Sunday, November 1, 2015

Children don’t change but Education MUST!

Every year as I get to know my students better, I recognize very similar traits from students from the past years. Kids like to learn and if they don’t then there’s something preventing them from doing so. When I hear rumblings about children being lazy it really irks me as I totally disagree – students are not lazy; they are either not being empowered and challenged or there is something preventing them from being active learners. 

 My 6th Grade Students - this year

I remember way back at the beginning of my career, having children in my class who had major trouble reading and writing even at the basic level. With such huge classes (over 30 students) it was difficult to help them in individual ways and to be honest; I didn’t know how to help them. Teaching college had not prepared me for anything outside of the norm... as if all kids were “the norm.”  Students with challenges were left to stumble their way through work sheets, text books and tests, with varying degrees of success and usually feeling inadequate, hating school and generally feeling horrible about themselves.                
                                                                                                                          My 6th grade students - this year

Has education provided support, help, advise, for these children that need something different? I guess that in some ways there have been improvements. Accommodations are made as children are tested and diagnosed with a number of learning problems, but do we really help children feel better about themselves? I wish I could get in touch with those learning challenged kids of the past. Where are they now and what life decisions have they made? Could I have made school easier and more fun for them? If only I knew then what I know now!

I don’t think I ever really conformed to the tests, textbooks and worksheets required at any time during those first years. Group work became my new solution and I spent much of my time creating laminated work cards for each group, where children could choose from a variety of tasks. At least students could complete the work in their own time, talk to members of their group and have some choices, and I had time to spend with each cluster. There were also wonderful sewing classes, woodworking, cooking and other weekly active activities, but those seem to have disappeared over the years.

My first PBL experience many years ago in Scotland. We studied fairy tales, chose Snow White and designed, created and built this float, including costumes for Gala Day. These students were problem solvers, creators and makers.

Isn’t it strange that the Education system in place today hasn’t really changed since the 1940’s yet look how our world has changed! Gone are the days when everyone had to memorize all the information needed for their cubicle jobs, working solo doesn’t seems to be the norm any more and people tend not to settle for one career or work for one company for life. The walls and borders have come down and the world today seems much smaller, as we we connect live through the many devices, tools and programs available. So why have tests become the most important part of educating in education today and why is it not changing? 

Alfie Khon states in his book, The Case Against Standardized TestingStandardized tests are not like the weather, something to which we must resign ourselves. . . . They are not a force of nature but a force of politics-and political decisions that can be questioned, challenged, and ultimately reversed."  

Another innovative educator, Bill Boyd recently wrote this interesting article “Still Raising the Scores, Still Ruining the Schools

I loved when I found, private, progressive schools in the USA. At last, I could teach the way it came natural to me. I loved making choices about curriculum, sharing my passions with my students and learning about their passions. Children called teachers by their first names and I could build relationships with each student with the small class sizes. There were no more standardized tests to give, no more grades and lots of hands on activities and fun collaborative projects. . 

I have really enjoyed changing my teaching style, especially during the last ten years or so. I have learned so much from my PLN (from Twitter), PDS colleagues, global connections, students and parents. Technology has made teaching so much more transparent and powerful in so many ways.  I have been able to implement a much more student centered classroom, with student led teaching, student decision-making, technology integration and global collaboration with many students and experts from around the world. My job has become more of a coach and facilitator than the teacher who was expected to know everything about everything. I know this way of teaching is slowly emerging in schools around the world, but not quickly enough. The results are that students enjoy coming to school to learn and feel they have a voice in their own learning, curation and creating.  If we value education, we must prepare our young people to be global citizens, problem finders, creators, and life long learners in this ever-changing new world.

My students over the years have not changed, but education MUST!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The First of The Lasts

September 9th, 2015 was the first of many "lasts" for me this year. I have gone through many, many first days of school over the years, so was this day going to be any different from all the others? In my mind this was very different, as this would be my very last time welcoming a new class of students and preparing for a new school year. I wondered just how many students had I greeted every fall for the past 42 years? How many ways had I prepared for that first day of school? This was the first of my "lasts" that will continue throughout this year and end in June.

I vividly remember stepping anxiously into my first classroom, all those years ago at St. Mark’s Primary school in Barrhead, Scotland.

This was where I had gone to primary school and I loved this small school and all its friendly teachers. I was about to become the first former student to return as a teacher. I was so nervous about my new position and becoming a member of the faculty with some of the very same teachers I had when I was a student there. I really wanted these kids experiences to be productive, happy and fun like mine had been. Suddenly all those college courses I had taken and all the student teaching I had done seemed so far away and irrelevant as I looked into the 37 pairs of eyes staring at me from the many rows of shiny desks. My primary two class was anxiously sitting awaiting my direction. 
I stood quietly, wondering how I was going to occupy them for that one day and couldn't even begin to think about the rest of the school year or imagine what tomorrow would look like. I had just been told that morning that I would be teaching a primary two class so there had  been no time to ponder, think or plan. I remember worrying about how I was going to learn all the students' names and how could I really ever get to know them with so many in the class.  A daunting task to be sure, having this great responsibility of educating these young minds.

So what did I do? I chose to ignore the piles of different textbooks on the shelves, at least
for now and I began by moving all the desks to the sides of the room. I had everyone sit in a circle on the floor and we began talking and getting to know each other. I told them stories about my life and then they shared stories about themselves. I read them a story from a class library book, had them draw pictures about the story and somehow it was all ok. We explored the classroom, found some neat supplies, blocks and books and we got through that first day. My first year of teaching had begun!

What did I do this year to begin this last, first day? Well, actually it wasn’t so different from the first time all those years ago. I wanted to make these kids 6th grade be the best experience ever and students really are no different today. We moved our chairs into a circle and began talking and getting to know each other. I told them stories about my life and they shared stories about themselves. I showed them a few Ted Talks and we talked some more and wrote. And so my last year had begun - one last time!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Blogging - The best laid plans...

The best laid plans...

Few people these days will argue with the fact that technology is changing so quickly that it is difficult to keep up with all of the new apps, social media platforms and other cool tools. When I began my blogging class a few weeks ago, I had some specific ideas that I wanted the students to follow but they turned out not to be the ideas the students had. I should have known better than to have so many preconceived ideas with a group of great, creative middle schoolers who keep up with many of the social media updates and use them. 

Our first blogging class went well with students finding and sharing blogs that they liked and wanted to follow. Feedly accounts were set up and interesting bloggers were found as student interests and passions emerged. Comments were then written, revised, edited and posted and finally it was time for individual student blogs to be created. 

This is where my plans fell apart. I had shared a mix of sites recommending different blogging platforms but many of my students had minds of their own and decided mostly to choose different ways to blog. I had to decide quickly to either quell their ideas and force mine on them, or trust in them and let them blog their way. Taking risks and trying new ideas is my mantra, so I really had no alternative but to set them free and see what happened. 

The platform of choice for most students was Tumblr, which markets themselves as a place to "effortlessly share anything." This and the following is taken from their website ... 

"Post text, photos, quotes, links, music, and videos from your browser, phone, desktop, email or wherever you happen to be. You can customize everything, from colors to your theme's HTML." I am not a huge fan of Tumblr for blogging, as it seems to be a more developed version of Instagram, the number one social media platform for teenagers and a place where you find and share mostly work of others.


Three pairs of students choose to write together and three created individual blogs. Tumblr and Wordpress were the two choices of platforms.

Since then, everyone has worked on many aspects of their blog. Widgets, themes and pictures have been added, posts written and sites shared through Twitter.  It’s been wonderful to share and comment on each other’s posts and see how diverse the student passions are.

Today is our last blogging class so I asked each student to share a comment on our time together. I hope you enjoy their comments and will take a few minutes to browse their blogs.

Adrienne and Lilly’s blog - Moosebug
Lilly: “This class helped me create and run an organized and fun blog. I learned about widgets and how to put them in my blog.”

Adrienne: “I liked this class a lot, I learned how to efficiently write and post interesting pieces of writing. I also learned a lot more about putting widgets on blogs.”   

Ethan and Will's BlogRatingz Top Tenz
Ethan: "This class has been a very fun experience for me. This is my first blogging class, and it is amazing. When I was put into this class I was not looking forward to it. Now I wish that this class lasted longer."

Lia and Alex's Blog - Through The lens
Alex: "Writing is not just a thought but also creativity. That’s one thing I learned in this class. You have to think about what you write but also have a story behind it."
Lia: "This class has definitely given me a chance to do something I wouldn’t normally do for fun, and I’ve enjoyed it very much. I like the fact that I can put my photography out there where anyone can see it."

Cole's Blog - Movies Immediately
Cole: "This class includes lots of useful information on blogging and technology. It also helps demonstrate what kids are thinking and writing."

Henry's Blog - Exotic Shoe Laces
Henry: "This blogging class was an educational and enriching learning experience for me. I was taught how to use different platforms for blogging like Tumblr and Wordpress and it was very fun to creatively express my opinions on my blog and I will continue to post on this blog after the class is over."

Striana's Blog - My Blog
Striana: "Blogging was a great experience. I learned many useful techniques and I really enjoyed myself."

Monday, March 9, 2015

D Day activities by Shirley

Tomorrow begins our new middle school mini courses. This is an opportunity for teachers to offer a variety of workshops that include their passions, interests and perhaps subject areas.  These courses meet for almost a full day on D Days and a shorter meeting of 80 minutes on H days. Our school runs on an eight day schedule so we meet roughly once per week for four weeks.

My offering is a basic course on blogging, something I love to do, but recently have fallen off the wagon with the consistency and development of my own blog. So time to change, regroup and try again….

I hope to be inspired to write a continuous stream of interesting blog posts using my students for my inspiration. Blogging needs to be done regularly and my hope from this workshop is that I can find the time to write weekly short posts both reflective in nature and informative and useful to other educators. I hope be to write about this workshop and what we hope to accomplish, learn and share with each other and the rest of the world. 

Day 1 Agenda
Following great blogs is part of becoming a successful blogger. Today we will find some great student blogs to follow, curate them using Feedly - a news aggregator, read some inspirational posts and comment on what we liked about them. Then we will explore the platforms used and decide on suitable platforms for us...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Humble Word

We just dropped our son off at college. It's a bittersweet experience. A few weeks before leaving, he had a confidence crisis. His freshman course assigned some reading and a short paper. His comments (read, grumblings)when writing the paper— “This just doesn’t read like a college paper to me-I must not be ready for this.”

I was proud that he was looking at his work with care, but my urging was that he need not worry about whether it was a college paper or not— after all, he was about to START college— and college writing was what he was going to learn while in college. It wasn’t a goal to be accomplished in high school.

What my son needed, was patience-- with himself.

Patience with oneself is a rather meek goal. It might be confused with passivity or lack of ambition. In a world where so much can happen so fast, patience hardly seems as necessary as it once was.

In its mild way, though, patience with oneself, may be just the characteristic I hope for in my students in this year. Students who are patience with themselves are also trusting and confident. When we are patient with ourselves, we realize that whatever we are practicing or working on will improve over time. There is a calmness, and a mindfulness to patience, that some other terms don’t have. 

I can compare it to its cousin, grit, which will have to be banished from my vocabulary, except in those instances when I am working with sand.

Grit has been accused of social injustice, and as an excuse for poor teaching. It's been linked with misery and pain. It may not be a middle class value, but rather one that encourages different expectations for less privileged children. Given its cloud, it would be unwise to ever speak the word in the classroom.

Patience with oneself, though, is infused with hope and calm. Patience can happen without pain and misery. It contains a belief that things will get better.

And, it applies as much to me as a teacher, as it does to my students. It’s democratic, asking only that a little more time and understanding be found, than might otherwise. It is an internal state, not necessarily one that can be observed by others, as grit seems to have been judged to be.

Patience, I hope, will remain an uncontroversial term. I want to keep it.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Learning through analogies

This past week did not start out well.

 On Monday I covered for an absent teacher by teaching a super-sized class as I included his students with the ones that were scheduled to meet with me. To make matters worse, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we had heat under repair, which made my usual lab uninhabitable and I taught in a multipurpose area, without even a whiteboard.

 So, I hit the last part of the week feeling like a bad teacher. My students had been replicating the work of three greats in chemistry-- Thomson, Rutherford and Chadwick. The lab was analogous to the real apparatus, and I thought they were barely getting it. Such moments in the classroom make me feel like I am trying to move the planets into orbit with my mind.

 But then they got it! After working with the analogous process for the past couple of weeks, and gamely and rather happily doing everything I asked while not actually understanding why they were doing it, I felt over twenty minds make a quantum leap. (Had to use that metaphor-- I'm teaching chemistry at the moment, after all.)

 I loved this post by Anne Murphy Paul about making smart analogies. So many of the examples she gives are from science- in fact, scientists successfully form ideas by speaking in analogies all the time. Part of the frustration my students felt comes from not being able to see what they are learning about right now. Learning through discovery can be harder than just drawing pictures or writing down definitions, even though discovery is more engaging. Students have to translate the experience into words in order to process what they learned-- and also to help me know that they did learned.

This week my ambition is to ask students to frame atomic theory making up their own analogies for the structure and discovery of the atom.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Martin Institute of Technology Conference 2013

Over the Wall

and into

the World: 


Transformative Education in the Digital Era

Teaching is a willingness to connect and learn with students. New technologies including social media, Google apps and media production create opportunity to live the mission of learning for life. We tell the story of our journey - the good, the bad and the unexpected.  Experience through the work of students how their learning - and ours - has spilled over the walls of the school and into the world.  Participants will have a chance to brainstorm ideas and build a PLN within the workshop.
Participants will:
  • Realize that transforming from 20th to 21st century teaching and learning is a realistic, possible and necessary goal
  • Leave with several before and after examples comparing old methods to transformed methods
  • Be inspired to try at least one of the digital tools presented
  • Link skills, and values as a teacher to the concept of connected learning
  • Leave with a PLN of contacts, including Laura and Shirley to continue the journey

Laura Graceffa 

As a teacher and department chair at Poughkeepsie Day School, Laura values student centered education.  With the advent of a one-to-one laptop program, she became a leader in finding opportunities to guide students to connect with each other, and their particular interests, weaving digital tools through her course work.   She is a teacher consultant with the Hudson Valley Writing Project, and enjoys the chance to take her interest in student centered education to the community of teachers.  In addition to presentations for the Writing Project, Laura has presented at NYSAIS workshops, and the Association of Middle Level Education.

Shirley Rinaldi 

This is Shirley’s twentieth year at Poughkeepsie Day School, where she has taught both elementary and middle school grades. Her passion is with middle schoolers, where she loves to create, collaborate and share globally alongside her students. With the integration of technology in the classroom, she became an exemplary teacher innovating new tools and and a structure for facilitating a digital classroom.  Her classroom is known for including voices from around the world as her students connect online in real time. Shirley has presented at The Independent Curriculum Group, NYAIS workshops and a TweetMeet in Ireland via Google Hangout.

Presentation Slides