Friday, October 10, 2014

Corn Fields


It is fairly difficult to play I Spy on a road trip in Iowa. I was recently amazed as hours and hours went by and the view out the car windows remained the same; enormous fields of corn, with the sporadic exception of a soybean field here and there. I will never see corn again without thinking of Iowa.

The purpose of the trip was to spend time with teachers in Iowa and our Daily 5 and CAFE workshops in Illinois. It was a joyful time. As Gail, Joan, Allison, and I got to know passionate, devoted educators, I couldn’t help but notice the delightful things that made each one unique.

Lisa Wilkins promises to keep her mini-lessons mini, so she wears Minnie Mouse ears when she delivers her focus lessons.


Jessica Hellberg has an infectious laugh and a deep level of appreciation for students. It was obvious in every interaction we witnessed that her students feel deeply valued by her.

When Karen Shannon reads to her students, they feel like they are in the book. She provides a variety of seating options because she believes her students should be comfortable.

Like the fields of corn that make Iowa memorable, it is the things that make us unique that our students will remember long after they leave us.

I recently ran into one of my former first graders who is now a college student. She remembered that I pulled her tooth and the teeth of others in the school, especially when parents sent notes begging me to remove the dangling pearls.

My mother recently heard from a student she had 46 years ago. “Dear Mrs. Smedley, you were a great instrument in my life. When I landed in your classroom a short while after the death of my sister, you read to us every day. During that time, a miraculous healing was taking place in my heart and your reading was a great time of comfort. Thank you. Thank you.”

What is it about the landscape of your classroom, the unique way you teach, or your personal characteristics that will take your students back to a place and time many years from now? Preparing students for high-stakes tests and working hard to make sure they all meet rigorous standards is important. But we shouldn't underestimate the wonder and power of the things that make us unique. They are our rows of corn. We need to cherish them, embrace them, and let them shine.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Something Completely Different

We were on our way to the grocery store when my son, who was very young at the time, yelled, “To! To!” Initial panic calmed when my brain registered that we don’t yell “To! To!” in an emergency, so it must be something else. It turns out he was elated to recognize the word to on the sign Photos to Go, a local business. It was the day he became a reader, so we’ve always felt a special affection for the business.

We popped in from time to time to drop off film, visiting with Chung Kim, the owner. For 15 years, Mr. Kim carefully processed and preserved innumerable faces, places, and memories for his customers.

With the birth of digital photography and its increasing popularity, his business dwindled to nearly nothing. Though we no longer dropped off rolls of film, we’d wave as we walked by. Then one day, the monstrous processing equipment was gone and the doors were closed.

A couple of months later, a shiny new Baskin-Robbins ice cream store took its place. And behind the counter was Mr. Kim! Instead of preserving memories, he has spent the past seven years serving up sweet treats, rain or shine.



I can’t help but admire Mr. Kim and think about what we can learn from his example. As educators, we often reflect on our lessons and practice, refining the good to make it great. Standards and stakes are so high though, that we need to be brutally honest as we evaluate what we do and realize that if something is no longer working, we may need to start from scratch and try something completely different. The result may be just as sweet.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Too Good to Be True

Once in a while as I was growing up, my father told me that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Although I believed him completely, I have succumbed to powerful sales pitches only to be disappointed that the pounds did not, in fact, fall off, and though I followed the directions in detail, my hair did not radiate with glossy shine. Years ago, when I saw a commercial for an automatic shower cleaner, my father’s still, small voice whispered in my mind, but I swiftly pushed it aside, trusting that I would never again have to clean soap scum because of the glory of scrubbing bubbles.

I’m not sure if that press-a-button-once-a-day product is available anymore, but what I do know is that the only scrubbing bubble that really works is myself (and since the magic diet pill didn’t work, bubble isn't too far from the right term here). A textured sponge and effort is required if our shower is to meet the standard of cleanliness we want to live with.

Likewise, there isn’t one program we can spray at our students and expect them to all meet standard. There just isn’t. So we shouldn’t get our hopes up. And any program that is being lauded as such right now won’t even be available in a few years because the early adopters will quickly realize, yet again, that the only things that really work are the right tools and effort.

The right tools include
  • books—lots and lots of them, for a wide variety of interests and abilities, and
  • assessments—not just any assessments, but great diagnostic assessments that truly inform our instruction.
The right effort includes
  • instruction—providing focused, intentional instruction that is directly related to the needs of the children in front of us, and
  • time—for students to read and for us to confer.
It sounds simple, and in a sense, it is. But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t magic, and it isn’t too good to be true. It’s just true.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Teacher Tuck-In

One of the things I love to donate to our school carnival is a Teacher Tuck-In. I got the idea years ago from Joan Moser, and like any good teacher, stole it for myself.


The idea is that the winner of the auction or raffle, whichever the case may be, receives a home visit from me, in my pajamas, with cocoa, cookies, and good books in hand. After a snack, we curl up for bedtime stories (which I leave with the family when we are done). It is ridiculously fun.

It is usually won by a beloved first or second grader, but this year a former student slipped her raffle tickets into my Teacher Tuck-In drawing, hoping to win. Much to her surprise and mine, her name was drawn.

I laughed when her mom called to figure out a time that would work for both of us. We had to work around soccer and driver's ed!  

Realizing my favorite picture books weren’t going to work this time, I headed to Barnes and Noble for a couple of my favorite chapter books.

When the day arrived, it was uncharacteristically warm (90 degrees and sunny instead of cold and rainy), so cocoa wouldn’t do. We started with ice cream bars, a great catching-up visit, and then curled up on the couch to read the first chapter of both of the books I had brought. What fun.

The point is that reading aloud is magic. So no matter how busy we are, no matter what classroom pressures and time constraints we face, we must make reading aloud to our students one of our priorities. It has the power to turn ordinary children into book lovers. It is so magical, in fact, that our students may still want to hear us read years after they have left our classrooms.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Looking Closely

I was on a road trip with my dearest friend when we stopped in the middle of nowhere, which in this case was somewhere in Idaho, for gas. While my friend filled the tank, I jumped out of the car to see the animals featured in the storefront.



I was delighted to see a little one, and even more pleased that for a quarter I could purchase a small handful of critter food and feed them. After racing back to the car to scrounge for 25 cents, I purchased my pellets, carefully picking up the ones that scattered to the concrete.
The baby came over immediately. I fed it most of the pellets, saving a few for the mother, who seemed surprisingly unconcerned that I was so close to her infant.

Once the treats were gone, I entered the gas station store to wash my hands. While visiting with the owner, I asked if the critters were llamas or alpacas, to which she replied, "Alpacas. But the little one is a sheep."

What?!?!

I am not a city girl, and I have seen sheep before; I just hadn't looked closely enough. I laughed with embarrassment and then went out to confirm the details I had so shockingly missed the first time. Yes indeed. It was a lamb. No wonder the mother wasn't concerned. She wasn't his mother at all.


It made me think about close reading. It can be easy to miss things when we don't stop and examine text more closely. Unnoticed details often lead to weakened comprehension. If we pause and pore over worthy portions of text, the entire experience will be richer, clearer, and more meaningful.

The secret, when teaching our students to read closely, is to select text that is truly worthy, and to reread and discuss just enough to bring deeper understanding and pleasure. I recently heard Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts, authors of Falling in Love with Close Reading (2013), say that joy or death can come from the work we do. And in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (2012), Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst say it is about rigor, not rigor mortis.

As we endeavor to teach and scaffold students in close reading activities, let's keep in mind that if they love it more when we are finished, we did it right. If they hate it, we did it wrong. Together, we'll learn to pause, pay attention, and deeply and joyfully understand.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Power of Positives

Parents deserve to hear about the good things that are happening in our classrooms. My principal is such a believer that his weekly bulletin always includes the reminder "Have you made a positive phone call this week?" Even though I'm a believer, I don't always remember to do this after the school day has ended, so I was inspired when I heard Jeanne Tribuzzi explain how she not only does this, but does it in a way that is quick, fun, and really powerful. She makes the positive phone calls right during class.

Here is what it might look and sound like. While conferring with Micah, I discover he just finished the chapter book he has been reading. This is a big deal because he has a history of struggling to find, and stick with, a good-fit book.

 "Micah, we have been focusing on sticking with a book until the end, and you did it! I knew you could do it! I think we should call your mom!"
Micah goes over to the phone and dials the number. He can't help but smile when he says, "Mom, my teacher wants to talk to you."
"Mrs. Masterson, I just wanted to tell you that one of Micah's goals has been to find a chapter book that was a good fit and to stick with it until the end. Well, he just finished Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Here is how his friends and classmates feel about it."
I hold the phone out, and the class claps, cheers, hoots, and hollers. 
"That's all, Mrs. Masterson. We just thought you should know. Have a great day.
 The entire conversation lasts less than two minutes. Jeanne learned about it from her daughter's high school math teacher and has done it herself with first graders through middle school students. She said that it doesn't take long before students start letting her know when someone needs similar recognition. "Mrs. Tribuzzi, Yonis just passed his multiplication test. I think you should call his dad."

 So fun! Jeanne said if no one answers, they leave the message on the answering machine.

 If you are looking for a way to bring some good vibes into the busy school year's end, give it a try and see what happens.
Jeanne Tribuzzi and I at the 2014 ASCD conference 

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.