Sunday, April 27, 2014

Winning Relationships

When speaking about his relationship with his new coach, Tom Coughlin, after the 2004 pro-football season, Michael Strahan describes an overall feeling of hatred. Tom Coughlin is a no-nonsense, if-you're-not-five-minutes-early-you're-ten-minutes-late kind of guy. He was hard on his players. He had high expectations and a lot of rules. He was often seen as somewhat of a tyrant. It's his way or the highway. In his first year with the New York Giants, his attitude was this is how it's going to be. No questions, no room for discussion. Since that first year, a great deal has changed with Coughlin, a man now widely considered to be one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. The reason why I use this anecdote when talking about winning relationships is because of how both men handled team adversity.

Strahan was ready to quit after Coughlin's first year with the team. That is how much he hated this man, with his beliefs and attitude. But he didn't. Strahan often makes reference to a line in the Coldplay song, "Clocks." There is a thought-provoking line in the song: "Am I part of the cure, or am I part of the disease?" This got Strahan thinking, as it should with all of us that may have struggles with members of our own teams.

As teachers, we all work on teams, from our grade-level teams to district committees. No team is perfect or without flaws. There are disagreements, differences in philosophies, and at times, there are members we feel we could succeed without. I have been there and you probably have too. Ask yourself, though, were you really doing anything to make that team better? Unfortunately many people resort to simply complaining,  rebelling or even lashing out at members they deem detriments to the team. None of that helps the situation, does it? What needs to be realized is that everyone on a team shares a common goal or in some cases, many goals. That is what Strahan realized. He and Coughlin both shared similar goals: They both wanted to win. With that, Strahan noticed several other things they shared: Belief in hard work, the value of strong leadership, and a love of football. He was finally seeing the man he once hated so much, in a completely different light.

Every team is going to face challenges, but never take your eye off the prize: The common goals that are shared by every member of the team. You also need to stop and ask yourself that same question that Strahan pondered, about being part of the problem or part of the solution. This player wasn't the only one who came to some kind of realization after the 2004 season. Tom Coughlin began to see how his players felt about him. He realized that he needed to change some of his ways and perhaps see his players in a different light. And boy did he. He finally loosened-up a bit. He begin to show his lighter side. He never changed his core beliefs or philosophies, but he allowed his players to take on more responsibility, gave them a say, and he helped those who wanted to become leaders, lead.

What does Strahan think of Coughlin now, nine years and a Super Bowl Championship later? He proudly states, "I love this man, and if I could, I would play for him any day. And together, we would win."

I am not saying every relationship is going to be like Strahan and Coughlin's, but there is a very clear message here. Winning relationships take work. They require all parties to stop and reflect on their own contributions. They require commitment and dedication to that common goal.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Taking the Lead: Influencing from the Middle as a Teacher Leader

“Leadership is not about position; it's about influence.”
-John C. Maxwell

Dispelling the leadership myth
About two years ago, I began mulling over the idea of going back to school to obtain a masters degree in Educational Administration in order to become a school leader. Leadership is influence and I was determined to spread my influence beyond my classroom walls and inspire an entire school. What I came to realize, was that I had already reached that level. I was already contributing to my school’s success and slowly becoming a catalyst for change: I was a teacher leader.

Effective leadership is generally directly tied to school success. Research has certainly shown that leadership matters. Teacher leadership, however, still is not always an accepted norm. The notion of an educational leader always tends to conjure up the same images: District superintendents and building-level administrators. These images, I believe, are misleading representations of leadership in education. They give off the impression that one has to be in one of those positions in order to develop influence in a school setting. Often, when asked about leadership roles, teachers reply, “I cannot lead because I’m not at the top.” How can we dispel this all-too-common myth? Even, in the midst of the 21stcentury, there appears to be a general lack of teacher leadership awareness.

Defining successful teacher leadership
While teacher leadership isn’t a new concept in education, it is one that is often misinterpreted. It has been long realized that teachers take on many roles. Teacher as leader is more than leading a class of students and being a great teacher. A teacher has many opportunities available to become influential and contribute to their school’s success.

From corporate offices to the military, and in a diverse array of cultures as different as The Netherlands, Canada, Hong Kong and the United States, there is overwhelming evidence of a common set of practices that any successful leader calls on, as needed. Many of these same practices define today’s teacher leaders and the roles they take on:

1. Direction Setters
Successful teacher leaders are aimed at helping their colleagues develop shared understandings about the school and its activities and goals. Effective communication is key. Whether it’s guiding new teachers or trying to influence seasoned veterans hesitant of change, leaders play a key role in identifying and articulating the school’s vision. Teacher leaders have a responsibility to help foster the acceptance of their school’s goals and in creating high performance expectations.

2. Teacher Developers
Teacher leads take on various roles that assist in the development of their colleagues’ instructional practices. Vital roles include curriculum specialist, learning facilitator, resource provider, and mentor. Successful teacher leaders lead in-school or district professional development. They may aid in curriculum mapping. Sometimes it is as simple as helping other teachers to understand state content standards and local curriculum initiatives, as well as how to plan and assess lessons meeting these guidelines. Ultimately, effective teacher leaders strive to unlock their colleagues' potential to become better.

3. Catalysts for Change
The field of education is ever-evolving and there is a great need for independent research, or teacher inquiry, about new instructional strategies or practices. Many effective teacher leaders even take on roles in their teachers’ union or groups working toward school reform. They advocate for their school, for teachers, and above all, student learning.

4. Life-long Learners
This one is a given. John F. Kennedy used to say, "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other," and true teacher leaders never really end their pursuit of knowledge or quest to become better educators. They are often the first ones to arrive to school in the morning and one of the last to leave at night. Teacher leaders are the ones who attend professional development sessions during school breaks to stay tuned in to the pulse of education in an ever-changing world. They engage in education twitter chats or reflect upon education in their professional blogs on the weekends. Successful teacher leaders are passionate professionals, always striving to learn and improve in order to be the best educator they can be and provide their students with the highest quality education possible.

The bottom line is- You don’t have to be a district superintendent or building administrator to be a leader within your school community. You need only the courage and determination to spread your influence beyond the walls of your classroom and an interminable passion to inspire the world around you. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Great "Test Prep" Debate

It's officially that time of year... I have put it off long enough... Time to prepare for our end of the year tests. If you know me at all, you know I am not a fan of standardized tests or the preparation that comes along with them.  I was amazed when I moved from New York to North Carolina almost two years ago. I can remember one school that I interviewed in... They were in complete test-prep boot camp. All of the teachers had camo-tees with catchy slogans, the students had just had a "test-prep rally," and all anyone could talk about were the upcoming End-of-Grade Tests. This was completely new to me.... I never once saw this in New York. When I accepted a job at my current school (not the one mentioned above), I vowed never to place that kind of emphasis on a few summative assessments at the end of the year, whether or not my performance as a teacher is evaluated using test scores. 

A part of me feels that if I have successfully taught my students everything they need to know, they will be equally successful when they test. Then again, no standardized test is designed to match the way I teach. My students never encounter a multiple choice question until this time of year. I am, like most of you out there, spend the year assessing with formative assessments and through authentic experiences. So, I have come to realize that I DO need to help them prepare by showing them how to use everything they have learned in order to answer the kinds of questions they will face on a standardized assessment.

Reading Test Talk in My Classroom
At my school, we teach "Test Talk." Glennon Doyle Melton and Amy H. Greene have written an excellent guide, Test Talk, that shows teachers how to embed test preparation into reader's workshop. 

The focus of my unit on Test Talk is not to teach anything new, rather help students recall everything they have already been taught and applying that knowledge to a new genre of reading- The Standardized Test! 

Where to Begin...
Every year, I begin my Test Talk unit a little differently. This year, I began by giving a mini-demand test with three reading passages with corresponding questions (One narrative, one expository, and one poem). I wanted to use this as a bit of a pre-assessment, as this is the first time all school year they have encountered something like this. One thing grabbed my attention right off the bat- Only a select few were previewing the passages before reading. Most students dove right in and began reading. Given all of the time we focused on this, this got me sweating a bit. As frustrating as this was to watch... it gave me a perfect place to start this year.

Launching Lesson: Previewing and Thinking about Genre
To kick off my first Test Talk lesson, I will began my usual discussion about this being just another genre that we need to learn how to read. When reading test passages, we need to read differently. Our purposes for reading will be different. Our purposes for reading will be different. We have to put to use ALL of our existing strategies and learn a few new ones.

With the focus being on previewing, the class and I discuss how we preview a test passage and how we need to ask ourselves:

* What genre is this?
* What am I usually expected to do with texts of this genre?
* What information is important to collect?
* How should I collect this information?

From here, students broke out into small group discussions. Each group was given one of the three genres I mentioned above and were asked to think about and discuss:

* What things am I usually expected to do or pay attention to when I read?
* How might I collect information as I read?

Check out my Test Talk Unit Resources
We shared out our thoughts and I modeled an effective non-fiction preview. From there, students previewed and read a new text independently. Our next steps will be to debrief and discuss our work before practicing with other genres.

Notice how I haven't even mentioned anything about answering questions. Check back in to see the direction I take with this unit this year. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

2014 Theme Song of the Week: Brave

This past week, my students reflected upon 2013 and chose their ONE WORD for 2014. One of my students chose BRAVE and set a goal to take more risks and try new things this year. Immediately it got me thinking about that new Sara Barelles song, Brave. This afternoon, I came home and watched the video for the first time. I have been trying to search for songs that fit with each of my students' words. The music video made my night! I am definitely going to play it for the kids next week.

This got me thinking. I think I am going to play a song each week that aligns with one of my students' words. A theme song for their 2014!

Friday, January 3, 2014

New Year... New Outlook... My One Word (Well, actually two)

Wow... It seems like forever since I have been on here. 2013 just got away from me. Looking back now, if I had to sum up the year in one word.... It would be "OVERWHELMING." I realized that I was starting to feel burned out... Something very common in the world of eduction right now, no matter where you live. 

I decided a few days ago that 2014 was not gong to be a repeat of 2013, which is usually a trend that occurs every year. I always begin each new year with the same old itinerary of goals or resolutions. By February... those goals are out the window and I am already thinking about next year and deem yself a failure. This year, I have decided to move beyond this cycle and experiment with something called My One Word. It is a concept one of my collegues introduced me to as a great activity idea for our students. Not only am I going to run with it in my classroom, but I am going to practice what I preach and hopefully seek a bit of change in my own life this year. 

I first began by reflecting upon last year and the kind of person I was. I realized I was unhappy and stressed most of the time during the year. This obviously had negative impacts on everything in my life (relationships, teaching, not to mention my health and well-being). Next, I followed these steps from My One Word:

Step 1: Determine the kind of person you want to become

Step 2: Identify the characteristics of that person

Step 3: Pick a word

I had a difficult time settling with just one word, so being the over-ambitious person I tend to be, I picked two (I know, it kind of defeats the purpose of "My One Word," but for me this is a huge sign of progress). My two words for 2014 are BALANCE and LIVE

I have always struggled with balance. I think if you study the everyday lives of most teachers, your will find that that is not an uncommon problem. I am dedicated to teaching. Perhaps too dedicated. Teaching has, in the last few years, become my whole life. Everything else has kid of drawn the short end of the stick in my prioritization. I realized that if I am going to shake off the unhappy and constantly stressed person I have become, I need to achieve balance in my life. After picking this word, my next step will be to create an action plan, similar to setting SMART Goals. I will share my plan soon. 

This word kind of goes along with the last one. I need to enjoy life in the moment. I tell my students at the beginning of each year, to "Work Hard, Take Risks, and Make It Count," but I don't think I have ever lived by my own perscription. In 2014... That's going to change.

I am going to have my students follow the same steps I did above and they will all choose one word to reflect how they intend to improve their lives in 2014. Even though I teach 5th grade, I think this is an activity suitable and easily adaptable for any child or adult. The most important thing to remember and share with your students is to keep their words POSITIVE. I think it will also help to share your own personal journey through this process. I think it is important that they see the value in this and the fact that this is something ANYONE can do each year for the rest of their lives.

Good luck!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Teach NC at TPT

My Adventures in Teacherhood store over at is now Teach NC. A great deal has been going on over there lately. I am collaborating with Ashley Gravelle from Primary Teacherhood. Ashley is a 2nd grade teacher (and also my fiance). Our store contains products and resources for grades 1-6.

For more winning ideas, check it out!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Launching a Powerful Historical Fiction Unit

Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one.”           
~John Boyne The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”
Unit Overview
This week in Readers’ Workshop, my students and I began our study of Historical Fiction. This year, our focus will be on WWII and the Holocaust. Students will be participating in book clubs where they read the same title with a small group of classmates and discuss their thinking about the book and the historical time period they are learning about. We will also have whole-group discussions through read alouds and mini-lessons where we will chart what we are learning and questions we have.

A major goal of this unit is for students to sharpen their understanding of historical fiction and learn that in order to truly understand the time period we are reading about, we must walk in the characters’ world as we read and process the setting (time, place, societal and historical context, mood, etc) in which the characters live. To do so, we have to keep the time period in mind and consider the issues that affect the characters’ actions. For example, stories written about the Holocaust will show Jewish people being ostracized and persecuted. Students will see incidences of unequal treatment and unequal opportunities based on race, religion, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. Students will see that in this time period, Nazis had power while the Jews and others who were persecuted did not, but they will also see examples of people who persevered above their circumstances and of those who courageously put their own lives in danger to reach out to provide help to others.

Making connections between books and analyzing the overall themes embedded in historical fiction will be another focus that will force students into higher levels of thinking. Students will see that themes of injustice, equality, perseverance, courage, struggle, empathy, and making a difference unite the different stories that make up this unit of study. We will also focus on the connections between the timeline of events in history compared to what is going on in the character’s life and how the historical events are affecting the character’s choices and decisions. In addition, reading multiple books will allow us to explore multiple perspectives, so that students can see how this horrific time in history can be viewed from many different lenses. This will increase the level of their understanding, not only of the time period, but of the complexity of the historical fiction texts that will be tackled.

Finally, as we study this important historical era, we want our students to recognize how all aspects of the social world have changed over time. We want students to realize that we can learn many things from studying our past in an effort to keep dark moments, like the Holocaust, from ever happening again. While elementary students are usually able to empathize with individual survivor accounts, they often have difficulty placing these personal stories in a larger historical context. One of our goals, through this unit, will be to help students to not only empathize, but to attempt to understand the complexities of history and human nature. We will continue our discussions about bullies, victims, and innocent bystanders by connecting those roles to this time period.

Some of the books children will be exposed to during this study include:

The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti and Christophe Gallaz Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas, Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne, Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy, The Big Lie: A True Story by  Isabella Leitner, and Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter.

Launching This Unit
Lesson 1
I kick off this unit by reading Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche. This story is told through the eyes of a young German girl, Rose Blanche, who is a witness to the immense changes occurring in Nazi Germany. Her curiosity leads her outside her town where she discovers a concentration camp. Rose Blanche secretly brings food to  the children behind the barbed-wire fence. The author implies that Rose Blanche is killed by crossfire as the Russian soldiers advance into Germany. The ending of this book is symbolic as spring arrives in this deserted camp.

Click to download a free copy of this as well as a few photographs to analyze.
I provide no background prior to reading this story. It provides me with a sense of what students think they know and misconceptions they may have. It will not be until the next lesson that we will do a little research. 

While reading, I model my thinking, focusing primarily on the setting and its influence on the main character. I also tell students to play very close attention to the illustrations, which happen to be done by the author himself. There is great symbolism in the colors and images he uses. I also give students a copy of the text with room on the right-hand side to jot their thoughts. 

Students are asked to consider the following while I read:

  • First, we need to notice the setting and ask, “What kind of place is this?  What does it feel like?” 
  • Then, we need to look for signs that trouble is brewing and ask, “How is the setting changing?” 
  • Third, we need to notice what problems the characters are facing, what their character traits are, and what pressures are on them.

Lesson 2
On day two, students and I begin by brainstorming everything we think we know about the the WW2 time period. I try very hard not to use the word holocaust yet. 

Once we activate a little bit of background knowledge, we discuss the importance of building background knowledge about the time period we are reading about using both primary and secondary sources.

 I show them this famous photo and together we analyze it.

First, I ask them to begin by jotting down everything they notice and observe, every detail that stands out to them. After we share a few ideas, I ask them to write down what they think is happening in the photograph. Immediately, students will be reflecting back to yesterday's read-aloud. Finally, I ask them to write their own caption for the picture. 

Next, we read a bit about WW2 and the Holocaust from a nonfiction secondary source (For this unit, Lucy Calkins offers a great resource in her book, Tackling Complex Texts), but you can find similar sources of background information from textbooks or other resources. My goal is to provide them with enough background to begin to make sense of what's going on at this time in our world's history. I use this opportunity to teach some kind of non-fiction reading skill (I used this to talk about cause and effect). Students used two different color markers or highlighter and identified examples of cause(s) and corresponding effect(s). 

Afterwards, we returned to the photograph and to the story of Rose Blanche and reanalyzed each piece now that we had more background knowledge. 

Keep checking back for my next lesson, where I launch out read aloud novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.