The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Archive for June, 2012

INTC Conference – Day Two

Yesterday was a good day at the INTC Beginning Teachers’ Conference. Today was even better.

The last day of the conference started with a phenomenal keynote address delivered by Manuel V. Scott, who, among many other things, was one of the original members of Erin Gruwell’s Freedom Writers. Yes, that Erin Gruwell. Yes, those Freedom Writers. Manuel’s story was even featured in the film. The character portraying him was Marcus, played by Jason Finn. (Manuel has informed me that Marcus is a composite character loosely based on himself and another student.)  Marcus, in the film, is my favourite, entirely because of this scene:

(Sorry, the clip actually starts after the scene really starts. Marcus is the one who walked Miep Gies into the library before she starts talking to the students.)

Anyway, Manuel shared some great points with us about the impact that a teacher can have one a student. One of his key messages, though, was that we usually don’t know about the impact. Students are influenced for good by their teachers, but so very rarely do they go back and let their teachers know about this. Manuel was a high school drop-out who returned to school after a complete stranger spoke with him one night and said to him, “Son, just because you live in the ‘hood, the doesn’t mean the ‘hood has to live in you.” He decided to return to school and went from flunking all of his classes (he got a D in physical education, even) to passing all of them with A’s and B’s. After graduating high school, he went to college, earned two degrees, went to grad school, and is now finishing up his PhD. A young man who had dropped out of school after his freshman year, Manuel V. Scott is now a doctoral student, married for ten years with three wonderful children.

And he credits it all to the fact that his high school English teacher pushed him to rise above and beyond the expectations the world had for him. He told us about Erin Gruwell and what she did with her class. He said that there were days that she was worn out. Day after day she tried to teach, but nothing seemed to work. But what she never did was give up. She kept coming back and she kept trying. He let us in on a little secret: Erin Gruwell hates rap music. But she knew that her students loved it. So what did she do? She learned rap music so that she could use it to teach. This made me realise that, as much as I personally dislike SpongeBob SquarePants, I need to be willing to watch it because, you know, my kids all seem to love that show!

I have been reflecting on how I want to use writing in my classroom this coming year, and I re-read The Freedom Writers Diary in an effort to get some ideas. I’m glad that Manuel was there today to share with us why Erin Gruwell had her students write. She told them that they needed to put down their weapons, whatever they were, and pick up their pens; they needed to learn to make their voices heard through their writing and that they could change the world if they did so. The young men and women in Manuel’s classes chose to go forward because, quite honestly, they couldn’t go back–there was no “back” to go to! As a teacher, I need to give my students a place to go as they move forward.

One final comment about Manuel’s keynote. He shared with us this funny-but-true exchange he had one day: He had been talking about the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Just as he shared that, a man stood up, wearing a cowboy hat and boots and said, “Sir, excuse me, I hate to interrupt but I just need to tell you this: it is true that you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink, but you sure as [blank] can slap some salt in his mouth and make him thirsty!”

How profoundly true! Are my students thirsty when they enter my classroom? If not, it is my job to slap some salt in their mouths and make them thirsty! Give them the desire to learn! Meet them on their level and show them how the work we are doing is relevant to them!

The rest of the conference was spent in breakout sessions and workshops, but I really wanted to focus on Manuel’s comments. I have a copy of his book, Take Matters into Your own Hands: Dream Now! and was happy to get a chance to get it signed. (I wish I had had enough foresight to bring my signed copy of The Freedom Writers Diary so I could have had him sign that, too!) We chatted briefly, and now we are following one another on Twitter.

(And Manuel, if you happen to read this and see any glaring errors, please let me know!)

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INTC Conference – Day One

Astute readers of my blog who have been following my posts for some time now may recognise the title of this post and find themselves wondering if I’ve made some sort of error. “After all,” I am sure they are thinking, “didn’t he write a post about the INTC Conference – Day One several months ago?”

Well, yes, I did. And congratulations for having such a keen sense of observation! For those who may not remember, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day conference sponsored by the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative in February. And since I tend to make my blog post titles fairly self-explanatory, they were cleverly entitled “INTC Conference – Day One” and “INTC Conference – Day Two.” At the end of the winter conference, I heard about a summer conference that would be held in Champaign, Illinois, for beginning teachers who were preparing to enter the second year of teaching. I immediately thought, “Hey! I live in Champaign! And I am going to be entering my second year of teaching! I should totally register!”

So I did.

Which is why I am now writing about the first day of the INTC Beginning Teachers’ Conference. And since WordPress uses dates as part of the permalink for posts, I figured I may as well use the same title as before.

This is a shorter conference than the one I attended in the winter, but so far it has been quite worthwhile. I was asked to be a facilitator for my grade-level breakout sessions, along with three other intermediate grade teachers from around the state. We are all beginning teachers, and the only reason we were asked to be facilitators is because we checked a box on the conference registration form indicating an interest in doing so. Today’s session focused on getting to know the 15-20 intermediate teachers who were attending, and sharing what we like about our schools and what we would change about them (if it were in our power to do so). We had lively conversations and learned that there is a wide range of teaching environments within our state.

Before the conference even started, though, I was one of four teachers asked to participate in a primary/intermediate-level teachers focus group session to share our observations about our experiences during the first year. Our comments were recorded so that they can be used in research. (The INTC is a research initiative sponsored by the University of Illinois.) We were asked specifically about our most positive experiences this past year, our biggest frustrations, professional development, and how we felt our teacher preparation programs actually prepared us for teaching. It was an interesting experience and I hope to see the research that grows out of it!

Anyway, after our breakout session this afternoon, I attended two workshops. The first workshop focused on a more practical side of teaching: learning how to use Foldables (TM) in the classroom. I got some great ideas and I am looking forward to using them with my class this coming year. I learned how to make tab books and flip books, and I was shown an awesome resource by Dinah Zike (the teacher who actually came up with the terms “hamburger fold” and “hot dog fold”) that I will probably be acquiring next year (unless I find out another teacher in my building already has them). One is the “Big Book of Science” and the other is the “Big Book of Math.”

The second workshop was also practical, but it was more of the administrative side of teaching: using standards-based assessment. One of the key take-aways from this session was this quote: “If you don’t have standards-based assessment, then you really don’t have standards-based education” (Ken O’Connor, paraphrased). I am in a district that does have standards-based assessment, but it was interesting to compare what we use to assess with what other districts use. Most important, to me, was the ongoing debate on whether or not a student can be said to be “approaching” or “making progress” toward a standard by the end of the year. Our district currently says that students in the fourth quarter must either be recorded as “exceeding,” “meeting” or “not meeting” a standard. The end of the year is D-Day for students: they are either doing it or not. Other districts will indicate that a student is almost there but not quite. It was an interesting discussion, for sure, with evidence to support both sides of the argument!

The day ended with a reception in the conference center. I didn’t stay for long, but I did get to chat with the director of the INTC, Dr. Chris Higgins, as well as the assistant director, Nancy Johnson. Dr. Higgins was very personable and seemed keenly interested in how I have felt about the conference thus far. He also asked me about my future goals in teaching and education, and I let him know that I am debating what program I should enter for my master’s degree. He, as an educational philosopher (philosopher of education?) put in a plug for his program and, actually, I am quite interested. Enough so that I will start researching it more once I’ve determined if I can have student teachers in my room for observations or student teaching. (The university grants tuition and fee waivers for teachers who let university students observe or teach, and I am all about getting TFWs instead going deeper into debt for my education!)

I am looking forward to tomorrow and spending more time with my fellow beginning teachers as we prepare for the next stage of our careers: Year Two!


Movies about Teachers and/or Teaching

A friend recently posted a video clip of Dead Poets Society on my Facebook wall, which led to a discussion of different movies that feature great teachers. I have had a mental list of these movies going on in my head for some time, but this was the first time I ever got around to writing them down. Other friends chimed in and shared some of their favourites.

As I thought about this, I realised that I’ve spent a lot of time sharing my love of reading. But I also love movies. The local public library allows patrons to check out unlimited items, including DVDs, and lets you renew them twice, meaning you can keep them for three weeks. My wife and I used to take advantage of this by making regular trips to the library, checking out 21 DVDs, and then returning them after three weeks and getting another batch. (Yes, I know, we used our library more for movies than we did books; remember, we have nearly 2,000 books in our home already!) So I thought I’d share some of my favourite movies about teachers and or teaching today.

Let me know what you think about this list and whether or not you have any entries you would like to add. If you hate a movie, that is in your right to do so. Just as you won’t love everything you read, I don’t expect you to love everything you watch. And just because I love a movie and you hate it, doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends. Remember, these movies are about teachers and/or teaching, and the reasons they are on the list is because of the message they share about education. Some focus on sports, some on religion, some of urban classrooms, some on teaching in other countries. I think each has a worthwhile message to share about teaching, though. One final thought: some of these movies are rated R due to the coarse language or other content that is not appropriate for children.

Oh, and a disclaimer: I have not seen all of these movies. (more…)


Summer Reading II: The Freedom Writers Diary

I have never read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. I’m honestly not sure why this is. It is reportedly among the top most read book in the world. I don’t even own a copy of it. This will surely change one day. Right now it is just on my list of “books I really ought to read some day.”

I bring this up only because I just finished reading The Freedom Writers Diary for the second time. The Freedom Writers were a group of 150 “at-risk” high school students in Long Beach, California who, through the encouragement of their novice teacher, Erin Gruwell, turned to reading and writing as a way to overcome violence, prejudice, and hate in their lives and the lives of so many around them. Their inspiration came from two teenage authors from two different times but very similar circumstances: Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic. My mother actually got The Freedom Writers Diary at one of the annual conventions of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, which she attended as a member of the school board. She met Erin Gruwell and Zlata Filipovic and got the book signed by both of them. After reading it, she passed it on to me. The entire book is comprised of short diary entries that the Freedom Writers made throughout their four years of high school. Each entry is from a different student, but no students are named; rather, the entries are simply numbered. The entries are divided up by semesters, and each semester is introduced by Ms. Gruwell’s own diary entries.

Although my focus is on elementary education and I am currently a fourth grade teacher, I wanted to read The Freedom Writers Diary again as a way of getting some insights into how I can use journal/diary-writing in my classroom this coming year. One of my thoughts is that it will be the first activity of the day as the students enter the room. Ms. Gruwell gave her students an open-ended invitation to write, allowing them to choose what they would write about and even whether or not they would write. I don’t plan on being quite so open-ended. I want each of my incoming students to write each day. At the beginning of the year, I will have specific topics for them to address or questions to answer, but I will also let them have the option to write on other topics as well. Most of the topics will go along with social/emotional learning skills and concepts that we will be working on.

This last part is one of the most important messages of the Freedom Writers. Young people need to learn how to approach conflicts, struggles, disagreements, challenges, and problems through meaningful and pro-social strategies. But many of them don’t know what these strategies are, let alone how to use them. Social and emotional learning was one of the big topics discussed during the Chancellor’s Academy last week (future post on this still to come; my notes are sitting right next to me still) and it is an area of instruction that I really want to focus on in the coming year. I feel like teaching students how to use writing as an outlet for their thoughts will be the most natural thing in the world for me to teach; after all, that is why I journal and blog!

Of course, there is a movie based on their story. If you haven’t seen it, I’d encourage you to do so now. It is worth it! (I first saw it while I was in Australia and yes, I cried during it. First time that has ever happened. It happens every time I watch it, though. Same scene each time. I’ll let you try to guess which one it is.) The book and the movie serve as a reminder to me that it is never acceptable to write off a student, or group of students, as unteachable simply because their experiences are different from my own. Everyone can learn, grow, and be successful. If one of my students is struggling, that isn’t a reflection of the student; it is a reflection of what I am doing as a teacher. Sometimes that means changing how I am teaching. Sometimes it means looking for additional support. Sometimes it means asking the student him- or herself what I can do better. But better I can and will do.


From Mother to Son and from Brother to Sister

[NOTE: This was a guest post I wrote for the Nerdy Book Club. I am sharing it here, but I would encourage all to go check out the other posts by my fellow Nerdy Book Clubbers!]

When it comes to writing a blog post, I can usually sit down and start typing and the words just flow. I’ve long been comfortable expressing myself through writing, and often feel that I can do so better than through speaking. Of course, as an educator, that’s just not an acceptable choice. Don’t get me wrong; I am quite comfortable expressing myself through speaking! (My wife will tell you that I probably talk too much, in fact!) That’s why it surprises me when I prepare to write a post and then I just blank. What to write about? What to say? How to say it?

Do my students feel the same way about writing? I can only imagine they do! But this post isn’t supposed to be about writing; it is supposed to be about reading. Now, sure, I tell my students all the time that reading and writing are both aspects of the same process, and yes, it is true that good readers are good writers and vice versa, but it is also true that the aspects can be separated from time to time. And, if I am to be honest with myself, I was a reader long before I was a writer.

I still remember the first book I ever read completely on my own. It was Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff. Before reading this wonderful treasure of a story, I relied upon my mother’s assistance. She taught me how to read using an old copy of McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader for Young Children. Once I completed the lessons and read about Danny and his wonderful dinosaur, I was off and running! I seriously doubt that a single day has gone by since that day some 24 or 25 years ago that I have not taken time to read on my own and for myself. I almost always have a book or two with me that I am reading, which is one of the many reasons I tend to carry a bag around with me wherever I go. In middle school and high school, this was a backpack. Sometime during college I upgraded to a messenger bag (which my family and friends called my man-purse). And if I don’t have a bag with me, there is still a book nearby!

I have always been one of those people who can’t keep quiet about a good book. I read them and then I find others and make them read the books, too, so we can talk about them! My baby sister, who is 11 years younger than me, was a frequent target of my insistence that she read a book. One of my favourite book series is The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. I told my sister for =years that she should read these books and promised her she’d love them. She resisted because, like many in my family, she is stubborn. Then one day when I was in college she finally borrowed my worn and battered copies that I’d had since fourth grade and started reading. She called me up the next day and said, “Why didn’t you make me read these books earlier?! These are amazing!” I simply replied, “I told you so! Now, next time I recommend a book, are you going to resist?” She meekly replied, “No.” She is now in college herself, but that hasn’t stopped her from calling me up and asking me to recommend a good book. And I call her and ask her for recommendations, too. In fact, she is one of my main sources for selecting new books for my classroom library.

When I was growing up, my living room was full of bookcases stuffed with books. As I grew older, I started my own book collection that soon spread onto several bookcases. As an adult, my living room is my library. My wife and I have lined the walls with bookcases, stuffed the shelves with books (last tally was 1,894 books, but that has already increased), and we have two comfortable chairs nearby where we can quietly read and share our books with each other. And my baby sister, who at first refused to read the books I suggested? She now has her own library at home including, of course, The Dark Is Rising sequence that I got her for Christmas after she kept trying to steal my set.


Summer Reading I: The Graveyard Book

I decided last summer to blog from time to time about the books I had been reading. For those who don’t know, either because you didn’t read the posts or you just didn’t know about it, I’d decided to read the entire Jack Ryan/John Clark series by Tom Clancy. In chronological order. It took me an incredibly long time. I enjoyed the stories, but when I was done, oh boy was I ever done!

This summer I hope my reading will be more varied. I have a huge stack of books that I have committed to read this summer. They are piled up next to my nightstand. Most of them are professional books that I want to read for myself because I consider myself a professional and, as a professional, I have a deep desire to improve in my craft. There are also a few works of fiction that I plan on reading this summer, especially before I go to bed each night. You see, I read myself to sleep most nights, and I since I am trying to take notes on my professional reading, I don’t think it’d work too well to read those books before I go to bed. And, on the very bottom, I have Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, which I started over a year ago but would like to actually finish.

There are also a few works of fiction that I plan on reading this summer, especially before I go to bed each night. You see, I read myself to sleep most nights, and I since I am trying to take notes on my professional reading, I don’t think it’d work too well to read those books before I go to bed. Which is why I have recently finished reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

I have a confession to make: I’ve been following Mr. Gaiman on Twitter for some time, I greatly admire him for his devotion to writing and also for his willingness to support independent projects, but I had only read one of his books before, and that was Coraline. (A huge shout-out to my brother Abram who introduced me to Mr. Gaiman by giving me this book for Christmas a few years ago!)

I have been trying to build up my library of Newbery books, both the honor books and the winners, and so when I saw The Graveyard Book at Barnes & Noble one day, I knew I just had to grab it.

Even though I knew nothing about it except that it was a Newbery winner and that it was written by Neil Gaiman.

I started reading and found it was one of those books that I could hardly put down. I read late into the night until I fell asleep with the book on my face and then read first thing in the morning until I had to get out of bed to go for my morning walk. The story itself is a fantastic concept: a young boy is orphaned and adopted by the ghosts in a neighbourhood cemetery. The ghosts decide to name him Nobody Owens, and call him Bod. A local vampire, who has made the cemetery his permanent home when not traveling, becomes the boy’s guardian. (The book never actually tells you that Silas is a vampire, but it is alluded to in several places.) Bod is tutored by Silas, several deceased teachers, and a hell-hound named Ms. Lupesco. Of course, everyone in the graveyard helps to raise the boy and they never resist the opportunity to share stories from their own lives. I don’t want to say much more about the book itself, other than to say it is definitely well worth reading!

If this sounds vaguely similar to The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, that’s because it is. Instead of Mowgli being raised by animals in the jungle, we have Nobody being raised by ghosts in the graveyard. Neil Gaiman was greatly influence by Kipling as a child, and when he first had the idea for The Graveyard Book he wanted to write it in a similar style to Kipling: a series of short stories that were separate but still connected. He doesn’t quite accomplish that, but what he did accomplish was to write a wonderful story that is truly great literature. The copy I purchased includes a transcript of the acceptance speech that Mr. Gaiman gave when his book won the ALA Newbery Award for children’s literature. He discussed the process of writing the story and the experiences from his own life that went into it. Near the end, he shared something that I found profoundly simple: “I wrote it as best I could. That’s the only way I know how to write something. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good. It just means you try. And, most of all, I wrote the story that I wanted to read.”

I am going to use this speech as an introduction to writing in my class next year. There is also a video on YouTube that was shared by one of my wonderful colleagues that shares Mr. Gaiman’s advice to young authors: Go out, live life, experience happiness and heartbreak, and then come back and write about it!