I love data. Really, I do. I find it incredibly valuable to look at data and interpret the story of what the numbers and facts represent. Data tell us so much about what a student is doing at a specific time, what is happening in a room or a school, and how students, teachers, administrators, and families are operating as a system. I love digging in deep and sifting through the massive amounts of collected data to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
A big component of data these days comes from standardised testing. There are many who thumb their noses at such assessments, rightfully arguing that not all students learn the same way or at the same rate, therefore testing them all the same way does not accurately tell us the whole picture. And I agree, especially with that last part: standardised tests should never be used to determine the whole picture. However, they do give us useful data about part of the picture and we can use that part of the picture to understand how some of the other components are working. Data drives instructional decisions and help us know what we need to do to help our students be successful.
But there are some things in a school setting that can’t be measured by hard data. There are some things that simply cannot be adequately measured, categorised, and tagged. I got a brief glimpse of this today as I went with my class, along with the other fourth grade class and both fifth grade classes, to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to see and listen to a performance of by Black Violin. This performance was a part of the Krannert Center’s amazing Youth Series, which allows young people the opportunity to watch fantastic performances in a world-class facility for a very low cost. Black Violin, for those who have never heard of them, here’s a video that provides a great explanation of what they do:
For about an hour, our students got to listen to a performance that energised and excited them. I saw students standing up, clapping, singing along, cheering, and full of a pure joy that will never be captured by a standardised test.
And that’s okay. In fact, that is more than okay. It is wonderful! The thing I love most about taking my students to Youth Series performances is that I am able to see a completely different side to my students than I will never get to see in the classroom. The message that Kev and Wil shared is that we should be willing to break out of our boxes, defy stereotypes, and do the unexpected. Watching these two guys on the stage with their violins, playing a synthesis of classical music and hip-hop, is all about breaking stereotypes!
Thank you, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and Black Violin, for making it possible!
[NOTE: This is an expansion of a review I recently wrote on Goodreads.]
Despite being a fourth grade teacher and a deeply devoted bibliophile, up until a few days ago, I had only read a grand total of two books by Roald Dahl: The Enormous Crocodile and The Vicar of Nibbleswicke. (The first is a story that has long been a favourite and I hope to eventually track down a copy for my home library. I honestly don’t even know how I ended up reading the second, but it has always stayed with me as a fascinating tale of someone doing something bizarre without even realising it is happening.) I personally own a very respectable collection of Roald Dahl stories, but I have not read any of them. In fact, I don’t actually own either of the two that I have actually read!
So, at the start of the school year, I decided it was time I read more Dahl and I realised I really only had one choice: Matilda.
This is one of those stories that seemingly everyone knows, either because they’ve read the book, had it read to them, or they have seen the movie. (I myself have seen the movie at least a dozen times.) But reading it is most definitely a different experience. The relationships between Matilda and her parents and between Matilda and Miss Honey is much more important than the movie makes them.
This was a great read and a wonderful way to start the year with a magical story to engage my students (and myself!) in reading! It is always interesting to see how students respond when I read aloud exactly what is written. (Yes, Roald Dahl has a character refer to a child with a mild profanity and when I read it out loud, my class was shocked! But there were also smiles and looks of sharing a secret that we now had: their teacher was willing to read books that weren’t full of bland language that nobody in real life uses. I credit my blogging friend Katherine Sokolowski for teaching me this trick.)
There were plenty of “teachable moments” in Matilda, also, such as using rich descriptive language, different kinds of sentences, and focusing on small moments throughout writing. But there was also the opportunity to teach my students to do something that Mr. Dahl doesn’t do: use a variety of dialogue tags. In Matilda, nearly every character except Miss Trunchbull simply “says” things. She said this. She said that. He said that thing. He said something else. There are very few emotions in the dialogue. So I challenged my students to find better ways of describing how a character was speaking than just saying “said.”
But more than those, reading aloud is a way for us to enjoy a story together and strengthen our community. We work together, we play together, and we read together. I’ll be pulling out my Roald Dahl collection in my classroom so students can go deeper into his world of magic and mystery. And who knows? Maybe I’ll read some of them, too!
I try to give my students a lot of freedom and choice in my classroom. I am not a Montesorrian, and I certainly have restrictions on what they can and cannot do, but, even with that in mind, I let them make a lot of decisions for themselves. This goes from selecting partners and small groups to picking books to read independently to deciding what to do for homework each evening.
I also allow my students to find the best place to work in our small classroom. Some choose to stay at desks, others prefer the carpet, yet others like to lean against the wall or the heating units. When working, several students have found that noise-cancelling headphones really help them focus. (I used to have a full classroom set of 30 that I picked up for a very low price at Harbor Freight a few years ago, but now I am down to about 15 or 20.)
The other day I was finishing up in my classroom after students had left and I noticed something:
At first I felt a moment of frustration because it appeared that several students had failed to take care of their own materials (one of our classroom expectations), but then I realised that I was completely wrong; in fact, the students had come up with an ingenious solution to a complex problem: the box of headphones is kept at the back of the room, but they didn’t want to keep getting them every day. At the same time, their desks are crowded with books and papers as it is, so they wouldn’t fit inside. Finally, desks are supposed to be cleared off at the end of each day (this happens with varying degrees of success), so they couldn’t just leave them on top. So what did the students do? They simply hung them from the support bar under the desks.
It made me wonder what other clever solutions my students come up with that I don’t immediately notice. How many solutions to a problem do they devise that I see as incorrect because it doesn’t look or sound the way I expect? How often do I mistake clever ideas for being off-task, distracted, or disrespectful?
I hope that I don’t.
But I get a feeling that I probably do.
So the next time I see something that seems off, I will ask a student first: can you tell me why you are doing this?
I’m pretty certain I’ll be just as surprised as I was when I find half a dozen or so headphones dangling underneath my desks.
I spent several weeks over the summer learning all about Eureka Math and preparing myself as much as possible to implement it in my classroom this year. My goal was to hit the ground running and take my students with me on the wild ride of learning math in a way that is not only aligned to our standards and our curriculum but is also more rigourous and focused that what students have seen before.
One of the supplemental resources I learned about was a free website (as an instructional technology specialist, two of my favourite words!) called Zearn. I played around with Zearn a bit over the summer and set up a student account for myself to see what it would look like. I was excited to be able to partner my students with this, especially since this site was designed to mirror what students are working on in Eureka Math. (I will not be dropping any of my other online learning sites, though; I love being able to give my students wide access to multiple ways to engage with and think about math!)
We did a test drive of Zearn as a class today. We had to use the computer lab due to our student network still being down (something our tech team has been working on for over a week now), but this did not seem to be a hindrance. The students were able to easily access their accounts and quickly figured out how to navigate the site. The best part was that the work they were doing online really supported exactly what we have been doing in class for the past several weeks!
One of the features I was most impressed by was the “Math Chat.” This features a video recording of a teacher explaining the concepts. Students then work through problems and, depending on how they do, are directly to subsequent videos that help further explain concepts. I firmly support the idea that students learn best from hearing similar messages from different voices.
I am really excited about this new resource and hope that students and families will add it to their math learning toolkits. Zearn will be a great way to supplement what I am teaching and giving students an opportunity to learn at their own rate while I am working with small groups.
[NOTE: The creators of Zearn were not contacted previous to the writing of this post, nor was I asked by them to write it. The content of this post is entirely of my own opinion and should not be considered to represent the official views or positions of my building or school district.]
Anyone who spends 5 seconds in my classroom or my home knows how important reading is to me. I remember a time when my wife and I were moving and we had friends helping us to load the moving truck. One friend, who had somehow managed to carry nearly all of the boxes with books, commented, after the twentieth box, “Why do you have so many books? Don’t you know what a library is?” To which I quickly responded, “What do you think I keep in those twenty boxes?!”
My classroom is equally full of books. I read. A lot. There are books piled up by my nightstand, there is always at least one book in my bag, and I have dozens of books in my Amazon wish list that is constantly being updated, for both me and for my classroom. With all of the books I own (nearly 2,000), one may think that I never have time to read a book more than once. One would be wrong.
True, I have books that I have only read once. (I also have books I haven’t read. Yet.) But I also have many books that I have read several times. Some are childhood favourites, like the entire five-book Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. I’ve read that series at least a dozen times in the past 23 years since I first read it in fourth grade. Others are picture books I’ve found recently and read again and again with students, nephews, nieces, friends’ children, and just for myself. There are also professional books that I return to again and again to remind myself of the reasons I do the things I do and to keep myself focused on what’s important.
Just as I read some selections repeatedly, I often expect my students to do the same. Too often, they read a book or a story or a selection once and then think they are “done.” (That word, incidentally, is a “bad” word in my classroom. We are “finished for now” or “ready for something else” but we are never “done.”)
Today was the first time we tried this idea of repeated readings. The students silently read Allen Say’s masterful story, Grandfather’s Journey, yesterday in small groups as an adult read it aloud. (I had a student teacher and a university tutor in my classroom at the same time, which made it really easy to divide up into groups!) Today they read it again, still in groups, but this time without an adult reading to them. As they read, they were given a question to consider to focus their reading. Tomorrow they will read it again, still in groups, with a different question to consider.
There are several reasons I encourage repeated readings. First, it helps develop fluency. Second, reading with different purposes allows students to see how they can use the same text to support different claims. Third, repeated readings improve comprehension. Yes, some students may feel that they already know the story because they have read it once and therefore feel they shouldn’t have to read again. They are missing the point. Reading is not about getting to the end of the story. Reading is about reading. It is about the story and how the reader interacts with it. To use an oft-used adage, reading is a journey.
And the journey is everything.