The Perfect School Day

It seems like I have written this blog before, and I have https://305bcoaches.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/a-perfect-saturday-class/  This perfect day didn’t happen on a Saturday like the previous one, but instead took place both during the school year as well as afterschool.

The day didn’t start out so perfectly.  Some students forgot to do their reading homework.  Others didn’t do the entire math assignment.  Facing both an end of the unit math test this week, MCAS Math next Monday and Tuesday, and MCAS Science the following Monday and Tuesday, I will admit it, I am a bit stressed out about all of this and I am sure I am passing on my stress to my students.  It has been a very difficult year in many aspects with the new mandated assessments.  The students are feeling the heat, as I am.  I’ve been told by a close friend that I get grumpy around MCAS season and she is true.  I am grumpy about it all.  The upcoming middle school transition is also weighing heavily on both students and teacher.  So, I needed something to break the tension, to show me what good learning really looks like, and luckily at 11:30 this morning,that thought came to reality.

Testing the water

We were fortunate to have some guests from the EPA today come and teach us about testing storm water, a topic that the students have been researching during this year.  I love to have outside scientists come and work with my students.  This allows the students to witness scientists at work in their field.  Dr Bryan Windmiller has been an awesome role model for the past two years.  He has permitted the students to come along while tracking turtles, and tracking down nesting turtles.  Brennan Caverhill, from the Toronto Zoo generously skyped with the students for over an hour.  Peter Alden came and talked about invasive species at our Watershed WISE Night.  Lee Steppacher talked about topics that we have been studying this year.  Sue Beede has given throughout the years to many of my classes.  Matt Burne has come down to the vernal pool to help us with species identification.  All of these scientists have so greatly added to my students’ knowledge and today, Dan and Lisa from the EPA followed these great examples.  In the pouring rain, half of the class ventured down behind the school to visit the storm drain.  I’ve been bringing classes down to the river since 2006 and this class has taken a different lens and look at storm water.    So, we were outside for 30 minutes in the pouring rain, learning about what these environmental scientists do with storm water.  The students. as usual, asked great questions.  No one seemed to mind that we were out in the rain watching the water gush from this clay pipe.

Back at the room, 16 students elected to stay on a half day Tuesday and participate in the Great Garlic Mustard Challenge.

Pile of garlic mustard that was picked.

After a lunch break, we ventured down to Cousin’s Field to pull Garlic Mustard.  The students split up into five groups, I assigned each group an area to focus on, and they were off.  I will tell you that originally, I was a little nervous since I thought that some of the group may do more fooling around than actual work.  I was very pleasantly proven incorrect.  All 16 went to work with great enthusiasm.  I couldn’t had been more proud watching them labor on in the light rain on a very raw day.  After about an hour and 15 minutes, I asked them to gather up their pulls and bring it back to a designated area.  I was in awe of the work that they had done.  They were muddy and cold, but I never heard one complaint.  They knew they were doing a good thing for the environment.  Our next problem was how we were going to get it back to the school.  I let them problem solve how to do that best and off we headed down Prairie Street.  One group, wheeling the big trash barrel had numerous problems and every one helped them out.  We were all filthy, cold, and wet, but fulfilled.

So the second part of the day was perfect.  Students engaged in authentic work.  Students engaged in community service.  Students engaged in problem solving and group work.  Even though I am now exhausted and should be trying to figure out how to best prepare them for Science MCAS, I am so proud of the learners they have become.  May we have a few more days like this one before school ends for the year.

Mourning

My official mourning period has begun.  After thanking the audience for coming to Watershed WISE Night, I noted that this would be our last exhibit type of night unless I went on to 6th grade.  The kids started a “6th grade” chant, which I quickly put an end to.  So begins a period of transition and sadness for all of us.

Two years ago, I blogged about this quite a few times (one example)  I played the lottery on a more regular basis, hoping to hit it big and retire with this particular class.   Since I didn’t win, back in the classroom I needed to go.  I mourned this particular class for months.  September came, and I admit, it took me a bit to warm up to my “newbies.”  Often I may do something only once with a particular group, and in this new group’s case, we tried an approach to learning called Challenge-Based Learning.  This caught on like wildfire, and soon, CBL became a way of our class’s way of learning.  CBL turned into DPC and that was an awesome experience for all of us.  I was never so proud of any group of students than I was of this group, who I wasn’t ready for a few short months ago.  I remember our Superintendent, Diana, coming by and asking me, “what are you going to do next, how are you going to top this?”  Honestly, I didn’t know how to top that experience and I seriously started to think about what to do next since these”once not so wanted”  kids would soon be leaving me to go to fifth grade.  But then, an opportunity arose to go up to fifth grade with these particular kids.  So, we packed up our old room, moved into our new room, and watched the magic unfold once again.

Could they make me even prouder again this year?  I’d say yes.  Watching Bryan Windmiller and his wife evaluate the turtle graphs the kids made was awesome.  They were so impressed with the breadth and depth of their knowledge.  Trudging out to the storm drain, in rain storm after rain storm was

exhilarating.  Watching the kids’ excitement with spending an entire day on DPC in early December was awesome.  No, we did not place as well this year in DPC (although nothing is wrong with being a runner-up as one student said), but I felt that the real prize was that the students really took charge of the CBL project and became experts on the topic.  Last Wednesday, the kids presented as part of the EDCO Technology Showcase.  They were incredible.  Adults said that they were the high point of the four hour presentations.  I was absolutely thrilled to be a co-presenter with four of my students.  What a privilege to be standing next to them in front of the auditorium.

And then tonight, Watershed WISE night.  I have to say I was disappointed that more of the community didn’t come out to support this incredible work.  But what I wasn’t disappointed about was the way these students conducted themselves in yet another public forum.  They were awesome.  Rock stars.  Real scientists.  During the presentation by Lee Steppacher of the National Park Service about problems facing the rivers, one of my students turned and whispered to me “this is everything we have been studying.”  He’s right, and if you talked to each one of them during this night, you would know that they had also become experts in their specific area.  I want them to be able to show off their work again since more people need to see what can happen when you empower students with real problems and let them develop real solutions.  It’s powerful.

I am bursting with pride and I am bursting with sadness.  I said to my colleague Sue, “what are we going to do next year?”  She could not even fathom what next year will look like and neither can I.

So, we stand here at a crossroads.

“Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why
It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time

It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right.
I hope you had the time of your life.

So take the photographs, and still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time
Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial
For what it’s worth it was worth all the while

It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right.
I hope you had the time of your life.

It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right.
I hope you had the time of your life.

Thanks kids for giving this teacher a teaching experience of a lifetime.

 

12 Hours: 3 Blogsays that Capture This Day

Striking Out or Batting 1000?

An interesting shot from the day

To many people, my morning would have been considered a complete bust.  Leaving my house at 6:30 a.m, before the sun started to rise., I quickly got across town to CCHS where I would be picking up a vernal pool gauge to replace the one that was stolen from our vernal pool site.  The streets were mostly quiet, as was the parking lot at the high school when I pulled in.  A few stray students carrying poster boards quickly scooted across the lot into the quiet school.  Heading down to find S-1, I thought about how quiet it was.  Finding the door, I tried to open the door and it was locked.  I turned the corner and tried the other door.  Locked.  No custodian in site.  I turned and headed back to my car, thinking of a Plan B to get the gauge.  6:45 a.m and I needed to be at Ripley at 7:30 a.m. to give the accountant some money to pay for our turtle crossing signs.

45 minutes to kill.  What was I going to do?  I’ve wanted to do a blog about the TOT box.  So, I headed back to Concord Center, where I headed to Main Street Café.  I thought a cup of hot tea, a muffin, and 45 minutes of free time to write my blog would be great.  And it was.  A steaming cup of Bombay Chai tea and a delicious raspberry mocha muffin in a quiet café were just a delightful treat.  Sitting at a window seat, I started to type up the blog that has been in my head for about five days.

35 minutes later, I decided I ought to head over to Ripley to both deliver my transcript and to deliver the cash for the signs.  Again, a quiet building awaited me.  Sitting down at the circular table in the waiting area, I started to leaf through a wonderful collection of student writing.  Folks started to trickle in, looking at me puzzled to why I was sitting at Ripley on a weekday morning.  So, I told my story to the first two colleagues.  Then Diana walked in.  “So good to see you, what are you doing here,” she inquired.  I told her my story once again and she said for me to give her the money, that she would deliver it to the accountant so I wouldn’t be “wasting my time.”  I thanked her and headed out the door pondering that line, “wasting my time.”

As I headed back to Thoreau, unfashionably late for me, I came across a wonderful scene of old farm equipment laying in a frosty field.  Yes, I should have stopped and photographed it.  But that seemed much too decadent on an already laid back morning.  The morning to most would be a bust.  I didn’t get my gauge, I didn’t give the money to the person I was looking for.  I did manage to give my transcript to HR.  (but that could have been ponied over).  But maybe it wasn’t a bust.  Being able to sit and write a post, enjoy a cup of tea and a muffin, read some wonderful student writing, observe some beautiful scenery gave me an almost Zen start to the school day.  Maybe I didn’t strike out.  Maybe I gained a quiet hour of time to just sit back and relax.  Maybe a waste of time is what we all need to do from time to time.

As I sit here typing this, a mere 15 minutes before the students arrive, I again feel slightly guilty that I should be doing more.  But, perhaps this waste of time, this quiet, is what the doctor would order during this crazy season.

This is next the blog that I wrote during my 35 minutes of down time:

TOT Box

Totally Off Topic Box (TOT)

Totally Off Topic, TOT.  I don’t really remember how we got this saying, but this fall, a student will raise their hand, and preface their comment by saying, “This is totally off topic but…”. I am also guilty of the same offense, mainly due to my 50+ year old’s brain not being able to recall what I need to tell them five minutes later.  Sometimes I can answer their totally off topic comment, sometimes I need to keep talking about what I am teaching at that moment and I can’t answer that question.

So, several weeks ago, one of my students raised her hand and said “Can we have a box for our totally off topic questions?”.   Our TOT box was born.  A student volunteered to decorate a box, I pledged that at the end of each day to do “TOT” time, and a great idea was born.

The next day, a beautiful red and white striped TOT box appeared with the student.  We placed little note pads at each table group.  At the end of that school day, we held our first TOT time.  The range of questions is quite wide from what is Kyla’s favorite cheese (Kyla is my dog) to why do students learn different ways of doing math than I did to why is kidnapping known as kidnapping when it’s not always a kid who is taken.  I never know what to expect when I pull out a slip of paper other than the question intrigued one student enough to write it, so it will be interesting to see what they wrote.

So, why do the students love TOT time?  I asked them about what they like.  “There’s the ability to ask questions that don’t necessarily fit into a subject area’, “It’s fun”,  “We can have fun and learn at the same time”, “It lets us be more social”, “we can expand subjects to learn even more things that we want to know”, :It gives us time to hear the teacher’s opinion on unrelated topics”,  “It’s a great way to end the day”, “Some of the information could be useful later in life”,  “It gives us a way on suggesting how to improve our class.”

The last time I used a box in class, it was a problem box.  I had one class that loved to fill that up with sometimes really trivial problems.  The TOT box has been such a positive addition to the class, and the students initiated it all.   TOT – sometimes it’s great to let ourselves go totally off topic!

And the last blog of the day:

A Delightful Day Continued…..

So, my hour of “free time” this morning was a completely wonderful way to start my day.  And the wonderful day continued once the students arrived.  If any of you have seen Jerry Maguire, you might remember his manifesto about sports management.  Not all the words apply, but some of these words do ring true:

  • “You and I are blessed, he said, “we do something that we love.”
  • “And to those young agents who never met him, Dicky Fox always said the same thing when asked for his secret. “The secret to this job,” he said, “is personal relationships.”
  • “Love the job. Be the job”

Today, I had the opportunity to live all three parts of that manifesto.  Today was what I envision education to look like and feel like.  Today was DPC Day in the class.  Time to take advantage of the snow-free ground and run some real life experiments.  Not experiments in a box but real experiments created by the students.  Questions that they formed.  Questions that they care about.  Questions that led to more questions.

Before we started though, we had a real treat with an author/illustrator Brian Lies during our library time.  I got to come during the last part of it and was struck by his message.  “Practice makes better”, “pick something that you really enjoy and pursue it.”  All great messages for young people to hear.

So, a little after 11:00 a.m., we set off to the Great Outdoors.  Meeting under the gazebo, the expert groups gathered their equipment and set off to start their tasks.  One group tallied the amount of students that ran up and down the hill during all the recesses during the day.  In addition, they measured the rate of water as it ran down the steep eroded hill.  They started doing some outreach with the younger students about erosion and started to graph their data.   Another surveyed all the invasive species on campus, pulled garlic mustard (why is this stuff still so green?) and ran soil pH tests.  The River Experts calculated the flow on the river, analyzed the temperatures and pHs of the water and evaluated the types of rocks on the river’s bed.  The Path and Stone dust Experts completed very thorough experiments, conducted pH tests and created wonderful visuals to their results.  Finally, the storm drain experts “unearthed” a lot of debris from the storm drain pipe, tracked the path of the water as it flows to the river, ran pH tests on soil and water, and came up with a slew of new questions. Watching my students take charge of their learning, be totally engaged and interested in their learning was mesmerizing.  I continue to marvel at their growth, their confidence, their enthusiasm.  It was a wonderful day that integrated all that I feel good teaching and learning should encompass.

Twelve hours later, the sun is well down and I am back in a quiet house.   I have an inbox full of vokis and blogs to review.  But for now, I am allowing myself the luxury once again to finish writing, to pursue something I love to do (blog) and to reflect on how much I love what I do in life.  This day was one where I was batting 1000 for sure!

 

Musings on the First 27 Days of School: A Series of Short “Blog-Says”

Changing grade level has left me much busier than I thought it would.  The curriculum has changed since I last taught 5th grade.  My classroom too has changed (physically) and that too has been more of an “adaptation” than I thought it would.  Getting use to the students, since I have 21 out of 23 from last year, is not so much of a change.  But they have changed.  They are now the “top of the food chain” and that in itself lends to a change in some of their behaviors.  Reminding them to be “role models” since they are now the role models is a change.  Looping has its many benefits, but one perhaps non-benefit is that the students are use to some things in a too comfortable fashion.  So, I’ve had to change up beginning of the school year activities since they already know my bag of tricks.  It is a change getting use to the new activities that fifth graders get to participate in.  It’s a change only having about one hour and twenty minutes of instruction time after lunch compared to having just about two hours last year.  You get the picture, there have been a lot of changes.  I haven’t had the energy to blog for awhile.  I miss it.  One of my colleagues told me that if I was inspired, I would do it.  There’s been a lot of posts running around in my head, but due to the fact that life has got in the way to my actually doing the writing online, they have stayed in my head.  So today, I decided to write one post, and since we are doing essays in class, to create a series of short “blog-says” on some of the posts that have been running around in my head.

A quick note about the photographs.  Before starting my writing, I went onto my iPhoto library to look for some pictures that I had taken.  In my library, there was a roll of images from one of my students, who took these during a trip to Cousin’s Field this week.  They are spectacular and much better than any of my current images.  I am not sure if this one child who gave me his camera is the photographer of all of the pictures (there may be more than one student’s work), but I do want to credit one of my fifth grade students with these photos.

Photo of a Flower at Cousin's Field from an Erickson 5 Student

Blog-Say One:  The Importance of Providing Different Tools for Student Learning

I am a firm believer in having students be able to express themselves in different manners.  Over the past two years, first with the “Digital Farm”  and then with “CBL and DPC” last year, I have been so blown away with giving students the freedom to present their work in different manners.  Students who didn’t like to write with pencil and paper created web sites, video games, and movies.  Students who are not exactly the best with drawing taking gorgeous digital pictures (proof — the picture at the right).  Instead of book reports, students this year created beautiful book trailers, incorporating and evaluating music for their movie as well.  Watching the students themselves become bloggers is equally satisfying.  One post last week talked about how at that point, the class had created 399 posts on their Kid Blog site.  (and I thought I was a hot shot with 110 blog entries on this site).  I have seen the students interact with one another so respectfully on this blog site, encouraging one another about a story that one boy has written, to another one pondering big questions like why do politicians keep insulting one another.  Through their own blogs, they have found that our classroom extends beyond the physical space of our room’s walls.  A coming attraction in our room is the arrival of the iPads this week.  On Friday, the students became editors of each other’s September writing sample.  I approached three students and asked them how we were going to get everyone their comments.  One started off that they could cut the paper up into strips.  I kind of shrugged at that suggestion.  “What about doing a podcast with the comments?”  The wheels of our mind started turning.  I rushed over to get my new iPad, told them about Audio Boo, and we were off. “We could create Vokis, we could do this, we could do that.”  Then I heard one child say, “why don’t we just write it down?” and another one quickly said, “Because Mrs. Erickson wants us to go ‘digital'”.  I want my students to be able to leverage all different types of platforms to display their learning.  To strengthen this argument, my oldest son will be graduating from college this spring and is just starting the job search.  Over a cup of tea last week with a dear friend, I mentioned that he had a phone interview.  She just sent me an article entitled “Your New Job Security Starts Here:  A stable work future isn’t about finding a lifelong employer.  It’s about being able to land the next professional opportunity – which means mastering the digital job hunt.”  This article includes making your own website, a video biography, being ready to have a video interview, becoming a blogger, and stepping it up with social media.  These are all tools that we use to enhance our learning in my classroom, and it seems like learning these tools is essential in the workforce that my students will one day be entering.

Another picture of Cousin's Field from an Erickson 5 Student

Blog-Say Two:  When Just Good Enough is not Good Enough

During this past summer, I blogged about the passing of my band teacher Al Yesue.  At Back to School Night, I dedicated my year to him.  During our first personal essay unit, my model for the children was about Al.  My three main points were that Al taught me to believe in myself, that he taught me to go outside my comfort zone, and finally he taught me that “good enough is not good enough”  This paragraphs reads as follows:

“One lesson that Al taught me was that “good enough” is not good enough.  You can get by in life by putting the bare minimum or you can get the most out of life by putting in your very best effort into everything you do.  I remember that hot summer night in July.  Lined up on the parking lot at Riverside Park, we returned to “the line” once again to play the opening measures of Holst’s “Jupiter” once again.  I couldn’t understand why we were sent back again and again to re-do it.  It sounded good enough.  But to Al, it didn’t sound “good enough”.  He wanted it to sound great.  He wanted us to play it with feeling.  He wanted us to play it liked we meant it.  So back to the line again. And again. And again.  For three, long hot hours we kept going back and repeating those three measures.  At the end of that night, we weren’t necessarily happy that we spent three long hours doing the same thing over and over again.  But in the long run, it taught me to always put 100% into anything I undertook.   Thirty-five years later, I am still practicing this life lesson. “

In teaching, I don’t feel it is right to “be just good enough.”  I always am looking at better ways to engage my students.  I am always looking for new things to learn.  I never teach a unit the same way twice.  I am quite comfortable going outside my comfort zone for the good of my students.

But this week, it was the students’ turn to learn this lesson.  On Friday, October 7th, we took our first unit post test in math.  The day before, we had reviewed the material for the test.  I told the students that there would be a “challenge” problem that I couldn’t tell them about but that as a whole, they were excellent math students and they would do fine.  I told them about how much I enjoy watching them consume “Dynamaths” and how much I enjoy them being excited about “tiny tests”.  I overheard one student say “She’s giving us a pep talk.”  The next day, I handed out the tests, reminded them that they could do this, but to be careful.  A week later, the corrected tests were returned to me.  I was dismayed as I looked them over during lunch.  The scores overall were not good.  Concerned that I had not done a good enough job teaching the students, I went upstairs to ask our math specialist her take.  “The tests are full of silly mistakes,” she told me.  “It’s not that they didn’t know what to do.”  I suddenly now knew why Al made us keep playing those three measures for three hours.  I now knew how dismayed he must have felt by our complacency, we were champions, but he believed we could be better than just “good enough”.  I had to approach the children gently, as for some of them, they had never received such a low score.  I talked with them that at time our failures lead to our best learning.  This was a new beginning.

And two days later, we took a pre-test in our next unit.  For some, more of the same carelessness.  But for one student, who had done quite poorly on his post-test, he was almost perfect on this one.  I pulled him aside and told him how well he did on this one.  And he said to me, “I know I am better than a student who got a 59% on the last test.”  He got the lesson that “just good enough is not good enough.”  I marveled at his insight in learning this lesson at such a young age.  And I hope some of the others also catch one for as a teacher, this was one frustrating experience, when you know your students can do well and then they don’t.

Blog-Say Three: Parking Valets, Eye Technicians, Respect, and Confidence.

Two years back, I wrote a post called “Japanese Flower Arranging, A Glaucoma Eye Test and Teaching”. I concluded that “I need to be reassuring, and make sure they fully

Another Plant at Cousin's Field by an Erickson 5 Student

understand what we are doing and why.  I need to scaffold tasks for them at times and then gently sit beside them as they attempt it on their own.  If they are nervous about doing something, I need to acknowledge their feelings, while at the same time encouraging them and providing them with the information for them to be successful.  I need to laugh with them, and nod and smile at them.  I need to remember what being a learner truly feels like.”  Last year, due to the unfortunate incident with my elbow, my eye appointment did not happen.  So on September 27th, when I headed off to that appointment, I was feeling confident after the experience that I had the last time I was there.  (in case you don’t read this old post, I hate that Glaucoma test more than any other medical exam) .  I was late leaving school and was already flustered when pulling into the Emerson parking lot.  Since my foot was in a boot after an unfortunate encounter with a large tree root, I debated about using the valet to park my car.  But the line was long, and I was already running late, so I headed to the parking lot.  If you have ever been to the Cummings/Emerson parking lot, you will know that it is a nightmare on most days and hours.  And the minute I pressed that button to get the ticket, I had begun to regret my decision not to valet.  I headed down one long aisle of cars and then up another where I saw a car leaving its spot.  Up that aisle I swung and quickly pulled into the spot.  Then I realized, that I was much too close on the passenger side to the other car’s driver’s door.  There was no way they could get into their car.  And looking at how close I was, there was no way I was going to be able to pull my car out without hitting the other car.  Panicking, I hobbled over the the valet and asked him “Can you help me?”  This young man calmly asked me what he could do to help me.  I told him I had parked too close to another car and that I couldn’t get my car out of that spot.  Seeing my distress, he said, “Lo0k, you must have an appointment.  Just give me your key and I’ll take care of it.”  Hobbling into the building, I thought his mother would be proud of how he helped this damsel in distress.  My calmness had eroded over the past fifteen minutes.  I was hoping for Marian, the same technician that I had the last time for my eye exam.  But instead of Miriam, a young technician called me in.  I explained that she was going to have to talk me through the exam, hopeful for the same success that I had two years ago.  But she did not have the same bedside manner.  She was impatient with me,  and I could not sit still when the machine came towards my eye. I jumped again and again.  I could sense her aggravation building towards me.  “Let me try it one more time, ” I asked her.  “No,” she said, “I’ll have to have the doctor do it.”  Sitting back out in the waiting room, I felt like a failure.  Tears, not from the drops, ran from my eyes.  My ophthalmologist was wonderful and we were able to get the test done, but my confidence had deflated.  Heading back outside to the valet station, I remembered that I had left my computer in the car, something I never do if my car is unlocked.  I went over to the valet who told me he would go and get my car.  The cost for valet parking is $5.00.  When he came back with my car, I handed him a twenty dollar bill and told him to keep the change.  He asked me if I was sure, and I said I appreciated how much he helped me.  He was respectful of my situation, he didn’t say “lady, I can’t do that.”  He just did it.

This mere 90 minutes reminded me of the importance of respecting my learners and of inspiring my students to be confident.  The valet respected my distress while the eye technician did not respect my fears and left me feeling like a failure.  I will keep this lesson in my on when working with my students who are having difficulty with a topic.  I need to be respectful of who they are as learners as well as trying to get them to be confident in themselves and their abilities.

This year in class, we have instituted a “respect” card as well as a “confidence” card every day.  This has been rewarding to watch the students helping one another.  They are respectful of each other’s learning styles.  I love seeing a quiet student speak up confidently while answering a math question or saying “I think I nailed this math facts quiz.”  We have now weaned it from my selecting the person to them nominating one another.

Confidence and Respect.

Yellow Flower with Bee by Erickson 5 Student

 

It felt really great to get some blogging done, before heading back out to do some errands.  I guess my short “blog-says” could have been three different posts, but I think as a trio, they fit well together.

Why I Am Glad That I Did Not Win the Lottery

Last June, I spent some time and some money buying lottery tickets.  I was in the mourning part of the teaching profession, giving away a marvelous group of students.  If one was going to retire, this would be the group to say adios to teaching.  So, I bought Scratch tickets and Mass Millions ticket in the hope of hitting it big and going out with these students. (Mind you, I entered teaching late, have two kids of my own in college and can retire no time soon).  By the end of June, the students had left, and the only other change was that my wallet was a little lighter from buying the tickets.  I was going to have to go back to teaching and this new class would have a hard act to follow..  I blogged about this both in June and in August before the new school year started.   The new school year started, and I, fresh with new ideas from BLC10, started teaching again.

And then, a funny thing happened.  A great new idea called CBL (Challenge Based Learning) caught on like wildfire with this new group of then 21 students.  I started seeing the spark in their eyes, the enthusiasm in their voices.  Our two Blanding’s turtle hatchlings, Bowser and Yertle, amazed us all.  In early November, we decided to enter a nation-wide contest, Disney Planet Challenge (DPC).  On a long November afternoon, as I listened to the children’s discussion on creating a goal for DPC and then developing guiding questions.  This afternoon was a turning point for me as I started to fall in love with another class.

DPC was a simply amazing experience for us all.  Students who didn’t like to write, were writing webpages.  Students who were naturally shy were standing up in front of town boards talking turtles.  A real deadline united us all with getting our portfolio done.  Students who wanted to be in a certain group were fine with being a team member and doing what needed to be done to meet our deadline.  This project gave learning a new purpose and these students rose to this challenge beautifully.

Along the way, other magical things were also happening.  Blogging.  The kids blogged all the time and responded to one another so naturally in such a respectful manner.  Writing.  Trips to the river made the students’ writing more and more descriptive.  As the seasons changed, so did their writing.  Confidence.  Watching the students blossom as they progressed throughout the year was extremely satisfying.

The year also had its share of trying moments for both me and the students.  Our turtle Bowser died during his laproscopy.   During the fall, a series of freak accidents left me with a severe nerve injury that later required surgery, and a concussion that left me rather dizzy for a bit.  This spring has been particularly trying for me after being asked to go to 5th grade, a change that I am very excited about.

So, today was day 179.   At 6:50 in the morning, my buddy and I both cried over this particular student’s blog

(http://kidblog.org/Room305b/Alexander230/1520/  At 7:45 a.m. was our robotics demonstration.  Wednesday’s dress rehearsal was as bad a dress rehearsal that I have ever witnessed.  Needless to say, both myself and Ms. Howard were very nervous.  However, in front of quite a panel, the students’ performance was flawless.  As I sat scrunched on the floor, I beamed across the auditorium at Ms. Howard as group after group

My beautiful gift

totally nailed their presentation.  After the last group, my room parents came up with a huge box.  They said it had really special meaning.  Tracey was right on with that assessment.  As I unwrapped the box, inside the bubble wrap, was an absolutely stunning ceramic platter that was personalized with 22 different turtles.  This platter was complete with the DPC logo as well as quotes that the kids said about DPC.  I was stunned beyond words.  It’s not very often that I am speechless.  But this did it.  Tears welled up in my eyes, and as my principal came over to see my gift, she noticed I was pretty emotional.  She hugged me and said, “isn’t this the best job in the world?”  It was pretty easy to agree with that statement.

At lunch, I went to walk one last time with my fifth grade student Justin.  His teacher asked me if he could hang out with his class, which was a pretty easy question.  I’ll be walking with him this summer.  So, I started back up the stairs, when four students from last year, Owen, Henry, Trevor, and Julian, asked me if they could have lunch with me.  I quickly said “sure”, and we headed upstairs.  I got to tell them that they were a special group for me and that they were going to do great at the middle school.  Trevor, who moved in during the school year last year, thanked me for doing what I did for him to welcome him into our class.  Jason joined us with his yearbook for me to sign.  It was a wonderful lunch and during it, I received a call from the office saying that

Gift from David and Sam

someone was coming up to see me.  I wondered who, and soon enough, Sam and David strolled into my room, carrying the canoe paddle that they had used in the Community Chest Challenge.  I had sponsored them, and at our reunion several weeks back, they thanked me for sponsoring them and said they had a paddle for me.  I forgot about it until just then.  It just seemed like the other day that I had these two boys as 5th graders, and here they were, both heading off to great colleges, back visiting their old 5th grade teacher.  Sam had written on the  paddle “Thanks for teaching and inspiring us from 5th Grade onwards;” and David had written “Thank you for everything.  Your mark on me is deeper than a pen on paper;”

So as this school year is coming to a close, I have to honestly say that I am glad that I did not win the lottery last June.  This year has been full of challenges, both good and bad, but as Kelly said, this is the ultimate job in the world.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.  I overheard one of my students tell his father during our slide show, look how the turtles have changed since September.  I think its safe to say that both the students and myself have also changed throughout the year.  Their river writing on Wednesday, was extremely reflective.  http://riveredge.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/the-river-and-me-june-2011/#comment-265  Just as the river never stands still, my students past and present continue to inspire me to be a better teacher next year and to keep moving to find new ways to engage them as learners.

Have a great summer and I’ll be blogging about all the great classes and conferences that I will be attending this summer.

Reflections

White Cedar Swamp in Wellfleet

The White Cedar Swamp in Wellfleet is a magical place for me.  The trail starts off at the parking lot for Marconi Station in Wellfleet . As I wrote in an earlier blog post,

“The next day, we were off to one of my all time favorite spots — The White Cedar Swamp at Marconi Station in Wellfleet.  If you are in this neck of the woods, this is a must visit spot.  One might think a swamp would not be so mystical, but they have not seen this swamp.  Leaving the parking lot, you travel

down a dirt path, which travels downhill, over roots and down stairs.  It is a place that is extremely quiet, except for the calls of birds and the rustle of the pine branches in the cool April breeze.  After about a ten minute walk, you arrive at the entrance of the White Cedar Swamp Boardwalk.  Surrounded by white cedar trees, the

swamp glistens like rubies on this sunny April afternoon.  All is silent as I quietly walk along, snapping photos as I walk slowly and deliberately along the board walk.  In a usual school day, there is often no chance to ever go slowly and deliberately.  To take in all that is going around you.  To appreciate the world around you.  Here in this magical swamp, I could do all that.  I could suck in the cool air, the beautiful colors, the smoothness of the boards as I snaked around the board walk, the richness of the green moss on the banks, the unusual striped bark on the cedar trees.  With all the craziness, I have not had time to reflect on the DPC award, to reflect on what wonderful learners my students have become, to admire their advocacy for the Blanding’s turtles.  The silence in the swamp gave me an opportunity to be thankful for all that I have.  I could well understand why those Chinese poets craved their retreats in the mountains.  The silence and the beauty of the swamp was helping me put things into perspective.”  

While my retreat was a wonderful respite, I found once back at school, my reflection of my educational journey was not complete.  I was asking myself, what matters most to me educationally?  Others were asking me, “What next after this year?”  “How can you top this?”  I shook my head and didn’t know how to answer.  I needed to journey, to search out what mattered to me, to talk to others, to explore other paths.

And this exploration led me to what does matter the most to me.  What makes me tic as a teacher?  What is it that I am most passionate about?  And after some really hard thinking and learning, I think I have come up with my “manifesto”, not quite like Jerry Maguire’s manifesto on sports management.

Moore State Park, Paxton

1.  From Jerry Maguire:  “The key to this business is personal relationships.”  The personal relationships that I have formed with my students over the past 12 years is extremely important to me.  From one girl who hugged me for every day of the 360 days that I was her teacher to watching my former kids perform on various stages to the current student who thanks me every day for teaching him, these relationships mean the utmost to me.  Being able to be part of a child’s life is a gift like no other.   These relationships comfort me when I’m down, delight me in watching these seeds turn into beautiful flowers, and inspire me to be a better teacher.

2.  Interdisciplinary Connections:  Teaching in a connected manner is the only way this brain’s synapses seem to connect.  This year, “Operation Blanding’s Nation” exemplified what a connected curriculum should look like.  It connects kids to a central core subject.   It allows them to see learning as connected, instead of isolated subjects.   If I was designing a school, this would be the number one guiding theme to student learning.

3.  Project-Based Learning:  Very similar to interdisciplinary student, project based learning lets the students wrap their learning around an authentic problem.  It allows me to be more of a facilitator rather than the “sage on the stage” model of education.  This year, I traveled into Challenge-Based Learning, which was just an incredible experience for all of us.

4.  STEM:  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics:  I have often said that the Lego Robotics unit that I teach is the very best thing I teach.  It integrates all the best 21st century skills that there are:  creativity, collaboration, critical thinking skills,  and communication.  After hearing from a parent today about Massachusetts being the robotic leader in the country, it is a must for our children’s education.  Robots are not for the future, they are here for the present.

So, after much soul searching, I have come to what matters the most to me when it comes to educating children.

Proud

At the beginning of the school year, I wrote a post called “Note to Self”.  I was re-reading some of my earlier posts recently and came across that particular entry.   The following lines really talked to me today:

  1. Be flexible. Just as you learned this weekend, you may have to try several different ways to reach different students. For your turtles, you needed to try different turtle food and a different method to feed them. You might too need to try different ways to reach a reluctant writer or reader or a student who says they stink in math. Be persistent and don’t give up. Remember what your new principal said at the staff meeting. This is important. You can do it. I won’t give up on you.
  2. Rejoice in watching your students and turtles. Observe them carefully. Find out what makes them tick. Enjoy them.

So, pretty much six months to the day that I wrote that post, I felt inspired to go back to it after this morning’s activity.  About four weeks ago, I was contacted by a person working for Concord CAN about attending a conference that they were sponsoring on Saturday March 5th.  They wanted me to have my students to set up a display on sustainability.  After a little bit of thinking, I said yes, we would come to present about our Blanding’s Turtle project.

Throughout this project, the words that my principal said at her first faculty meeting have resonated in my class.  This is important.  You can do it.  I won’t give up on you. I have witnessed some amazing learning from all of my students during this school year.  They have owned that it is important to be advocates for members of our community that can not speak for themselves.  Even when things weren’t working right, they kept plowing through.  With this project, I have given responsibility to kids who needed that shot of confidence in their arm that they too are great learners and can accomplish incredible things.

But today, re-reading what I had written in September:  “Rejoice in watching your students and turtles. Observe them carefully. Find out what makes them tick. Enjoy them.” really came into play.  At 8:00 a.m., my first group of eager students arrived at Willard School, set up the exhibit, and got to work talking to people about their project.  I just stood back and really watched them.  I watched these nine and ten year olds interact with folks that they had never met before.  I saw the excitement in their eyes as they showed the brochures, magazine, movies, web site, video games, stories, and the blog.  I heard them tell stories about Bowser, I heard them talk about data.  They enlisted another person to come to turtle night.  Myself, along with their parents just marveled at what we were witnessing.  As one of the parents told me, that he goes to trade shows and does the same type of things that these students were doing.  The confidence and enthusiasm was really evident from all six of the students who attended this event.  I couldn’t have been prouder of them.

With a slate of public events upcoming, others will also have the opportunities to share their knowledge and commitment to others in our community.  Challenge based learning  is an experience  that is authentic and that has incorporated every piece of our curriculum.  And most of all, it has made this one teacher one word:  proud.