Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Secret

There have been times when my students make so much progress that it appears I have found the secret to good teaching. And there are times when I pour my heart, soul, skill, and knowledge into others, only to experience success in the minutest of increments.

I am reminded of something Sarah Brown Wessling, 2010 National Teacher of the Year said:

I really hate disappointing people. In fact, I'll usually go to great lengths to avoid doing so, but there's one occasion I just can't escape. It's when someone—a teacher, parent, policy maker—comes up quietly and gently and asks me about teaching. "What's your secret?" And they're disappointed. Every time. The secret is that there isn't a secret to good teaching. The secret is that I'm not a great teacher every single day, that sometimes I'll toil for a whole year and see very little growth with a student. But if there's one thing I know for sure, it's that I'm deliberate, I'm tenacious, and I look at every student with infinite hope.

Although there may not be one secret, there are perhaps a few critical things we can do to ensure that each child reaches their potential when they are with us.

  • Build relationships. If we get to know our students personally, we can more readily make connections that will lead to inspiration, motivation, and progress.
  • Focus on learning. The fundamental purpose of our lives in the classroom must be student learning, not our teaching.
  • Use assessments. We must analyze assessments and use the data to make instructional decisions. It's when good instruction intersects with student readiness and effort that the magic happens.
  • Be reflective. Extend grace to ourselves when things don't go the way we want, and refine our practice so they will next time.

And like Sarah, be deliberate, tenacious, and look at every student with infinite hope.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Celebrating You

I was working on my computer at the Hurricane Coffee Company in Sequim, Washington, when I noticed their mission statement—Cultivate Relationships, Enjoy Life, and Make a Difference.

Wouldn't it be nice if that was how we could live our school days? I don't know about the teachers in your school, but the teachers in mine are beginning to feel the pressure of the impending high-stakes testing. The time-robbing, stress-inducing assessments are just around the corner, and it's evident by the increasing anxiety in the building.

I want to cheer you on, because I know that you are making a difference. I know that you cultivate relationships with children, their parents, and your teammates. And I know that for many of you, even though this is one of the hardest jobs on earth, you truly enjoy it and can't imagine devoting your life to anything else.

There are things we can do to buoy ourselves, strengthen our resilience, and not let the pressure get the best of us. On her blog, Amy Greick writes 12 tips for surviving the first year of teaching, but they are really wise advice for thriving during any year of teaching. Here are just a few of her smart ideas:

  • Have an outlet to relieve stress that is completely unrelated to teaching. 
  • Make peace with the fact that you will not be able to "do it all. 
  • Celebrate small achievements. 
  • Find something to love about every single kid, no matter how tough that might be. 
  • Think of something you loved about the day before you leave school, no matter how small it is. 
Head over to Juice Boxes and Crayolas if you'd like to read the entire blog post.

Kathy Bates recently honored Shirley MacLaine at the Kennedy Center Honors. She ended her speech to Shirley with words that made me think of all of you. (Insert your name in place of Shirley's, and replace artist with teacher.)

Shirley, friend of my heart, I am so proud to be here tonight to celebrate your magnificent accomplishments as an artist. I know you don't think of yourself that way. You're just passionate about what you do and you're still working hard at it. Don't stop! We think you're simply magnificent. Now. Forever.

So true. I know you are passionate about what you do and you're still working hard at it. Don't stop. Don't get discouraged. I think you're magnificent, too. Cultivate relationships, enjoy life, and keep making a difference.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Goals and Timelines

A goal without a timeline is simply a dream.
Kevin O'Leary

When Kevin O'Leary said this on an episode of Shark Tank, it stuck in my mind and has been percolating around in there ever since.

Goal setting is a big part of a CAFE classroom.  Students declare goals based on assessments and employ strategies in an effort to reach them.

How might the simple addition of a time frame affect their growth?

For instance,

Me: Andrew, how long do you think it will take you to finish this Magic Tree House book?
Andrew: I don't know.
Me: How many pages are you reading each day?
Andrew: Um.  Let's see.
After thumbing through the book, Andrew discovers that he is reading about 12 pages a day.
Me: So Andrew, there are 80 pages and you are on page 56.  If you read 12 pages today and 12 pages tomorrow, you'll be able to finish this whole book by tomorrow afternoon.  I am going to make an appointment with you on my calendar for the day after that so we can chat about how it went.  This is so exciting!


Me: Emma, I notice you are spelling they like it sounds, t-h-a-y.  The actual spelling is t-h-e-y.  If you practiced this word during Word Work, how long do you think it would take you to memorize it?
Emma: Hmm.  One day, probably.
Me: One day?  And then you would know it forever?
She smiles.
Me: Okay!  I am going to trust you to choose Word Work between now and Friday and really work hard to learn that word.  I'll meet with you a week from Friday and we'll peek in your writing notebook to have a scavenger hunt for the word they to see how it is going.

The timeline adds a little more accountability and is, perhaps, just the boost students need to accelerate their progress.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Remember Me?

"Hi Mrs. Sabo. Do you remember me?"

My eyes scanned the face of the fifth grader before me as my mind tried to link him with the first-grade version I must have known.

"Of course," I cheerily lied, "but help me out with your first name."

"De'oujmun, but everyone calls me De."

It turns out he had been in my classroom as a first grader, but only for a week. He attended five schools after that, and had just returned to ours again. "Wow," I said. "You have a lot of experience being the new kid. Tell me, what are some things that teachers and students did to make you feel welcome?"

He thought for a second and shared that at some schools, the teachers were friendly and made sure he had everything he needed. Students in those schools were welcoming, showed him around, and included him at recess. Others schools didn't feel as good. He said he felt disrespected by both teachers and students. I assured him that we were delighted he was back in our halls.

It can be disconcerting when we get that call from the office announcing that a new student is coming the next morning or is already on their way down the hall. My heart rate quickens at the thought. But I'm reminded how important it is to take a deep breath, put on a genuinely happy face, and model a spirit of welcome and belonging that students can emulate. The impression we leave on a student's first day will likely be indelible, whether they are with us for five days, 180 days, or anywhere in between. Let's make their first day a great one.

Friday, October 11, 2013

It's My Fault

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. 
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

After a few days of successfully building behaviors of independence and stamina for Read to Self in a first-grade classroom, all progress seemed to come to a screeching halt. I channeled my inner Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, forcing myself to
  • stay out of the way; 
  • speak with kind words and in a kind tone; 
  • facilitate problem-solving conversations once we'd regathered; 
  • and make sure I didn't skip any of the 10 Steps to Independence. 
None of it worked, and although it was a full moon, I couldn't blame our lack of success on the fact that the earth, sun, and moon were in approximate alignment.

Instead, after watching the start of the fourth bumpy round in a row, I walked over to the classroom teacher and said, "It's my fault." And indeed it was. Her students were simply not ready to choose their own Read to Self spots. Despite the fact that we had taught, practiced, modeled, and written about how to choose a successful spot, they couldn't do it because they weren't ready. So, I gathered them together and said this to them:
Boys and girls, aren't you thankful that we are allowed to make mistakes? Well, I made a mistake. I let you choose your own spots too early. It is my fault. You just weren't ready. I could tell you weren't ready because your behaviors of independence and stamina came to a crashing halt when you started to pick your own places. So tomorrow, and for the next few days, your teacher is going to have you try different spots around the room. As soon as we think you are ready, we will revisit the lesson on choosing a successful spot and try again.
There wasn't a fuss or whine in the group. In fact, I think they were a little relieved. Bumpy doesn't feel good to anyone.

Sometimes, as much as we'd like to blame the kids, it might be our fault. The best thing we can do is own it and move on. In this case the blunders and absurdities were indeed mine. I intend to begin again with serenity and the highest hopes.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Muscle Memory

I am of the typewriter generation. I have vivid memories of the typing teacher's monotone voice calling out individual letters and punctuation marks, of mentally commanding my fingers to find the keys while keeping my eyes focused firmly ahead, remaining true to the philosophy of touch-typing.   

In the late 1970s, I typed paper after college paper on my Smith Corona, which had interchangeable ribbon cartridges that eliminated the need for little bottles of correction fluid; I put in the white cartridge, typed directly over my mistake, put the black ribbon back in, and continued on.  It was so slick.

Someone recently told me that the practice of putting two spaces after a period is no longer considered correct; that it's an old-fashioned typewriter thing to do and completely unnecessary in our electronic, word-processing age.  The truth is, it depends on the format we are being asked to write in.  The problem is, two spaces after a period is so deeply ingrained in my muscle memory, I fear it is a habit that may be impossible for me to break.  For now, if I am writing in MLA style, I just take the time when I am finished writing to go back and eliminate each superfluous space. 

The point?  As we are working in our classrooms to build stamina and behaviors of independence, we must keep the standards high and be careful not to let students practice wrong.  We must support, guide, model, and build stamina in the increments that allow students to be successful.  If we are unwavering in our commitment, our students will build strong muscle memory for reading to self that will be with them for life.  And that is a skill that will never be out of date. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Overcoming Obstacles

In a post on July 12,  I shared the Seattle Foam Fest race I was looking forward to running.  I am happy to report that I made it!  The 3.1-mile course was peppered with 15 obstacles.  A different strategy was required to overcome each obstacle. Before the race, I previewed the photographs of the obstacles and gave thought to the strategies I might need to navigate them fluently, but it wasn't until I was right upon them that they interrupted my personal running life.  I navigated most of them independently, but there were a few where I relied on the tips of a coach positioned at the obstacle to offer guidance and support. 

Our students come upon hurdles that interfere with their accuracy, fluency, and comprehension on a daily basis.  They need to access strategies that will enable them to quickly maneuver these hurdles.  We can teach strategies that will help keep obstacles from interfering with their reading success, and many times, students will be able to access and try a strategy when an obstacle blocks their reading path. 

During the race, I was reminded of the power of in-the-moment coaching.  It reconfirmed for me the importance of building independence in my students so I can sit with them one-on-one, providing just-in-time guidance over the hurdles that get in their way. 

Our coaching sessions are even more focused and powerful when we make consistent use of a conferring notebook.  As a new school year approaches, let's renew our commitment to mastering this powerful tool, which enables us to differentiate our teaching, monitor progress, and equip our students to overcome their obstacles and get back in the race.