and sometimes frustrating process. I hope by writing about what I've learned I can help other teachers better understand professional staff development.

More about the Why

Why write about professional development?

In addition to the reason I linked to yesterday: Dean Groom's statement, "‘blogging’ your story, your extra-extra-curricula work and sharing that is probably the most important record of professional development right now – and the most effective way of getting you/me/us to challenge each other and make change in schools not only sustainable, but enjoyable and exciting," there's the fact the school district has listed improving teacher professional development as one of the five things that the district is doing to improve all schools. It's listed on page 3 of the multi-colored brochure (Warning: this link takes forever to load.) that was sent out with MPS student's MCA scores.

Not only has the district singled out professional development as important, but so too have the president and his education secretary; Obama and Duncan want more professional development. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) requires that at least 25 per cent of the money be spent on professional development. None of the other components in the comprehensive approach of 21st century learning environments will work well without sustained professional development.

And, the state has laws about staff development. The law that was in effect last year in Minnesota is quite explicit about how money for staff development is to be spent by school districts. It's doesn't appear that the MPS actually spent the money as the law says it was supposed to be spent. The law also says that if the money isn't spent in one year then it is supposed to be carried over to the next year. I'm still trying to figure out why the money wasn't spent as it was prescribed, and it isn't clear whether the money that wasn't spent as prescribed will be carried over. And, it still isn't quite clear how the changes that the Mn legislature enacted this past May will effect how money is spent in the MPS. It appears, according to this page on the Education Minnesota web site, that if money is spent on staff development that the money is supposed to be spent according to the prescription outlined in the law.

So, there are a few things that need to be cleared up, but because the district has said that professional development is one of the top five things it is doing to improve schools, and because President Obama has signaled that professional development is important, explaining how staff development money is spent in Minneapolis should be cleared up soon.

In future blogs I will look more closely at how the recent referendum in Minneapolis impacts staff development, and I hope to specifically look at how 21st Century literacy tools are are being included in staff development efforts.


More on writing about Professional Development

In just these last few days since I started this blog, I've begun to think about staff development and professional development differently. Creating this blog has helped me focus on what staff development really is and what professional development really is. Keeping a log, a web log, a blog, of what I notice about staff development and professional development focuses my thinking and creates a record of my thinking.

This evening, I browsed through the various links on the MPS web site under the department heading for Staff Development. I noticed for one thing that money is not mentioned any where on the web site, at least, with regard to how it is budgeted and spent for staff development. There's mostly just links to IFL stuff. It appears that all MPS staff development falls somewhere under the umbrella of IFL. I'll write about whether or not it's really a good thing to be putting all our eggs into one basket at some later date; for now, that's the way it is.

Last Thursday, I participated in an event that I consider professional development that is not directly under the IFL umbrella, although it still might be possible to fit it under the IFL umbrella. My wife and I were guests of Project Success and the Guthrie Theater for a supper at the Mill City Museum and the play, When We Were Married. It was great. I got to chat with colleagues from Marcy and Dowling and a few other schools at a nice standing buffet in one of the conference rooms of the museum that I'd never been in before. The mayor was there, looking very gubenatorial (He can sling a long paragraph from memory as well as any of them.) He reminded us that our work as teachers is important and that the kids in the MPS schools have a chance at creating a culture that includes all 80 languages that they speak in a world that is increasingly global. Most of us already knew that, but it's nice to have the mayor noticing.

I'd never heard of J.B Priestly before - 20th Cent British Lit was one that I avoided- but I really enjoyed the play. Both my wife and I agreed that the characters were made to look too old, though. That's probably because the cast included a fairly substantial list of Guthrie old timers. They're good. I like being able to see what can be done with language. It got me thinking about how I can use language to help kids make movies of puppet performances in conjunction with the polymer clay residency that we'll have at Marcy this year. We might not get quite to the level of Wallace and Gromit, but we can try, or am I being a bit too "la-di-dah (p.11)"?

Anyway, it was a professional development that got me into meaningful conversation with my peers, expanded my knowledge base, inspired me to think about the curriculum for my students, and got me out with my wife to a great Mpls treasure. We'll see if the district staff development that's planned for later this week matches up.

Marcy is just six blocks from the end of the Stone Arch Bridge - to the right, the east side of the river.

This was the first time I'd been to this stage and seen the view from this side of the building. It would, of course, be better if the picture had been taken with a little more light.