Monday, January 30, 2012

Reflection on Change

January ends today, Spring is now only 49 days away. Our Winter benchmarks are over. The new wing in our school is open; complete with a spacious new office, nurse’s room, conference room, additional classrooms and offices. There are a few new bathrooms, but the most exciting feature for my students to see was the new gym. It’s a full size gym. This coming summer the classrooms on my floor will be gutted and updated. Our school is over 50 years old and has gone through many changes, growing along the way.

Once the final rooms are updated, our school’s face-lift will be complete. The physical changes are evident everywhere. Under the new facade our instructional strategies have also been transformed. We’ve moved to a workshop model. Differentiation, core concepts and best practices continue to reshape our instruction. We analyze data all the time, using results to drive instruction.

I think back on my own years in elementary school. Back then, our desks were in rows and we all used the same materials at the same time. Workbooks, textbooks and Weekly Readers were all staples. Computers were not part of the classroom, encyclopedias were used instead of the Internet. We were taught that Columbus discovered America and Paul Revere rode alone. We worked on some projects together, but our instruction was much more “one size fits all.”

As a teacher, I have seen many changes in education over my career. Some have stuck; others were used for a while and then discarded. One thing that has held true is how much time and effort most teachers put into their work. They are willing to try out new ideas, use new tools and find ways to inspire; always looking for what is best for students. I still remember the special teachers and the impact they had on my life. I hope I hold that place for students too. Seasons change, rooms may change, buildings may be reshaped, new ideas and technology will continue to transform how students obtain information, but the heart of the school is teachers.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Writing in the Classroom

I teach 5th grade. We use Writer's Notebooks as well as a class wiki and blog site. Ralph Fletcher's wisdom, from his book A Writer's Notebook, is sprinkled in throughout the year. I use Katie Wood Ray, Lucy Calkins as well as other mentors to inspire me and keep me focused.
As a grade level, we need to make sure time is spent on Op-Ed, Narrative, Historical Fiction, Memoir, Science Fiction and Expository. Using mentor text, building anchor charts, brainstorming and working on our craft are all parts of the lessons. Conferring with others in small groups, one-to-one conferences with me and publishing are steps along the way. I want to help my students think of themselves as writers and not just writing for school. Some do. Others are a bit reluctant. I find giving them choice has helped make a difference. They also love the mix of notebooks and technology.

I'm trying to give myself and my students more freedom within Writer's Workshop. Mini lessons on transitions, hooks and grammar are still important, but I want them to love, like or at least not dread writing and see the power of their voice. I allow more time for projects, knowing not everyone writes at the same speed. I try to challenge them as they move into a "writerly life." I know they are all at different places in this journey.

I spend a lot of time planning, reading student work, conferring and reworking lessons. I know Katie Wood Ray has said when you feel things are somewhat out of control you are probably doing things right. I feel like things are out of control frequently and keep looking for balance. The students are writing, they usually are proud of their finished products. I just wish I had more time for choice writing, conferring and craft lessons. So many balls are in the air and that's just for writing.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Trip Down Memory Lane

I wrote the text that follows as it flowed from my thoughts after a day trip to the place I had grown up. Rambling as memories filled my head.

It was a day off and I drove north to meet my sister for lunch near where we had grown up. Since my parents have been gone, I haven’t ventured to this location often. I decided to drive on a side road rather than the expressway, which took me past many places with memories on my trip.

First I saw the small apartment complex I had lived in during my first years of teaching. A bit further up the road was the river where I’d fed ducks with my husband when we were dating. After that I passed the high school where my first students would continue their education. The road turned north on a bend and I knew that if I had continued west I would have headed toward the house where my husband and his family had lived during this time. Approaching a town further on I passed a sign for the “Elegant Farmer” an amazing market where we would sometimes shop.

A school came in to view and I remembered the track meets from high school held there. I had only traveled halfway to my destination and couldn’t help but be amazed at the memories that had already surfaced. As I continued on my journey I came to a small town with only a few shops and recalled coming here for ice cream. The road wove on and approached the high school some of my friends from church attended. I thought about the football and basketball games I had attended there with them in my teens. I drove on and passed the Wales School for Boys, a school for juvenal offenders and contemplated the times our church youth group visited the facility trying to encourage these young men to follow a different path.

A state park sign pointed right and brought to mind the many times I had climbed the tower there or hiked the trails. My destination was close and I was astounded by how many stores were now present along the way. So much had changed; time had carved out new places o changed those that had been there when I was growing up.

I pulled in to the parking lot and saw a Perkins that had once been a family restaurant I had waited tables at while first out of high school and during the summers between my years at college. I recalled the crazy customers we’d encounter during our third shifts and the friendships, now forgotten, from those shared experiences.

Just a bit up the road was the entrance to the county park nestled along the lake shore. A park I had visited many times, perhaps the most memorable was when my best friend from high school and I went there on a picnic with the man that would become her husband a few years later.

My sister arrived and we set off together for a restaurant we had eaten at with our parents years ago. We passed a waterfront restaurant that had once been a bar with a well known green drink called the “Leprechaun Kick.”

Arriving our lunch destination I still remembered when the “Lumber Inn” was a local lumberyard before it was turned into the restaurant be one of our former Sunday School teachers and her husband. After lunch we walked around this once quant little town. In place of the pharmacy, bakery and barbershop we found small gift, yarn and clothing shops. How foreign it all seemed that these staples from our childhood were gone.

We decided to drive out past our old house. On the way we saw condos where once cottages had been, large house along the lake where small bars had been and a confusing set of maze-like turnabouts where we had rode our bikes. Approaching Elm Street we came to a turn lane to this dead end street. The small farm field was still on the north side of the street with houses on the south along the water. Most houses had been updated, increasing in size and only faintly resembling those from our childhood while other hadn’t seemed to change at all. Our childhood house was still gray in color, but was otherwise unrecognizable.

Today was more than a lunch and shopping date with my sister. It was a trip down memory lane connecting me to the past. This is where I grew up, it helped shaped me into the person I am today. I was reconnected to my childhood, my teenage years, college days and even my first teaching job. It’s true you can’t go home again, but you can always drive down the roads that took you there, remembering yesterday.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

One Word

I loved the idea of selecting one word and using it as a guide for the year ahead. Not only did I think it would help me, but also my students. I crafted a writing project around this concept, combining one word with a focus on expository writing. It's been challenging, but now that we are nearing the end of the our essays, I'm glad we made this journey. Not only has the activity helped my students practice expository writing, but it has also provided me with a new perspective on my students. Something I try to do when assigning a writing project is to complete my own and share it with my students. Not only does this help me see what it takes to complete such an assignment, but also allows my students to see me as a writer. While I know I'll re-read and reflect on my work, perhaps changing it along the way, I'm including it here as a promise to myself to focus on this word throughout the year.


As a new year begins, people often make resolutions. These resolutions are goals that they hope will help them improve in the coming year. Perhaps they will exercise more, eat better food or spend more time reading. While resolutions can be helpful, they often are so specific that by March many are left behind when the resolution is broken or forgotten. Rather than making a resolution this year, I have decided to select one word to focus on for the year. Hopefully by thinking about this word I will not only grow, but also feel connected in a way a specific resolution wouldn’t. You must be wondering what my word is for 2012. I selected balance. It has a special meaning to me, I chose it to help me grow and I know it will guide me throughout the year.

To some, balance may make them think about a balance beam or perhaps keeping a book balanced on their head. The dictionary states that balance is “stability, equilibrium and steadiness.” It’s also defines balance as fairness or justice. Balance can be a tool used to weigh something as well. Balance is a word that represents a noun or verb. It’s versatile. For me balance will help me keep things in perspective. It will act as a scale to help me find time for school and home. I will use it to make sure I think about all the areas of my life and make sure one doesn’t dominate my days. Balance will help me look at time differently and find time for everything that’s important.

Focusing on the word balance will help me grow. I hope to reflect on this special word throughout the year. Things I’d like to balance are work and family; exercise and leisure time; adventure and stability; risk and security. You can see that this one little word can impact many aspects of my life.

In order for balance to serve as my guide for 2012, I plan to keep it close at hand as a visual so I can see it every day. It will inspire me to not focus on one aspect of my life, but even out all of the aspects. I know that by writing down all the things I hope to balance this year and centering them on my one word, I’ll be able to find the balance I need to grow in 2012.

While balance may seem like a simple word, it has great depth for me. It will help me keep many of the aspects of my life that are important in perspective and act as a guide throughout the year ahead.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


The alarm rang before 6 AM today, a sound I hadn't heard for over two weeks. I wanted to sleep a bit longer, but knew it was time to begin my day. Taking the dogs out in 13° weather I saw the grass sparkling with frost and geese resting on the pond that had now frozen over. The morning was off to a quiet, yet cold start. The new year had begun and soon I'd be in my classroom preparing to greet my students.

Today, our first day back, included the start of district winter assessments. We use Fountas and Pinnell to determine student reading levels; checking fluency and comprehension. In another week students will take a math MAP assessment followed by a district writing assessment scheduled a week later. Assessments provide us with data, allow us to view growth and see where we need to focus. These assessments also reflect on our work thus far in the year. I never look forward to what seems like an endless series of assessments. They take so much time away from instruction. I do know that the data provided will be valuable, so I march forward, pen in hand, ready to climb the January assessment mountain.

I did feel the day was successful and learning took place. We looked at mentor text to begin our expository writing focus. Students had time to read. We took time to read and comment on the Op-Ed pieces that had been finished right before winter break. Students began working in small groups, becoming biome experts as they shared information, spent time researching and began their work on scripts for biome movies to share their knowledge with the class. We learned how to use protractors and developed an understanding of vocabulary related to geometry. Our day ended with a visit to the library where we gathered books to enjoy during self-selected reading time.

It's a new year. January is here. It's cold and dark. While I'd like to sleep in a bit longer and enjoy a few more lazy days, there is warmth and light in my classroom. I need to continue the climb along with my students. It won't be long before the groundhog will be proclaiming whether spring is just around the corner or if winter will be with us a bit longer. In the meantime, while assessment may force us to take a detour, we will still climb on.