Friday, December 26, 2008

Accomplishing my goals

I was up at 5 am on Christmas morning. I don't celebrate Christmas, so it wasn't because I was excited for the holiday; I just couldn't sleep any longer. So I figured, as long as I was up, that I would get to work on those dratted goals. (I would like anyone who says that teachers are whiners who get so much vacation to keep this in mind: At 5 am on Christmas morning, I was working on school.)

...and it wasn't so bad. My first class had taken me two hours, and I ended up with wildly disparate goals for all my students and began to freak out. I figured that at that rate, it would take me ten hours to do all my classes and I would end up with 150 goals, and that was just for the month of January. But once I got rolling, it took about three and a half hours to do all my classes (plus that first class, which I re-did), and although there are a lot of different goals, at least some of them do overlap.

Some of the commenters on my last post had advised me to give all of my students the same goal. This is impossible, as administration had specifically told us not to do this. But there is overlap among my students -- those who don't speak English, for instance, have the similar goals of learning English vocabulary. I even went out on a limb for a few of my troublesome friends and gave them the goal of "voluntarily reading just-right books" -- if a kid sits with his hands over his ears every time you try to get him to read, shouldn't voluntarily reading be priority #1? In that sense I think this new "goals" push will be a good thing; it's almost like it's giving me permission to work with my students on what they actually need, not what the second grade standards checklist says they should need.

One commenter suggested that I align next month's goals with what I'm teaching for the month. Ahhh, this is a problem I didn't even mention last time. See, these standards that we're working with to set our goals -- they're first-grade standards. We're teaching second grade material in our mini lessons, and then using our strategy lessons to catch our students up on first grade standards. So what we teach in our mini lessons doesn't align with the goals we're setting for our students, which is a whole other sticking point on this new "goals" issue. We're basically saying to our kids in the mini lesson, "We're teaching you this, now go off and practice, but by the way you've got these three goals to work on that have nothing to do with what you just taught, and we'll probably never meet to review what we just taught anyway." So we're all wondering why our unit checklists don't align with the new standards, but rather with the Teachers College units of study.

And the other issue is that I've been saying for months that the TC units don't align with the lower-level books my students are reading -- you can't really practice "noticing when your characters go on an internal journey" when you're reading D or E or F books and there's one character who's obviously not going on any kind of journey -- and I'm always shot down with, "We're not going to dumb anything down for our kids." In my mind, it's not "dumbing down," it's simply making sure that the strategies and skills I'm teaching them are things they can use at their own level. When I taught them skills for tackling tricky words, that helped them. When I taught them how to retell stories using sequence words, that helped them. When I taught them how to infer by paying attention to the characters' actions and decisions? That did not so much help them. Not because I don't think they're capable of practicing that skill, but because it doesn't apply to the books that they're reading. So I finally got permission to use the first grade checklist with my ELLs, but only with my ELLs, which didn't make that much sense to me because I have some ELL students who are higher level readers than some of my non-ELL students; to me the major issue is with the level of their books, not with their ELL status. But "We're not dumbing anything down for general ed kids!"

Except that meanwhile, our entire revamping of the literacy block is based off the first grade standards. New York City public school teachers, am I right that you cannot make this stuff up?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Right now my only goal is remaining sane


It's the last day of school before winter vacation, and I don't even know how to begin to describe the utter madness that went down at school today.

We just found out that, starting the second week we return from vacation, we are going to need to keep track of individual "goals" for each student in every subject. Initially, because I can be a reasonable person, I thought this sounded like a good idea. I mean, I think it's good for my students to have goals. I think it's good for my students to know what those goals are. I think it's good to attempt to plan strategy lessons that address those goals. I even think it's good to keep track of those goals on paper so that students know what they're working toward. Goals + instruction = progress, so what's not to like?

But, like everything else in my freaking school, the goal project is going to be monstrous. First we need to choose one long-term goal for each student ("By June, Amy will move from level C to level I in reading"). Then, for each month, we need to choose three specific goals, based on this list of standards we were given. From now on, instead of pulling our strategy groups together based on our checklist of Teachers College teaching points from the month, we'll be doing strategy lessons from this set of goals.

Here are the problems with this.

* As we draw up our goals, we're going to be asked for proof in the data we've already collected that this student is lacking in a certain area. But for the first four months of the year, we weren't working on meeting those standards, we were working on meeting entirely different standards. So there isn't necessarily something in my notes that says that a student was deficient in a certain standard because I wasn't trying to get them to meet that standard, I was trying to get them to meet a different standard!

* I have 50 students. I need to write three goals for each of them. That's 150 goals, just for the month of January. There is absolutely no conceivable way I can address each of those goals in January; even if we weren't doing running records and the TC assessment and the ELA exam, there wouldn't be enough time. So those goals will probably get pushed over to February, which just means a lot of extra paperwork writing the same thing over and over again.

* Each student is supposed to have three goals in every subject and be able to articulate those goals. That's five major subjects (reading, writing, math, science and social studies), which is fifteen goals for each student. To me, that sounds like a lot of goals. I mean, hello, I have students who don't even know their own last name, let alone the goal they're working towards in reading. I don't understand why we have to start with three goals. Can't we pilot it with one and see how it goes?

* We also need to come up with a way to assess each goal at the end of each month. Most of our goals can be assessed most easily using running records and our TC assessments, so does that mean we need to do that for every student every month? How on earth are we going to have enough time to (1) meet with our students one-on-one to address their goals and (2) assess three goals per student per month?

Why are we doing all this? Not because we think it will benefit our students, but because the Quality Review says so. Seriously, my principal never once told us that she thought this would be a good idea -- it was all, "This is what the Quality Review wants, we need to make sure we have this in place for Quality Review." It's like the system-wide equivalent of teaching to the test -- like we're seriously going to drill our students on remembering their goals so they can articulate them if a Quality Reviewer happens to interrogate them.

I have such mixed feelings about this because I really do think that it can be a good idea, but I resent the way it was presented to us and the way we're putting it in place. First of all, I now have to spend my winter break writing 150 goals for my students. Today it took me two hours to finish one class. And I was surprised, and worried, to discover that there really isn't much overlap among the goals. My students really do need to work on different things. And I have always tried to give them that message, informally, when I meet with them in conferences: "What you really need to work on is being able to tell me what happened in your story, in order," I might say. But what we're expected to do now is take that goal and (1) write it in kid-friendly language so our students have a written record of what they should be working on, (2) phrase it in terms of our standards on that student's individual goal sheet, (3) plan individual conferences to address each student's specific goals and (4) assess each student's specific goals -- and all of this happens every month!

Just to put the paperwork in perspective: I already have a checklist that goes with my mini lesson, so that every day when I teach the mini lesson I check off whether or not the student mastered the teaching point. Then I meet with a group for guided reading, during which I fill out another guided reading checklist and also take notes on what I observe. Then I meet with another group for a strategy lesson based on a previous month's checklist, during which I fill out a label for each student writing what I observe and whether or not they mastered the teaching point, after which I go back to the checklist for that month and check off whether they've mastered the teaching point since the first time I taught it. And then, every two months or so, I do a running record on every student, plus write a label to go along with the running record, in addition to the TC assessment, plus a written label to go along with that.

Oh my Lord, I think I might be breaking out in hives. There was definitely a little bit of pandemonium in the air at school -- we all asked a million questions of our administrators, and they had no answers for us other than, "That's a good question, write that down." The thing is, we're putting this in place for Quality Review next year, so what is the rush to get it all started the second week after winter break? They didn't give us any uniform system or concrete answers on how to go about doing this (which, by the way, is totally and completely different from the system we've been using up until now), and yet they're expecting to see us doing this the week after we get back. At which point I guarantee you that we'll be told that we're all doing it wrong and changes need to be made, because the administration in my school would rather jump blindfolded into the deep end rather than dip their toes in the shallow end of the pool first. It's really too bad that our principal sucks, our UFT rep really sucks and our literacy coach really, really sucks.

I was so overwhelmed I didn't even walk out of school excited about winter break; I walked out freaking out about everything I have to do over vacation that will probably need to be totally revamped once we get back.

Other highlights from the last day of school before winter break:

* I sneakily conducted a battery of running records in order to push some of my students to the next level before the vacation in the hopes that when they come back in January, they'll be ready to move up again!

* Santa Claus came to visit my students and gave them candy canes. Then we all had to pose for a picture in which we said, "Merry Christmas!" No one mentioned the fact that actually, it was Hanukkah.

* Administration conducted surprise observations. For full periods. On the last day of school before vacation. That settles it: They are officially evil.

* In the middle of a running record, another student came up to me and announced that his reading partner had written him a post-it. He presented the offending post-it; there was a picture of a tiny box below the words, "This is the siz [size] of your d--k" (except as you can imagine, on the actual post-it that last word was spelled out). The accused student insisted that his accuser was the culprit. Then the accuser's story changed and all of a sudden the post-it had mysteriously been found in the center of the desk and nobody knew who had written it. So while Santa Claus was handing out candy canes, I sidled up to the classroom teacher and hissed, "Would you recognize handwriting?" So we pulled out their writing folders and rifled through them, literally saying things like, "Look at that K! The Ks match!"

* Someone in my office requested a whole bunch of copies of reading texts for her next unit. She got her copy folder back with a note posted on it that informed her that teachers would need to supply their own paper. Jigga-whaaaat?! I guess this shouldn't be surprising, as there isn't enough money in the budget for chart paper, either.

You know, I thought I could squeeze one more year out of this teaching career, but now? I'm not so sure.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Meet Miss Brave's students

I think that last year, when I was still young and idealistic (ha!) I wrote more about my students than I do this year, when I mostly complain about my draconian administration. I was so tickled yesterday to share the good news about Azul that I thought I would take the opportunity to introduce two of my students who really keep me up at night -- I could use some good advice on how to deal with them!

Neel has been in my school since pre-kindergarten. Last year was his second year in first grade, and he left it reading at a level B despite being held over and receiving Academic Intervention Services last year. It's taken this long to get Neel evaluated for special services, which he desperately needs because, hello, he should be in third grade and he doesn't even have a complete grasp of one-to-one correspondence yet. Finally everything went through and Neel was recommended for special ed placement, but the only one that's been available so far was rejected by Neel's parents. Meanwhile, Neel sees kids who have been in the country literally only a few months flying past him in reading skills.

Every time I meet with Neel, I get more and more worried about his lack of progress -- Neel is actually going backwards. He is obviously lost in mini lessons and even in small groups, so the only way to work with him is one-on-one, which is so difficult because of the time crunch -- I'm constantly getting pulled out of his class and asked to cover for other teachers. In the meantime, Neel retains nothing -- like, if we read a word together and then sound it out five times and put our fingers on it and say it and chant it and repeat it and get our mouths ready for the sounds and then I distract him for a split second and ask him to re-read the first word...he can't do it. He has literally almost no sight word vocabulary (maybe ten words?) whatsoever. I'm not even entirely sure he has a firm grasp on letter-sound correspondence! So clearly that's what Neel needs to work on, but the thing is, Neel worked on that in kindergarten and he worked on it in first grade and he worked on it when he repeated first grade. What Neel really needs is a small, intensive setting...something I can't give him.

William was in second grade last year, and he thought everything was a big, hilarious joke. Needless to say, now that William is in second grade again this year, things aren't nearly so funny. William is reading at a level G (sample level G text: "One day Flora went to the zoo. She looked at the giraffe and the giraffe looked back. She looked at the panther with its coat of silky black"), and all this year he's struggled with motivation. But just recently after guided reading, I was able to move the other G reader to level H (whereas I don't think William is quite ready yet), and he's completely shut down; he even refuses to come to the meeting area for the mini lesson. I tried a sticker chart; that worked for about a week. But William is so immature that it's like a complete battle even to get him to have a productive conversation with me -- he won't look me in the eye, he's breaking pens while I try to reason with him, etc. Most of the time I want to wring his neck, because his attitude is the major issue that's holding him back and preventing me from meeting with my other students, but I also understand where William is coming from -- if I had been left back, and I was a struggling reader, I wouldn't like to read very much either.

Lately William has taken to this attitude that he "knows all this stuff already" and that I have nothing to teach him. I got so fed up with this that I gave him an M level chapter book and asked him to read a little so we could talk about it. (Ironically, I realized later, it was about a student who had been left back. But William didn't notice this.) I ended up just feeling bad about it because it wasn't my intention to shove in his face a reminder of exactly how far behind he is, but I don't think William even realized that he really couldn't understand the book. His attitude is that he's always the victim, nothing is his fault, etc. Case in point: Today he finally came to the mini lesson about three-quarters of the way through it, did not sit in the spot where he belonged, and was obviously fooling around out of my eyesight because two other students were laughing at his antics. Then after the mini lesson, he gave me the same line about how he knows everything already. So I asked him to tell me what I had been teaching in the mini lesson, and he said, "I couldn't understand it because Edgar and Ariel were laughing at me!"

It's like William wants to be a better reader, but he's not willing or not able to put in the actual word or concentration to do it; he thinks it'll just happen like magic, overnight. He also hates to read his "just right books," because I'm sure he realizes that they're "babyish" compared to the books he should be reading. So today I tried a new tack: I gave him five minutes at the start of independent reading to choose any book he wanted from the library to read. When his five minutes were up, he had to read from his book baggie. It seemed to work...for now. We'll see how long that lasts.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Music to my ears

Remember Azul, my Arabic B reader who was desperate to move up to level C? Azul was 100% convinced that he was ready. So I sat him down to do a running record. I think we were both feeling the same way: excited, but nervous! (Azul: "I so scared! I really want be C!")

Well, Azul didn't move to C.

He moved to D.

D!!!!! I have students who have been at my school for three years and haven't moved to D. Needless to say, Azul was pleased. OK, scratch that -- Azul was thrilled. He pumped his fists. He clapped his hands. He did a little happy dance all the way over to the D book bin.

Later on, I saw Azul in the hallway. "Thank you for D!" he called out to me.

I stopped. I turned to look at his beaming face. I pointed at him. "You should be thanking yourself," I said, "for working hard."

Azul nodded solemnly. Then he drew a letter E in the air with his finger. "Next we go to E!" he chirped.

I was thinking about giving my students pencils or trinkets as gifts this holiday season. But what I really wish I could give them is motivation like Azul's.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Parents are the first teachers

In all the excitement over our neverending assessments, I realized I never wrote about parent-teacher conferences back in November. Out of my 50 students, I saw 32 (sets of) parents (plus additional guardians, siblings and translators). I think I saw the most parents out of all our AIS providers, and I was pretty pleased with the turnout. My fiance had encouraged me to make up some kind of handout to give them, so I quickly put together some tips on "How to Help Your Child Succeed in Reading" -- read with them at home, ask them questions about what they're reading, etc.

A few things really stood out while I was talking with parents. First of all, even though I am constantly stressed out by my administration, by my students' agonizing lack of progress in reading, and by the little day-to-day behavior issues that can make Readers' Workshop a frustrating experience (i.e., when I'm working with a small group of readers and from the corner of my eye can tell that no one else in my group is actually reading independently as they are supposed to be doing), for the most part I have really great kids. For the vast majority of parents with whom I spoke, I was able to say things like, "He is a pleasure to have in my reading group, she always takes the strategies I teach and tries to apply them, sometimes he has a little trouble focusing but I can tell that he really cares about his progress," etc. Just recently I was discussing with one of my colleagues the enormous difference between last year's second graders and this year's; sure, this year's has their moments where they're immature and disruptive, but I will take immature and disruptive any day over defiant and disruptive, which is what I dealt with last year.

The second thing was how much these parents really want their children to succeed, but don't have the tools to help them do so. Sure, I do have a few parents who have the attitude that their child's education is entirely in my hands and it's not their problem (probably these are the parents who didn't bother coming to see me in the first place). But most of the parents seemed genuinely concerned about their children...but at the same time they were at a loss about what to do. First of all, a lot of the parents who came to see me didn't speak English all that well, and although they listened and asked questions, I got the sense that they didn't entirely understand. With some of my kids who are really far below grade level, I was trying gently to infuse a sense of urgency into our conference -- I showed the parents a Junie B. Jones chapter book and said, "This is an M book, where we would like your child to be reading at the end of second grade," and compared it with, say, Harry Goes to Day Camp, which is a level F. (And level F is pretty good for my readers -- I would say the majority of my students are in the F/G/H range, but I do have some students stuck at C and D who have been there for ages that I am very concerned about.) And one of the mothers nodded at me and said, in broken English, "Okay, teacher. We do what you say."

It was a little heartbreaking, because I know she wants her son to do well, but it's obvious that she can't help him with his homework or read with him in English. Which is why (tangent alert!) I was so ticked off to read an obnoxious letter in Time magazine today that said the only reason teachers are against merit pay is that they are "painfully aware of their collective ineptitude." Just for kicks, let's compare a student at my school (we'll call him Student A) with a student at a middle- or upper-class school (we'll call him Student B). When Student A goes home, his parents can't help him with his homework, because they don't read English. They don't have the money to get him a tutor. They don't have a lot of books in their home, other than the ones that Student A brings home from school. And they both work, so they don't sit around quizzing him about what he's reading. Now, when Student B goes home, his parents are around to make sure that he's doing his homework. Maybe if he falls behind, they get him a tutor. And they speak to him in the language that educators use, so that he's used to hearing all these comprehension questions.

I don't want to get caught up in a trap that says my students can't succeed because of their backgrounds. But I do believe that they are already at a disadvantage -- not because they have "bad" parents, but because there is a cultural gap between their backgrounds and the backgrounds of those of us who are in positions of power in the educational system. And I do believe that it's deep-seated and informs so much of how we measure our students' success and knowledge. For example, just recently I was reading a D level book with my students that was taking place around the house -- a garage, a garden, etc. I had to spend a long time just talking with them about what a garden is and what a garage is because none of our students live in actual houses and none of them has a garage or a garden. Yet it would be so easy on a comprehension test to ask a question like, "Which of the following belongs in a garage?" and score them wrong if they didn't choose the car. And that's why merit pay for teachers makes me a little suspicious -- not because I don't want to work hard to improve my students' scores, but because there's only so much I can do before I send them home and whoops! -- nobody at home can get on top of them and make sure they're doing what they're supposed to. I spoke with one father of a girl whose major problem is comprehension -- she'll read a story and then sort of invent her own retelling of it. I suggested that they ask her questions at home to monitor her comprehension. He told me that the problem with this is that he works at night, so he isn't at home, and his wife does not speak English, so if she asks her questions, "whatever Noelle says is right!" So many of my kids already speak better English than their parents do, and it was their siblings who did the translating. I think the parents have a sense of this and it translates into some kind of a power difference between us. I definitely met parents who were a little embarrassed that they didn't speak English that well, and therefore they didn't advocate for their students the way a native English speaker would. And the kids know it, too -- my obnoxious second graders from last year would use that when I told them I would have to send a note home or call home: "No one at home speaks English," they would say tauntingly.

So, even though I meant this to be a post about parent-teacher conferences, it ended up being a post about the broader problems with our educational system, of which there are many, and which I am sorry to say cannot be fixed by offering me more money to educate my students. I mean, let's say I worked in the financial sector and I could earn more money by staying really late at the office to work long hours. Would I put in the extra time? Sure. But I can (and do) spend long hours working before and after school, only the kids aren't there. Does that benefit them? That's why I'm coming around to the concept of longer school days and/or year-round schooling. I don't know if I would want to be the teacher who works over the summer, but there is no doubt that my students' reading levels dropped dramatically over the summer and it took months just to get them back to where they were in May. I just read Malcolm Gladwell's new book, The Outliers, and after I finished I buried my head miserably in my hands and moaned, "He's right, they need to be in school more." They need tobe in school because they aren't getting it at home, and no amount of merit pay can make up the difference.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The saga continues!

I wish I were talking about some great movie sequel, but I am referring, of course, to our assessments. As you know, loyal readers, I spent the majority of November working like a dog to administer and grade these assessments, despite the fact that we had neither entered nor analyzed nor utilized the data from the last round of assessments. And, against all odds, I prevailed!

Or, so I thought. This morning we had a meeting at which we were told we would have to re-enter each student's individual results onto a class summary sheet. Had we, in fact, already done this? Yes! But when we asked what happened to the last summary sheet, we were dismissed with a curt, "I don't know."

Um. So okay, let's review. As part of my job, I did the following:

1. Administered the assessment to each individual student.
2. Graded the assessment of each individual student.
3. Entered the assessment of each individual student onto a class composite summary sheet.
4. Handed off the data to people who are supposed to be in charge of entering it into the computer.

And those people, as part of their jobs, did the following:

1. Lost my data.

Now, I would say that I learned An Important Lesson from this, the lesson being Always Make a Copy of Important Things Before You Hand Them In, but my school has an even more important lesson for me, this lesson being The Copy Machine Is Always Broken.

Immediately after this meeting, as if the universe knew I was already having such a fabulous day, the wheel fell off my easel. Now, you may remember that I already experienced this problem earlier in the year, and you are right -- but that was a different easel. At this point, all the easels are broken. They are lined up in the hallway, all sad and crooked and tipped to one side. I do not know what I am going to do without my easel. I don't even want to turn to for a new one, because the truth is that I hate that stupid easel. It just barely fits through doorways, so when it goes awry, as it frequently does, I usually end up smashing my hand against the doorway. Today, when the wheel fell off, the whole easel tipped to the side and came down on my foot. Did it hurt? Yes. Did I manage to keep from exclaiming an unsavory word in front of my students? Yes! Thank goodness for small victories.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Seven random facts

I'm pretty sure I've been tagged to do this already, but that was last year, and so here I go again.

1. My favorite flowers are hydrangeas. My father recently pointed out that in It's a Wonderful Life, which is one of my favorite movies, Mary hides in the hydrangea bushes when her robe accidentally slips off.

2. The very first time I met my future husband, we went running together (outside, in January). My friends thought this was an exceedingly strange first date. To which I now say: Ha ha!

3. I prefer reading non-fiction to fiction. I just finished Malcolm Gladwell's new book, The Outliers, and now I'm reading One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding.

4. I am a member of New York Road Runners, which pre-assigns runners to "start corrals" in races based on their previous best running time. I'm really proud of myself because I just ran a 4-mile race in 33 minutes flat (8:15 per mile), thereby moving up my corral! Now I know how my students feel when they change reading levels.

5. I dislike both white chocolate and dark chocolate. Only milk chocolate will do!

6. I dream about school with alarming frequency.

7. I am an only child, and so is my future husband. Our poor children won't have any aunts or uncles or cousins :(

Thursday, December 4, 2008

C is not for cookie

Yesterday my AP came to see me. I was wary, because I thought she was coming to switch around my reading groups, but it wasn't that. Instead, it was worse: She came to ask me why some of my kids' reading levels didn't go up.

She was especially interested in my students who are still reading at level B, who are primarily non-English speakers. She kept asking if I was sure they weren't ready for C, as if I wasn't keeping track of their abilities and they had magically developed a robust sight word vocabulary and decoding skills overnight. She also made it seem like since they do have one-to-one correspondence, they should be ready for C books. But in my opinion, the leap from B to C requires the biggest jump in reading ability. At level B, all they have to be able to do is match the number of words. For example, if the book reads, "We play music," and the child says, "I love reading," the child is correct! Simply because they know that there are three distinct words on the page. (Believe it or not, this is a huge and difficult skill for kids to master.) But in order to read level C books independently, we expect them to read the words accurately. My English language learners have one-to-one correspondence and they can even memorize the patterns in their books, but they still cannot decode, they don't possess any sight word vocabulary, and they can't answer comprehension questions because they don't understand English.

Then she started in on my students who have been stuck at the same reading level since last year. Before I tell you what she said, let me first make it clear that this has been a crusade of mine since our last round of running records. I made a list of all of my students whose levels didn't change and I posted it up next to my desk. I went through each individual running record, took notes on the exact skills that seem to be holding them back from reaching the next level, and started doing strategy lessons based on those skills. At the time it seemed really daring -- checklists be damned!

So then yesterday my AP was like, "I think you need to look into what's holding them back from reaching the next level. You might need to teach them explicitly those skills. Maybe look at their running records and plan some strategy lessons."

I don't know if I should have been...but I felt a little insulted. First of all, I have yet to be observed this year by my AP, and it's not like we have regular meetings where we plan and discuss these things. So to have her tell me I should be doing something that in actuality I have been working my butt off on, which she would know if we communicated more, was disheartening. In addition to the fact that I felt a little like I was being interrogated in the first place as to why my kids aren't moving up in a way that made it seem like I didn't know them and their abilities well enough to be able to explain myself. As if I would sit there and say, "Hey, what the heck! Sure, let's bump her to C!"

Meanwhile, my colleagues tell me that Teachers College is adamantly against rushing kids through the reading levels, but that my administration has been doing this kind of "Why aren't your kids moving?" interrogation for years.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Losing it

Yesterday, for only the second time this school year, I cried in school. Wait, it gets better! I cried over a big ol' pile of data. Wait, it gets better! I cried over a big ol' pile of data in front of a science teacher!

OK, let's back this train up. For reasons unknown to everyone outside administration, our school assigned a science teacher and a technology teacher to input all our...literacy data. As you might recall, we administered the first round of assessments (which consisted of a spelling test, which we gave to the whole class at one time, and a list of sight words, which we gave individually) at the beginning of October. Then we sat on the data for a month (in my case, I literally sat on the data, because I had nowhere to keep it but in a pile under my desk, where I hoped the roaches wouldn't get it), when we were told it needed to be graded and turned in by the end of the week. Which I dutifully did, even though it meant grading 100 spelling tests round-the-clock for days.

I handed in all my data, and it was given back to me with a post-it stuck to it that read, "Keep these results." Then one day, in the middle of first period, we heard an announcement on the loudspeaker: "Please send all your assessment results down to the main office immediately." So I scurried back to my office to get all the data, quietly steaming about it because my big pile of papers still had that "Keep these results" post-it stuck on it!

So now someone else had my data. And apparently they sat on it for a while, because last week we found out that we would need to administer the second round of assessments...even though we had never (a) entered the data from the first round, (b) looked at the data from the first round, (c) analyzed the data from the first round or (d) used the data from the first round to plan our instruction in preparation for the second round.

The problem with this (well, besides the four major problems outlined above) is that I needed my data from the first round to give the second round! So I asked for it back, and shocker of shockers, I actually received it! Except then the science teacher and the technology teacher kept coming after me and asking for it again, which was puzzling to me because (a) what was being done with it all the time I didn't have it? and (b) what kind of genius minds would expect three different teachers to be able to do different things with the same data booklets at the same time? (Hmm, let's not even attempt to answer that question.) One enchanted afternoon during my prep, the technology teacher and I actually almost came to a physical tussle over the stupid sight word booklets:

(Scene: My office. Seventh period. Players: Miss Brave and Mrs. Impatient, the technology teacher.)

Mrs. Impatient: "Hi. I need your word lists."
Miss Brave: "I know, it's just that I'm using them this week, because we're using the same booklet for this round, so I can't test them if I don't have the booklets."
Mrs. Impatient: "Okay, are you using them now?"
Miss Brave: "Yeah, we're doing it this week."
Mrs. Impatient, giving me a 'duh' look and indicating the room around us: "No, I mean...are you using them right now?"

I let her have them, but I practically made her swear an oath in blood that she would return them to me by the next morning, and as I did so I thought: Dear God, what have I become?!

Anyway, I'm getting to the part with the crying! So all week long, Mrs. Impatient and the science teacher (let's call her Mrs. Condescending) have been coming after me (usually at wildly inopportune times like while I'm pushing my easel of doom down the hallway or while I'm -- no lie -- in the middle of teaching a class) to ask me for, say, Edmund's spelling assessment or Dara's word list. I have more than 50 students, so of course I have no idea off the top of my head, so I have to go searching through my giant pile of data, which is wildly disorganized (as you may guess, as a teacher, I hate feeling wildly disorganized), and sometimes I can't find what they're looking for. To be honest, we gave those assessments almost two months ago, and it's been through so many hands since then, that I'm not sure whether it was never administered in the first place, whether I had it and then lost it, whether they had it and lost it, whether the classroom teacher has it get the picture. And to be further honest, it has yet to be explained to me how this data is going to be used to help us drive our instruction, because our school is like a crazy funhouse where we're constantly being asked to do things without anyone bothering to explain to us why they're necessary, as if administration has some secret master plan that can only be revealed to us a little at a time, so I don't think anyone is exactly feeling doubly motivated to get it done.

Anyway, yesterday Mrs. Condescending launched into one of her helpful suggestions about how this time around I should make sure that all my students are given each section of the assessment and how I should consider making copies of the assessments before I hand them in and...I lost it. I just broke down and teared up in front of my giant pile of paper: "I understand that, but it's just that I have so many students, I cannot make copies of all of this paper, and then it amounts to doing the same work four times, because first I have to grade it on these individual sheets, and then I have to add all the same information to the classroom composite sheet, and now you're telling me to keep another separate grading sheet, and then you and Mrs. Impatient enter all the data, and we're all doing the same work, and some of my students were absent during the spelling test, but it takes a whole period to do the re-test, plus I have to test all my kids again on the word assessment because none of them mastered it the first time, but it's impossible to do that and the spelling assessment when the information is due on Monday and I haven't filled out the composite sheets yet!"

And then, to my surprise, Mrs. Condescending vented right back at me: "Look, I'm a science teacher, I don't even know why I'm doing this, Mrs. Impatient and I are going crazy upstairs trying to enter all the data and track down every piece of missing information, and all the work I have to do has to be done outside of school, and you're not the only one missing information, so don't feel bad, every class has missing information, and I'm just the messenger, I'm just saying that when the data gets entered and the administrators see that there are students missing information..."

You get the picture. Basically, it boils down to everyone at school losing their minds. Where is our literacy coach while this is going on? No one knows! Where are our administrators? They're walking around the school launching surprise observations on a Friday the day after everyone was at school until after 8 pm for parent-teacher conferences! (Which, side note, comes on the heels of the world's most depressing faculty meeting this week; there were three items on the agenda, and it boiled down to (1) The school neighborhood is getting more dangerous, so don't park too far away after dark, (2) We have no more money in the budget for anything, so don't expect any paper and don't get sick because we can't afford subs and (3) Remember how we thought our school would be well-developed on the Quality Review? Well, they changed the Quality Review standards and surprise! We're actually underdeveloped.) I was so fed up that at lunch I went out and spent $22 of my own money to buy color-coded file folders for each class and then stayed late at school creating meticulous checklists to ensure that my data is well-organized and my behind is well-covered in case of mix-ups.

I have already sworn up and down that I am not taking that data out of its folder for anyone. If Joel Klein himself wants to see Alejandro's latest sight word assessment, he can come to my office and comb through the whole beautifully arranged folder. He would probably have to go through Mrs. Impatient and Mrs. Condescending first, though.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The desire to learn growing among my beginner ELLs. First there was Azul, my Arabic B reader who is desperate to be a C. (In his quest to become a C reader, Azul has taken to drawing a large letter C in the air with his finger and then giving me an exaggerated thumbs up.) Now there is Lukas, my extremely adorable Polish-speaking B reader who is obviously exiting the "silent period" that is typical of beginner ELLs. But Lukas doesn't want to become a C reader. No, Lukas wants to go directly to D!

I was sitting with him today as he did the high-frequency word assessment, and when he finished, I tried to send him on his way so he could move on to the next kid when he surprised me by saying, "Can I read a book?"

This is the most Lukas has ever said to me at one time. "Yes, you can read a book. Where's your book baggie?" I said, pointing toward his reading spot. But Lukas had other ideas. "No, with you?" he said.

Have I mentioned that Lukas is extremely adorable? So yeah, there was no way I could refuse his request. We read Polar Bears together (which, for a B book, has ridiculous vocabulary: "Napping, sliding, waking," I could go on), with me pantomiming the vocabulary to help him figure it out. Then he looked up at me, smiled his extremely adorable smile, and said: "Can I be a D?"

I love that this kid speaks about a dozen words of English, but already he knows that the goal is to move his reading level up. Meanwhile, I would spend all day every day working with Lukas if I could -- he is a pleasant, polite, funny little kid -- but instead I spend all day every day doing assessments.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Confirmed: testing = teaching

As I valiantly finished up my running records this past week (I say "valiantly" because I managed to do it in the face of being off for Veterans' Day and being pulled out of six of my classes this week to proctor a fifth grade exam), I was starting to feel really pumped about the future of my reading groups. I'm losing some kids who have progressed enough that they no longer require intervention services, and I'm gaining others who have stagnated and who will hopefully benefit from being in my group. I had already decided to rearrange my reading partnerships so the kids could work with fresh new partners (I have maybe one partnership that works beautifully, but the rest are sick of each other and need a change -- plus I'm not entirely sure that it's the best idea to pair kids who are on the same reading level, because if both of them happen to be on the planet Jupiter then they're not helping each other move, so I tried to pair kids I thought would work well together even if they might be one level apart). I had even written up goals for myself to organize my small group planning -- my greatest ambition is to plan more strategy lessons based on the kids' running records rather than on our monthly teaching points checklist, since that's really what showcases their deficiencies and what they need to work on.

So I stayed at school until after dark two days this week, planning and organizing my strategy lessons and guided reading groups until I was sure everything would run like clockwork. I pored over those running records and really got down to the nitty-gritty of the weaknesses we needed to tackle -- I even felt like a bit of a rogue, planning strategy lessons that included Fundations work, but I was all, "The only thing holding these kids back is that they're miscuing all the words that include vowel teams and blends, so let's do it!" I felt really energized by the latest round of running records and ready to get down to business tackling my students' weak areas one by one to help them move to the next reading level. Third grade, here they come!

Or so I thought. Because you know what happens when you get really energized by planning, don't you? Your administration comes along and !@#$s with you, that's what happens. And so, for the first time in recorded history, I enthusiastically swore out loud at school (in the privacy of my office, when no children were present, of course). Because on Friday, just as I was wrapping up another full hour of planning and organizing my small groups for next week, a colleague dropped THE BOMB.

"You heard we're starting assessments again on Monday, right?"

My brain went like this: ASSESSMENTS -- MONDAY -- NO ONE TOLD -- I NEVER HEARD -- I JUST PLANNED -- WTF?!?!

Yeah, so, the memo was addressed to "classroom and AIS teachers," but did the AIS teachers actually get this memo? No. (OK, it's not like the classroom teachers knew about it and never told us -- they didn't get the memo until Friday morning either.) Meanwhile, the memo is all, "Kindly do this Monday and turn in your results by 11/24," despite the fact that no one bothered to let us know in advance. Meanwhile part two, there are certain parts of the assessment we don't have to administer if our students already demonstrated "mastery," only I don't know who did and who didn't because they took all my data to input it and never gave it back to me. And the data comes in booklets that are supposed to be re-used with each student so I can't assess anyone because I don't have those booklets. And everyone at my school passes the buck, because it's all about who you take your orders from and who issued the rule, so when I timidly went to check with my administrator, she said she would refer my question to the literacy coach, who never got back to me because she never gets back to anyone and then blames it on TC. Meanwhile part three, the memo (because the memo is gospel, and we all stood around trying to analyze it like it was the Dead Sea Scrolls) said that the assessment was to be administered "during independent reading time," which makes it sound like we're supposed to conduct a mini lesson, which is -- how do I put this delicately? -- effing ridiculous because that spelling assessment takes, at minimum, one full period to conduct. And oh, woe, do you remember how long I spent grading these things last time? The horror!

I told one of my colleagues that I think our administrators think our time is like those cars and tents in the Harry Potter books that look normal on the outside but magically expand on the inside to fit, like, a palatial suite. Like, a typical week in reading may appear to be five days (with interruptions for announcements, crying children, bleeding children, fighting children, field trips, days off, fire drills and being pulled out of the classroom to cover other classes, proctor exams, and go to professional development, and other various emergencies) and 50 minutes each, but actually we should be able to get thirty weeks' worth of work during this time! My colleague told me that as long as all these interruptions were documented, then administration would understand why it looked like I hadn't actually taught anything in weeks. And I was like, "But aside from that, I care that I'm not getting to teach, no one is actually working with my students during this time and they're not learning anything, but they're still being expected to magically progress in reading," and she told me that unfortunately, I would learn to live with that feeling (it was a very "I used to be you" moment reminiscent of old Mafia movies), which stinks, because -- what am I doing here? All I want to do is teach my students. It would be a bonus if I got to teach my students using a tiny bit of my own professional judgement. Is that too much to ask?

Meanwhile, part four, poor Azul has taken to hanging around the desk where I am conferencing with other students, wearing his best puppy dog face, clutching his B books and saying, "When you teach me? I want be C!" Hmm, does anyone know how to say, "I'm sorry, Azul, but I can't work with you individually to give you the help that you need in English and in reading because my bosses at this school just told me I need to listen to your classmates read long lists of high-frequency words for the second time in two months even though it's highly unlikely that their skills have improved in that time because I haven't gotten the chance to actually teach them anything" in Arabic?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Easy as ABC

Azul is desperate to be a C reader. He's an Arabic speaker who arrived in our school (and the U.S.) late last year. He is adorable and obviously bright; the only thing holding him back in school is the fact that, well, he doesn't speak English (although he's learning!).

So he's reading on a level B, but he is anxious to be a C. So anxious, in fact, that he checks in with me about it every time he encouters me. See, I've been doing running records this past week, and sadly, Azul is not ready to read C books. He's got a good number of sight words, and his comprehension is pretty good ("Why do you think Mom painted all those things?" I asked him, and he responded brightly, "Because it's Halloween!"), but he needs to work on his decoding and his vocabulary. When I broke the news to him -- that he would be staying a B reader -- he gave me the most exaggerated lower lip I've ever seen on a child (and that's saying a lot). As consolation, I told him he could put one C book in his book baggie.

Now, every time he sees me, he asks me whether he can be a C reader. I'll pass his class in the hallway on their way to lunch, and he'll call out, "Hi Miss Brave! Today me C? Now I C?" And I can't help it: he cracks me up. Now that he knows I find him irresistible (he knows how cute he is), I think he does it on purpose to make me laugh. "No C today. Still B," he'll say sadly to his teacher as he returns to the line.

It's nice to have such a motivated student in my group. I'm looking forward to our guided reading group -- at level C, of course!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes we did

When I came to my first period class this mornning, the kids were bursting with excitement, breathless and eager to share their news. This isn't unusual; I get to hear random comments like "Today is my sister's birthday!" or "I lost another tooth!" all the time. But today their news was different.

"Barack Obama won the election he is the new president of the United States!"

I was amazed and pleased that they had any concept of who Barack Obama is and what the election is all about, but they were totally into it. Many of them had gone with their families to the polls and reported back that "my mom and dad voted for Barack Obama...and I did too." I told them I hoped they would grow up to take their own kids to vote in elections! They were calling out "Obama rocks!" They asked me who the vice president would be, and then they giggled like "Joe Biden" was the funniest name in the world. My favorite moment was when one of my ELLs who knows very little English animatedly said to the kid next to him: "Barack Obama...and John McCain...and...Obama win!"

Of course, politics is such a touchy subject. (Something I found out at PD yesterday...I had no idea I worked with so many Republicans...!) One kid asked me if I liked Obama, and I said I thought he would be a good president. Another kid said, "You know, Miss Brave, I hate George Bush." I said, "Well, hate is a very strong word, and you can't really hate George Bush, because you don't know him." He got very annoyed and exclaimed, "Yes, I do, from TV!"

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Please, may I have some more?

I just spent the past half-hour composing a meticulously worded e-mail to my assistant principal, asking a question about something that came up at one of our (largely useless) professional development sessions today. Our literacy coach introduced something that sounded, to me, like a great idea that might really benefit my beginner ELLs. Unfortunately, this idea is to be implemented during Word Work (which I do not teach), and the reality is that no one really does it during Word Work because no one has time. But no one wants to admit that they don't have time to do it, because no one wants to get in trouble for not doing it, so no one said anything.

"Can I do this during Readers' Workshop?" I asked. "With my beginner ELLs who are A/B readers? Because it sounds a lot like our modified guided reading cycle for beginner ELLs, and I think this would really help them." (Plus -- I did not say this out loud -- but my A/B readers are not exactly reading during reading time, because they cannot read, so it's really not like pulling them for a small group a few extra times during the week is going to take away from their independent reading time.)

Several other teachers agreed with me. But our literacy coach told me that she could not answer my question, because it concerned questions of procedure, which had to be directed to my supervisor. So she told me to write it down and direct it to my AP so that it could be brought up and discussed at a cabinet meeting.

It was at that point that my nerves slowly began to fray, because -- grrr! -- how many people do I need to get permission from before I attempt to use a new strategy to teach my students? Why is it that every single teacher at my school has to teach in the exact same way? Why does every single teaching decision I make need to be brought before a committee, discussed, debated and agreed upon before I can go ahead and try it?

I met with my principal recently, and I was shocked -- shocked! -- when she asked me a question about which of two strategies I felt like was more effective, and when I answered her, she gave me permission to go ahead and do that more often in place of the other -- I was so tickled I practically went skipping off down the hall. And then I thought about it, and it kind of made me sad -- it was the first time since I've started teaching that an administrator asked my professional opinion and then took it into account. Normally, I either (a) do exactly as I'm told because I'm afraid I'll get into trouble or (b) do certain things sort of in secret so I won't get in trouble. Because nobody says, "Miss Brave, what do you think most benefits your kids?"; instead, they say, "We have decided that you will all be teaching this way. Hopefully it will benefit your kids!"

As a teacher at my school recently noted, our administrators may say they want to see differentiated instruction, but if they really did, we wouldn't all have to teach everything in exactly the same way. Like, I'm supposed to be provided academic intervention to struggling readers -- why group all the struggling readers together if I'm not making any modifications for them?

Lastly: There was a teeny debate in the comments of my post on paperwork about how teachers in time come to figure out which paperwork is actually looked at and which can be shafted aside. To clarify: I am sorry to say that at my school, each and every checklist, label and outline is actually scrutinized by administration. And I am even more sorry to say that it sometimes seems they're looking for quantity over quality -- because if you do a really quality lesson that happens to take a little longer so that you don't meet with a second group that day, you're not seeing enough kids during one period and it's curtains for you!

Sigh. On a happier note: I did not win the New York City marathon, but my students think I did :)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

26.2 to the finish

I can't resist posting this personal note: Tomorrow morning at 10:20 am, I will be lined up at the start of the New York City Marathon. Cross your fingers for me!

On Friday, one of my colleagues announced to her class: "Everyone, Miss Brave is going to be on TV on Sunday!" She happens to have the sweetest second grade class, and they went NUTS. "What channel? What time?" Some of them were distressed: "I want to see you on TV but I have to go to church school on Sunday!"

I explained to them that I was running my big race (earlier in the month I used my running as a metaphor for reading), but that 40,000 other people were also running and therefore I would probably be very difficult to spot. When they persisted -- "What will you be wearing?" I discovered that Mrs. A was having a little fun with me: "Maybe next week Miss Brave can wear her running outfit to school and then we can see what a real athlete looks like!" The kids were of course all in favor of this idea: "Miss Brave! Can you wear the same clothes next week?"

I told them I would bring them a picture instead. Then a number of them started to ask that inevitable question: "Are you going to win?"

"You know what?" I told them. "There are going to be a lot of other people running this race, and a lot of them are really, really fast. I'm not going to win, but I'm going to try to be the fastest that I can be. And when I finish, I'm going to get a medal and my friends and family are going to cheer for me, and I'm going to be really happy and proud of myself no matter what!"

See you at the finish line!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Monday Monday

Feeling fed up on a Monday is never a good sign for the rest of the week.

My frustration has been growing lately because I feel like I spend more time doing paperwork than actually teaching. When I meet with my students for a mini lesson, I have to fill out a checklist where I note whether they have "mastered, attempted or not attempted" the strategy I am teaching that day. When I meet with my students for guided reading, I have to fill out a checklist where I note whether they have "mastered, attempted or not attempted" a list of about 15 behaviors. I also have to fill out a sheet where I write down what I observed, what I coached them on, what focus question I asked them before they read and what teaching point I left them with after they read. When I meet with my students for strategy lessons, I have to fill out a label where I write down what I taught them and what I observed. This is besides all the data from our assessments and running records, which we're starting to do again next week.

I absolutely understand that keeping data is a necessary part of teaching, but it's really hard to fill out all these checklists and labels and teach at the same time. If I'm meeting with four kids in a strategy lesson, and I'm trying to write down everything that's going on, some of my attention is being taken away from those students.

My frustration is also coming from the fact that I don't actually decide what I'm going to teach my students. All of the teachers on my grade got together and planned our teaching points based on the Teachers College curriculum. Some days, as I'm teaching, in my head I'm thinking, "I hate this teaching point and I find it completely irrelevant to my students' actual needs." We're trying to get permission to use teaching points from other grades -- for instance, I'm teaching second graders, but all of them are reading at a first grade level, so doesn't it make sense for me to use the first grade teaching points? That's not dumbing it down; it's just tailoring the curriculum to their actual reading levels. For example, next month's unit is all about characters, and one of our teaching points is something about noticing when the characters in our books "go on internal journeys." Like, am I really going to teach these kids who are reading C level books (sample text: "I kick the ball. I pass the ball") about their characters going on internal journeys? How on earth are they going to apply those strategies to their own texts?

But anyway, for right now I'm using these ridiculously high-level teaching points. And then if my kids don't master the skill -- which they don't because some of the skills I'm teaching them are totally irrelevant to their particular needs -- I have to base my strategy lessons off the checklist I completed for my mini lessons. Which means I'm spending all this time trying to make sure they master the skill of, say, "capturing their ideas on a post-it," when what they really need is, like, "how to get our mouths ready to say the first sound in the word." Grrrr.

Meanwhile, while all this is going on I keep getting pulled from my classes to do coverages of other classes, so my actual class time is becoming all fragmented and choppy and I can't keep track of what I'm teaching when or what I'm teaching to whom. Next week we're starting running records again, which is nerve-racking because (a) it's taking away more instructional time, (b) TC just gave us all new running records, which means I killed 8,000 trees making copies of the old running records that I can no longer use, and (c) I have a sinking suspicion that most of my kids aren't ready to move up, and my administration always gives the whole grade a list of which teacher's students made gains and whose didn't. Glargh.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Does testing equal teaching?

It's been a while! This is mostly because I spent all week grading my students' TC assessments. One month ago, they took these new Teachers College spelling assessments. We were told we would eventually get together as a grade and go over the procedure for grading them (it's not as simple as "correct" or "incorrect"; they actually get points for various word features like initial consonants and short vowel sounds).

The giant pile of assessments sat on my desk for a month, until Thursday, when we had our meeting where we learned how to grade them and were informed that our administration would like us to finish grading them by Monday so they can be plugged into the computer. Excuse me? We sat on this for a month and then we're given three days (two of which, I might add, are weekend days) to get it done? Most of the teachers I work with had fewer than 12 to grade; I have 51 students. Two lists of 25 words each equals 102 spelling tests on which I had to analyze every word and then add up the number of "feature points" per word. Plus, the grading grid is naturally microscopic, as to fit all the information in, so I was hunched over my desk all day yesterday trying to fit the numbers in my tiniest handwriting. Not to mention the fact that my students cannot spell, so I had a lot of deciphering to do to make sure they were still getting credit for all the "word features" they did include.

Allegedly, all this data is going into a computer that will spit out oodles of fascinating information about exactly what my students need to work on (I can tell you right now: most of them have their consonants down cold, but those long vowel patterns like the o-e in hope and the i-e in shine? Ouch), but what's killing me is that November is a week away and we'll be starting running records and this assessment again. Are we really going to see enough of a seismic shift in a month's time that it's worth taking away our instructional time to administer this blasted thing again, not to mention our personal sanity to grade it? I mean, we haven't even looked at the data yet, let alone made any attempt to use the data in order to drive our instruction, so it's highly unlikely that we'll see any why are we wasting our time?

Part of the assessment is sitting with one kid at a time while he or she reads eight lists of high-frequency sight words. It's easy to do -- they (hopefully) just shoot down the list, all "the a and he she it they will" without stopping to take a breath -- but it takes forever, and meanwhile no one's getting a guided reading group or a strategy lesson or an individual conference that day because I'm checking off sight words. I'm thinking it'll take at least two weeks to finish all my running records and these assessments, especially in the midst of all the other stuff that goes on that precludes reading, so that's two weeks where I'm not actually, you know, teaching reading, and then our administration wonders why our kids aren't improving, like they're supposed to learn these reading strategies by osmosis or something...unless they think that testing actually equals teaching?

Monday, October 20, 2008

(More) guidance for guided reading

Recently someone commented on my post about guided reading, hoping for more information on what it is and how it works. I am by no means an expert on guided reading, but I will do my best!

So, first there's the defintion of guided reading provided by this handy little article I found on What it means in my day-to-day teaching life is that I gather up all the students in my group who are reading at a certain level -- say, E -- and we get together to read a book that's a level F. So it's more challenging than their independent level, which is why we work at it together and I give my struggling readers lots of support.

Personally, I love guided reading. I really get to see every day how it helps my struggling readers -- it is scaffolding at its best. When I meet with my really low readers to do guided reading, I do a lot of scaffolding. First we talk about the book without even opening it -- what do we notice about the cover, etc. I try to connect their prior knowledge to what the book will be about. For example, with my E level readers we just read a book called My Haircut, so we had a little conversation about who cuts our hair and if we ever had a bad haircut.

Then we take a little "picture walk" through the book -- we slowly turn through the pages and notice things about the pictures, making predictions about what might be happening in the story. As we're going I point out some tricky words that I know will give them trouble (either because they're hard to sound out or because they have an unfamiliar meaning), and I have them put their fingers on the word and repeat it.

Finally before they start to read I give them a "purpose for reading" -- this is fancy Teachers College talk for a comprehension question that I plant in their minds before they read, like, "While you're reading today I want you to think about how the boy is feeling when he's getting his hair cut."

Then they start to read the book independently. While they're reading (theoretically they are reading "with the voice in their brains," but most of my readers are still reading out loud), I listen in and "coach into" them. So if a reader is stuck on a word, I might prompt them to try a certain strategy.

Usually my low readers make it through a book pretty quickly, and then we come back together to have a discussion -- first we talk about the comprehension question I asked them before we started, and then I choose a teaching point to leave them with. For instance, if I noticed that all the readers in my group were stuck on words where they could have used the picture to help them, I might show them how next time they can try to use the picture to help them tackle a tricky word -- I give them a quick chance to practice that strategy, and then off they go!

My commenter asked how guided reading can be effective when children don't have exposure to phonics. I think the answer is -- it can't! Everything works in conjunction with everything else. Our kids get the majority of their phonics work not during Readers' Workshop but through a program called Fundations (which I also happen to love). I try as best I can to integrate that phonics work into guided reading -- for example, today in a guided reading group, we talked about the "oa" vowel team and how "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." In another guided reading group today, I coached a girl who was having trouble with the word "morning" -- when I asked her to look at the end of the word, she immediately recited, "i-n-g, ring, ing," which is straight out of the Fundations script.

I have even done some successful guided reading groups with really low-level readers -- kids who don't speak a word of English. In that case, we all kind of read the book together and I modeled reading techniques like one-to-one correspondence and matching pictures with words. In that case, of course, guided reading isn't going to be the thing that teaches them how to read. But along with word in phonics, it can be the thing that bumps them up to a higher level!

I hope this was an adequate response!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Workin' hard for the money

How much work should teachers do outside of school?

This weekend was a three-day weekend. So on Friday I met up with some friends for dinner and a movie. On Saturday my fiance and I went to his office's company picnic, went for a run together and ordered takeout for dinner. On Sunday I ran for 4 hours (as part of my training for the NYC marathon in November, I was doing my last 20-mile run) and spent the rest of the day passed out on the couch. Today I had a doctor's appointment, and then I went shopping.

In short, it was a delightful three-day weekend, except that I did zero work or planning for the next week (unless you count the few minutes I spent lying in bed this morning planning my mini lesson for tomorrow).

This isn't to say that I'm under-planned. In fact, I'm reasonably confident (I say "reasonably" only because it's gotten to the point where I'm a tad scared to open up my plan book) that not only do I have my teaching points all lined up, but my guided reading groups and strategy lessons are all put together as well. That's because I generally work my butt off during my hours in school; I get to school a full hour before classes begin and I'm busy every second until the end of the day, including the few precious moments when I'm shoveling my lunch into my mouth. I do all this so I can leave school as soon as it's over and get in my marathon training run and still have time to shower and eat dinner and relax.

I bring work home from school every night. But I only do that work at home maybe three or four nights out of seven. And the other three or four nights? I feel guilty.

How much work should teachers do outside of school? How much work do you do outside of work?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Falling into place

There's nothing like hitting your stride! Last week as we wrapped up our TC assessments, I finally did some lessons that really seemed to click with my struggling readers. At the end of the period they were all coming up to me wanting to share strategies they had been using to help them figure out tricky words. They all want to know when I'm going to "test them" so they can move up to a higher reading level. (Ack -- I can't believe November running records are right around the corner!)

One thing that bugs me about the very structured workshop model is that no matter how well I plan in advance, I always seem to come up with a better way of teaching a strategy when I'm in the middle of teaching it, so I adjust my teaching accordingly. Of course there shouldn't be anything wrong with that, but I'm afraid that if I get observed and this happens, it'll just look like I didn't have a plan.

I'm gearing up for observations soon because my AP followed me around the school all day. By that I mean that she was observing all the second grade teachers during reading -- so I saw her in each second grade classroom every period. My lessons were going so well that I almost wish she had been observing me!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bugging out

Welcome to October! We still have no word on whether guided reading for the lower levels is supposed to last two days or three days. We have no word on how to grade our latest TC assessments (which are piling up like hotcakes in my office). What we do have, however, is roaches. Big roaches! Baby roaches! And all the roach sizes in between!

Apparently they are living in our chart paper, and when our custodian visited our office (mostly to laugh at us silly, roach-averse women), he offered to throw it away. I practically lunged at him and pried it from his hands, since we've already been told that because of budget cuts, we won't be seeing any more chart paper for a while. "It's a school!" I screeched. "We need paper! We can't just throw all the paper away!"

Then a monster roach scuttled out of one of the pads. Ick.

So now I have a new title around the office: Miss Brave, roach exterminator extraordinaire. Like most normal people, I do not enjoy roaches, but I don't have a problem killing them, either -- so when one of my colleagues spies a roach lurking in the vicinity, she need only squeak out, "Miss Brave!" and I go running for a paper towel in order to facilitate the big squash. We have already spied a cluster of dead roaches underneath our (broken) computer and printer, so we know that someone sprayed at some point, but it's really the live ones I'm more concerned about; there's nothing like starting your morning with someone telling you, "Um, Miss Brave, you have tentacles waving at you from underneath your desk." I come to school a full hour before first period starts -- when the only ones in the office are me and the roaches -- and I used to be able to use that hour to get some work done, but now I use it to kill roaches.

Apparently if we want to get some roach motels or something, we have to do it on the sly. Because there's nothing like using your own money to pay for bug poison for your place of work.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Guidance for guided reading

Yesterday was like a black hole of a day. I was so busy every second and so discombobulated that at the end of the day I realized I couldn't remember a single thing I had taught. So is it any wonder the kids can't either?

Today I learned that I am doing a lot of things wrong. And it's not because I'm a bad teacher or an unintelligent person; it's because the procedures for teaching reading at my school are so arcane and so intricate that I feel like I need a second master's degree in how to fill out all the paperwork I'm expected to maintain. One of the things we have to do when meeting with a guided reading group is set out a "purpose for reading." We tell the kids that before they begin to read the book independently, they should keep in mind X or think about Y while they are reading.

(Quick tutorial for those of you who don't teach elementary reading: In a guided reading group, you pull all your kids who are reading at a certain level, and you read a book with them that's one level higher than their "just right" level. You sit down with them and preview the book, give them the gist of the story, show them some of the tricky words they'll encounter, and then you coach them and "guide" them as they read independently or out loud to you. Then you wrap it up with a teaching point you want them to remember. And then on the third day of a guided reading group, you do some kind of word work or word study activity based on the text.)

My students are all reading fairly low level books, and they finish them pretty quickly. So on the first day of a guided reading group I've usually made the "purpose for reading" some kind of comprehension question or a "pick your favorite page" thing. But then on the second and third day, since my kids have such big issues with fluency, I've asked them to think about reading in a smoother voice or pay attention to the rhyming words they hear.

Apparently this is a no-no, which is kind of a bummer for me, because it was going really well. During literacy coaching today our coach told me that the kids should not be reading the whole book on the first day of guided reading, but honestly, how do you split a 6-page book with one sentence on each page into three days of guided reading?

I think I am really doing my best to stay on top of things. I read all my memos and discuss them thoughtfully with my colleagues. When they started pulling out huge chunks of my AIS group during reading this week, so that I only had 3 kids there instead of my usual 10, I re-arranged my guided reading groups and strategy lessons so that I wouldn't be caught unexpectedly with nothing planned for the kids I had remaining. When we somehow ended up three teaching points short for the month of September, I planned my own mini lessons based on what I thought my kids needed to learn.

But unfortunately, all I ever hear about at my school is covering myself -- making sure I have enough labels on each kid once they come looking at my binders, making sure I'm planning my strategy lessons based off our reading checklist so that I can show evidence of why I decided to teach the lesson in the first place, making sure I'm checking everything off and filling everything out the right way. It makes me feel a little under-valued as a professional, like I can't be trusted to plan anything using my own discretion and judgement about what my students need. It's frustrating because in order to fit everything in (a mini lesson, guided reading, a strategy lesson and a share), I feel like by the end of the period I'm talking so fast and everything devolves into a half-assed, rushed lesson, even when I notice things that I really want to address. In fact, I find myself not really caring whether the kids actually got it or not, as long as I have something to write down on my checklist and labels! And some days I feel like a trained monkey could reel off the Teachers College mini lesson script as well as I can: "Readers, we have been learning that good readers ____. Today I want to teach you that good readers _____. Watch me as I show you how good readers _____. Did you notice how I showed you how good readers _____? Now it's your turn to try it. Take out one book from your book baggie and practice _____. Readers, I noticed how some of you ____. Today and every day I want you to remember that good readers _____. Off you go!" In fact, funny story: Today I sat down to guided reading with one of my beginner ELLs who's reading at a level B. With our beginner ELLs, we're doing a modified guided reading where we read the text aloud to them. So I read him the book, and then he grabbed it from me and said: "Now I will try!" because he's probably heard that "Now it's your turn to try it!" line so many times.

Even though I'm still having a much better time of it this year than last year, I will say this: Last year I had a lot more freedom to be creative, and that showed in my lessons. This year I'm starting to race through everything in order to follow the script, and my lessons are suffering for it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Easel of doom: remix!

Miraculously, this morning the janitor brought one of my co-workers a new easel on wheels, which means that I got to take her old easel on wheels. Her easel is inferior to an actual working easel on wheels in that it takes an enormous amount of effort to wheel in a straight line, but it is vastly superior to my old easel on wheels in that none of its wheels fall off.

Clearly there is some sort of easel hierarchy at work here and I am at the bottom of the totem pole, but at least it's a pole with four working wheels.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Easel of doom

Last year, I served 19 classes on all four floors of our school plus the annex one block away. Somehow I did all this without any kind of mobile classroom device whatsoever. I just loaded up an extra large Carol School Supply bag and a smaller tote and dumped all my supplies into them, carrying around all my charts, papers, markers, pencils, rewards, stickers, books and junk from place to place. I never requested a cart because (1) I didn't have an elevator key anyway, so therefore I had no way of moving my hypothetical cart between floors; (2) I wouldn't have been able to roll my hypothetical cart down the block to the annex, where five of my classes were located and (3) I figured I wouldn't get one anyway.

This year, though, things were going to be different. I was going to get my very own easel on wheels.

I had big plans for my easel on wheels. I bought two behavior pocket charts to hang on one side of my easel on wheels, with enough pockets for each of my students. I bought tickets to give out to students for good behavior, and envelopes to deposit the tickets in (when you earn a ticket, you put it in your class envelope, and every Friday I pull a ticket and the lucky winner earns a special reward!). I bought a little magnetic pencil holder for the other side of my easel on wheels, labeled it "Miss Brave's Supplies," and loaded it up with dry erase markers, regular old markers, and pencils that say "Teacher's Pencil -- Return to Teacher" on them. In the first few days of school, when I was still doing running records and not conducting mini lessons, I merrily spent every minute lovingly fixing up my easel on wheels. Everyone who passed us by in the hallways complimented me on my hyper-organization and cuteness.

At last, everything I needed would be on my easel on wheels. I would never show up to a classroom without vital supplies again!

I didn't count on one tiny but inevitable misstep: Naturally, my easel on wheels has a broken wheel.

I first discovered the sad truth about my easel on wheels on the first day of school, when I noticed that the easel I had inherited from my predecessor was missing a wheel. One of my APs tried to rectify the situation by strapping the broken wheel back on. So for a few days, my easel on wheels had one wheel that didn't roll, which I figured was fine as long as the easel stayed intact and could be moved from place to place. That is, until I actually started trying to move the easel on wheels from place to place. Because when I try to move the easel on wheels from place to place, the wheel falls off. A lot. In inopportune places like the elevator (and did I mention that the elevator doors have no sensor, so that they slam shut directly on my easel as I'm trying to drag it in and out?). Frequently I am wheeling my easel on wheels down the hall (and in my case, "wheeling" looks a lot more like "dragging a heavy object that seems to have a mind of its own"), trying to avoid hitting groups of children with it, when the wheel falls off. Usually when this happens, a child in the hall will pick up the wheel, run after me with it, and shout something like, "Miss Brave, you forgot your wheel!" As if I just happened to misplace the wheel and tried to leave without it.

My easel on wheels is huge and unwieldy. It seems to have the exact same dimensions as our classroom doorways, so wheeling it in and out of classrooms is kind of like those 007 scenarios where you have to fit through the laser beams without setting off the sensor. My easel on wheels is also much taller and broader than I am, so that I can't see around it. I like to tell my colleagues that I need sideview mirrors if I am to avoid hitting someone in the hallways (also because my easel on wheels doesn't wheel too well, it tends to veer off without my direction). Today, I was mortified when my AP came to visit a classroom and had to squeeze herself past my easel, which was taking up the entire doorway. (She did compliment me on my tickets, though.)

I have discovered that the most effective way to wheel my easel on wheels is to pull it along while walking backwards, which is not exactly my ideal way to traverse the halls. As I was doing this today, getting my usual cardio/strength workout, a teacher commented that it was a shame that the easels on wheels keep breaking (mine is not the only one), because they had been purchased from Lakeshore and were allegedly high quality and expensive.

I had never before considered how much my easel on wheels might have cost, and so this evening when my fiance suggested that I might bite the bullet and bring in my own easel, I decided to look it up. Sure enough, my easel on wheels is an "All Purpose Mobile Teaching Easel" that Lakeshore claims you can "roll anywhere!" (Although apparently not onto elevators with doors of death. Or into classrooms. Or down school hallways.) And it costs (drumroll please)...$299!

Holy expensive school supplies, Batman. It looks like my broken easel on wheels and I will have to learn to get along.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The crying game

Confession time! For the past few weeks, I've been reading online about other teachers who are already feeling over-worked and over-stressed. Several of them have mentioned experiencing their "first cry" of the school year, and when I've read about that first cry -- something with which I am all too unfortunately familiar -- I have, I admit, congratulated myself on avoiding it. Ha ha, I may have even thought. I am no longer a first-year teacher! I know exactly what I am doing now! I am immune to the first cry!

OK, you know what comes next, right? And the worst part is that my first cry came over the stupidest little issue. I mean, last year I had first graders threatening to stab me with scissors and fifth graders who wrote on the walls -- those were incidents worth crying over.

This particular incident probably isn't even worth the time and energy it'll take trying to explain it, but here goes: This year, during 50 minutes, I was assigned to the art room, where my students will be working on a computer program. I was psyched about it because (1) I have experience working with the program and think it's really helpful for our students and (2) they are totally independent while working, and I wouldn't have to do the ridiculous backflips I did last year trying to come up with a plan for 50 minutes. (See, technically teachers are not supposed to "plan" for 50 minutes, but you can't exactly show up for 50 minutes totally empty-handed, but it's at the end of the day and you're likely to be completely fried by that point, and so are the kids, so 50 minutes is pretty excrutiating. In my opinion.)

Anyway, of course there have been tons of problems so far, starting with the fact that because we're not in the computer room, we have to set up 16 laptops every afternoon, and they're Macs, which we're not so familiar with, so picture two teachers racing around from laptop to laptop, barking at the kids to stop touching buttons, while other kids whine about how they haven't gotten to play with the computers yet. Half of the laptops won't turn on, the other half won't connect to the Internet, all of them require us to enter two separate passwords before the kids can actually get started...I'm so glad the Quality Review wants us to focus on our use of educational technology!

Meanwhile, all along the art teacher has been semi-reprimanding me every day because she feels that our students are too loud in the hallway while they're waiting to be let inside. Our 16 students are coming from 3 separate classrooms on 2 different floors, and sometimes they get there before I do (my co-teacher is coming from our annex down the block, so she's always 10 minutes late anyway). The art teacher has been bugging me to start picking the kids up at their classroom instead of letting them walk in a group by themselves, so I finally acquiesced, even though it means traveling around the building and making us even later for the Great Laptop Setup Debacle.

One classroom sends us only two kids, so I decided those two kids couldn't possibly make such a ruckus in the hallway as to cause the art teacher to object. But yesterday when I arrived with my merry band of 14 students (making zero noise in the hallway, I might add), one of those two students was waiting for me alone in the hall. Well, not alone, because the art teacher was with her, informing me that I would need to pick up that student as well (from a third classroom on a different floor), because she "can't be up here alone." Even though I explained that normally she would be traveling with a partner (who happened to be absent), the art teacher claimed that the two of them couldn't wait in the hallway alone...even though this is what all students do when they, for example, go to the bathroom together. She suggested I tell those two students to wait for me in one of the other classrooms from which I'd be picking up students...which I think basically translates to "It's OK to inconvenience another teacher to send two students to their room to wait, but not OK to inconvenience me by having these two students wait in the hallway outside my classroom."

So, OK, fine, I tell her I'll take care of it. Wait, the crying part is still to come! So at the back of the art room is a small workroom. The art teacher has been bringing her 50 minutes group into that room, even though her assignment is in a classroom, because I guess she feels that it's all part of her work space and she can bring her kids in there because it's quieter than the classroom. But, that workroom is slowly but surely being transformed into a room that will be used during the regular school day exclusively for the same computer program that my kids are working on during 50 minutes. Yesterday I noticed that the laptop cart had been moved into that room and tables had been set up. I know that room is designated to be the computer program room. So I tentatively mention to the art teacher that maybe I will bring my 50 minutes kids in there, because, well, clearly that's the room that's meant to be used for this program, and (this part I didn't say out loud), her 50 minutes assignment isn't even in the vicinity and she's just having her kids read silently anyway, which they can do virtually anywhere in the building.

And in the same imperious tone she used to inform me of my pickup duties, she completely dismissed my suggestion, all "I'm bringing my kids in there."

"Well," I said carefully, "it just seems silly to move the laptop cart in and out of that room when it looks like it's set up to be in there during the day."

"That's not my thing, I don't know what to tell you," she said with a wave of her hand. (That's right, it's not your thing. Because it's not your room anymore! It's the computer program room! I'm sorry you lost your space, because goodness knows that no teacher in this whole school has enough of it, but you have an entire huge art room here and we only need your teeny tiny workroom space and you're not even supposed to be in here during 50 minutes anyway!) And then she walked away.

Ahem. That's when the tears, ridiculously enough, started. I was just so frustrated and fed up with trying to get this program off the ground day after day for our kids, when it hasn't been working, when I think it could really help them, and all I was asking for was one tiny thing that would make my job easier, like can't you find another place in this whole school to take your five students to do silent reading that they can do anywhere? I literally stood in the hallway (because I still hadn't let my kids into the room yet since I didn't know where to put them) in front of these 15 kids while my eyes welled up. I think the majority of teachers at my school are great, but there are some who are so embittered and possessive of their own stuff and space and materials and interests that it's really frustrating. I mean, it's not like I wanted to send 16 kids to the art room to cause a ruckus; I'm just trying to do my job here.

So I took a deep, shaky breath, put my hand on the door handle, and said to the kids, "You just have to give me a minute to think." I went inside to pull the laptop cart out of the workroom, and surprise! With the addition of the tables in there, it's really not meant to be moved in and out; the cart was crashing into tables as I tried to maneuver. I pointed this out to the art teacher, who was already parading in with her group, and she gave me the same "I don't know what to tell you, it's not my thing" line (that's right, it's not your "thing," so why are you in here?).

Fast forward 50 minutes to after my co-teacher has arrived (I had to explain, "I'm having a moment" when she showed up and I was still near tears) and we've spent 50 minutes racing around the library like mad trying to make sure everyone's laptop will turn on (no) and log onto the Internet (no), everyone's Macromedia Flash player is compatible with the program (no), everyone is logged in under the correct name (no), everyone can maneuver the touchpad because the laptops don't come with mice (no) and Julianne goes downstairs before her bus arrives (also no). Finally, when we are both exhausted and sweaty, it's time to put the laptops away. That's when the paraprofessional who's going to work with the program during the day arrives to tell us that our AP says we should just leave the laptop cart in the workroom and let the kids work in there.

Seriously, you should have seen the glare of death I got from the art teacher. It was the first and only time I've ever felt like there was a genuine beef between me and another teacher at my school, and it was all because of this stupid 50 minutes program assignment that I didn't choose. I magnanimously tried to patch things up by suggesting that we switch places (i.e., take your kids out into that giant room behind us! Look around and marvel at all the room you'll have out there while no one has to maneuver a giant heavy cart in and out of a tiny room for no good reason other than you for some reason want to be in there with your tiny group!), but there was totally an awkward vibe in the air that I'm still puzzling over.

And that, my friends, is how Miss Brave cried her first cry of the school year (in front of her students, mind you, although none of them noticed). Let me tell you, there is nothing like an inagural cry to remind you who you're working for! (The correct answer: Not the art teacher!)