The “First Day”

August 17th marks the first full day of school for all Trinity students. As I walked through the halls late this afternoon, I passed many doors with the lights still on…countless teachers putting the finishing touches on the classrooms, making sure their rooms were most welcoming to the elementary students who arrive before eight o’clock in the morning. Of course, the names on the cubbies, the bright bulletin boards, and the organized reading corner make the classroom feel like an exciting and comforting place. These things are so important. More important than the things, however, are the words and actions of the teacher and those of the students during those first minutes and hours of the school day. At Trinity, we spend the first days of school focusing on strengths chasing and what a difference this makes. What a difference those the first few hours make. What a difference those first few days make.

Ultimately, it’s about relationships…and those first days are invaluable.

At Trinity, we ask all teachers to reach out to their students before the beginning of school. Most teachers write letters or postcards and many students respond by sending pictures and notes in return. In essence, so many of our teachers begin building relationships with their students and embarking on strengths chasing  before those first days.

One of Trinity’s fifth grade teachers, Meredith Burris, did an interesting thing. She included the link to her blog in her (snail-mail) letter to her students. Meredith is an avid reader and plans to post on her blog, “Burris’s Blog for Bibliophiles: A Blog for Book Lovers and Becoming Book Lovers,” throughout the year. Her first post of this school year chronicled her summer reading life and invited readers to share highlights of theirs. The following sentences illustrate how passionate she is about reading, her strengths of writing and reflection, and (of course!) her love of the long days of summer:

I, too, love summer, but I look forward to it for a very different reason. I love summer because I can read – as long and as much as I want, whatever I want, wherever I want, and whenever I want. I love having the freedom to read all day long, if I so choose. I find myself getting up earlier and reading while I eat breakfast, or staying up l late until the early hours of the morning. There’s nothing better than finding a book that’s impossible to put down and having the luxury of not having to do so!

Even though Meredith’s post is powerful, I’m struck by the 20 (and counting!) comments which follow her post. Donovan responds to his teacher’s post almost immediately (on August 2nd…well before the first day of school)  and not only addresses his teacher’s love of summer but also acknowledges the number of books she read and added a few from his own list:

I like summer too Mrs. Burris. I like summer because it makes my schedule more open. Just like you I like to read all night because there is no school in the morning. It is so cool that you read 30 books in this one summer. This summer I read a Rick Riordon book called ” The Throne of Fire”. I am also reading the Hatchet series by Gary Paulson. I am in the middle of a book called “I Am Number Four”. I can’t wait for the school year to start, enjoy the rest of your summer.

If you scroll through all of the comments, you’ll see a beautiful thing. You’ll see relationships being formed around a common topic. You’ll see our Head of School commenting as well as a Trinity staff member and an administrator. If you keep scrolling down, you’ll come across a parent’s comment (a few comments below that of his daughter). Of course, the children’s comments are powerful. That’s a given. They are writing because they care. They are writing to connect. And they are writing to begin to form those relationships that will make their fifth grade year even more rich. Interestingly, I suspect that the adults who contributed are doing the same thing. They are writing because they care enough to connect. To connect with kids, with Meredith the teacher, with the topic, and in essence, with something that’s much larger than themselves.

From the fifth grader to the Head of Trinity School, the “first day of school in Mrs. Burris’s Fifth Grade Class” happened long before August 17th. Those first few real-live hours and those first few real-live days will still be invaluable. But what I know, and what I suspect that Meredith, Donovan, Kate, Allie, Annie, Ginny, Mrs. Berry, Emily, William, Mr. Pulver, Mr. Kennedy, Ellie, Wyatt, Isabella, Josh, Isabel and Eva know, is that August 17th is going to be a special day…and it’s not only because it’s the “first day.”



Connecting Globally

If you haven’t bookmarked the “Great Quotes about Learning & Change” Flickr Group, then you should do so. Right now. It’s a great place to find provocative images and quotes to use in conversations, presentations, and in personal reflections as well.

The site really is that good. This image is one of 706 currently in the group. Cool, huh?

So, I ran across this image today which is a perfect representation of my thoughts and reflections this weekend. Thinking of my Trinity colleagues who will be welcoming children into their classrooms on Wednesday, I began to reflect on my three years of teaching sixth grade at Trinity.  What would I do differently if I were heading back to the sixth grade classroom this year? The short answer: I would make sure that my students realized that they were entering into a classroom situated in the year 2011. Not one from the past…not even one from 2010. Even when I had a 1:1 tablet computing environment, I’m not totally sure that my classroom was as 21st century-ized as it should have been. It’s that whole “technology must serve pedagogy not the other way around” thing. In fact, if I were trying to gain some inspiration about making my classrooms 2011 ready, I’d certainly spend some time reflecting on the five axioms of EduCon, the above quote being axiom #3.

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members.
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen.
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate.
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

So, with those reflections swirling, I decided that my first step would be to find a way to make my classroom a globally connected one. It’s something that fits with each axiom above. Without a classroom to directly influence, I decided to reach out to my Trinity colleagues with three projects which look incredibly promising for the elementary ages. Within a few hours, I had heard from a handful of teachers who were interested in jumping in. In fact, our entire first grade team will be taking part in the Global Read Aloud Project this fall.

I thought I’d share my email here (and yes, I was lazy about the links!):

Dear Teachers,

Are you interested in exploring how to further the Mission of Trinity School and assist your students in becoming responsible, compassionate, and productive members of the expanding global community? There are so many ways to open your classroom to classrooms all over the USA and the world….and there are a number of Trinity teachers who are already doing just that thing!

I wanted to let you know of a few projects that I have discovered that seem to be manageable, interesting, and connected to Trinity curriculum. If you are interested in finding another project, I’m happy to point you in the right direction. There are so many resources out there and so many great projects, engaged teachers, and cool classrooms! I have included the top three that I’ve seen recently. If you would like to talk in greater depth, please let me know! Also, Marsha and Kara would be more than happy to chat and assist as well! It’d be our dream that there are so many globally connected projects happening at Trinity that Kara, Marsha, and I had our hands full with supporting you and your classes!

To Connecting Globally!

1. The Global Read Aloud Project: This project begins on September 19 (and lasts until October 14) and is geared to students in 1st – 3rd Grade (who will be reading Flat Stanley books) OR to students in 4th – 6th (who will be reading Tuck Everlasting).

2. Teddy Bears Around the World: This project has no timeline or deadline…it is geared to students in the Threes, Pre-K, or K.

3. Community Connections Project: This project has a deadline of February 2012 but it seems like it will be ongoing throughout the 2011-12 school year. This project seems to fit students in K – 3rd grade.

Learning Spaces: My Ten Picture Tour (#10PIXTR)

I’ve been thinking a lot about learning spaces recently. With Trinity’s World Languages Program, I have the opportunity to tour a number of people around our school and every time I walk through the halls, I see things that inspire, challenge, and excite me. I needed a break from today’s routine and found a few extra minutes on my Outlook Calendar. I decided to wander, with my camera, and thanks to Brian Barry (@Nunavut_Teacher), Katie Hellerman (@theteachinggame), and Cale Birk (@birklearns), I decided to post my ten picture tour. Here is my #10PIXTR from Wednesday, April 6th.

Personalize: A key phrase of Trinity's mission is "to achieve his or her unique potential," and much of the work I do is centered on personalizing learning at the elementary level.

Personalizing Learning: A key phrase of Trinity's mission is "to achieve his or her unique potential," and much of the work I do is centered on personalizing learning at the elementary level.

Integrity: The 6th Grade Leadership Class decides the school theme for each school year. This year, it's integrity.

Integrity: The 6th Grade Leadership Class decides the school theme for each school year. This year, it's integrity and the 6th Grade students must model and teach the importance of this word throughout the school year.

Design Thinking: First graders build an igloo out of milkjugs. They must work together to brainstorm, plan, and build an igloo that can fit at least ten students.

Design Thinking: First graders build an igloo out of milk jugs. They must work together to brainstorm, plan, and build a structure that can fit at least ten students.

Curiosity: These three students are peering in the window of the lower school gym, trying to figure out what they'll be doing when they go to PE class later in the day.

Curiosity: These three students are peering in the window of the lower school gym, trying to figure out what they'll be doing when they go to PE class later in the day.

Technology: At Trinity, technology must serve pedagogy...not the other way around. This is especially true in our 6th grade 1:1 tablet program.

Technology: At Trinity, technology must serve pedagogy...not the other way around. This is especially true in our 6th Grade 1:1 tablet program.

Play: These Kindergarten "drivers" experience both structured and unstructured play as they navigate the rules of the road on their trike bikes.

Play: These Kindergarten "drivers" experience both structured and unstructured play as they navigate the rules of the road on their trike bikes.

Metacognition: Students learn how to learn at Trinity. In World Languages at Trinity, goal-setting and self-reflection are essential in this personalized course. Students use Rosetta Stone for language acquision and can take any language out of 23 offered.

Metacognition: Students learn how to learn at Trinity. In World Languages class, goal-setting and self-reflection are essential in this personalized course. Students in K-6th grade use Rosetta Stone for language acquisition and can take any language out of the 23 offered.This first grader's journal displays her learning target for the day.

Cooperative Learning: Learners collaborate. These teachers (one music teacher, a second grade lead, and a second grade assistant) are working together to create a song about Earth Day to the tune of Katy Perry's song, Fireworks.

Cooperative Learning: Learners collaborate with one another. These teachers (one music teacher, a second grade lead, and a second grade assistant) are working together to create a song about Earth Day to the tune of Katy Perry's song, Fireworks.

Cross-Curricular Work: Fifth grade student's study of Ancient Greece is combined with art, architecture, and math, as groups of students (this team: Corinth) work to draw Greek architecture to scale.

Cross-Curricular Work: Fifth grade students' intensive study of the history Ancient Greece is combined with a study of Greek art, architecture/math, sports, and literature. Groups of students (this team's name is Corinth) work to draw Greek architecture to scale. The study culminates with Greek Olympics of the Body and Mind.

Imagination: Trinity's Storywell is a beautiful space where students can curl up with a book and be transported to places beyond their wildest dreams!

Imagination: Trinity's Storywell is a beautiful space where students can curl up with a book and be transported to places beyond their wildest dreams!

Five Easy Steps: How to make a “Ten Picture Tour”

  1. Use a cellphone camera, then you won’t have to pack/find another electronic gizmo.
  2. Take 10 minutes. That’s it.  Then you won’t find a reason not to do it.  And it won’t be too “staged.”
  3. Take pictures around your school that you think showcase some pretty cool things.  They don’t just have to be of kids learning, we believe you when you say they are…
  4. Put them into a blog post with basic captions so we know what we are looking at.
  5. Put it as a link on your blog page, so that when we come and visit, we know that when we see a link called “10 Picture Tour” we will learn a little bit about what your learning environment looks like.

(These Five Easy Steps are revised from the #10PIXTR post by Cale Birk (@birklearns) on The Learning Nation.)

Wrestling with Process & Product

I just finished reading Kist’s The Socially Networked Classroom this morning due to a group dynamics conference I attended over the weekend. After 36 hours of exploring “leadership and team development in a world of difference,” I have learned an incredible amount about myself and actually made some connections to many of the ideas we have been exploring this semester in my literacies and technologies class. Personally, a powerful takeaway from the weekend for me centered around ideas related to process/product. I am often so product-oriented when working in teams that learning through the process part takes a back seat to the end goal. Shifting my mindset requires being comfortable with discomfort – and being willing to relinquish a bit of control. I have to acknowledge my high expectations for products yet realize that not everything will/should live up to the standards I set. I also have to acknowledge that the journey toward a goal is often much more enlightening than the actual achievement of the goal.

With an hour left to the conference, I tweeted: “35th hr of group dyn conf…lots of talk ard losing control & being comf w/ discomfort. Wondering how that will translate 4 tchrs n clsrms…” There were so many people at the conference – mainly educators – who raised similar revelations about the loss of control in their own lives and how this “letting go,” while scary, can actually produce transformative experiences. While many were probably not thinking about their specific roles as classroom teachers, I am very interested to assess my issues with process/product and reflect on my previous six years in the classroom based on issues of boundary, authority, role, and task.

So, when I picked up Kist this morning, I was struck by the section on student blogging. In Kylene Beers’ foreward, she includes a quote from a school principal:

“Actually, its not just that we run this school by a bell system – something straight from the factory whistle that ushered workers back to work after breaks – but that our entire model for education comes from the industrial age. During that time, making sure each person on the assembly line could handle discreet skills was important. That’s what we’re doing here today in this school – making sure these kids can all handle discreet skills. I’m not sure we ever try to give them the big picture, or more important, get them to create the big picture themselves. We’re teaching kids to pass a test, but I don’t think we’re making sure they can be competitive in a world they’ll live in for the next 40, 50 years.” (Kist, The Socially Networked Classroom, viii)

So many of the activities Kist presents do not align with my beliefs about student-centered classrooms and the idea of “big picture learning” that Beers presents in the foreword. Many of the ideas did not seem to be as forward-thinking as I anticipated after reading Beers’ words.

For me, the activities around student blogging were most frustrating since I spent two years blogging with my sixth graders. While my experiences and lessons were far from great, I’m confident that each student had a good experience with blogging. Some even had great experiences. (I think I’m most proud of one of my students, Emma, who is still (three years later!) writing on a personal blog and is a guest blogger for a music website). While student experiences ranged from good to great, I WAS actually more concerned with the process piece than the actual product. The problem I see with the blogging examples that Kist chooses to include is that they are still very teacher-centric and product focused.

  • Rachel Ring on page 56: Very specific, step-by-step introductory assignment and a blogging rubric that attaches point values for (teacher generated) qualities of completion
  • Heidi Whitus on page 58-59: Activities that include lower to middle level thinking skills (summarize in activity #1 and #4, compare in activities #2 and #3) and teacher generated assignments
  • Bill Kist on page 60: Rubric that hasn’t been developed by the student

Two of my main issues…
1. assessing of student blogs with rubrics
2. assignments for particular posts

When my students were blogging, I didn’t grade their blogs and never felt like I needed to incorporate grades to motivate them to write. While some may say that I just had “good kids,” I disagree. I created a classroom culture where openness and sharing were expected and honored. I introduced blogging to the students and planned my lessons in a way that focused more on process than product. I also had many discussions around what “good” process/product looked and felt like. I made students key players in the game of determining the purpose and power of blogging. Also, I rarely assigned topics for them to write about. Occasionally, I’d ask them to reflect on a field trip or a particular class experience, but I was careful not to encroach upon their personal blogging space. I wanted my students to feel as though their blog – though connected with “school” – was as much a part of their school life as their personal life.

In my classroom, reflection (both written and face to face) was the most important tool of assessment for both teachers and students. I’m wondering…is there a way to effectively link blogging with grades (or with any formal assessment) and still make blogging a student-centric experience?



2010 – A Fresh Start

I’m happy to say that as a result of focused goal-setting for 2010, an elective  class at TC entitled Literacies and Technologies, and an amazing experience at Educon in Philly, this blog is actually going to be a place I’m proud of. I’ve struggled with finding the time (and I know we all do) to actually do some authentic blogging, but it’s (past) time, so I’m making the commitment.

Just a few minutes ago as I was walking home – braving the snow even though I have thin Southern blood – I realized that I must channel this renewed energy and motivation into something that will last. I must spend time reflecting on what I’m learning now, so when I return to the classroom, blogging/reflective writing will be a  habit and something I naturally model for my students and for the other adults in the school community.

It’s pretty cheesy, but since I’m a teacher, I can get away with it: for me, the snow resembles this renewed outlook and fresh thinking. And, the slippery walk, well, a risk. So, that’s what I’m excited about with this semester (and beyond) – not only academically but personally as well…capitalizing on this energy, seeing it as a fresh beginning, and taking some risks to improve myself as a learner, teacher, and leader. And, when I need a reminder (which I know I will), I’ll take a look at this picture…

chilly in philly

Powerful Possibilities in a Middle School Classroom

“If our purposes were to be framed in such a fashion, they would not exclude the multiple-literacies and the diverse modes of understanding young persons need if they are to act knowledgeably and reflectively within the frameworks of their lived lives. Situatedness; vantage point; the construction of meanings: all can and must be held in mind if teachers are to treat their students with regard, if they are to release them to learn how to learn.”

– Maxine Greene, Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times

As I think about “best practices” as a teacher of language arts and social studies, I am inspired and motivated by Maxine Greene’s words in her essay, Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times. Although Iread this piece in early September, its message carries great weight as I think about my past work as a teacher, my professional growth as a result of the Klingenstein program, and my future as a teacher and administrator. Next year, not only am I motivated to improve my teaching, but I also see incredible value in having “a space in which light can be shed on what is happening and what is being said” (Greene, 2003, p. 1) in the classroom. Next year, it is essential that I set both personal and professional goals – and boundaries – in order to implement much of what I’ve learned in this class and other Klingenstein classes. Professionally, I am passionate about creating a classroom environment where blogging, cooperative learning, understanding goals, and strategic reading are visible signs of my understanding of various aspects of cognitive research. Personally, I want to create time (and a space) for reflection so that I can continue to grow as a practitioner and leader. I’ve been thinking a bit about the blogging piece and I wanted to share some thoughts here…

The Power of Weblogs: Connected Writing and Student-Centric Learning

Throughout this class, I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of weblogs in the classroom. Rather than seeing blogging as another cool “Web 2.0” tool as many educators do, I believe that blogging has the power to transform both students and classrooms if introduced and taught in an authentic way. In Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen claims that student-centric classrooms will come as a result of online classes by 2014, but I believe that student-centric learning is a possibility in 2009- 2010 when students are encouraged to write about curricular and personal topics in a public, connected space. Not only will students become more metacognitive in doing so, but teachers will gain great insight into students’ thoughts, feelings, and understanding of curriculum.

The three essential aspects of remembering, as presented my class on cognitive science, are elaborative encoding, distributed practice, and retrieval practice. Since teachers must beware of “inert ideas” or “ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations”(Whitehead, The Aims of Education, 1929, p. 1), teachers must plan curricular experiences that aid in elaborative encoding. While many classroom activities have the potential to provide opportunities for high-quality rehearsal, interior/exterior dialogue, activation of prior knowledge, effective organization of ideas, and creation of meaningful contexts and purposes that motivate and sustain active learning, I believe that blogging is an authentic activity that could prove to be transformational in the classroom.

Student blogging in a middle school classroom is much more than occasional writing in an online space. While the crafting of blog posts is the most visible sign of blogging, commenting on posts and linking to other blogs and websites is an essential piece of an effective blogging program. Teachers must instruct students on author voice and bias, organization of information, web safety and etiquette, and the powerful nature of this Web 2.0 tool. Blogging, the sharing of students’ ideas and thoughts about curricular and personal matters, leads to vulnerability that can be harnessed in a positive way. Maxine Greene speaks to the importance of creating situations where children are enabled and can be agents for their own learning. She writes:

Without a sense of agency, young people are unlikely to pose significant questions, the existentially rooted questions in which learning begins. Indeed, it is difficult to picture learner-centered classrooms if students’ lived situations are not brought alive, if dread and desire are not both given play (2003, p. 2-3).

Blogging does just that. It brings “students’ lived situations” inside and outside of the school walls alive and teaches students that their voice matters. Blogging also shows students that they can do the hard work of creating meaning from curriculum, thus taking control of their own learning.