To my kids in the Class of 2020

Yes, you are MY kids. Once you are in my classroom, you’re my kid. FOR-EV-ER (I hope you just said that in the voice of the police chief from The Sandlot).

When a teacher looks back on former classes, there are some classes that simply outshine others. The relationships were tighter. The memories are warmer. The students have come back to visit over the years. Your class is one of those classes for me. So when I say I feel bad for the seniors in the midst of losing the spring of their senior year, I mean it like I would mean it for my own flesh-and-blood offspring.

This last weekend, I bumped (figuratively-we were adequately social distanced) into the mother of one of those seniors. She told me how devastated her daughter was. Could I reach out? If you aren’t a teacher, you don’t understand the significance of a parent asking you to reach out to a student you had seven years ago. Like I said, it was a special class. I did reach out, but then I thought, “Why not reach out to all of them?”

So here we are. I truly hate that you are missing out on all of the spring events of your senior year. I’m not going to list them. This isn’t about that. I just want you to know I hate it with you.

Instead, I want to beg you to excel during this time. I want you to embrace this opportunity to grow rather than endure this spring. Take advantage of this disguised blessing to spend time with your family. Many of you are going to leave very soon. You’ll be surprised how little time there will be with them as the next stage of your life begins. Also, remember that all of these events you are missing, they’re missing them too.

That year–We had the wall open all the time. The whole team worked together on so many different projects. Do you remember the owl pellets? You loved those. You were talented. Watching you do our Storyworks plays, it was easy to see that some of you were going to be great on the stage in high school.

You were so close to each other and developed or strengthened friendships that are still going today.

Another thing that I love about this class is how many of you come back to visit. Sometimes you come alone. Sometimes in pairs. Sometimes, you come back in packs. I love it. One of you brought me a pizza after school on my birthday and we sat and talked and ate. Special.

One of my fondest memories, and quite honestly, it makes my eyes water whenever I hear the song, happened after you were out of my class. I was blessed to be your 6th grade Outdoor Ed coordinator (how do you think you got those cool cabin assignments with all of your friends). On the night of the DJ/dance thing in the gym, the girls and boys were in there at different times. The girls were having a ton of fun with it. Lots of singing, dancing, laughing. Then, “Girl on Fire” was played. There’s a moment where the music pauses and then over 100 girls belted with Alicia Keys, “THIS GIRL IS ON FIRE!” It was one of those moments when time stands still, the goosebumps raise on your arms, and you get to look around and appreciate life. You were, and are, a powerful group of girls. You were great friends. You had each other’s backs.

I also have a memory that brings about mixed emotions for me. One of our students suffered a devastating loss over Christmas break that year. You took him under your wings. You lifted him up. You helped get him through that time. When his birthday came around, you stepped up and we had that surprise party for him. You were so selfless and empathetic.

Those of you who know me, or have ever sat with me on the last day of school while we read Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, realize that by this time, I’m having an issue with seeing my computer screen. So, I’ll wrap this up.

You showed me seven years ago, and every year since, that you were built for the challenge of the spring of your senior year. You are powerful. You are resilient. You will lift each other up. You will come out of the other side of this, together.

How to Grow Even the Highest Students

There is a lot of pressure to show growth in our students. (Value added is similar, but it uses a convoluted formula that no one really understands.) Last time I talked about merit pay and gave you the golf coach example.  That example was merit pay based on achievement.  Growth is totally different.  That same golf coach would never want Rory McIlroy.  Rory is the number one player in the world.  The ONLY way to show growth is if he is still number one next year.  He could win five tournaments, but slip to number two because someone won six tournaments.  In the education world, that coach didn’t grow him a year.

I teach ELA to a largely gifted group of students.  If I have a student who enters my class reading in the 99th percentile, he has to be reading in the 99th percentile at the end of the year.  Otherwise, he is considered to have not grown a full year. I’m often asked to explain how my students consistently show growth.

These are the things I can put my finger on.

Teach to the top 

Differentiation is a major buzzword BINGO term right now.  In my opinion, it’s a certain amount of hogwash.  I teach to the top of my class.  Find out what the highest student can handle and teach up there.  Use questioning techniques that make the highest students work to answer. The lower students will sweep along with the wake.  Certainly, it’s necessary to swing the boat around and pick them up once in awhile, but never teach the whole class with a lower throttle.

Be excited about your material and ENTERTAIN

Some of you are thinking, I shouldn’t have to entertain them.  They should want to learn. Really?  Been in a church service lately? Watched any TV aimed at adults lately? What was the last big blockbuster movie you went to that was black and white without any special effects?  If you, as an adult, have to be entertained to sit still for an hour, how can you expect a 10-year old to be any different?

If you don’t love what you’re teaching, the kids will know it.  If you can’t get excited about your material, which the kids will join you in that excitement, you better reevaluate your job.

Quick-write notebooks and Question/All-writes

In my entire master’s degree program, these were the two strategies that I learned and truly believe in.  You have to make kids THINK about the material you’re covering.  Quick-write notebooks are exactly what they say, a quick write after covering something.  For instance, after reading an article on 9/11, the kids did a quick write in their notebooks.  They have five options: a summary of the material, a connection to their life, a question they had while reading, an illustration about the reading, or an equation using numbers from the reading.  After a few moments of writing, they share with their table, and then a few share for the class.  Questions get explored and answers found. In this case, they made connections to stories their parents told them, drew pictures of the burning buildings, asked tough questions about why?, made equations from the casualties, and a few even summarized the events of that day.

You know those students.  You’ve just asked a brilliant, probing, thought-provoking question and they just sit there.  They have no intention of thinking that hard.  They’ve learned from years past that they have a 1 in 28 chance of being called to answer.  If they are called, they know that an “I don’t know” and some uncomfortable silence will get the teacher to move on to someone else.  Enter the Question/All-write.  Ask that probing question and then be quiet.  Once the kids learn that you aren’t moving on till everyone writes an answer, you know you have everyone working on an answer.  Cruise the room, verify that everyone is giving quality thought, THEN call on someone, or have them share answers with their table before you have someone answer aloud to the class.

Build rapport

This is a huge time and personal investment, but it pays incredible dividends.  This comes from my days in school.  If I liked a teacher, I would walk through a wall to do well in his class.  If I didn’t like a teacher, you couldn’t get me to do anything in that class.  Also, a kid who wants to come to school every day is there for more of your instruction than the kid who fakes stomachaches to stay home from school.

It takes a lot of work to grow your students a full year, especially the ones at the top of the percentiles.  However, if you’re willing to work, to be tired at the end of the day, to not mail it in, you can grow any student.

Quick Thoughts on Merit Pay

First of all, I can’t imagine going on strike as a teacher.  It goes against EVERY reason I went into teaching.  That being said, Reynoldsburg teachers voted to strike last night.  They are fighting an agenda being pushed by Gov. Kasich’s cronies.  Besides class size and health benefits, one of the central issues is merit pay.

Let me break merit pay down for you.  Name one other profession that has merit pay AND it is based on how someone else performs.  When I think of merit pay in other professions, I think of pro golfers.  But, they get paid on how they perform.  Think about a golf coach.  What if he was paid on merit?  He would probably love that if his only pupil was Rory McIlroy.  What if you sent him players who wouldn’t practice?  He’d probably argue against merit pay.  What if you sent him players with one arm?  He’d probably argue against merit pay.  What if you sent him players with broken golf clubs and no spikes?  He’d probably argue against merit pay.  Would he still teach them to the best of his ability?  Yes.  Are they ever going to perform at the highest level? No.

That’s why Reynoldsburg is fighting for all of the other teachers in Ohio.  They are a big district and which ever way this domino falls will have lasting impact for all districts in Ohio.

Face it…you aren’t allowed to have a bad day

In many other jobs, if you’re having a bad day, there’s usually somewhere you can hide.  Turn off the phones for a bit.  Take a long break.  Shoot, go sit in the bathroom for awhile.  You really don’t have that option as a fifth-grade teacher.

I have a very small amount of time to capture my kids’ imaginations.  Part of that is the old adage that they don’t care what you know until they know that you care.  So here you are on your A-game for the first part of the year while you’re energized, investing in the kids, making them want to be at school, and building respect and rapport.  You’re getting notes and emails from parents amazed that for the first time ever their child wants to come to school in the morning. That fragile child who has never opened up to anyone, sees you as that adult they finally trust.

And then you’re having a bad day.  And that kid who trusts you, but also hasn’t put his name on a paper all year, doesn’t have his name on his paper AGAIN!  Your day has been junk and your patience is limited.  And out of your mouth comes that comment that expresses your annoyance with his behavior, and you immediately undo ALL the progress you’ve made with him.  You realize instantly and pull him aside.  You try to explain you were having a bad day.  You’re sorry.

You have now become another adult he can’t trust.

Face it…you aren’t allowed to have a bad day.  But, regardless of our superhero powers, we do have bad days.  So, what do we do about them.

Tell them up front.  Kids are amazingly forgiving if they know ahead of time that you aren’t yourself that day.  Be honest and tell them, “I’m having a bad day.  Please be patient with me today if I mess up.”  Not only will they forgive you easier if you slip, your honesty, if you’ve developed respect and rapport, will most likely buy you a calmer class than normal. I know this flies in the face of many of the “experts.”  They say your students should have no idea of your mood because you should have a game face on.  Yeah, right.  That advice is written by “educators” who haven’t been in a classroom for years.  Be honest with your students.  They know when you’re lying anyway.

Bubblegum and lockdowns

2014-08-27 10.01.09What a crazy day today!  In the midst of teaching theme, we had a lockdown that basically lasted from 11:30 till 3:00. Police escorting the buses at dismissal.  Pretty sure we made the national news. Craziness.

ANYWAY.  So the subject was theme today.  On my side I gave direct instruction with guided notes about theme. I started with a humorous hook of fables and their morals.  Humorous, you ask.  In a room full of fifth graders, it gets rather giggly when you are reading about the Donkey and the Lion’s Skin.  Just remember, when Aesop was writing, they didn’t call them donkeys.

After the right side notes, I gave them some cutouts from Grade 5 Reading Notebook by Nicole Shelby.  They were a gumball machine and five gumballs.  The gumball machine has the definition of theme formed as a question on it.  The idea is that just as blowing too big of a gumball can create a sticky situation, theme is what sticks with you after you read.  That idea gets carried through to the gumballs.

On their side, the processing side, they had to look back over their notes and pick the five things that needed to stick with them from the information.  This forces them to prioritize the notes.  To do that, they really need to think them through.

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Today’s hiccup…Apparently there isn’t a whole lot of new material in the 5th grade version compared to the 4th grade version.  A portion of the kids who all had the same 4th grade teacher said they had these same cutouts last year.  I thought maybe the teacher had been challenging her students with the 5th grade book.  But alas, she told me she has the 4th grade version.  I’m hoping it doesn’t all repeat.

 

Interactive Student Notebooks

Last year I started researching interactive student notebooks.  I have always used a quick-write notebook, but this strategy takes that a bit farther.  I teach 5th grade ELA.  This blog will be an attempt to chronicle our notebooks’ successes and mistakes.  Hopefully someone out there will read this and have some input.

One thing that is necessary is a sturdy notebook.  Many sites recommended the small, old-style composition books.  I considered those, but the drawback was everything I copied for the kids would have to be cut down.  One site recommended Mead 5-Star notebooks.  I looked at those and decided to go with them.  My preference is the 3-subject, college ruled with the plastic sleeve cover.  It has multiple pockets inside.  I purposely went with the college ruled to rein in some of my sloppier kids.  That spacing is new to them and forces them to concentrate on bringing their writing under control to fit the lines.

 

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The plastic sleeve on the front is great because I have the kids personalize their notebooks with a custom cover.  Rather than tape it on the front where it can get snagged on the edges, they simply slide it in the sleeve.  After personalizing the cover, the last page of the book becomes the author page.  I shared several different versions of an author page for examples.  My favorite is Casey at the Bat, a Caldecott Honor Book illustrated by Christopher Bing.  He adds personal touches and an illustration of himself.

I gave the kids three table of contents sheets to glue into the first three pages. More on the glue in a moment.  The contents pages had three columns: Skill, Standard, and Page Number.  After the contents, they began numbering their pages, starting with 1 on the left side.

Glue.  Elmer’s.  Don’t mess with glue sticks.  Elmer’s is made for this.  I showed the kids a die and explained that the pips on it were exactly the amount of glue needed to stick each corner into their notebook.  You DON’T want them to cover the page like they’re putting ketchup on a hamburger.  It’s unnecessary and makes the the paper gooey, causing it to rip when they try to write on it.

 

The right side of the notebook is for whatever I present in class to them.  The left side is where they do their work. Where they digest and transform the material.  I require them to use 2 colors on my side and 5 colors on their side.  Deciding how best to use the color makes them think about the material more in depth.

 

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The first thing we added to our notebooks was close reading.  It is central to Common Core and much of what we’ll do all year will center around it.  In the photo above, I gave them our annotating marks on the right side (Mr. K’s side).  We then did some practice with close reading on a handout.  The next step was to complete the left side of the notebook (their side).  I gave them a simple t-chart with “what it’s like” on one side and “what it isn’t like” on the other.  The left side is a great place for Marzano strategies.  Finding similarities and differences is the one that shows the most gain, and I plan to use variations of it all year long.  After finding five of each, they then had to illustrate one of the items from the chart in the space below.

So far I love the notebooks.  They are a slow process to get started, however.  Just like any procedure you want the kids to do all year, it is worth the time at the beginning of the year to teach them to do this the way you want it.

Thanks for stopping by.  Please, if you have experience with interactive student notebooks, join in the conversation.  This blog will be all things middle school, but will have a lot of my experiences with the notebooks.

Peace,

Mr. K