Sunday, May 31, 2015

My New Job

This summer, I will receive my Endorsement in Gifted Education from UVA's Curry School of Education. In the fall, I will leave my position teaching third grade in the Advanced Academic Program (AAP) to teach fifth grade in a general education classroom.

Wait, what? Why would I want to leave the gifted program when I am officially certified to teach in it? Why would I want to leave a curriculum I know and a team I love? This is my third year teaching in the AAP at my school. Over the past few semesters, as I took the graduate classes and learned the gifted strategies, I kept thinking, "These aren't strategies to teach just gifted kids--these are good teaching strategies for all kids." Although many teachers I know share this belief, not all do.

I remember one particular Back-To-School night. I am sitting in a junior high classroom trying to listen as Jack's teacher shares how he uses guided notes in class. "Every unit I give them a new packet," he explains. "The kids read the text and then fill in the key ideas. It's basically like a fill in the blank." My attention wanders to the back of the room where the desks are turned on their sides and piled up across the tile in a line. Curiosity gets the best of me so I raise my hand.

"What are all those desks for?" I ask.

"Oh, that's from my honors section," the teacher replies. "They are doing a simulation activity building World War 1 trenches."

So my son, who loves to be social and hates to sit still, is in the general education program. He gets to sit at a desk and fill out a packet while the gifted kids act out trench warfare? That didn't seem fair.

Luckily, not all of Jack's teachers are like this. In grades 3-6, Jack was enrolled in the general education program and every single teacher he had was amazing. They made learning meaningful and fun and he loved Ms. Butler, Mrs. Kight, Mr. D and Ms. Tang! More important than the curriculum, each of these teachers was able to see in Jack a smart kid with a good sense of humor and a kind heart. Each of these teachers believed in him, and in turn, Jack believed in himself.  The thought that a student’s reality can be positively or negatively influenced by the expectation of his teacher is supported by research. The Rosenthal-Jacobson study showed that if teachers expected enhanced performance from children, then the children’s performance rose—it’s sort of the Pygmalion effect in the classroom. “When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur,” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985).

Unfortunately, for some, the general education program has a stigma attached to it and the expected behaviors are not ideal. As an example, another memory I have is high school information night. An English and History teacher are talking about a combined class they teach. I was enthralled as they spoke about how they work together to integrate the time period they are studying with the literature they are reading. What a great idea! "We offer this class for our Honors sections," one teacher told us.

"This sounds fascinating," I told the teacher. "Would you ever consider offering this class in the general education program?"

"No, those kids are too disruptive," she responded. (Those kids? Why does she think I am asking? Does it even occur to her that I have one of those kids?)

In some classrooms, a real disparity exists in the quality of education for “honors” and "gen ed" students. Maybe that's why I think I belong in a general education classroom. I want the chance to offer the students a quality education and for my students to know that I expect that they will succeed.  Maybe that's why I'm willing to leave my comfort zone of a great team and known curriculum to make this switch. It might sound crazy, but I feel a strong pull in my heart that this is where I'm supposed to be.

 So, in September, 5GE, here I come. We'll be learning a new curriculum together. We'll have adventures at Camp Highroad together. We'll take risks and make mistakes and learn and grow as a community together. We're going to have an amazing year and I believe in you!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

All I really need to know I learned at Ragnar

Robert Fulghum makes a strong case that all we really need to know we learned in kindergarten.  I spent last weekend on the Cape participating in my second Ragnar Relay and have come to the conclusion that this event also imparts many valuable lessons for life's journeys. So, with apologies to Mr. Fulghum, here are some of his ideas adapted for Ragnar:

Share everything, including the 192 miles you have to run to reach the finish line.
making the exchange
Play fair.  Set your goals and do your part, whether it is a "wicked hahd" 13 miler or an easy three mile jaunt down main street.
If you run 13 you get an extra medal.

Don't hit people, especially since Mike didn't get insurance on the rental vans.

Clean up your own mess when sharing your space with 6 other people.  We promised to be better about organizing our space last year.  Otherwise your van captain will NOT be happy with you.
We're so happy to return to our organized van!

Flush, or when that's not an option, be prepared and take your own supply of TP and hand sanitizer to the porta-johns.
The final exchange brings us one step closer to real bathrooms.

Be aware of wonder, which is easy to do when you have the cutest baby ever as an honorary team member.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you and so is warm pizza, cold beer and tons of Swedish Fish.

Take a nap every afternoon, or whenever the opportunity presents itself (such as 2:00 am curled up on the seat of your van).
No sleep for us.
Don't take things that aren't yours, especially Mike's parking spot...unless you want to be called a simpleton.

We earned these medals!
Live a balanced life--run some and laugh some and sing and talk and dance every day some. And when you are too tired to run, consider a pedicab.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

It's been a week since Ragnar weekend. We've returned the vans and returned to reality. Even though physically our team is now spread across four different states, we're still a team. Even though we're apart, we can still stick together. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Whole School Field Trip

Rule number one: stay WITH your chaperone. Rule number two: BE flexible.

I admit to being a little nervous about our whole school field trip on Friday. I mean, every student, teacher and chaperone in our school adds up to over 1,000 people setting out to hike in the woods.  The odds are, something won't go according to plan. (I think I was probably reminding myself to be flexible with rule number two!)

Our bus dropped us off in a parking lot at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. I've been here many times--it's a great venue for a summer concert on the lawn at the Filene Center or to take the kids to a puppet show at Theatre in the Woods. All these years, I never realized it was actually 117 acres of national park land, complete with several hiking trails. 

So, here we are in the parking lot. At this point, multiple grade levels are supposed to access the trails at various starting points and different directions to help spread us all out. (Can you imagine 1,000 of us hiking together? Neither could Wolf took a while before they would return our principal's calls when we were planning the trip!) Where is third grade supposed to go? I look around in vain for the rest of my  team but my bus seems to have parked by several fifth graders. You all know I have a horrible sense of direction. I will insist I drove over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and it turns out to be the Roosevelt Bridge, which isn't even close.  Whatever, they were both presidents.  You can probably guess where this is going...I look down at the black and white copy of my map.  Why are my palms starting to sweat?  I consult with my chaperones and we decide to start on the closest trail and figure it out as we go. 

Once on the trail, I am amazed to find that some of my students have never been hiking before.  Besides getting lost, I was also anxious that it wouldn't take us anywhere near the 2 1/2 hours we had allotted to complete our three mile hike. I didn't need to worry about that at all! As soon as we left the asphalt lot and stepped onto the dirt path, these kids were transformed.

"Oh, a log!  Can we walk on it?" 
"Look, I found a flower!" 
"Check this out! There's a fungus growing here."

Thank goodness for my team of amazing chaperones. As we spread out, it was impossible for me to keep track of everyone. We stopped to look at insects, rocks, and the sandy bank of the creek. We put our hands in the cool water and squished through muddy spots with our sneakers. Sometimes we crossed over the creek on a bridge, sometimes we maneuvered across hopping from rock to rock. Occasionally, we stopped to take it all in--the vast expanse of trees letting us forget, for a little while, the suburbia just outside.

When we finally reached the field, we sat for our picnic lunch. Kids finished eating and began running around playing tag or rolling down the grassy hill. Our PE teacher brought out some balls and Frisbees and different grade levels began to mingle together in an impromptu game of soccer. Carefree and laughing, they were kids being kids. As one of my students ran by chasing down a ball, he turned to me. "I never want to leave this place," he said.

Too soon, it was time to load the busses. As we headed back to school, I looked around at my class, with grass from the hill in stuck in their hair and dirt on their shoes. "This was the best field trip ever," one sighed, resting her head against the window.

As we prepare to take our state exams, teachers across Fairfax County will spend the next few weeks reviewing curriculum standards, trying to stuff our students' heads with as much information as they can remember before the tests. I am betting we'll forget many of those facts by June.  I believe that instead we'll remember the sensation of the creek water running through our fingers, the excitement of overturning a rock and finding a millipede, the sense of accomplishment when we completed the trail (no short cuts!) and didn't get lost.  I agree with my student--it was the best field trip ever.