Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reflections from a Miracle in the Making

I have two remarkable daughters. My girls came to live with me at the ages of 11 and 8, and I was given the amazing privilege of adopting them. For their own right to privacy I have chosen to give them pseudonyms for my blog posts. My oldest is now 17 and she is Percy because she has an amazing spirit of perseverance and because she'd be quick to tell you that Percy is the main character from her favorite series of books. My youngest is 13 and she is Miss B because she is one of the bravest people I know.
This week I've been watching a miracle unfold. Percy has a learning disability. She has had amazing odds to overcome. When Percy came to live with me she could only read about 50 of the 100 most common sight words. Reading was extremely difficult for her. In addition to being dyslexic, she also had difficulty blending sounds together. Reading is something we've worked on since day one. The school provided services to help, I enrolled her in additional tutoring, I would read aloud to her, and I encouraged her to daily read. Although she made some progress, at age 15 she was still reading between a 1st and 2nd grade level.
My hope and dream for Percy has always been to give her the tools she needs to be the independent adult she longs to be. Like most kids she wants to go to college, be able to be on her own, and most importantly (like any teenager) have her own car. As she traveled through her 9th grade year I was unsure if all her dreams could become a reality. My goal for Percy was to reach at least a 5th grade reading level because I knew she could be independent at that level. (Many publications are written at approximately the 6th grade level). In 9th grade and age 15 she was a long way from that goal.
That Christmas, while listening to a Grammar Girl Podcast, I discovered the website They provide audiobooks at economical prices. I downloaded a book through a special offer and thought, "Hey, this is neat." Percy's class at the time was reading the novel Holes and she was struggling to keep up. I began to wonder if the books from Audible could help Percy. I downloaded Holes to an MP3 player and gave it to Percy with one rule. She had to follow along in the book as she listened.
Being 15 and reading at a 2nd grade level is a drag for many reasons. One of those reasons is that there is no reading material at your interest level (I'm excluding academic materials available to teachers in this statement). Your peers are busy consuming and raving about titles such as Twilight and your Stuck with Junie B. Jones. ( I have nothing against Junie, but if I was 15, she wouldn't be on the top of my reading list).
With the magic of a credit card sized listening device and 15 dollars a month my daughter's literary world began to expand. I was very careful at first to direct her book choices. I would recommend books I had already read so we could discuss them and because I knew they met her other interests. I wanted it to be a positive experience from the very beginning. The first book she read for pure enjoyment was Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Not only did she read it once, but she read it over and over and over (I lost count after 5 times). She couldn't get enough of the story, and I knew the repetition of hearing the word, seeing the word was invaluable.

We have one of those fancy pants TVs that has the viewing guide built in. In the past I never had to worry about statements like, "Mom can we please watch __________! Please, pretty please!" because Percy was unable to read the guide. Within six months of using the audiobooks I noticed things changing. I began to get more and more frequent requests to watch specific shows because she could now read the guide.
Another example of marked improvement came from watching the show Heroes. Several of the characters were not english speakers, so their dialogue was always displayed as subtitles. Even as Percy's reading improved, she still asked me to read them to her because they would scroll on the screen so quickly. One night I was preoccupied, as mothers sometimes get, all of a sudden I realized my daughter was reading aloud. I looked up and saw that she was reading the subtitles on the screen. She didn't miss a single word or make one mistake. In my heart I started to do a happy dance. It seems so little, but that night we won a major battle in the war to become a proficient reader.
Two years have gone by since I put that first MP3 player in her hand. She has read at least 39 books and has accumulated 497 AR points. (For you none teacher types, AR is a school reading program that monitors comprehension and provides incentive to keep reading). I know the MP3 player alone hasn't made all the difference, she has had some amazing teachers along the way too, but it has played a pivotal role.
Now, back to our miracle in the making. A few weeks ago I took Percy to a large bookstore for some Mom/Daughter time. We picked out a couple of books to be her next reads. The plan was to download the accompanying audiobooks when we got home. After shopping we went out to eat and perused our purchases. Percy picked up Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz. I thought she was just going to thumb through it with anticipation, but the next thing I knew she had turned to chapter 1 and had begun to read it on her own. I asked her a couple of questions to monitor her understanding, and she asked me the name of a couple of characters. Then she was on her way. She has set out to read the whole book on her own. She is already halfway through chapter 4. She has complained a few times that the reading is slower when she doesn't have anyone to listen to, but she is determined to achieve this new goal.
I was inspired to share this story after of blog post from my friend Kevin Honeycutt. In his post he was talking about the power of reading aloud to students and giving them them the opportunity to read aloud to others. Audiobooks have had an amazing impact on my daughter's life, and I know that she will one day be able to read to her own children because of them.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Reflections from Plurk

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog since almost the first week I started plurking. Remember that book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? I think I could write a book called All I Really Need to Know to Teach I Learned from Plurk.
There is a lot of talk right now about PLNs. Some say PLN stands for Personal Learning Networks, others say it stands for Professional Learning Networks. I like to think PLN, at least for me, stands for Plurk Learning Network. For those of you not familiar with Plurk, it is a unique social network. It is most often compared to Twitter, but in my humble opinion they are very different. Twitter is a place to talk at people. When I plurk, I’m given the opportunity to talk with people. As I’ve stated in a previous blog, I wasn’t to sure about Plurk at first. Primarily because there was such a plethora of information, and I couldn’t figure out how to efficiently assimilate it. Believing there was value in plurking, I made the commitment to dive in and make connections. Over the last two months I have discovered ways to filter the information shared, and as a benefit, the knowledge and inspiration I’ve gained has grown exponentially.
Plurk has provided me support and encouragement as I endeavor to daily be a better teacher than I was the day before. I’m introduced to cutting edge educational resources. Already this year my students have been able to Skype with a class in Kansas. We have made connections with schools in Australia, Poland, Turkey, Russia, and a round the country through a project I learned about on Plurk called One Day, One World. This week my students enthusiasm was tangible as we located our partnering schools on Google Earth. In my Language Arts class, my 5th graders had the opportunity to brainstorm ideas (for the classroom newspaper we’re creating) with educators across the country using a website called Wall Wisher. I wish you could have heard the Oohs and Aahs as posts appeared on our Wall Wisher site, and the students realized that another teacher sitting in another state was talking to them live. These are all examples of things I was able to do in my room because I had made connections with fellow educators on Plurk.
The connections I’ve made on Plurk have inspired me to reflect on who I am as a teacher. I remember when I was completing my college career that one of my final pieces was to put in writing my philosophy of teaching. This summer, as I began pouring through the educational articles shared on plurk, I realized I hadn’t thought about what it means to be a teacher in quite sometime. The connections I’ve made through Plurk have inspired me to reevaluate my pedagogical philosophy. One of the key conclusions I made is that as a teacher, as a human being, I desire to inspire those around me. I want to teach my students to reflect, to think deeply, to believe in themselves. I want to ignite a desire within each of them to grow and to learn.

Plurk has also taught me a few other valuable lessons to take with me into my classroom. These lessons don’t have anything to do with the links posted or the instructional ideas shared. On Plurk when there is something you want to say, you create a post that is limited to 140 characters. This post is called a plurk. After I hit enter, my Plurk becomes visible to my Plurk Buddies. They then have an opportunity to comment on my Plurk. One of the things this has made me aware of is my hunger for feedback. I can’t wait to check back to see if anyone has commented on my Plurk. My desire for feedback has made me think a lot about my students. If I, a grown up, long to hear input about my thoughts and ideas, how hungry must my students be for feedback. As a teacher of writing, this realization has helped me conclude that I must provide my students with more authentic opportunities to share their writing. My students are funny, witty, insightful, and brilliant. Why should I be the only one reading their amazing pieces?
A friend of mine, when describing Plurk, called it 24/7 self directed staff development. I couldn’t agree more. I firmly believe as a teacher, we should be daily striving to do what we do, better. If I, or any other educator, loses that desire, it is probably time to find a new path to journey down. Our students deserve the very best we have to offer. I can’t give them my best if I haven’t invested the time to stay abreast of the best teaching practices currently available. With the connections provided by Plurk I know that I can continually fine tune my teaching practices, so that when my students walk in my door, they will be receiving the very best I can give them.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reflections from the First Day of School

This week I began my thirteenth year of teaching. Wow, just that statement makes me stop and pause. I know it’s cliché, but it seems like only yesterday I was walking into my first classroom.

This past Thursday was the first day of school for our students. Over the last few weeks, as I prepared for a new school year, I assumed on the first day of school I would be standing at my classroom door greeting each student. Unfortunately the state of Arkansas had other ideas--I was called for jury duty. Due to the nature of the case no one was being excused. I diligently sat in court Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday hoping against hope that I would finally be excused. Wednesday, as I was leaving court, the reality began to sink in. For the first time in my career I would not be at my door on that first day to meet my students. I began to cry.

Those of you who teach, know how important it is to start the year off on the right foot. I knew that first day was a day with my students I could never get back. After moping for a little while, it was time to stop mourning about something I couldn’t change. I had a new goal. How could I make sure my students had the best possible day even if I wasn’t with them?

How do you even go about leaving substitute lesson plans for the first day of school? I began to brainstorm about the possible activities I could have the students do with a substitute. I even asked my friends on Plurk for help.

Our school is in an unique position this year. Due to consolidation, we have students from three different schools coming together for the first time. I, like many of our students, am also new to our building. Because of all this change I’d come to the conclusion that it was important to help the students build relationships with each other, and I wanted to get to know each of them. But how could I accomplish any of those goals with a substitute?

Have you ever had one of those “Ah-Ha” moments? I did on Wednesday. If I couldn’t be there to talk to them, I was at least going to give them the opportunity to talk to me. I asked the substitute to have each student write me a letter. In that letter they could share anything they thought I needed to know about them.

Thursday evening I returned to school after finally being released from jury duty. The students had already gone home from their first day of school, but sitting on my desk, waiting for me, was a pile of hand written letters. I sat down and began to read. Over the next hour or so I made my way through 80 plus letters. As I read I became stunned by the insights I was already gaining about students I had yet to meet. I wondered to myself, “Why have I never given this assignment before?” and quickly realized it would be a new annual assignment for the years to come. There were many letters that chronicled the events of their summer, but there were just as many letters that told me bits and pieces of who they were and how they think.

There was the 6th grader who had the guts to tell his English teacher, “Sorry, I really don’t like writing.” Another student made me giggle when he said, “The nicer you are to me, the nicer I will be to you.

Other letters broke my heart. A 5th grader wrote, “I am not that smart.” And a 6th grade boy, after telling me his aspirations to be a professional skateboarder and how he had repaired a broken laptop without any help, ended his letter by saying, “I’m not real interesting.” I began to wonder how I’m going to inspire these young men. How am I going to help them see themselves for who they really are?

A girl from my 6th grade class said, “I’m sure you are amazing. This is kinda scary since the other school is here. I know it will be an interesting adventure. We always have to be prepared in life and ready for change. As you can see I am a free spirited person.” Another young lady told me, “Literature is my favorite subject. I would love to be an author. I write and draw all the time. I am articulate and smart.”

Then there was the 6th grader who in one breath said, “I am a little smart” and in next said, “I can be creative in lots of ways.” As she expressed her thoughts through the rest of her letter, I could see that she was more than a “little smart,” she was very bright. I knew I had to take on the mission of helping her realize how very gifted she is.

Many students shared excitement about the start of a new school year and their love a learning like one 5th grader who said, “I’m excited to be in your class. I think I will have a good time.”

As I read the last letter a thought began to form in my mind. The vast majority of the letters were written by students excited to be at school, who voiced a love of learning. I began to wonder, what is it that we do as educators that extinguish that passion? How do we keep from quenching their excitement? How can we, instead, encourage them to continue to grow? What can I do to help them learn to love learning?

This summer I was inspired to try some bold and innovative new ideas in my classroom. Although inspired I have also had some trepidation about actually implementing those ideas. Mostly I have been plagued by the fear of failing miserably. After reading my students letters, however, I choose to set aside my fears. They deserve a teacher who is determined to do whatever it takes to foster their love of learning, and I want to be the kind of teacher they deserve.

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