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 is Everywhere: Langley News

Learning is Everywhere

Image Credit: Photo courtesy of @L_Hilt

We have a fourth grader at Trinity who started her own newspaper this year. She has been working with our Director of Communications on her writing style which has improved drastically over the course of the school year.  When May’s edition of the Langley News appeared on my desk, I wondered about M. Langley’s motivation to start her own paper. She was happy to share:

The Langley News is my newspaper that I wrote. Why did I write it is a good question. I get many things from my dad and writing was what he was good at. Sometimes when I’m cleaning out cabinets I find little short 2 sentence stories that I wrote in Pre-K. When I write in my journal I feel free and writing has become my future and my past. I truly love writing stories and I enjoy my newspaper so much I can’t wait to start the next one! My favorite parts about the Langley News are writing it, seeing it all finished, and watching the people I give it to read it. In my classroom we are reading the book called The Landry News, that gave me the idea.

Writing isn’t something you can force me to do. I’ll do it on my own.

— M. Langley, Fourth Grader



Emergent Relationships

In an effort to get my Google Reader account to a reasonable number after a month of workshops, epic snow/ice in Atlanta, birthday celebrations, and life in general, I came across a post on The LIFT blog, “How to Introduce Yourself: The Value of Emergent Relationships.” On the heels of a trip to Philadelphia for Educon 2.3 and after spending over an hour this afternoon watching the livestream Prototype Camp presentations coming from Columbus, Ohio, I was intrigued by this sentence:

Complexity theory tells us that when an element of a system changes in quality and the linkages between the elements change in quality, it is possible for a new system to emerge that has collective capacities found in none of the parts. — Ryan Quinn (@ryanwquinn)

Three days at Educon and today’s #prototypecamp presentations are, in a way, helping me realize that it may be  “possible for a new system to emerge that has collective capacities found in none of the parts.” We must understand the power of networked learning and create drastically different learning spaces if this is to happen, but I believe that a new system is possible, and we — and the students whom we serve — will be better for it.

As I followed the twitter stream from #prototypecamp, the following exchange between two good friends who were actually attending the live presentations caught my eye:

See another theme? These groups are leveraging value of places that matter to them (Facebook) to effect change. #prototypecampWed Feb 02 18:35:56 via TweetDeck

@deacs84 yep. they are leveraging virtual (facebook), physical (school space), as well as emotional (empathy). #prototypecampWed Feb 02 18:37:50 via HootSuite

In their quest “to use design thinking to solve real world problems about the future of learning,” these high school students  were leveraging the spaces that meant most to them to find solutions to actual problems. As I think about the spaces that mean the most to educators, what are they? If they are only the individual classrooms where they teach (or offices where they work), I worry about our capacity for change. How do we get educators to emerge from the egg-crate culture of teaching and learning? How do we get educators to experiment with personalized and networked learning? How can we help to create paths which lead to new, diverse learning spaces — and ultimately — change?

The Age of the Unthinkable (Part I)

I have a goal of reading at least one non-educational (and non-fiction) book every couple of months and thanks to the SAIS’s Book Club on December 1st, I am currently reading The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo.

To be honest, as I started reading Ramo’s first chapter I was disappointed when I saw the following: “We are entering, in short, a revolutionary age. And we are doing so with ideas, leaders, and institutions that are better suited for a world now several centuries behind us.”

Here We Go Again, I Thought.

Interestingly though, Ramo’s words take a turn…

“On one hand, this revolution is creating unprecedented disruption and dislocation. But it is also creating new fortunes, new power, fresh hope, and a new global order. Revolutions, after all, don’t produce only losers. They also – and this is the heart of the story I want to tell here – produce a whole new case of historical champions.”

A new global order. A new case of historical champions. The Age of the Unthinkable is about both. I wonder, though… What are we doing in education to create fertile ground to not only grow these historical champions but to help them navigate, learn, and engage in this new order?Are we providing our young learners with the language, creativity, and revolutionary spirit that Ramo argues many of our current leaders lack?

When I think of the learning that I have done in the past year, I am equally thankful for my Klingenstein cohort as I am for my growing network of online colleagues. Through Twitter and RSS and the many face-to-face conversations that happen as a result of my virtual learning, I have shifted my mindset about what it means to learn in the 21st Century. I understand more fully what George Kennan meant when he said, “Today you cannot even do good unless you are prepared to exert your share of power, take your share of responsibility, make your share of mistakes, and assume your share of risks.” I am able to do those things because of the people in my expanding network – many of whom I consider close friends and many of whom I have never met – who model this type of “doing good.”

What communities are we creating for our students – at all ages but especially at the elementary level? How are we to create “responsible, productive, and compassionate members of the expanding global community” (the last 10 words of Trinity School’s Mission Statement) if we continue to stay isolated in our classrooms, our grade levels, our schools?

I hope to push teachers at Trinity to consider these questions as we continue to engage in conversations about making learning relevant for kids. Ramo offers an interesting starting point for the conversation:

“The future demands a different resume. Today the ideal candidates for foreign-policy power should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms. They should have expertise in some area of the world – be it China or the Internet or bioengineering – where fast change and unpredictability are the dominant facts of life. They should have experienced the unforgiving demands for precision and care that characterize real negotiation – as well as the magical effect of risk-taking at the right moments. They should have mastered the essential skill of the next fifty years: crisis management. And they should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than lovely perfection of academic models.”

How do we develop revolutionaries, risk-takers, experts, negotiators, crisis-managers, and innovators?

In this ever flattening and increasingly global world, aren’t all of our students going to be engaged in some sort of foreign policy? Doesn’t every student have the potential to be a historical champion?

Can’t Ignore It…

I spent an hour talking with a group of 25 or so sixth graders about what the words “respect” and “protect” mean in terms of technology and children’s online lives. I used Tod Baker’s post about his school’s AUP as inspiration for the lesson. I may write about the actual lesson later, but I was stuck by the genuine questions that were “left circling in my students’ heads.” (I had them record their reactions to the lesson with the three prompts pictured from a summer tweet from #klingsi10.) The following student questions are evidence enough that we need to be rethinking our approach to educating children in the 21st century. We can no longer ignore students lived lives both in and outside of the school walls.

What if someone is harassing you or a friend and it’s uncomfortable to talk about it with an adult?

Why are there bad things on the internet?

If you think of something to write or an idea for a website and then you see that it’s already online, should you delete what you wrote?

If someone who you communicate with online knows who you are and where you live and they start to blackmail you, is it better to keep quiet or tell someone?

How many genuinely good people are out there on the internet? How many bad people?

At the end of the year, I’d honestly rather these kids feel empowered in their online lives and be able to see and understand that the internet is a powerful place for learning than some of the curricular initiatives I know are coming. At a private school, we can balance both. I think.

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?