Friday, December 21, 2012

The flame that reading lights

















I love librarians, I always have. I am old enough to remember a time when research was done without the internet. I literally drove to New York City in order to use the public library resources for a paper on the Hungarian Revolution and discovered the incredible world of library science. The staff there seemed to be of the category of super heroes and I contemplated joining their ranks instead of pursuing a career in teaching.  Ever since then I have spent many hours in libraries, with librarians. In fact, it isn't the reason I married my husband, but it is true, his mom is a librarian.
It is my daughter's last day of school here in New Mexico and it is bitter sweet.  I had to withdraw her and check in with the librarian in order to close the account without overdue books. I was immediately drawn to the lighted candles on her desk. The project is so simple and sweet, I snapped a photo and stayed to swap praises for new takes on literary enchantments. The light that reading brings was an idea that she had for promoting favorite authors. The battery operated tea lights would be scattered throughout the book shelves of the library for students to discover.  Students engaged in developing this project could choose an author, find an appropriate image or book cover, words or quotes that would entice other students. The four panels were printed on overhead projector sheets and attached to velum. Voila!

I'm not entirely certain but I believe library regulars can receive a library credit for their weekly services and activities. If they don't, it suddenly made sense to me that they should. This idea seems especially appealing to the high school crowd that I teach in back in Vermont. A language arts credit in library science could open many doors of opportunity for students. If only I had known of this when I was in high school.

We continued chatting longer than anticipated. Or maybe I continued gushing praise while the librarian eagerly shared with me more of her approaches to engaging readers. For the middle school students,there is a weekly coffee club in the early morning before school begins. Students can enjoy one cup of tea or coffee and a treat while reading.  They do not use computers or electronic devices. They just read or talk about reading.  Ages ago I had coffee house clubs in my own classroom.  I started this with another teacher but over time this idea had slipped away.  Again, I think it would be fun to bring mentors, teachers and students together in a weekly coffee club at our own school. It would encourage me to pursue donations and funding for that espresso machine that I believe all schools need for making adequate progress.

I did brag about my Vermont librarians and the high school database. I love how the online search takes you through a virtual library.  This school in New Mexico had a similar system but the name has slipped my memory. Similar to the Kindle interface, students can search titles and see a virtual image of that book to place on a virtual shelf.  In their account students create an avatar to protect their identity. They can take out hard cover or E readers but more importantly, the system allows students to develop book reviews edited and published by the librarian for other students in the school wide system.  The librarian herself writes reviews. Students often follow her recommendations and leave comments most often of approval. What is even better is that her dog is a certified reading dog.  It accompanies her to story hour and students love reading to or with the pet.  Just as students can have an account so can her dog. His account is already full of reviews and comments on books.  His profile describes him as an emergent reader still reading at or below the third grade reading level. He is also very disturbed by the recent activities of a feral cat in his neighborhood.  Students find and recommend books on cats and other reading materials appropriate for his interest.

I have had this vision in my mind for some time. I imagine that teachers would write reviews of books and resources at our high school just as we require students to do.  We would offer audio or video commentaries on books accessed from the library webpage.  I used to host a freshman study hall. At the time I was involved in progress monitoring strategies and spent most of my time trying to improve study techniques and skills for students.  My students all were required to read the Odyssey which can be a difficult read.  What appalled me was their lack of interest and that they only read it silently.  It is meant to be read aloud with different character voices. I love reading the parts of Calypso as if she were a Desperate Housewife.  All of the innuendos and subtle humors are revealed when it is read aloud.  What if, teachers were interviewed and offered to read just one passage of their favorite part for recording? What if students could access this and as an assignment, offer comments related to their understanding of the book? Would this model help students as better readers?  Every so often the staff at NPR read passages of the Declaration of Independence or Moby Dick.  Hearing it gives me pause and I reflect on how I interpret different meanings, different text to text connections as I grow older into new stages of life.

I left the school almost an hour later, with excitement for learning, new titles in my head and a new friend I hope to meet again.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Letter Writing Part 2

link to published article
link to article- part one


In this time when school securities are threatened by unmitigated attacks, technology in education serves to open campuses between distant communities. A recent pen pal project entered a second phase of practice with letter writing and Skype. It has served to distract us from tragedy and fears of being able to engage in meaningful, safe dialogue.

Last week Flatdaddy and I facilitated a follow up session with the classroom to classroom Skype between New Mexico and Vermont .  Our first chat gave students an opportunity to see the face of their pen pal.  Each class enjoyed watching each other hear ideas and evidence pulled from past letters and visually seeing each other respond to questions comparing culture and geography. Our follow up chat would give students three minutes to converse with a penpal. Management was discussed and planned ahead of time with the decision to model a structured conversation deliberately related to Common Core standards. What did they learn about their pen pal or their state from the previous letters? What do they hope their pen pal will write about in the next letter?  We established five small group sessions with set amounts of time. Teachers kept the class occupied in a lab while the smaller groups congregated around a computer in a separate room.  I acted as one facilitator and another parent volunteer helped the teacher shuttle students back and forth from the session.

Students were given an opportunity to reflect on the conversation prompts and to discuss what they wanted to say.  For the student that is shy or uncomfortable the prompt not only gave them something to focus on but also the opportunity to let someone else speak for them. I like to credit students for active discussion even if they don't utilize the Skype time. They can still gain value and receive credit for conversing with me if they are too uncomfortable to converse with unfamiliar faces.

With three minutes per pen pal, time moved quickly. Student recall was strong. Many students knew details concerning their pen pals interests in pets and animals. Descriptions of the love of horses was a common topic of discussion. They were able to remember birthdays and differences. Not celebrating Halloween or being able to hold a tarantula were recalled with delight. Students did not hesitate to pronounce what they hoped to read about in future letters. Most students wanted to read lists of favorite music or song artists. Both classes made requests for descriptions of winter and what they do when it snows. New Mexicans wanted to know more about moose, hunting and favorite chapter books while Vermonters wanted to know about the taste of green chile, and the colors of adobe. As facilitators, Flatdaddy and I kept notes to share with the classroom teachers to use for future writing prompts.  Reviewing the results of a conversation makes students understand that their involvement was appreciated and ti will lend to greater ownership in writing.

Some students could not follow the format of the conversation prompts.  I spoke on their by modelling recall and asking one student if I could boast about his dad's experience as a forest ranger. The Vermonters eagerly wanted to hear stories which led the student to exceed his time limit and requests to write about parents. Flatdaddy too was able to urge students to speak by boasting of their involvement in club activities. I liked being able to give students' praise and good public recognition as a means of establishing value in continuing in this authentic task. We discovered that some students were ready to perform for their pen pal through song and skit. One boy brought his turtle puppet as a prop to the delight of everyone moving it in and out of camera range giving students something to focus on besides themselves. Students did wave or wiggle their finger at one another even when they didn't speak. I discovered that students love to talk about cats even when they can think of nothing else. A sudden interest in mewing or mimicking cat like moves was engaging and is something that can not be done in letter writing.  The bond of sharing cat sounds may seem ridiculous but it should serve to activate fond memory and a reason to write later during letter writing prompts.


Letter writing has survived the test of time because it is a gift that anyone can afford if they can afford the time to do it. By combining video chat with letter writing students have an opportunity to develop rapport, trust and dissolve miscommunication. As a tangible exchange of property a letter holds value. As a shared experience, video chat becomes a moment in time to revisit and reshape for future writings. Our schools must tighten security with police patrols locked doors and identification but our minds and our hearts are still able to freely connect in these virtual spaces.



Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lucky Teacher on sabbatical


link to published article

I just read an interesting blog on surviving teaching by Cool Cat Teacher, Vicki Davis and John Kuhn's viral hit, The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.  Teacher burnout is a perennial problem. It is impossible to survive with idealism, purpose and dignity intact amid changing mandates, recessions, and media inflamed paranoia about American public education. Public schools do not advertise or lobby for their best practices and public school teachers tend to receive less praise, less attention the longer they stay in teaching.

I guess this is why I feel so fortunate to not only survive twenty years of service in education but to look forward to my start in 2013 as happy and idealistic.  I am returning from a mini sabbatical in New Mexico to teach at my Vermont public high school and I have never felt so alive. A sabbatical is a true gift. I have been thinking of the spirit of giving this holiday season and I am grateful to have a school board and an administration that appreciates its professional community enough to grant such a leave. Not many school systems afford this opportunity and it is a shame. Teachers encourage students to follow their bliss, to strive to be the best they can be and yet they often settle for much less.  Allowing me to step away from the classroom, tour someplace new and to take risks is both humbling and enlightening. I can now say to students with confidence that I practice what I preach.

Two things needed to change for me.  I have not been unemployed since the age of sixteen and I badly needed a break.  I have spent my entire teaching career in Vermont which makes me wonder how well I prepare students for their experiences in a multicultural world. A family home in Santa Fe, New Mexico became available so I seized upon the opportunity to pick up and move temporarily. On former visits I had volunteered in a literacy program and was able to persuade this contact to allow me to shadow her program while I wrote a case study for my Masters in Literacy. My adventures began mid summer on our drive across the country, each mile, each frustration, each responsibility melting away behind me.

Crossing the Mississippi gave me pause as I considered the long history of other migrants who learned to let go of their securities and trust in the unknown. I would experience both the hardship and the joy of starting from scratch. My husband would need to stay behind in his teaching position but I had faith that we could mold our distance into a new family experience. This sabbatical began with the challenge of passing through drought ridden landscapes, devastating heat waves. angry traffic and dust storms. We met and talked with people all along the way, enfolding their stories into our own new awareness of what it means to be American.

New Mexico was everything I hoped it would be. My daughter transitioned into one school community while I began my volunteer work at another. Age and experience allowed me to make some smart decisions about my role. I purposefully limited the number of hours and days I would work in the school system.  I gave myself ample time for research, writing and time to enjoy my surroundings which I never had as a regular classroom teacher. Time to reflect is extremely important to development in education. Letting go of my own management and teaching style in order to work under the tutelage of someone new requires a great deal of faith and self assurance. I spent my first month hiking at 9,000 feet heaving for each breathe as my brain stumbled over all that I had seen in a day. I learned to let go of ideas in teaching that I thought were valuable and I learned to accept it with grace.  The person I shadowed had survived education longer than I and I had much to learn from her positive outlook and her steely resolve.  In return, I was able to use my own experience as a veteran teacher to jump in without a great deal of explanation.  I plunged into daily routines and responsibilities that were taking a toll on my adviser and her staff.  Educators are not used to having back up help or a lending hand and on several occasions I know I saved the program from unexpected emergencies.

My humility became a source of strength. Most of my students did not speak English as a first language and my grasp of Spanish was weaker than I realized. Their rapid dialect made the spelling of names in my ledger and the request for directions to the school baƱo humbling tasks. I was lost in translation. I took it upon myself to spend days aside from teaching by jogging roads, taking pictures of anything unusual and then striking up conversations with strangers in museums or coffee shops. Everyone I met was friendly enough to help me with pronunciations and cultural differences. People here seem to move at an unhurried pace, maybe it is a Southwestern attitude or my new approach to listening but I have learned much coupled with recommendations for travels into quiet canyons, hot springs and spiritual places.


Not everything is perfect in the Land of Enchantment.  I have witnessed parents angrily blasting the school systems for allowing outsiders into their public schools or for not giving their kids enough homework.  I have seen teachers here berated by the media for high rates of absenteeism yet no mention of their lowered salaries.  Some public schools have more field trip opportunities than others and all are constricted in their access to technology and digital applications. Everyone worries about being part of a hierarchical order and trust is a huge issue. I realize here that it is important to be an involved parent but one who doesn't say much and offers real time with kids.

Familiarity with two schools gave me freedom to volunteer in more than one program, to introduce and integrate technologies and to pilot lessons that were successful back east. The exchange of ideas and conversations with educators here have been fruitful. I regret that I can be too busy in my own practice, in my own school to have these opportunities. The transition from beginner, to observer, to trusted colleague has allowed me to weave together a stronger thread of experience and  knowledge. I can't wait to bring home to my classroom an efficient system of management, new lessons on histories not covered in our textbook and a better understanding of what a multicultural classroom should look like. Most importantly I have gained an appreciation for the toils and troubles that plague educators everywhere and that everywhere there are individuals whose positive energies do transcend the daily grind, changing education for the better. I hope it isn't my last chance to work and observe a school system outside of Vermont.  I have visions of a long future in education and in travel.







Friday, December 7, 2012

Regional Connections


link to published article- mentoring

Today celebrates a major breakthrough for me and Flatdaddy!  We successfully connected a Vermont public school with a New Mexico public school via Skype.  This is amazing for a number of reasons.
First, our Vermont school seems to have more liberty with use of technology than New Mexico- for that I am grateful. But with perseverance and patience, the New Mexico school system gave approval for the video chat and once in place it went smoothly.  It is now a successful model for other classrooms to follow for improving student conversation, discussion and writing. We brought two schools in two different regions towards a common practice.
Second- We are both teachers who view technology as a medium for connecting students' to regional similarities and differences that they can not extrapolate from reading alone.  It is painfully sad to observe high school students who make a common, nonchalant error in thinking that New Mexico or Vermont do not matter or that they belong to neighboring states and countries. Bound by positive dialogue these students will not likely make this mistake
Third- Kids ask meaningful questions when they are given meaningful opportunities.  These 40 students had begun their relationship through letter writing as pen pals.   I viewed student improvements in writing, especially for the Vermont students whose first letters were but a paragraph each. Curiosity stimulated students to expand writings up to 2 page letters with questions and cartoon drawings.  Months passed and enthusiasms waned. Skype provided opportunity and incentive for continuing relations because kids could see and talk to their pen pals. A New Mexican student used his speaking opportunity to inquire why some Vermont students hadn't responded on time to the last letter exchange? His admonition and protest of unfairness caused a stirring of embarrassed excuses and sincere promises to write. This charge should carry the weight of similar Response to Interventions. How could anyone ignore this boy's plea or his adorable face?
Fourth- Parents and teacher collaborations were successful. In this case I acted as a parent and not a teacher. I learned to respect the two teacher's methodologies and management of the classroom.  I volunteered in other capacities; field trips chaperoning and book club monitoring helped establish a rapport.  Flatdaddy and I suggested the pen pal program but offered to volunteer in a role that they structured, following the rules that they stipulated. We expressed the upmost respect for our teachers before initiating this exchange and we agreed that should the school schedules become incompatible for the Skype chat, we would forego the opportunity. We shouldered the responsibilities for acquiring school permissions, setting up equipment and downloading Skype to computers which were time consuming tasks that deter a busy teacher. It was a model team effort.

Fifth- This exchange broadens opportunities for travel. What if these students could actually meet? As teachers, Flatdaddy and I have brought students camping on bike tours, on ski trips to other countries. Why not bring students to New Mexico? it has always been frustrating for me to know that students may see other parts of the world long before they see other parts of their own country. The trip is costly but not impossible. Small groups of students acting as ambassadors could make the journey on behalf of their class. they could stay with families in either place. As a child I began to care about Vermont when I hosted others outside the community. I suddenly was aware of the state history, the traditions and the landscape with a sense of pride that I hadn't had before. One Vermont girl made the trip to New Mexico this fall. She had never been west, had never travelled so far away with her mother, had never tasted homemade tortillas or seen such diverse populations. Not only does she report to her peers that cacti is common in backyards, and that Pueblos are much older than any historic site in Vermont but she now enjoys writing articles and stories of her experiences. She never enjoyed writing before this. She gained a new perspective of the worlds we live in.

I wish I could include pictures of the Skype interaction but for confidentiality purposes I won't.  Both classrooms were sitting and jumping up and waving at one another on the Smartboard Screens.  The session was short (25 minutes), engaging and thoughtful.  Flatdaddy asked a series of questions to stimulate conversation- how many students went skiing last weekend? how many enjoy skiing? How many students have cactus in their back yard? How many students have pets?  Who is wearing only a t-shirt and who is wearing a sweater? We asked individuals to volunteer to answer questions about temperatures and time zones.  We then let each class alternate asking questions and giving group responses.  Both classes agreed that they would want to continue their discussions on a following session but in smaller groups of 2-3.  Students ended their Skype with Simon Says despite 2,000 miles of separation.  I wish newspapers could promote and advertise this experience and thank the classroom teachers for providing students' with an authentic learning opportunity.  I hope that budgets will allow room for teachers to seize on technologies that provide rich experiences when they are given the time and the training and the support necessary.





Sunday, December 2, 2012

Flat Daddy diaries-

Flatdaddy just received approval to pursue  and to institute a one to one ipad program for each student.  I am out here in New Mexico persistently hoping to convince tech support in two different schools within the same district to allow access to Skype or Facetime.  I made this request in August, it is November and still no attempt to install it has been made.  I visited the computer labs and discovered that the computers do not even have web cameras.  And school wifi for personal devices is prohibited.  We live in different worlds.
Flatdaddy's recent visit gave us an opportunity to meld the best of both worlds.  His gentle demeanor set a tone of assurance for the administrators who were reluctant to be assertive on behalf of teachers hoping to install programs on their computers.  One administrator was excited and nervous about allowing a video chat in an elementary classroom.  Do students need permission slips? Do they need parental approval and a media release?  In this part of the world, technology is still eyed with suspicions. I'm not certain if close proximity to Los Alamos is cause for reluctance to support liberal change with technology use or if they know more than us about the reprecussions of unlimited freedoms with technology.
 We explained that a video chat is just like a telephone call or a pen pal letter, except that one class or classmate can speak and see students that they are conversing with.  So, no media release is needed.  A video chat is a passing moment in time, unrecorded.

I have had the opportunity to do something rare in education. I was a personal shopper for our pilot project- setting up an E Literacy Lab.  While presenting at NMTIE, Flatdaddy won a Kindle Fire.  Immediately I thought to have him hide it and give it to our daughter as a Christmas present.  Being more charitable than I, Marc thought to donate it to my elementary school here in New Mexico.  He felt uncomfortable receiving a raffled item that would have gone to an educator in state.  I acquisced and immediately saw an opportunity to promote both the Common Core and 21st century learning.
I was unfortunate to run into the same issues with school policy against releasing a wifi password.  And in both schools, the wifi password that was issued by Central Office did not work.  A request to meet with the tech support is still pending. So, we have a Kindle but can not utilize several applications that would connect students to the outside world.  In fact, Amazon is blocked and I can not make purchases for the Kindle unless I drive a 1/2 mile to the local Starbucks. Two weeks later, I have loaded the device with items purchased with funds dontated by mentors in the program.  I am shopping!
Dr. Seuss,  Ocean House Media created applications that engage students in emergent reading.  Interactive screen allows students to read aloud, to be read to or to read uninterrrupted. As students swipe images on the screen words identifying objects help build vocabulary.  The website offers fiction and nonfiction favorites and Christian spiritual readings as well.  For Kindle Fire, only the app for the one title or author's collection is added to the device, not the entire website.
this was a big hit for one particular student. She is unable to meet with a mentor during the scheduled time.  and comes at a different time of day without her peers.   The student was immediately engaging with the reader.  She could replay the audio and pronunciation of words again and again In particular she hates having a mentor correct her or prompt yet relied on the computer for the same assistance without frustration.  She read an entire Dr. Seuss book, refusing to stop early.
Problems-
without wifi accessible at school, I could not utilize the following:
Pandora, image searches, Words with Friends, Newshog, email. We wanted to allow mentors unable to travel to Skype in for 1 to 1 reading and that wasn't possible.

Lack of connection isn't the end of the world but it is less fun. Fun is a very big factor in developmental learning.  Flatdaddy was eating dinner at his parents house when he met us through FaceTime.   They have a dog who loves attention. Our daughter yelled commands, he sat, jumped and ran to retrieve his favorite toy animal.
Flatdaddy had us squealing and laughing when he held up my cherished JCrew winter catalog and pretended to give the male model a wet woolie or pick his nose.  My daughter reciprocated by searching our home for objects of equally entertaining value. Unfortunately our cat is too dignified to take part in Simon Says.