Question #2 for Elementary Educators

20 January 2009

Many thanks to those of you who commented on the question in the previous post. In addition to posting here, I had a few answers via Twitter and a few in person conversations to add to the mix. I'm not going to claim I've had a representative sample...and I also can't claim that there is much in the way of consensus, either. Like most things that have to do with schools, "the answer" rarely exists. But I am glad that you all have helped narrow things down. That is most helpful.

So, here is part two of the assignment I need your help in completing.

Suppose you had access to a science specialist at your school---someone who would teach science lessons a couple of times a week (in the same sense with which you might access PE, library, music...). Would you welcome science specialists for delivering science instruction to students---and what obstacles do you see in implementing it?

For example, maybe it's an awesome idea, but you just don't have a spare classroom...or the schedule is packed as it is. (Secondary educators rarely believe me when I tell them how difficult elementary schedules can be to build. They think they have the market cornered.) Or perhaps you wouldn't want a specialist because there are things you learn about your kids or places you like to connect the curriculum.

Nearly every educator I know is working in a school where budgets are being cut...and the most expensive portion of a school budget is people. Perhaps adding people, in this sense, is not a feasible option, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth pursuing if the payoff for kids would be worth it. (Side note: I would SO leave my current job if I could be an elementary science specialist.) If nothing else, it might serve as a reminder that legislators need to put their money where their collective mouth is.

What do you think?

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Elementary Educators: Raise Your Voice

17 January 2009

To my elementary educator peeps, I need your help.

Suppose that you were expected to teach more science during your already overloaded school day. This expectation was coupled with the promise that if you do this, another item would be removed from your responsibility (or you could have something you needed/wanted for your classroom). What would that one thing be?

This is reminiscent of the negotiations I blogged about a few weeks ago. If the state expects teachers to increase something, then it should offer that expectation in trade for something else. Tell me, teachers, what is your number one choice? Less than 120 minutes a day for reading? More planning time? Is there a professional resource that would like...or a particular assignment you have that should go away? What would make your classroom life nicer---or at least nice enough that you would be willing to take on more science instruction?

If you have an idea to share, please leave it in the comments or send me an e-mail. This is not a drill. Your answers may well be used as the basis for some changes in the state. I have another question to post in a couple of days about scheduling and the use of specialists. Keep your thinking caps on for me.

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The Intangibles of ECE

02 September 2008

I was reading a mommyblogger's post about how she is homeschooling her two wee ones for their pre-school years and will send them off to public kindergarten when they're of age. Although other mommies she knows are not supportive of her choice, she isn't worried that her kids won't be ready for kindergarten. She buys different workbooks and educational materials and has "school" for an hour a day. I applaud all of this---from the time and attention she gives her children to the interest in supporting their knowledge base. I haven't a doubt that her kids will be among the best prepared for the academic side of kindergarten.

What I think the mommy doesn't understand is that pre-school is not just letters and counting. There are behaviors and routines that Early Childhood Education (ECE) is attempting to develop. I have no doubt that the family is a good model of social things such as how to stand in a line (when required) or wait for one's turn, but it is a whole different ball of wax to have to operate inside that model with a gaggle of one's peers. The conversations that occur during play are an important aspect of social learning---something you can't get from spending time at the kitchen table with mom.

I don't believe that children who stay home with involved parents during their pre-school years are being done any damage. My point here is simply that viewing pre-school as something purely academic is a naive way to look at things.

I was thinking about all of this again after I saw this blurb in Education Week:

Children who enter kindergarten a year after they are eligible do better in school initially than their younger peers, but the advantage tends to fade later in their academic careers, according to a studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader set to appear in the Journal of Human Resources.

The findings go against earlier research suggesting that age is a significant factor in student achievement. Many states have changed kindergarten-eligibility requirements to give younger students more time to mature before starting school.

“One way to think about it is that the oldest kid in kindergarten has about 20 percent more life experience,” said Darren Lubotsky, a economics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who co-authored the study with Todd Elder, an economist at Michigan State University. “But once they start, they basically learn at the same rate.”

The delay may be a disadvantage to older students later on, the study concludes, given the cost of entering the workforce late.

I recently read somewhere in my RSS travels that late start kindergartners have the highest drop-out rates from high school---and tend to drop out earlier than their peers. Although, I suppose "peer" is relative. Perhaps there is something about being significantly older than one's classmates that sets up a whole sense of disconnection from school? Is it possible that at 5 or 6 years of age, the differences in development are so great---from the viewpoint of the child---that it is too frustrating to start school late? A teacher understands that not everyone in a kindergarten classroom has the fine motor skills for cutting along lines...but do the kinders?

We also know that the gains made by students who get all-day kindergarten fade by third grade---and there is no difference in achievement vs. those who only attended kindergarten for a half-day. I know of one district in the area which is valiantly trying to fight this, having invested hundreds of thousands of dollars from a stressed budget to offer full-day K to its students from its high-poverty neighbourhoods. I'd like to think that they'll beat the odds, but I'm not feeling confident. Why not? One of the factors associated with low SES is high mobility. The mobility itself is not what will doom the kids---ed research bears that out. It's the fact that there will be quite the "mix" of half-day and full-day kinders in the system by that point. Schools will be focusing resources on getting the half-day'ers caught up...not pushing the full-day students onward. Sad, but true. There will likely not be a lot of change until every child is eligible for full-day kindergarten.

I'm not sure how we measure some of these intangibles associated with ECE...how we move from just observing the process to really digging into what is happening. What do we do---if anything---with statements such as "If a child isn't reading at grade level by 3rd grade, they never catch up." or "Predictions for the number of prison beds needed in the future is based on current 3rd grade achievement."? Even assuming these are vast generalizations, there must be a kernel of truth in there somewhere. How do we move from a guessing game about what the right age is for school to ensuring every child gets started on solid footing?

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Echo...echo...echo

05 August 2008

I recently read about the need for certain edubloggers to step outside the echo chambers they were in. The idea being that if you're an ed tech person (for example) and you only read and comment upon other ed tech blogs, then whatever message you feel is most important likely isn't going to be effective: You're always preaching to the choir. And yet, we can be a rather cliquish bunch at times.

It seems like summers are a time when I try to step outside my traditional feeds a bit more. Last year, I delved into the edtech world. This year, spurred on by experience working in an elementary last spring, I've enjoyed looking for blogs that document life in the primary (and pre-school) classroom. What I am loving about these is that it gives a glimpse of the kind of social learning that we don't see at secondary---as sad of a statement as that is.

For example, here is a recent post from Organized Chaos:
a little one leaned over as i was reading him the riot act and placed his fingers on my forehead. slowly he traced my furrowed brow and asked what was happening to my head.

ah, to have just turned 5 and live in a me-centered world where you have not yet learned to read others' emotions on their faces. welcome to school. next time my forehead gets like this you'll know what it means. this time though, let me make myself very, very clear while you're in the thinking-spot.
While I can easily picture this entire scene, I have to say that it isn't something I've ever experienced at the high school level. I don't have to teach kids how to stand in line or put their things away or worry about someone pooping during group work. We do talk about developing the social order of the classroom, but I admit that our conversations don't go quite like this one as documented by Kindergarten Chaos:
My kiddos came up with these rules for our classroom, with a bit of guidance of course. Without the guidance of many combining rules into one, we would have a list 100 feet long*.
  1. Listen to our teachers.
  2. Always use our brains.
  3. Be careful with our stuff.
  4. Always take good care of each other.
If everyone lived by these rules, the world would be a happier place, don't you think?

*some gems that were combined under a broader idea:
  1. Don't poke people and make them bleed
  2. Don't push someone down and make them bleed. (Sense a theme?)
  3. Don't bump people.
  4. Don't kick people on the carpet.
  5. Don't spit on people.
You get the drift...
I look at the posts from Mrs. Sommerville on setting up her classroom and I can't help but think how much fun it would be to see children learning there. Even if these teachers experience the same kinds of frustrations that we all do, their view of learning is unusual (at least for me). I am truly enjoying having them in my Google Reader feeds---and more will certainly start showing up in my blogroll.

If you haven't had a look at these blogs, I highly recommend them---even if you aren't interested in working with primary students, the questions they provoke are just as relevant for every teacher.
Have you stepped outside the echo chamber recently? Any good finds?

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Isn't That Special?

24 July 2008

Guess what I got in the mail?


Yes, I passed my elementary cert test for Washington...but not only do I get a score report, I get a handy-dandy certificate which states that my "exceptional performance earned a score that ranks within the top 15% of all test takes who took this assessment in previous years. This achievement indicates a high level of proficiency in an area critical for professional educators." (Yes, the real one does have my name on it.)

It's kind of amusing. I don't think I've gotten a certificate for darned near anything in the last 20 years. I'm not sure what to do with it. It isn't as if anyone is going to care about the Top 15%. (Do you think the Top 5% gets a little gold sticker on theirs?) I think I'll put it in the file with the other certification stuff...and when I need a giggle, I'll pick at it and think, "Well, isn't that special?"

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Hide Your Young 'Uns

12 July 2008

I got my first set of scores back from my elementary endorsement tests that I took last month. Oddly enough, I received the one for my Texas test---which I took later than the one for Washington. The score report is "unofficial," but is good enough for me. I missed 8 out of 100 questions---half of them in the area of literacy, which I fully expected. My knowledge and experience with teaching small children how to actually read is negligible. I missed a science question (perhaps the Pluto one I mentioned?) and three social studies questions. Believe it or not, I didn't miss anything in the realm of math, PE, music, or art. I was scoring ~80% on all the practice tests I took, so I'm pleased with how well I did. This is especially in light of finishing my duties for the school year at 9:30 a.m...rushing to Sea-Tac to fly out at 1 p.m...getting to my final destination at 1 a.m...and testing about 12 hours later. There was more pressure on this test as it would be more difficult for me to retake: cost of plane ticket, time, scheduling, etc. It was also the one upon which everything else would hinge---the first in a series of dominoes to knock down in order to add my endorsement here.

I'm still a ways away from having all the paperwork finished. Now, I have to wait 2 weeks before I apply for the endorsement to be officially added to my Texas certification. Once I receive that documentation, I send it and some paperwork from Washington to the university in Texas where I was originally certified in order to verify that I, indeed, meet the criteria for that state. Once that is in hand, I send that paperwork, plus the Washington paperwork, plus a big check to our certification office...and then wait 4 - 6 weeks for my new certificate to show up. But hey, I'm on my way.

Hide your children. :)


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Two for Two

22 June 2008

I spent a chunk of yesterday afternoon taking my other elementary certification test---the backdoor test. Assuming that I passed this one (and I think I did well enough for that, although I certainly won't be garnering any accolades for high scoring), then the rest of the dominos can fall and I will be a genuine elementary teacher. Truth be told, this is little more than to be a line on my resume; however, I am of a mind that whatever one can do to get Opportunity knocking is a good thing.

There were several interesting things about yesterday's version: the Texas version vs. the Washington one from a week ago. Both are developed by ETS, so the script the test proctors used was identical, as were the printed directions, and answer sheets. There was even a math question that was the same for both tests. Plenty of opportunities for deja vu. Yesterday's test was more in depth, requiring pedagogical knowledge in addition to content knowledge. I'm still not convinced that a test can really allow anyone to determine whether or not someone can teach. Take me, for example. Just because I know a bit about phonemes and decodable books does not mean I'm ready for someone to toss me in with a group of kindergartners to teach them to read.

I'm wondering if teacher certification shouldn't be a bit more like those graduated drivers' licenses some states are using with teenagers now. The number and age of people you can have in your car changes with the more actual road practice you have. Perhaps teachers need some type of "learner's permit" and would gradually work up to a full-fledged cert on down the road. Along the way, there would be opportunities for mentorship and co-teaching.

At the moment, I'm just relieved that the tests are done, that I feel like I'm "two for two" on doing well (enough), and summer is on the horizon.

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Big and Little Things

17 June 2008

I've long believed that "Good instruction is good instruction," meaning that regardless of the kind of classroom you're in, the qualities of an engaging lesson are the same. Sure, different age groups have different requirements in terms of what is developmentally appropriate content or classroom management (my 10th graders would laugh if I used 3-2-1 to quiet them), but learning is the same for all of us. The maxim about instruction has been cemented for me this spring as I worked in both high school and elementary school.

Elementary teachers seem startled that I still read stories to my sophomores. I use word walls for vocabulary and sentence starters to scaffold writing tasks. We still used beans as counters for some of our graphing tasks. There are dances to do (for DNA), rites of passage to address, and learning stations. I remind teachers that although the content is likely different, kids know how to use these tools and opportunities because elementary teachers did their jobs so well. I just apply them differently. The kindergarten teachers from our recent field trip noted what I'd been telling them all along---my sophs were different from their students only in that the bodies were bigger.

And what have I learned this year after being around younger students for half my working day? Like the elementary teachers viewing my high school charges, it has been reinforced for me that kids are kids. Talking to second graders is not all that different from talking to 11th graders---other than what we talk about. I can use a Venn Diagram or Frayer Model with an intermediate student just as easily as a high school student. Asking good questions---and teaching children to ask good questions---remains an important task. The ability to build a positive relationship with students...to forge personal connections...is vital for every age and grade and content area.

It has been a year of change for me, but I have been glad for the one constant along the way: Teaching is no small thing.

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Trivial Pursuit

14 June 2008

I wish I'd had one of these buttons with me this morning. I took the elementary endorsement test for Washington...and "That was easy." One of the people there was taking a test for the sixth time. I'm hoping that she just suffers from poor test-taking skills, because if she doesn't know the content well enough to pass one of these tests...well, she probably shouldn't be trying to impart anything to kids.

I did the science and math questions first (natch). During the social studies part of the test, I realized that taking this test was a lot like playing Trivial Pursuit. What is the Rosetta Stone? Which countries did the Truman Doctrine support? All that was missing were some little plastic wedge shapes for completion of each part of the test.

I take my other test---the Texas version---next week. I should have all my results and paperwork done in a month...and then I'll be "highly qualified' to teach small people. I'm not particularly interested in having my own classroom, but the endorsement will make me more marketable for coaching jobs and other positions. It's a trivial pursuit for now, but it will be sure to play a role in much larger events later.

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We Did the Mash

03 June 2008


I admit that it doesn't look like much, but you don't know how close we came to not making this scene happen. You see, this event has been planned since February. It is the collision of the two halves of my working life: the sophomores I teach in the morning and the kindergarten teachers and students I work with as part of my afternoon duties. As you know, we've been outlaws over the last week, developing our lesson plans for our young charges. There was a lot of enthusiasm from everyone.

Being western Washington, however, Mother Nature was in an uncooperative mood. She was originally supposed to hold off on the rain until the afternoon, but instead exercised her woman's prerogative and got the party started last night. Bitch.

But I digress.

My first period class and I watched the radar loop this morning. We saw that the worst of the storm had passed. But it just. kept. raining. I even wore my good juju earrings today. Although I don't really buy into their magic, the kids had. Several asked me this morning---Did you wear the special earrings? I showed them that I had. The teachers from my afternoon school e-mailed us to mention that perhaps I should have started warming up these pieces of jewelry yesterday, but regardless of the weather, they were still bringing a merry band of 6-year olds to the beach.

I relayed this information to the class. And while they had been thinking of calling the whole thing off by that point, once they heard the small people would be there, they said they had to go, too. After all, the kinders would be counting on them. They had responsibilities to fulfill.

The rain let up to a gentle spit during second period, but it was still precipitating. And at the start of third period, my classes met out front...I grabbed the four umbrellas hiding in my car...and off we went. Rain or no rain. Take that, Mother Nature.

We looked quite bedraggled by the time we made it to the waterfront---but we did make it. A few moments later, a big yellow dawg pulled up and out popped several dozen little learners. We managed to get everyone partnered off, and then it was down to the beach. The picture posted here was taken early on, before students of various ages started wandering hither and yon. Some of my kids mentioned later that the kinders just wouldn't pay attention and how they'd be trying to explain something to the tykes when the wee ones would just start talking about something else. "Gee," I said, "How do you think I feel every day?" :)

In spite of Nature's petulant display, we had a great time. It was a monster mash-up of a day.

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The New Catch-22: Science and Literacy

26 May 2008

It goes without saying, I'm sure, that I have a particular bias about including science as part of a well-rounded education. It is not enrichment. It should not be an add-on to the curriculum, or something taught as filler when the teacher finds some time. I also believe that science becomes even more important in high-poverty areas because it provides students with background experiences as the basis for literacy. It is the concrete which allows teachers to tie on abstract words and symbols. It forms the foundation for students to make personal connections and have something to write about.

An area school is more or less eliminating everything which is not reading or math from the school day. Student achievement is poor. A great number of kids are not reading at grade level by 3rd grade (after which time, they never ever catch up according to the research). It would seem to make sense that spending even more than the 120 minutes per day set aside now for reading might be necessary. We need a literate society. If students are going to be able to break the cycle of poverty their families are in, they need basic reading and numeracy skills in order to have more higher education and job options. I understand that children who can't read will struggle with everything else.

So, this is my 22 that I'm caught in at the moment. Experiences in science build literacy (vocabulary in traditional settings does not). But students have to have the basic skills in reading and writing in order to support other learning. Which is more important? Which should be first? Do we do nothing but basic literacy and numeracy skills through third grade...and then allow students the "reward" of science and social studies? Or do we engage kids in all sorts of learning experiences at the primary level and use those as opportunities for literacy? Would science specialists at the elementary level take some of the instructional pressure off of teachers? (There was a great article in the Washington Post about science coaches in area elementary schools.)

I've been asked to give some advice in this area, but I know it's a losing proposition for science. "More...more...more..." will be the literacy cry. "Make them practice reading all day, if necessary, because more instruction is the same as better instruction." I can't argue with the need for developing basic reading skills, but I might be able to toss out a few shots against the "More = Better" stance. If you have any thoughts or ammo about breaking out of this Catch-22 cycle, send them along.

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A Tale of Two Tests

19 May 2008

So, in about a month, I'm sitting for two tests in order to add an elementary endorsement to my certificate. Because of the roundabout method of doing this, I actually have to add this endorsement to my Texas cert first...and then Washington. Each requires a different test. And they are very different tests.

Here is an example from the Washington test (note that this is considered a "rigorous" question):

Three-dimensional figures in geometry are called:

A. Solids
B. Cubes
C. Polygons
D. Blocks
You can see more mind-boggling questions here.

And here is a question from the Texas test:

The surface area of a cylindrical soup can is comprised of which of the following?

A. a rectangle and a circle
B. two little circles and a big circle
C. two circles and a rectangle
D. one rectangle
Other Texas questions are here; I'm taking test 101.

I have to say that the Texas test is far more challenging. I've put an "easy" question here, and while it is fairly straightforward, there is a bit more thinking involved. It's not just simple recall. Nearly all of the Texas questions are framed around a classroom scenario. It isn't enough to know the content, how would you teach it? What would you do about a child who was struggling with understanding surface area? Considering that the entire basis of certification is a test, I have to say that it seems like a much better approach.

Washington is going to ask me content area questions on literacy, math, science, and social studies. Texas has those, plus PE, music, art, and pedagogy in all of those areas.

I'm not worried about most of the content. The main area I need to beef up on is literacy. Yes, I use reading and writing strategies with students all the time---but they are teens. I have never had to actually teach someone how to read or how to write. So, I'll review on some of that, as well as some early childhood development info and be good to go. Also, I'm a good test-taker. I know how to work these questions, even if I don't know the specifics of what they're asking. So far, I've been getting ~85% on the practice tests just taking them cold. However, I'd like to be able to walk in for those exams with even more confidence.

At the end of the day, I still have to wonder if a test is really a worthwhile way to achieve certification. Yes, it's quick and simple (and pretty cheap as compared to actually taking classes and doing a practicum). Yes, good instruction is good instruction. Yes, a love of learning and children is vital. But there are just some things which come from experience---and I have precious little where working with small people is concerned. I feel like I will be in sheep's clothing, adding this endorsement to my resume to expand my marketability; however it is not awkward enough to make me stop my pursuit. I don't make the rules. I just want to help teachers and kids. If playing the game by telling the tale of two tests is the road I have to travel, so be it.

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Conversation of the Week

16 May 2008

Scene: Sunny afternoon; bus duty at a local elementary school

Dad:
"This is my daughter---the one I was telling you about. Jane is interested in learning to play piano, aren't you honey?"

Me, looking at small, blonde, first grader: "Hi, Jane. It's nice to meet you."

Jane: "I have a rifle at home!"

Dad, looking sheepish: "It's just a little .22." He holds his hands about 2 feet apart to try to illustrate the size.

Me, not knowing what to say in this conversation gone Twilight Zone: "Um...Wow."

Jane: "It's pink!"

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Out of the Box Thinking

27 April 2008

Over the last several years, I've had the opportunity to see some really good elementary science lessons...and some truly awful ones. As I think about what made the difference, some of it is due to general instructional expertise, some is due to the orientation of the classroom (teacher vs. student centered), but a lot of it seems to be tied to content knowledge.

In elementary schools, science comes in a box. I feel like that is a dangerous symbol to implant in young minds, but that's another battle for another time. Teachers have a manual with step-by-step instructions (including what to say) and prepackaged materials. Science by convenience. Teacher pull out the items, read from the manual, kids fill in worksheets...and Voila! they've taught science.

This would all be well and good except for one thing: kids have questions. Kids want to know why and how. They have their own hypotheses (often misguided, but at least they're thinking) and ideas. Some teachers are very good about allowing kids to ask and predict. Others are terrified to leave the scripted lesson and have some real exploration.

The other issue I've seen that gets in the way of real learning is the quality of the "output" provided. By this, I mean the worksheets that come with the curriculum (specifically those which come with the FOSS kits---STC is a far superior program). There is little or no critical thinking required by students. The lessons are wasted opportunities to have kids capture the process that is science. Again, this is not necessarily the teacher's fault. S/He is using what is there---and has been assured that the materials have quality. But so many were developed before a standards-based era where more rigorous thinking was required. The experiments themselves are still strong---but the lesson structure is not.

It is overwhelming to think about the kind of out of the box thinking that would be necessary to better support student learning in science. Teachers don't have time (or knowledge/expertise) to revamp things...and I'm only one person. I think that if we can get teachers to ask better questions during and after science lessons---even if they themselves don't know the answers---we'll be a lot closer to student achievement.

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There's Always a Back Door

25 April 2008

I have never thought I would enjoy teaching elementary level students. I like kids, but I can't quite get past the idea of being contained with the same group of children all day every day.

The simple truth, however, is that having an elementary certification would provide more opportunities. Although instructional coaching is about working with teachers, it would be good to have the flexibility to work with small groups of young 'uns now and then.

My problem is that Washington is not particularly friendly where certification requirements are concerned. Adding endorsements is typically a time and budget intensive process. In theory, the state would like me to have 45 hours of elementary specific coursework and do a practicum (student teach...again...after 17 years...). That's not going to happen, no matter how nice having an official elementary cert would be. Another route would be to get National Board Certification at the elementary level---which the state would then recognize. Um, not interested in a 400 hour project that is nothing more than a crapshoot.

And then I remembered that in Texas, once you have one cert, you can add others by taking tests. Hmmm. I have a lifetime teaching certificate for Texas...so I'm eligible to add on an elementary endorsement. But will Washington recognize it if I do? Why, yes they will. I do have to get someone from Texas to verify that I've met the requirements...and then take another test here (Praxis II) in elementary ed. Not a bad deal---I spend ~$200 on testing and certification fees and very little time and energy acquiring what I need. Poof! I'm a certifiable elementary teacher.

For those of you reading this in horror---not to worry. I won't be your first grader's teacher. Although Washington's certification hoops are a real pain in fanny, they're there for a reason---so people with specific training end up in specific classrooms. It's the right thing for kids. On the other hand, with nearly two decades of experience (and almost an EdD), I also don't think it should be so blasted difficult to expand my certification. Good thing I've found the back door.

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Wee Ones

25 March 2008

According to the Perry Preschool Study, "eight dollars was saved for every dollar invested in early learning, as the costs of remedial education, special education, abuse and neglect, health care, school drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, crime and incarceration were all significantly reduced." As I can think of no school district who isn't constantly fussing about their budgets, the investment in early childhood programs would appear to be a no-brainer (or at least a small brainer). The problem is, of course, that in a money-tight time, we are asking schools to spend money on both ends of the spectrum: invest in pre-K/K to prevent future problems and also attempt to fix the issues in older students that we were unable to address at an earlier time. If you have to toss one of these out in order to make your budget boat float, it is often the wee ones who get the boot. We'll get back to them later.

But let's say that a school district recognizes and supports the need for investing in a strong early childhood program, what qualities should they include? In "Creating the Best Pre-Kindergartens," Lawrence Schweinhart of Education Week identifies five primary (no pun intended) characteristics:
  1. Include children living in low-income families or otherwise at risk of school failure. Long-term effects have seldom been looked for and have yet to be found for children not in these circumstances, although there are arguments for serving them as well. For example, a recent study by William T. Gormley Jr. of Oklahoma’s state prekindergartens, which are open to all children, found short-term effects on participants’ school achievement that were large enough to promise long-term effects. Prekindergartens open to all children also enjoy a wider political base than a targeted program, and still include the children who are most in need.
  2. Have enough qualified teachers and provide them with ongoing support. Qualified teachers are critical to the success of any educational program, a principle now embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In early-childhood settings, being qualified is taken to mean having a teaching certificate based on a bachelor’s degree in education, child development, or a related field. Because research is constantly informing us about how young children learn and can best be taught, it is also important that early-childhood teachers receive curriculum-based supervision and continuing professional development. Systematic in-service training, in which teachers learn research-based, practical classroom strategies, also helps ensure that young children are having the educational experiences that contribute most to their development. So that pupils receive sufficient individual attention, highly effective prekindergarten classes have two qualified adults—a teacher and an assistant teacher—for every 16 to 20 4-year-olds. Although having qualified teachers, a low child-to-teacher ratio, and ongoing professional development may cost more, cutting back on these components would threaten program effectiveness as well as the return on investment.
  3. Use a validated, interactive child-development curriculum. Such a curriculum enables children as well as teachers to have a hand in designing their own learning activities. It focuses not just on reading and mathematics, but on all aspects of children’s development—cognitive, language, social, emotional, motivational, artistic, and physical. And it has evidence of its effectiveness. Implementing such a curriculum requires serious interactive training, study, and practice, particularly for teachers who have little experience with this type of education.
  4. Have teachers spend substantial amounts of time with parents, educating them about their children’s development and how they can extend classroom learning experiences into their homes. All the programs in the long-term studies worked with parents. In fact, in the High/Scope Perry Preschool program, teachers spent half their work time engaged in such activities. As child care beyond part-day prekindergarten has become more widespread, parent-outreach efforts also need to include other caregivers, in centers and homes, who spend time daily with enrolled children.
  5. Confirm results through continuous assessment of program quality and children’s development of school readiness. Good curriculum and good assessment go hand in hand. Prekindergartens striving to be highly effective need to replicate the policies and practices of a program found to be highly effective, including the five ingredients listed here. The proof that this is being done lies in program-implementation assessment, a system for measuring how well a program carries out administrative and teaching standards. A program assessor uses standard protocols to observe classrooms and the school, and to interview teachers and others about the various aspects of program quality. The results can then be used for program improvement. Systematic observation and testing measure prekindergarten children’s development of school readiness. With an interactive child-development curriculum, systematic observation fits better than testing, because it records children’s usual behavior rather than requiring them to respond on cue in a particular time and place. Program administrators and teachers who know how children are doing on such assessments will be able to use this information to monitor the children’s progress and attune their teaching to it.
I have to say that I really like the last point. Kindergartners do not have a very long attention span---testing and/or progress monitoring these children is a ridiculous task if the test is timed. A moment of staring off into space can mean that a child is inappropriately identified as needing assistance because she didn't answer enough questions within the time allotted. Shouldn't we care more that the kid can answer them? But I digress.

What I really want us to take away from all of this is that if we really care about making social change---breaking the cycle of poverty and establishing equity---we need to do this from the very beginning. At the start of 2008, 1 in every 100 Americans was in prison: a record high. While we can't give up on any member of our society, I can't help but wonder what might have happened if we'd given each of these people a better beginning when they were wee ones.

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The Sad State of Elementary Science

25 November 2007

A recent study by UC Berkley has lent some weight to a sad suspicion I've had for some time: science courses at the elementary grades are becoming extinct.

About 80 percent of those teachers said they spent less than an hour each week teaching science, according to researchers from the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley and from WestEd, an education think tank based in San Francisco.

In contrast, a national study seven years ago found elementary school science instruction averaged more than two hours per week, said Rena Dorph, the lead researcher on the new study.

  • About 16 percent of the elementary teachers said they spent no time on science at all. (Most taught at schools that had missed the reading and math benchmarks of No Child Left Behind and were trying to catch up.)
  • Most kindergarten to fifth-grade students typically had science instruction no more than twice a week.
  • Ten times as many teachers said they felt unprepared to teach science (41 percent) than felt unprepared to teach math (4 percent) or reading (4 percent).
  • Fewer than half of Bay Area fifth-graders (47 percent) scored at grade level or above on last spring's California Standards Test in science. (Only fifth-graders are tested in science at the elementary level.)
You can read the full report here, if you're interested.

While I don't doubt that the expectations set forth by NCLB are a driving force behind science getting muscled out, my hunch is that other elements may also be at work. I think this is a bigger issue than just blame the feds. If 41% of elementary teachers feel unprepared to teach science---isn't that an issue the ed schools need to tackle? Is it a sign for greater need for elementary science specialists and coaches?

There are repercussions of this lack of science (or experience with bad science) which I see in my classroom all the time. I feel like I'm continually having to teach some basic scientific knowledge and skills...and fight against all manner of misconceived ideas.

I hope that at some point, this overall trend toward less science reverses and children get the kinds of rich experiences they deserve in the elementary classroom. I admit that I'm not sure what it will take to get us there. Any ideas?

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How Not to Succeed in Business

30 July 2007

There is a new science kit being added to the rotation this year. In early June, I had asked the sales rep about the possibility of scheduling a training for teachers on this kit for sometime in early August (1, 2, or 3). We had some money that would have paid for the trainer and teacher time to attend, but it had to be spent before August 10. I never heard back from the sales rep, assuming that there must be no trainer available.

Lo and behold, I get a call on Friday (July 27). The company that sells the kits was interested in confirming some flight information for the August 1 training. Wha'? I nicely told the lady that I had indeed put in a request for some training, but since I had heard nothing from the company, no teachers were aware. I certainly had no way to get ahold of 40 teachers in 4 days (assuming they're available), let alone make sure that there is an appropriate space, etc. Five days of warning is really not acceptable. I told the sales rep that we would try to reschedule for sometime in September or October. I didn't say that I wished there was a more reliable company from whom to get the training.

I'm still a bit floored by the way this whole thing played out. Is this really how business should be done? Teachers will want and need the training...we have another source of funding to pay for it...but the company is very difficult to deal with. So, I'll look for a way to make things work with them and get teachers what they need, but it apparently won't be easy.

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Under the Bus

04 May 2007

It's no secret that I don't support The Union in this district. I am not opposed to the idea of unions...I even think that they have their place in education. I do not, however, support the concept of a "closed shop" where people are forced to join...and even if that were not the case in Washington, I could not in good conscience belong to this district's association. They do not represent the things I value as an educator. You might imagine today that I took no small delight in throwing one of their reps under the bus in front of the very teachers she was there to support. I like this woman and I realize that she was there to fulfill an obligation, but someone has to be there to speak for kids. So under the bus she went.

Believe it or not, the Free for All that started six weeks ago didn't come to a head until today. This was not due to me not caring or being too busy to mind this issue, but rather that I didn't have any backup at the ready. Today I did. The teachers who came to chat today don't want to do the new science kit because they do a unit on salmon. It's good stuff, to be sure, but it only has a couple pieces of content---and no process, which the majority of what kids are expected to demonstrate in order to meet the standards.

The Union rep was one of the people who selected this kit for adoption. I made sure to point this out in the beginning, because I have to say that my teachers who served on the materials adoption committee have scattered like cockroaches when teachers turned on the lights of their displeasure. I have let them run, knowing that they have to get along with others in their buildings. I don't mind taking any "blame," because the bottom line is that I'm not at fault. But as long as there was the one committee rep there...and not in a position to support the choice she helped make...then perhaps I should point that out to the teachers who were upset.

The bottom line? Teachers have to teach the kit. It's possible that the pieces they've developed can be integrated, but only as supplements. The backup I had today (someone with cajones...not Boss Lady 2.0) made it clear that (a) it is expected that teachers use the district adopted materials and (b) instead of complaining all the time how they have too much to do, they now have an opportunity to let something go and should take it. I'll work with them on putting some things together, but they do not get to trade one for the other.

I couldn't be more pleased. The kids win...and the only one under the bus this time is The Union.

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Inside Information

18 March 2007

My Curriculum peeps and I have been working with teams of elementary grade level teachers in order to develop "Grades in a Box." With school closures, decreasing enrollment at primary grades, and miscellaneous program cuts, we have many teachers who may well be changing grade levels next year. Our goal is to support this transition by providing some support materials that give a framework for the new-to-teacher grade level.

Will the finished product actually be in a box? Things are still a bit uncertain at this point. Right now, the recommendation is to have a spiral-bound set of information for a grade, plus something similar for each building, and then a welcome note from grade level teaching partners. All of this could be bundled in something akin to a magazine storage box---something easy to put on a shelf and access as needed. Our hope is to have these available in June for teachers who are making changes for next year. This would give them the summer to look over things before a more formal day of inservice in August. In terms of materials, those of us in Curriculum can pull that information together. But the real scoop? That can only come from teachers currently working at grade level.

For example, when a kindergartner raises his hand and says he has to go to the bathroom, do you send the kid immediately? Wait until circle time is over? Send him with a buddy (or in a small group)? By himself? Let's say that you find yourself assigned to fifth grade next year. Should you be surprised when the boys are standoffish?

The teachers who are helping with this project have all the inside information and they aren't being afraid to dish the dirt. I have to say that the first grade comments are my favourite so far (e.g. "They poke you. They poke you. They poke you."), but every grade has had some wonderful insights to share with their peers. It's been more of a "Everything you wanted to know about grade x but were afraid to ask" sort of project. Second and third grade teachers will be arriving in the morning to work on their pieces and I can hardly wait to find out what they have to share.

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Lessons Learned

08 March 2007

My district used to belong to a consortium which supplied our elementary science curriculum. A central supply replaced consumable items and prepared kits to be delivered to schools three or four times a year. There were lots of issues with this model---especially after the state finalized its science standards. The curriculum we had was not a good match, was costly, and there would be no help on the part of the consortium...so we ended our partnership. Now, the next largest district in this group has ended its contract. They asked another specialist and I to meet with a group of their teachers yesterday and talk about the road we've traveled this year.

I have to say that visiting with that group was one of the few times I've actually felt eloquent. Thinking about the events of the last year and organizing them to share was a good exercise for me. I took some time to put things in perspective in order to talk about them.

I started by divulging the bias our district had in making our final decisions. The bottom line is that what we do in schools is about kids. Kids are the ones who are held accountable to the standards. While I know that we made some mistakes with our implementation this year...that there were things I wish had occurred in a better way...the truth is simply that I haven't a single regret about the decision to leave the consortium. More than anything else, that tells me that we had done the right thing.

We talked through our curriculum selection process, what has and hasn't gone well this year, adjustments we'll make, and plans for the future. I told them that I couldn't claim that everything was all sunshine and rainbows this year: change is unwelcome for nearly everyone and this was no exception. I also said that I didn't really mind dealing with annoyed teachers---their frustrations are real and should be acknowledged and supported, when possible. But none of the complaints this year have been about kids...that kids can't do the science, don't like the kits, or aren't learning. We'll work out the teacher kinks as long as kids are getting what they need.

There was a feisty teacher in the group. She enjoyed testing the depth of my convictions and seeing how true I would stay to my philosophical beliefs. She wanted to know just how much I understood about issues with teaching science. I liked this woman. We need teachers like her questioning all that we do...being the devil's advocate. If you can win her over in a small group, she will cheerlead for you with others.

I can see that this district has some of the same staff development issues that we do. There are some major hurdles to leap in order to create a high quality science experience a reality for every student; but, I also believe that without a vision of what can be and where you want to lead teachers, nothing can change.

We left the group at lunch and drove back to our own district, wondering where the process of selecting curriculum would take them. We didn't have to wait long. This morning, the group leader e-mailed us to tell us that they've decided to go with the exact same thing we chose for our district. I'm a bit surprised by this---not because I think we made bad choices---but rather because each district is a bit different. The strengths and weaknesses of staff are not the same everywhere. Even if the standards are the same for students across the state, there are different curricula to support them. I also found it interesting that this district chose curriculum sight unseen...something we were not brave enough to do last year.

Words are powerful things, at least in my mind. Knowing that I was influential in the decisions of another district feels a bit odd. The most important thing I learned, however, is that in spite of all the budget talk, program cuts, ugly issues, and hoopla this year...it's still about kids for me. I can see that it isn't for many people I work with, but my reason for being in education is unswayed. That gives me a lot of courage to keep moving forward.

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Illustrators-in-Training

09 February 2007

When I'm out and about at schools, I get to see a lot of writing and artwork done by kids. This particular piece caught my eye and made me laugh. The character is just so...furry. Down there. I thought perhaps he should be called the Merkin Man. But it appears that the child actually named him the Devil Eagle, even if he does look like a happy sort of fellow. Is that a grocery bag of bones? Or perhaps the toques of two poor chefs being taken back to the lair? Looks like the guy has quite the can opener for the other hand, but it must be a bummer to have to walk around on one's knees.

For some perspective, here's the character along with a couple other representatives:














As you can see, the other pieces of art on the wall had lots of texture, too...just not in the same way. The arrangement is a bit unfortunate, I think. Above Devil Eagle, it looks like the character is going to shoot the one on the left in a place no arrow should pierce. Ouch. That character---perhaps the second cousin of the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz---already looks unhappy about things.

Okay, so maybe they aren't all going to grow up to be the next Picasso; but then, neither am I. In the meantime, I'm glad I my camera along for these forays to area classrooms. I can never tell what I'll see next.

P.S. If you're looking for a more views on children's artwork, click here.

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The School Who Cried, "Wolf!"

11 January 2007

Every school culture is unique. It's an amalgam of leadership style in the main office, teachers new and not-so-new to the building, and an ever changing student clientele. Schools take on certain personalities. The district becomes a family that has siblings with a variety of attention-seeking behaviors.

The elementary math specialist and I just finished another round of grade level meetings. As expected, some teachers are unhappy with the new science kits. But the interesting thing is that the biggest complaints came from the same two schools. In fact, these are the same schools that whine about nearly everything that happens in and around the district. They have no ability to pick their battles, the result of which is another iteration of rage against the machine.

I told another staff member in Curriculum that if a teacher from a school that doesn't continually complain had said the same things about the science kits, I would have snapped to attention. Sadly enough, because it's the same teachers complaining about science and math curriculum, writing program and coaches, leadership issues, the new report card, and more---I tuned them out. I let them vent, but I didn't take any notes. This seems to be true for others who are their targets...which then leads to even more frustration on the teachers' part because no one is responding. I'm happy to support what I can, but at some point, it becomes their responsibility to stop crying "Wolf!" at every single thing. (Or, perhaps, we should show them the Whining Rubric and see if we can't at least move them toward the standard.) These schools are also the ones who refuse to participate on district committees or initiatives---so anything new appears even more as something done "to" them, rather than "with" them. They choose to be victims.

We need a bit of change on both sides. These schools are going to have to come to the table with more than "It's so unfair!" and from the district end, we need to look for new ways to get them engaged and involved---to give them a different sort of voice in how things work. In the meantime, these schools and teachers are going to be lost lambs---and continue to be thrown to the wolves.

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Round Two: TKO

08 January 2007

Tomorrow is our last grade level meeting of our elementary math/science cadre. I think this round went much more smoothly than the first one, but there have been a few bumps here and there. My biggest area of learning this time was simply being able to study the various group dynamics.

Kindergarten is very chatty and vivacious. They have a singular passion for the little ones in their charge and it shows in their personal lives, too. First grade is all business. They prefer just to get down to work---and earn an early out from the meeting. :) Second grade wants products, not process. This group of teachers gets wound up when they talk about issues and potential problems, but are all smiles if you can do a "make and take" with them, during the day. Third grade is reluctant to talk. There are a few strong personalities there---and others are intimidated. Fifth grade is a lot like kindergarten, but with a stronger sense of humor. They give as much energy as they get. Sixth grade is hungry. These teachers are interested in anything they can do to get their kids ready for junior high. They want to be seen as legitimate contributors in the continuum.

And fourth grade? I'll see them tomorrow...so I don't have a particular bead just yet. I do know that many of them don't like the new kits. I expect some harsh comments at the start of the day, but I'm hoping that they'll move on and get into the day.

There have been great comments from teachers about the professional development we've offered. We've managed to "wow" them with all kinds of information and they leave each day smiling and enthused about what they can take back to colleagues and kids. Some of them see themselves for the teacher leaders that they are. Others are more unsure. Maybe continued work as a group will give them the boost they need to take on a stronger role in their schools.

My guess is that we won't have the cadre next year...something that makes me sad to think about. We've really gotten such a great start to things this year and I hate to think that math and science are going to be swept under the carpet again. For now, I'm going to bask in things. Round Two of our meetings have been successful.

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Butterflies Are A Little Too Free

05 January 2007

The following was written by one of our teachers to describe her experience with the Butterfly kit. I guess I'm not the only one for whom they wouldn't behave. Remember my Dinopillars?

The Defliant Ones

The prisoners bang against the walls of their cell. First one, then another; soon the cacophony is impossible to ignore. The lights go down but the inmates pay no heed: seeming to feed on one another’s frenzy the noise is now deafening. Then, two escape, arm in arm a’ la The Defiant Ones, the Sidney Poitier movie in which a black and white prisoner chained together at the legs are forced to look after one another’s welfare despite misunderstanding and mutual prejudice, in that their fates are inextricably entwined. The lights blaze overhead and the alarm sounds: “Derek!,” wails the siren, “The butterflies have escaped again!”

I should have known this batch of butterflies would be nothing but trouble. From the time the innocent-looking miniature caterpillars arrived they made my life difficult. First, each minuscule larva had to have his or her (its?) individual abode prepared. (What, they were too good to bunk together like the previous batches had?) Yes, for these caterpillars I had to prepare 23 cups of food, “tamped down lightly” and then ever so gently, with a paintbrush, lest I maul their wormlike bodies or harm their little psyches, place them into their deluxe caterpillar suites. The extra caterpillars (Now, why did they give us 10 or 12 extras?) I housed, flophouse style, in an old fish bowl with a not too secure lid.

For a week or so, the caterpillars made no new demands. I had to admit, the children were ever so excited to have their own little baby caterpillar to examine with a magnifying glass. It was fascinating to learn about and see their propeds (temporary legs) and their strangely punkish hairiness. For awhile, much as newborns everywhere, they ate, grew, presumably slept, and defecated. Then, the children started to name them. “Okay, Bob, back to the nursery. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then, the tragedy one or two days later: “Bob isn’t moving anymore. What’s wrong with Bob?” Finally, Thanksgiving weekend came. As some of the children gave thanks that their caterpillar had not met Bob’s fate, others had a lesson in nature’s harshness.

Returning after the long Thanksgiving holiday, we discovered that the caterpillars had really GROWN. Then, much like the adolescents they were, the flophouse caterpillars began running (creeping) away. I’d tuck them all in safely before leaving each afternoon only to return the next day and find 2 or 3 of them attempting to crawl to freedom. Obviously they didn’t think it was fair that their many siblings got their own rooms while they had to share.

Next came the waiting and waiting: Would they ever hang upside down, spin chrysalises and fly away from the nest or would they mooch on their families forever? Day by day one or two would form chrysalises which I would have to painstakingly detach and move to the butterfly penthouse. Of course the caterpillars couldn’t all form at the same rate so each day I would have to move the latest bloomers. Finally, the last caterpillar had formed its chrysalis. Now, to wait for them to burst out in butterfly beauty to the oohs and ahs of the children. Natch, it was 2 days before Christmas vacation and there was no way they could grow up that fast. The pathetic part of it was, I had become strangely attached to the little critters. I couldn’t leave them in an unheated classroom, all alone. What to do??? Get a babysitter! Frantically I began typing a parent letter, emphasizing the beauty of nature in action and minimizing the pain in the a—factor of raising “God’s living flowers: Butterflies.” Alas, before some poor sucker I mean some science-oriented and sensitive parent could respond to my plea, school was unexpectedly closed a day early.

Well, I caught Sidney and he’s back with the rest of the cell block. Maybe I’ll have to punish him by giving him a sponge with no sugar, only water. Meanwhile, the other fugitive flies around my kitchen, taunting me. It’s getting personal, now.

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What's in the Box?

02 January 2007

This district will have some significant changes next year, especially at the elementary level. With two schools looking to close, there are about 50 teachers to place at new-to-them schools, and quite possibly in new-to-them grade levels...not to mention all of the other shifting that typically happens between school years. There's a lot to coordinate and in Curriculum, we're trying to be as proactive as possible. My favourite quote from a teacher so far is that "We're getting a lot more support from the district than from the union." Indeed.

One of the things we're working on in Curriculum is a "Grade in a Box." The idea is to provide a concise snapshot of what happens at a given grade level (and when), what resources are available (and should be in the classroom), and so on. It should be a quick glance for teachers---especially those who will have new teaching assignments next year.

The biggest issue we're having so far is a philosophical one about how we structure the overall map of a grade. Some areas (math, reading, writing) already have pacing guides. Do we want to simply expand on that by adding other areas...or is it more useful simply lay out the big ideas? My personal bent is to go with the former---give some specifics, because it's the day-to-day stuff that will worry "new" teachers the most...although I think the big ideas are really what help frame instruction. Next year is going to be all about survival mode for many people. They're not going to be ready to broaden out just yet.

All of this will have to be done with significant teacher input, of course. The support beyond that will also require an investment. Right now, we're looking at offering a day of inservice at the beginning of the summer---as well as in August. For the second one, we would pay an "expert" teacher at each grade level to set up their classroom early so that there was a model for the meeting.

As a grade level teacher, what would you like in a box? What would you have liked to have known at the beginning of your tenure?

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In There With the Teachers

13 December 2006

Some current research seems to indicate that if elementary schools can't have science specialists, they can do just as well with promoting student achievement by developing expertise among regular classroom teachers. We're going with this idea and the elementary math specialist and I are training a "math and science cadre" for the district. There are 14 elementaries and each one sends one teacher for every grade level, k-6. We do some intensive professional development together and then the teachers go back to work with peers.

Round One of the cadre meetings was at the end of September and we're kicking off Round Two this week with k, 1, and 6 teachers. It is good for me to be doing this. I haven't had much opportunity to work with groups this year and I do miss being in the classroom. There is such good energy in learning with people---no matter their age or background. I come home exhausted, but feeling satisfied about things.

This time around, my portion of the day is to do some general inservice around differentiation and then start the benchmark process with teachers. It's not quite as glam as the math portion of the day, where the specialist is doing some games with them, but it is responsive to topics that they've been wanting us to explore. There is also an opportunity for the teachers to meet the new science kit coordinator and provide us with some feedback about what is and isn't working. I know that there have been rumblings out and about (kits are new this year), but we're not getting many negative comments yet. My guess is that it's much harder to be ugly in person than it is on paper or in the staff room; however, we do want constructive criticism and to be able to respond to needs. We can't do that unless people tell us what they want.

I hope that we keep the cadre next year, although I don't know that it will survive budget cuts and a survey about teacher needs. Teachers who participate (between 1/3 - 1/2 of our elementary staff) are very positive about the experience and feel like they're learning a lot. It's hard to miss a day with kids, but good for all of us when teachers have the chance to be together.

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Out of Chaos, Comes Order

07 December 2006

These days, most of us in the district are hoping that Nietzsche was right. It's an awfully bumpy ride this year and it's just going to get rougher.

School closures will mean lots of change. How do you box up and move two entire schools? They're not all going to the same spots. Will teachers who have technology (LCD projectors, document cameras) get to have those move with them? What happens to students who have attended one school for a few years and although their school isn't closing, they will be shifted to another school due to boundary changes? If you're an administrator and Superstar 3rd Grade teacher is assigned to your school...do you take one of your current 3rd grade teachers and reassign them? We have first grade teachers who have been teaching 1st grade for over 20 years. If they're assigned to a different grade level next year, it will be a lot like starting all over again.

How do you plan for next year when the state legislature might very well change things like graduation requirements late this spring. Will we still run math lab classes for kids who don't pass the WASL? If we will be funded for full day kindergarten, how do we factor that into school closure? What about all of the district initiatives in progress at the moment...will everything be put on hold and kept in limbo next year while things settle down? (Might mean my job is not quite so full.) And the feds? NCLB is up for reauthorization.

At the moment, Boss Lady 2.0 is pushing us hard to get all of our ducks in a row regarding our program. Massive budget cuts are on the way...changes to schools mean we'll need to create new support systems for teachers with fewer resources. We'll be in a reactionary mode to anything legislatures toss our way instead of being more proactive about student learning.

Here's hoping that a butterfly is now flapping its wings in an Amazon forest, setting in motion a series of events to bring a bit of calm to our district.

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Life After the Kit Center

29 October 2006

It seems like most of my working life over the last year has been devoted to thinking about our science kit center. Should we have one? How much would it cost? What would we need? Could we handle it? There are lots of other projects I would very much liked to have worked on, but this was one that just had to have priority. It has made this fall difficult in some ways and not much fun in others. But we have survived in good stead.

We were able to hire someone, although a month later than what HR promised us. Good things come to those who wait, I suppose, as the person we got is amazing. She is terribly overqualified with an M.S. and years of experience running a research lab where people who had earned their DVM degrees came back to work on PhDs. Ordering paper plates and cutting wax paper is definitely not what she's been professionally trained to manage. However, she has her reasons for wanting this job and we're not going to quibble with them. We have truly come out ahead with this.

There are some minor issues continuing to dog the first rotation of kits...and we are certainly having to think about getting restocked for rounds two and three. I don't think that there will be a quiet spell until the spring. But we are getting several community volunteers in to help and our new coordinator has brought several good relationships with vendors with her. Things take time, which is not what you want to hear if you're a classroom teacher with a need for that day. Most of them have been very patient and understanding.

This is the first week where I don't have back to back meetings and events scheduled on my calendar. I have time to actually concentrate on my job: supporting teachers.

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Closing In, Part II

27 October 2006

I went to breakfast this morning with some friends who teach at one of our elementary schools. They told me that someone had been out the day before to give them "the talk." I wasn't sure I understood. "You mean Boss Lady 2.0?" as she is planning to visit all of the elementaries. "No. We and another school are 3 and 4 on the list for closure. This was our 'heads up.' They won't tell us which school is which."

Very interesting.

It had been kicked around for some time that three elementaries might be closed. I did mention that to my friends, but it wasn't until later in the day that it hit me: Why would you tell both #3 and #4 if they both aren't seriously being looked out for closure? The district has been pretty open with the top two choices...and there has been a lot of work to keep things out in the open and rumors to a minimum. What reason could there be for stirring up two more schools?

A newspaper article in the area printed an amount close to the magic number I've been hearing: $5 million. That's the shortfall expected. (Each elementary closure = a $.75M savings.) But today, it was revealed that the number could be as high as $11M and Boss Lady 2.0 has already been warned that she will only have a "skeleton crew" in our office next year. She was away today on jury duty.

I could kid myself and think I'm "safe." Science is a core area (although not by SPED standards) and scores are horribly low across the district. One would think that the district will keep a math, a science, and a literacy person on board...that there are lots more "expendable" positions, no matter how essential we may view them.

I don't mind going back to the classroom, which is what will happen if/when my job is cut. I do think that I'll have to make doubly sure to get as much done for district science this year as I possibly can. It may very well be that in a few months, there will be no one to finish the alignments and support the teachers. Whatever we're able to create and get to schools may be the last for a very long time.

I hope the last one out of Curriculum remembers to turn off the lights. The district needs the money.

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Bombs Away!

15 October 2006

It's a big week out there. Our first round of the new science kits heads out to teachers. It has been a major battle to get things kinda-sorta ready. HR is dragging its feet on our hire(s)---one position they are leaving unposted for the time being. The copy machine was delivered a week late. We couldn't get all of the items labeled for staff nor all of the prep work done. Here's hoping that teachers will be somewhat understanding. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that wonderful things happen this week.

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Enabling Science and Math

01 October 2006

The elementary math specialist and I have been working together a lot recently for our "cadre" meetings: there is one per grade level, with a teacher from each of the 14 elementaries in attendance. The goal is to build a series of math and science grade level experts. Some teachers have chosen to participate because they have a passion for either math or science...others are less secure in their knowledge of these content areas and want the professional development...and a few are the only teacher at their grade level for the entire school---this is one of their few chances to talk and plan with others.

These teachers want to be enabled, much to my delight. What a nice change from secondary to have teachers who want whatever tools you can offer and are interested in giving new things a try...as long as you put all of the information into their hands. The math specialist wasn't entirely convinced that enabling is a good thing (although she does it, too). I'm likely naive, but I figure that it can't hurt. Whatever supports more math and science instruction is fine with me. And if it means that I make the copies...or cut the file folders to make sentence strips...or go out and coach a lesson, then so be it.

This enabling doesn't just stop with lesson materials---teachers want all of the assessments and alignments, too. The previous elementary math specialist had a hard time with the idea of writing all of the assessments. Her view was that we shouldn't be doing all of the "fishing" for teachers---instead, we should teach them to fish for themselves. I definitely understand that view, but I also think that elementary teachers have a lot on their plates. Every teacher is charged with teaching (nearly) every subject area and s/he can't help but have more expertise in some than others. Instead of teaching them to build the assessment tool, perhaps it would be a better use of time to help teachers learn how to interpret the results of an assessment...especially since they're moving over to a standards-based reporting system.

Right or wrong, it looks like the math specialist and I will continue to foster a sense of co-dependency within the district. Elementary teachers are enthusiastic about this sort of relationship: "I want to let you know how much I enjoyed our meeting on Wednesday. I felt that it was a really productive day. It was great to meet with other 3rd grade teaches and hear their ideas and to learn about our new science curriculum." Who am I to quarrel?

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If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Second Grade

25 September 2006

One of the double-edged swords I traverse in my job comes from being the k-12 science person. I get this wonderful big picture viewpoint. I can see how all of the different pieces (should) fit together and the connections between grade levels and ideas. No one else in the department has this sort of assignment and, at times, their myopia becomes a hindrance; however, it also means that they can concentrate on a very discrete amount of information. I am particularly jealous of that ability this week.

Tomorrow, I have second grade teachers all day...followed by third grade teachers all of Wednesday...and then sixth grade teachers until noon on Thursday. I then get to run out to a meeting with grades 7, 8, and 9 science teachers for 30 minutes before leading a grades 10 - 12 science meeting at one of the high schools. It's a bit nuts, to say the least, but I am doing my best to gracefully eat this elephant one dainty bite at a time.

I am grateful for the help I was able to round up for the 7 - 9 meeting. There may be a couple of contentious moments at that meeting that my helpers are just going to have to field for themselves. I am asking each grade level to choose one activity in common to do before we meet again in January. I'll make all the copies and we'll take time to score things and talk about them in January---in other words, teachers only have to agree to set aside time for this activity during one class period. The goal in all of this is to help get some common points of conversation going. Each teacher has some specific things they like to do with their kids---which is fine---but since all students have to get to the same end point, shouldn't we have some way to tell what is and isn't working? This whole idea may well go over like a lead balloon on Thursday afternoon.

I'm looking forward to Friday. It's a non-student day and schools will be working on various initiatives. I haven't been asked to present anywhere or work with anyone...a fact that I'm keeping very quiet. I need some quiet time to figure out where I am and where I'm going next.

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The Rare Breed

20 September 2006

I was duly warned: kindergarten teachers are a different sort of nut to crack. This wasn't intended to mean that they were bad people, but it certainly must take a certain kind of person to take the raw materials that enter our school system and make the first experience those kiddos have be a positive one. In our district, kindergarten teachers are a dying breed. Enrollment is decreasing and as long as the state only supports a half day of instruction, we need half the number required for other primary grades. It's even a more rare attribute to find teachers willing to leave their classes after 10 days of instruction and come to professional development---but members of that group did just that for us yesterday.

We kicked off our math and science cadre. (More info here.) Kindergarten teachers from across the district turned out for some time to talk about what their little ones need to be able to do in math and science, share ideas, and generate some enthusiasm to take back and share with other teachers.

The math specialist and I took very different approaches to our sessions, both of which worked well. I started teachers thinking about thalidomide as a way to get at form and function. We then looked at a nutrition label for caramel corn (while they munched some) and pictures of molecules (fats, carbs, proteins) to talk about form and function some more...all the while leading to what kindergartners need to be able to do in science: know that things are made of smaller parts and these parts do different things. It turned out to be a nice way to have teachers think about the "end user"---how we actually use a skill in the real world and that is first developed in kindergarten. Kids need that skill...science can't be "skipped." Anyway, I was really pleased with how it got them thinking about things. They must have been happy, too: they clapped for me at the end of their session and said they wished I'd been their science teacher when they were in school.

I tried to pay attention to my body language and voice. I sat down in front of them a lot---and not behind a table, but almost amongst them. I wanted things to be more conversational. I have absolutely zero expertise where teaching kindergarten is concerned, although I hoped to be looked at as a sort of peer...not someone from The District telling them what they need to be doing. Their kids are my responsibility, too, after all.

The one major insight I had from the day was that they don't know anything (or very much) about building background knowledge for students. I asked them about the kinds of things they might be doing. I clarified that many kids might come from homes where experiences were limited. We all need "pegs to hang ideas on," so how do you help kids acquire those "pegs"? The teachers suggested a few things about reading stories to kids, but not much else. As I think about the achievement gap that we have between our kids who are on free/reduced lunch (a measure of poverty) and those who are not, we need to do something to support the acquisition of background knowledge. If this isn't starting in kindergarten, then where are we doing it? Are we not doing that at all? It's not a pretty thought, but it's something we can talk about more with the cadre. I believe it's a conversation we really have to have as a district.

I've survived another trial by fire in this district role. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this good beginning will continue through the remaining six grade level meetings. First grade teachers arrive in the morning and we'll launch into a look at Balance and Motion. I'd like so much for math and science not to be the taught by a rare breed of elementary teacher.

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Growing Pains

11 September 2006

Following a lot of discussion and heartburn, my district determined that it was in the best interests of our students to manage our own science kits at the elementary school level. This has meant that there have been some particularly nasty moments as we refused to resign the contract with the local consortium who had been supplying kits and a great deal of uncertainty in the meantime. Will the budget really add up as planned? Will we really be able to provide teachers with all that they've requested? Can we find staff who can fulfill all of the varied tasks? What will happen with science scores?

There are still a lot of unknowns. The school year is now a week under way, but the space for the center is still not ready (the previous occupants were there until August 31). Hiring has been delayed as HR negotiates things with The Union. We are opening things with two subs, who started today. I'm not terribly impressed with them, but we'll make the best we can of things. (Shouldn't someone who routinely subs for secretaries be able to do basic things in Excel?) I ended up bringing home a ton of work for the evening, because I lost so much of my day trying to help the subs get things done.

I don't regret our decisions. We have already been able to do some things for teachers that we could never have done in the past. I just have to remember to take a few deep cleansing breaths and make my peace with the idea that this year is going to be full of growing pains as we get this program up and running. The bottom line is that all of this is for kids. As long as that remains our reason for making decisions, I don't think we'll be wrong.

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The Inertia of Secondary Education

10 September 2006

In another week or so, I will be working with a whole group of kindergarten teachers all day. What the heck do I know about teaching kindergarten? Nothing. Will the kindergarten teachers care about that? It's highly unlikely. This is one of the odd, but pleasant, things that I've discovered in my district role of Science Goddess. Elementary teachers are very welcoming of those who don't have the same pedagogical knowledge. I think it's because they're expected to have expertise in all content areas, so anyone who can provide them with guidance and support is encouraged to do so. The teachers will fill in the developmentally appropriate information.

This reverse of all of this is not true. Secondary teachers are content specialists already and most of them snub their noses at the idea that there are things to learn from those teaching the younger grades. And in the meantime, secondary education remains quite stubbornly stuck in its ways.

Our elementaries have, for the most part, embraced constructivist principles, instructional coaching, and standards-based planning, assessment, and grade reporting. As much as I complain about their lack of focus in science, I have to give them props for being quite progressive in their work with students. This doesn't mean every single teacher is on board and/or excited about all of these items, but there is enough of a critical mass of enthusiasm to keep carrying things along.

The Union here has stated that standards-based grading will never be a part of secondary, because those teachers "won't stand for it." The same is true for other initiatives and it makes me wonder why elementary teachers are more adaptable...and what it will take to shake up our secondary teachers and get them to really think about what they're doing in the classroom and why. How do we get away from the "same-old, same-old," and move to a more learner-centered practice? How do we respect the content knowledge of our secondary teachers while encouraging them to improve their pedagogy so that kids love the content as much as teachers do? What do we do to help teachers understand that standards are not a threat and that equity in what we do for students is imperative?

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The Cadre

06 September 2006

As much as I am willing to tow the party line in this district, there are some places where I just can't. I respect the people who are in a position to make decisions and I understand that I don't have access to all of the same information as they do---perhaps I would make the same choices if that was so. Instead, I have to consistently renegotiate for things. One of these is our "Math and Science Cadre."

This is actually a brilliant compromise, although I can certainly take no credit for the concept. Principals at our elementary schools have chosen to focus their staff and resources on writing. This isn't a bad idea, but our data don't show that kids need the most support there. They need more help with math and science. So, while every building will have a half-time literacy coach to model lessons in writing and conduct professional development in scoring prompts and planning, math and science is being pushed aside. The math specialist and I were finally able to convince Boss Lady 1.0 that to give us 21 days out of the curriculum sub pool (literacy gets the other 159) plus enough money to fund some additional subs so that one teacher from every grade level (k - 6) at every elementary (there are 14) could come together three times this year for some intense professional development in math and science. While this isn't as nice as having math and science coaches who can meet with every teacher district-wide, we are able to get our feet in the door in this other way.

The first meeting is just less than two weeks away, with five happening by the end of the month. I am very excited about all of this, but it is also a lot to plan. It has to be fun...intensive...worthwhile...differentiated for levels of expertise...and more. Every grade level will be different and no lessons will be reusable. I plan to develop their content knowledge in a variety of ways and also have them do some of the junior high and high school labs so that they get an idea of the "end point" for kids and how the elementary curriculum plays a crucial role in getting them there. The new math specialist and I will meet tomorrow to divvy up the days and talk about working to develop teacher leadership capacity in the group and additional support.

My hope is that the cadre will be successful in two ways. One, of course, is for students. Supporting their learning must drive all of our work. But secondly, my wish is for the cadre to generate enough momentum and enthusiasm and to be the critical mass necessary to unseat the focus on writing. We have to find a way to make enough noise and get administrators to look at the data and to think more about how to use our dwindling resources to help students.

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Midsummer

17 July 2006

I find it hard to believe that school has nearly been out for a month...and one month from today is when the new district hires will be reporting for their orientation meetings. Somehow, I think those meetings would be far more fun if there was some sort of secret handshake and ritual involved. So far, there are 20 new hires, but none of them are new to the profession. My .2 job as mentor to new teachers is looking pretty darned cushy at the moment.

Summer Seminar kicked off its second full week today. This program, too, will reach its midpoint this week.

I connected with another specialist today at an all-day project that has been part of our lives since January. We spent most of the day just catching one another up on various things that we've been working on since school got out (like planning for the new kit center and impressions of Boss Lady 2.0) and thinking on to all of the things for next month. Neither of us has the official summer vacation, really---just a lull in activity between school years.

But it is definitely summer outside. Sunny skies, warm temps, and cool lemonade abound. Maybe being in the middle is just another way of being at the center of things. No matter how much work is still floating around, it feels good to be in the midst of summer.

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