Friday, November 30, 2012

Shopping Lists and a Simulation

Preparing for Hope House - Click for Gallery
This week, sixth grade students worked feverishly to put together shopping lists, clip coupons, and secure funds for the annual Hope House service project.  One of their biggest challenges was narrowing down the thousands of food choices offered in a typical grocery store.  Students began by working within a number of parameters.  First, they were discouraged from purchasing anything that they would not eat themselves.  Next, with the exception of bread and some hardy produce (apples, carrots, and potatoes), only non-perishable food items were allowed.  Along with that, students were advised to make choices that would go the distance.  For example, cinnamon-raisin bread may be a delicious treat, but it is largely relegated to one meal - breakfast.  Whole-wheat bread, on the other hand, is more nutritious and could be used at any of the three meals.  Finally, students were asked to plan out breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.  They needed to consider all of the food groups for each one, while creating appetizing and complete meals.  For the upcoming week, students will continue to collect money and finalize their lists.  Then it's on to Piggly Wiggly!

After a couple of shortened weeks due to conferences and the Thanksgiving holiday, composition class is tying up some loose ends.  Students should be in a position to submit their definition essays for assessment, after another round of writing conferences next week.  At the same time, Six-Word Memoirs were finalized this week.  Students created a JPEG of their memoir on Wednesday and submitted it to me on Thursday.  Borrowing some of Apple's creative magic, I will create an iMovie that contains each one. The class also focused on a new writing strategy this week - power writing.  Every other day, students used the website,, to help increase both writing stamina and idea generation.  The site randomly selected a single word and displayed it on the SMART Board.  Writers were given just one minute to write what ever came to mind about that word.  Once the minute was up, words were counted and tracked as a means to monitor growth.  While it was certainly a quantitative task, by no means were students allowed to forget writing conventions.  One habit to which good writers adhere is writing as correctly as possible on the first attempt.  Although it was a challenging exercise, students were excited to do it and eagerly gave it their all, each time.  After monitoring and coaching students this week, I am ready to join them as they power write on Monday. 

In order to fully appreciate the historical context of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, it's important to understand the quandary of the newly freed slaves following the Thirteenth Amendment.  Freedmen were despised by white landowners and found themselves without money or job prospects. Because of hope, or maybe out of desperation, many quickly found themselves bound to a legalized form of slavery - sharecropping.  Some 147 years later, it can be difficult for people to empathize with this hopeless situation.  So that they might understand the struggles and challenges of sharecropping, literature students began a multi-day simulation in which they became tenant farmers on my expansive plantation.  They rented and farmed 10 acre plots for exorbitant fees and at the whim of both Mother Nature and supply and demand, just as those freedmen did so many years ago.  In no time at all, many found themselves hampered by severe debt or hanging on by a thread.  As they discussed their progress, students revealed that they felt scared, anxious, worried, and angry.  Those are feelings that I would have been unable to elicit through a simple demonstration or PowerPoint.  With the simulation lasting two more days, students will have some difficult choices to make.  I am eager to review their final reflections and interested to see how their participation in this activity will inform their interpretations of the novel.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grandparents and Special Friends Day

Acknowledging writing by 'Raising the Roof.' Click to view gallery.

In this season of gratitude, I'd like to say that I am thankful for Grandparents and Special Friends Day here at USM.  Being able to witness this special occasion as both a parent and a teacher has provided me with a unique perspective.

Since the weekend, both of my Preprimary sons had been counting the hours until Grandparents and Special Friends Day.  "How many more days until Wednesday, Dad?  Is Grandparents Day tomorrow or the day after tomorrow?  When are Grandma and Grandpa coming to school?  Are they coming tomorrow?"  These questions, among others, were asked more times than I was able to count.  With barely contained anticipation, my PKer was out of bed and dressed before I finished showering this morning - an unusual occurrence at our house.  And, of course, the drive in this morning was peppered with excited concerns and questions from both boys regarding the logistics of the day.  While dropping them off at their classrooms, I became a little misty realizing how fortunate we were to have a close and healthy family. After an activity-filled morning, my oldest summed up the success of Grandparents and Special Friends Day,  "That was the best school day of my life!"

As a teacher, Grandparents and Special Friends Day provides me with an unmatched opportunity - intergenerational learning.  In composition class, students and their guests wrote and shared Random Autobiographies.  From writing about simple ideas like favorite colors and numbers, to more complex ones such as life experiences and personal symbols, it was a wonderful way for everyone involved to learn a little more about themselves and the people with whom they were sharing the day.  Literature classes explored storytelling.  Participants were asked to identify significant, historical events that they believed changed their lives.  Once identified, students and adults shared the stories of those singular moments.  Similar ideas surfaced in each group.  The lunar landing, JFK's assassination, the birth of the iPad, 9/11, the Civil Rights Movement, and the fall of the Berlin Wall were just a few of the many topics explored throughout the morning.  It was fascinating to listen to the stories that have shaped our lives and our world.

The Grandparents and Special Friends Day Committee deserves special thanks.  By organizing this amazing event, they have provided the school community with an experience that is priceless.  A day like today makes me realize just how fortunate my family is to be a part of the USM family.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Conferences and ERB's

It was great seeing so many of you at conferences last week!  I truly appreciated the opportunity to sit down and discuss your children's progress and learn a little more about how we can become better partners in their education.  When I turned off the lights and closed the classroom door Thursday night, I took a moment to reflect on what I had consistently heard over the last two days.  Clearly, you want a welcoming environment where your children enjoy learning and where they feel secure in sharing their thoughts and ideas.  At the same time, you desire teachers who have an interest in knowing your children as individuals.  What are they starting out with? Where could they go?  Their likes, needs, dreams, and fears are pieces of the puzzle necessary to helping them reach their academic potentials.  Finally, throughout the two days, I heard that you are trying to find the delicate balance between letting go and the need to manage your children.  In the end, I believe that we share the same goals and we want the same outcomes for your children.  We have a great opportunity to work together and ensure your children's continued school success and I look forward to watching them grow throughout the rest of the year.

Testing is underway this week in the sixth grade.  Monday through Thursday, students will follow a modified schedule, dividing their time between the ERB and their regular classes.  Knowing that the week can be stressful, the sixth grade team incorporated a variety of breaks into each day.  From daily physical education to regular morning snack time, students had many opportunities for movement and fuel.  In between tests, teachers led classroom brain breaks to help focus, energize, and stimulate the mind.  These activities help to strengthen neurological pathways as well as engage both sides of the mind.  The video clip below is an example of a brain break.

In between it all, we are still moving forward in literature and composition classes.  Students are presenting their book projects in literature class this week.  From newscasts to iMovies, I have been impressed with the text-to-world connections students have been making as they demonstrate their knowledge of the enduring understandings found in The Outsiders.  Once presentations have been completed, we will resume our study of the background knowledge needed to fully appreciate our next novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor.  Composition students have started their exploration of the narrative writing genre.  Throughout second quarter, we will analyze mentor texts and practice a variety of narrative writing tasks.  We are beginning with the six-word memoir.  This type of short story was inspired by a legend involving Ernest Hemingway.  Supposedly, Hemingway was bet that he couldn't write a story in ten words or less.  He came back with: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."  Hemingway's memoir has inspired countless writers to take the same bet.  This week, composition students will meet the challenge. So will I!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Pumpkins and Projects

Pumpkin Decorating - Click to view gallery
As a way to celebrate fall and take part in a community building exercise, advising students decorated pumpkins.  Starting last week, the kids formed teams and explored crafting websites that provided ideas for no-carve pumpkin designs.  Once they were inspired, teams worked to reach consensus on a design and then sketched their blueprints.  After finalizing a plan, material-gathering duties were assigned and teams prepared for this week's decorating festivities.  Thanks to the generosity of parents, classes were provided with pumpkins and students were able to enjoy cookies, pretzels, and apple juice while executing their design plans during advising class.  By the end of the period, we had two M&M pumpkins, a rainbow and cloud pumpkin, and one festooned with melted crayons - four great examples of student creativity!

Working on a book project - Click to view gallery
The Outsiders book project work was in full swing this week.  With these final assessments due on Wednesday, students were busily crafting detailed responses and presentations to S.E. Hinton's timeless story.  Could the novel 'unteach' prejudicial thinking?  Which ideas from the text remain relevant today? Are things 'rough all over' just like Cherry said? Some worked in groups while others worked on their own to uncover deeper meaning by connecting the text to their lives and the world around them.  Making these types of connections encourages students to draw on their prior knowledge and helps to improve critical thinking skills.  Final assessments are expected to be neatly done, logically organized, and grammatically correct.  Even more importantly, they need to provide a thoroughly elaborated response that includes multiple examples from the book as well as text-to-self and text-to-world connections. Not surprisingly, project types are running the gamut.  From skits to iMovies and posters to Prezis, students are embracing the task and developing many great ideas.  I look forward to viewing them next week.

In composition, students spent significant time drafting their definition essays and some have started to share their writing on Google Drive.  What may have seemed simple at first, proved to be more challenging as writers were faced with exposing the nuances of unexpectedly challenging terms.  Through multiple peer and teacher conferences, students began to develop organizational patterns for their ideas, and they started to look for examples from their own lives to help give substance to their writing.  At the same time, writing circle work is proving to be a much anticipated activity.  There is a definite buzz in the air when students arrive on Friday, drafts in hand and eager to share.  As both an observer and participant, I have watched students' response and feedback skills improve along with their writing.  In a few weeks, we will be switching to publishing circles and writers will be expected, with the guidance of their groups, to take a piece public.  It might be a little scary, but it will also prove to be a very rewarding experience.