Friday, March 25, 2011

Earwigs, Saguaro, and Polar Bears, Oh My!

Today in my class we took a free day. A day free from test prep. A day free of state testing. A day free of time restraints, schedules, and programs. Today we were free to learn what interested us, and what a day it was!

I planned to conduct a theme day with one of our science standards at the forefront: Discuss how living and nonliving things interact in an ecosystem. We started by reading Once There was a Tree, which led to quite an interesting debate/conversation about earwigs! It was spontaneous and one of those precious teachable moments that we crave. Without the time restraints of our usual schedule, we were able to research the earwig, find out what it looks like, where it lives, and that it DOESN'T enter a person's brain through the ear--although some students still aren't convinced. (Gotta love 4th graders).

Here in Alabama we're having gorgeous weather which was perfect for our next activity from Science Netlinks: Investigating Local Ecosystems Can you even imagine how excited students get to simply observe and record what they see in the schoolyard? Exclamations of "Look what I found!" and "Can you believe this?!" and "Mrs. Kilgo, come look at this!" echoed throughout the playground. Those precious children were SO excited to learn (and hunt for earwigs).

Soon thereafter, we settled into a reading of Cactus Hotel. Many of my students didn't realize that a pack rat is an actual animal. "Is this book true? Is there really a cactus that can grow that tall?" Of course this led to an exploration of the Saguaro National Park website. (Are there earwigs there?)

The mention of polar bears in a Brainpop video led me to ask, "Did y'all know that a polar bear can catch and eat a whale?" (This is amazing to me---I had to go into the story of how I learned this fact after reading a book to third graders). Guess what? There's a Youtube video for that! (I made sure to play it full screen so the kiddos didn't see the comments below the video).

Finally, came the best part of all: the making of terrariums. Back outside we went (3rd time so far) to gather pea gravel, plant our 2-liter bottle terrariums, and gather worms. Kids were everywhere! They found worms, crickets, and---you guessed it: earwigs! (Or maybe insects that look like them). Every group shared with the class about their terrarium, then we went out again for a long recess. What do you think my kids spent their recess doing? Checking out rocks, dirt, and other things outside!

It took a lot of planning on my part, which I really enjoy, but the freedom of being able to veer from the lesson plan and take little "bird walks" when the occasion arises is what made it really work. What a fantastic day of learning!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From a Newbie's Perspective

Every time I change schools I am amazed anew at the vast differences that each school climate has. The differences in schools' "personalities" never cease to amaze me! Perhaps my inner Sociologist takes over sometimes, because I find it fascinating to analyze the inner workings of social groups: What's acceptable? Unacceptable? Expected? Respected? Understood?

Here's what I've been pleasantly surprised to find at my current (and hopefully, LAST) school:

When the Principal talks, people listen: no biting "under the breath" comments, no sarcastic side remarks, no eye rolls or "Well, ____ just doesn't remember what it's like."

Teachers pay attention and are actively engaged in faculty meetings and trainings.

The faculty as a whole is unified: LOTS of vertical planning . Lower grades teachers even ask of upper grades teachers, "What can we do to better prepare our students for _______ when they come to you?"

Teachers aren't threatened by one another (at least not that I've seen). None of us know it all yet. None of us have "arrived." Teachers are eager to share and learn from one another.

This list could go on and on...So, what seems to be the personality of my new faculty? RESPECTFUL and DEDICATED.

Respect for authority, respect for the teaching/learning process, respect of parents, students, and the community, respect for the profession, and respect for individual faculty members, Dedicated to doing whatever it takes for however long to reach our students. How blessed I am to be a part of it!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Stop the Madness!

It was just one of those days today:

  • Spring pictures first thing this morning
  • Practice SAT (which couldn't start until 9 because of said pictures)
  • Just as answer documents are distributed, office buzzes a student from my room
  • Missing a "Testing Do Not Disturb" sign, so my door is opened during test
  • Last minute picture all call includes teachers (Huh? Do I HAVE to?)
  • Mad dash to cover any and everything that has print written on it in my room
  • Date change to our very big field trip, so I had to type out a quick note to parents
  • Test Prep---need I say more?
  • SAT Testing Pep Rally
  • State Tests start tomorrow!
I do not know how I made it home sane. Hopefully things will be a little calmer after testing is over.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Straddling the Reward Fence

I must admit I'm a little on the fence about Accelerated Reader rewards. I just don't know. I believe what Alfie Kohn says about rewards and punishments being two sides of the same coin, etc... But, it is really hard to put into practice, and I'm not so sure it applies to "surprise" rewards.

So, we had an AR party today for the students who made their goals (all but 4 students). No one knew in advance that there would be a reward (including myself), so it wasn't a carrot/stick scenario. When a child asked today, "Are we having an AR party?" I replied that I didn't think we could, since the ones who can't participate may feel they are being punished. Almost unanimously, the students said, "That's a head start for next 9 weeks. It's not a punishment. Reading is fun." Now if you don't know my kids you might think they're saying what I want to hear, but here's the thing: Those kids were sincere. They truly do see it that way. It is part of our class culture this year. They have very positive attitudes and for the most part are pretty mature in their thinking.

So, we did it. And we enjoyed it. The ones who were reading in the hallway had the opportunity to join us if they got their points before the party ended--they didn't. Right or wrong? I don't know...but I do know we had a great afternoon! Maybe one day I'll pick a side and stay on it. For now, I'm still searching and straddling.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Community Counts!

It's pretty amazing to me how schools that are less than 15 miles apart geographically can be worlds apart in student achievement, parent/teacher/student attitudes, expectations, and even available resources. 

The school where I teach now is the 3rd public school of my career (and hopefully my last-I LOVE IT). Before that I taught a year at a private school, and a year in a church 4K program. That's quite a bit of change for an 11 year career. And with all the change, I have learned that there is one constant. The community plays a HUGE role in the success and atmosphere of the school. It's one of those things that I was told, but didn't really GET until I witnessed it first hand. 

I've been at schools where I simply say to the students, "We need (fill in the blank)." and have it on my desk the next day and one where I provide the many of the basics. I've taught at schools where homework was expected by parents, and some where it was frowned upon, especially during sporting seasons. The list of differences could go on and on...

So why does it matter? Well, to me it matters because it gives me just one more perspective on reaching my students. If I'm familiar with my school's community and its expectations, I have a better idea of what type of activities I can do with and for my children. Is it worth my time to put study guides on my website? If I send home facts practice sheets for independent practice will they get done? If I need a parent to come help me with a project at the last minute, do I have one who is willing and available? Will I be able to send home the actual graded test with a student and know that it won't be saved for the little brother/sister? Can I count on parental support with behavioral issues or do I need to 'kill my own snakes' so to speak? Are Mom and Dad able to read the notes I send home? It matters more than I ever knew it could. 

I am very fortunate to teach within a super-supportive community that values education and the hard work that goes into it. Parent volunteers are in and out of the school constantly. If I send a note home, I'm pretty confident that the parents will receive it and read it. Parents generally support the teacher and students are respectful. This is due to parental influence at home. It makes a difference. 


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