Saturday, March 29, 2014

End the Misuse and Abuse: Stand Up to High Stakes Testing

If you are a parent of a child in public school, or a taxpayer who is funding public education with your tax dollars, and you are frustrated with the amount of time, money, and energy that is being funneled into standardized testing, please take five minutes to help the people who are fighting to shift the focus off of test scores and back onto teaching our kids. This is of particular importance for parents of children with learning disabilities. In my mind it is emotionally and psychologically abusive when we test a child with a diagnosed disability at their chronological level rather than their actual learning levels. Is it really necessary to spend six days of instructional time telling these kids they can't read and solve math problems at the same level as their peers when they already have legal documentation to prove it?
I, for one, can no longer sit back quietly and allow this misuse of resources and this abuse of children to go on. I get sick every year when state testing comes around. I get caught in a horrible catch 22. On one hand, I don't agree with the way testing is being used in our schools, but on the other hand test scores ARE being used to make important decisions about school placement and other educational opportunities for my students. I don't want to spend time in my classroom teaching them how to "beat the test", but I feel like I would be letting them down if I didn't do my best to prepare them for this mandated assessment. I hate the look in the kids' eyes when the focus shifts to testing. I hate the way I am forced to change my approach to teaching. I hate that I know what I am doing is wrong, but if I don't do it my students will be at a systematic disadvantage to the students they are competing against for spots in good schools and future scholarship opportunities. I hate that I am forced to take part in a system that I believe is ethically and morally wrong. In a nutshell, I HATE what state testing is doing to our schools and our kids. I have sat back and been part of the problem long enough. I can't take the angst and inner turmoil it causes me any more. I've decided to take a stand and fight back. I hope people will join me.
NPE is going OLD SCHOOL with a mail in campaign! During the month of April, we are asking our Friends & Allies to print out and mail a copy of the letter ( to the offices of our friends at the Education Opportunity Network in Washington D.C.. On May 17 – the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education decision – we will deliver our letters to members of Congress.
Please share!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Add a Touch of Green to your Morning Meeting with these Irish Schoolyard Games

I was looking for Irish games to play with my class during our Morning Meeting on Monday since it's Saint Patty's Day, and I came across this page from The Heath Primary School in Portlaoise, County Laois, Ireland. I think the games will be a fun way to celebrate Irish culture in the classroom in a very relevant and child-friendly way.

This is the link to the actual web page, but I've included the directions for the games here, too.

I'm not sure that STAMP and HEY PRESTO would go over too well in an American classroom for obvious reasons, but I am using "The Letter" on Monday, and I definitely want to try "Red Letter" soon and "Queenie-i-o" once the weather gets nice and we can head outside. Enjoy!

Around twenty kids go to one side of the playground and whoever's 'on' stands facing them, about ten metres away. He or she shouts 'Bulldog!' and everyone runs to the other side of the playground , trying not to get caught by whoever's 'on'. If you're caught you become 'on' too. We play until a lot of people are caught and then we start a new game.

Everyone stands around in a circle. The object is to stamp on another person's foot, but only when it's your go. When another person tries to stamp on your foot, you must try and dodge them by moving one leg only. If your foot is stamped you're out of the game. The winner of the game is the person that didn't get stamped.

Five people play this game. First you find a place with four corners. Whoever doesn't get a corner is 'on'. He or she turns away and the children in the corners shout "Chucky Chucky", and try to swap corners with someone else. Whoever is 'on' turns around and tries to get into someone's corner while everyone is switching. If he or she gets the corner, the person who has no corner is now 'on'.

Four or five can play this game. One person is 'on' and the others say "Crocodile, Crocodile may we cross the golden bridge" and whoever's on says "Only if you have the colour green" etc. etc. If you're wearing that colour you take a step. When you reach the person who's 'on', you're 'on'.

Whoever's 'on' has a tennis ball. He or she turns around and throws the ball backwards over their head. Everyone else tries to catch the ball and if they do, they shout out "Caught ball", and now they're 'on'. But if they don't catch it, whoever has it puts it behind his or her back and everyone else puts their hands behind their backs as well. The person who is 'on' tries to guess who has the ball. If they guess wrong, whoever really has the ball is now 'on'.

One person says "One, two, three, hey presto!" All the others do a handstand and whoever stays up the longest is 'on'.

As many people as you like can play. The person who is 'on' starts by saying "The Red Letter is A" (or any letter in the alphabet). If your name contains letters the letter A, you can move. If a letter is in your name twice, you take two steps and so on. The winner is the first person to reach whoever's on.

We all sit down in a row with our hands on our knees. Whoever's 'on' tips all our hands and says "Black, black, black.... magic". The minute they say 'magic', they run. Whoever magic has landed on, shouts 'Stop'. Then he or she stands up and, in baby steps, takes as many steps as there are letters in their first name and surname. If they can reach the person who is 'on', they are 'on'. If not, the original person is still 'on'.

Any number can play. Whoever's 'on' is the wolf. We stand about five metres away and say "What time is it Mr Wolf?" The wolf says either "Tea-time, dinner-time, or breakfast". If the wolf says 'dinner-time' he chases after us trying to catch us. If he catches someone they're 'on'.

Children sit in a circle with one child on the outside holding a crumpled piece of paper (the letter). This child walks around the outside of the circle while everyone sings with their eyes closed… "I sent a letter to my mother and on the way I dropped it. Some one must have picked it up and put it in their pocket." After the song, everyone looks behind them. The person with the letter behind them chases "it" back to the original seat. Whoever reaches the seat first wins, and the child standing must pick up the letter and try again.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Experts and Novices: A Peer Teaching Technique

Every now and then, I am in the middle of teaching a lesson and I step back and actually "see" what is happening in the room around me. Today was one of those days, and I have to say, I liked what I saw. We are in the middle of learning measurement conversions- customary AND metric. If you've ever taught this skill, you know it can be a doozy. There are so many conversion factors to memorize and then there's the whole business of knowing when to multiply and when to divide by the right factor. It makes kids' heads spin, and teachers' brains hurt.

After many years of trial and error, I have a pretty reliable method for teaching conversions. It involves conversion cheat sheets, calculators, the mnemonic "King Henry Died Unexpectedly Drinking Chocolate Milk", and memorization of this simple concept - "Smaller unit to larger unit means you divide, and larger unit to smaller unit means you multiply." It takes LOTS of practice, but most of my students can successfully convert between different units of measurement eventually.

Today was Day 3 of our measurement unit, and I noticed that some students were really starting to master conversions, while another distinct group was not making consistent progress. I decided to fall back on a tried and true technique I call Experts and Novices to narrow the learning gap.

My students are already used to self-assessing their understanding. We've been doing it since the beginning of the year. When we are learning new content, we'll stop periodically and rate our understanding using this scale:

It took repeated practice and a lot of relationship building to get to a point where I feel confident my students are making honest assessments and taking true ownership of their learning, but I do believe my kids are truthful for the most part when they rate their understanding.  On an occasion when I suspect someone is not being honest about what they know, I call them on it. It doesn't happen that often, but sometimes I have to remind a child whose pretending to know something they really don't understand that they are only hurting themselves if they are dishonest.

After practicing metric conversions together on, I had the kids do a quick rating of their understanding. Next, I used their self-assessments to make Expert-Novice partnerships. I usually let the students who are not confident in their understanding choose the "expert" they want to work with. This time, no one rated himself a 1, so I let the 2's choose the 5's they wanted to work with. Then, each 3 chose a 5. That left some 4's who partnered up quickly, and we were ready to roll.

There are two secrets to maximizing the effectiveness of Expert-Novice partnerships, and I am going to share them with you. First, the experts have to put their pens and pencils away. In our case, it's usually dry erase markers, but you get the point. This strategy works best when the novice does all the writing and calculating. Secondly, the expert can give directions and ask questions, but they can not tell the novice the answer. This may all sound very simplistic to you, but it is actually a very powerful peer teaching technique. An added bonus is that the kids really like it, both the experts and the novices.

Today, I was reminded just how effective Expert-Novice partnerships can be. While my kids were in pairs working on conversion problems from, I experienced that moment where I stepped out of the lesson and really watched what was happening from the perspective of an outside observer. What I noticed was that every single child in the class was 100% engaged and on-task. There was tons of learning-related conversation going on. Students were supporting one another and cheering each other on. The positive energy in the room was palpable. And most importantly, rapid clarification and new learning was occurring. 2's were quickly changing their rating to 3's, and even an occasional 4. Likewise, 3's were claiming to be turning into 4's as the practice progressed. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that Experts and Novices exponentially increases your ability to reach students who are struggling with new material. It's like you can be in 10 places at the same time. Each child who is struggling gets 1:1 support. But, the novices are not the only ones who benefit from this activity. The experts get an opportunity to refine their learning even further as they watch their partner work, and they have to  look for the breakdown in their understanding. Then, the expert needs to communicate the necessary information in a way that is understandable to the novice. This is a very natural and purposeful way of providing enrichment for students who excel.

I hope I've done a thorough job of explaining this peer teaching technique, because it is one of those strategies you'll find yourself using over and over again if you can implement it successfully.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Knowing Your Greek and Latin Roots Helps Your Vocabulary Grow

Last week, I had a plan. In an attempt to hasten the arrival of spring, I decided to decorate the bulletin board in the hallway outside my classroom with flowers. If you've seen Monday's forecast for Philadelphia, you know my plan failed miserably. With predictions of up to another foot of snow for us, it looks like winter will be hanging around for at least a little longer.

Even though my bulletin board design didn't shift the weather patterns around here, it did turn out very nicely. I wanted to share it with other middle grades teachers who are teaching Greek and Latin roots to their students. The bulletin board display is based on the theme that "Knowing your Greek and Latin Roots will Help your Vocabulary Grow".

Each student made a construction paper flower with a circular center and five petals. (I had a parent volunteer precut the pieces to save time.) In the center of the flower, the students wrote a Greek or Latin root with its meaning. The student, then, chose five derivatives for their root to write on the petals of the flower. Each root was written on a separate petal along with a child-friendly definition of the word that related back to the root.

We used the roots we've been learning using Vocabulary Packets: Greek & Latin Roots from Scholastic. If you are looking for a well-organized resource to teach Greek and Latin roots, read more about the book HERE.

My students completed this project in one class period and did a fantastic job, if I do say so myself. As disappointed as I am that the power of suggestion was not strong enough to stave off another assault by Old Man Winter, I do think this bulletin board display is brightening things up outside Room 202. Who knows when real flowers will finally bloom this year? In the meantime, you can enjoy these paper beauties knowing that you've helped your students increase their vocabulary.