To Mrs. V. with Love…

To Mrs. V., With Love…

There are rare moments during the school year when teachers have the opportunity to completely diverge from their set plans without losing a day of learning. These moments go beyond what any teacher could have planned and leave students and teachers alike with a greater understanding and appreciation of the things that were not intended to be taught in the classroom that day. While teachers often talk about the importance of these magical moments, it seems few actually take the time to put aside their lesson plans given the atmosphere of today’s standardized test-driven classroom. However, it is in these scarce teachable moments that teachers learn the true depths of their students’ thinking.

In my experience, teachable moments usually stem from a traumatic event that occurs within the classroom, an individual child’s life, or the world at large. I most recently had the privilege of partaking in one of these teachable moments while guest teaching in my colleague Lynn’s classroom; but I remember lying awake the night after the September 11th attacks and wondering how I was going to deal with the likely discussions that would take place the next day with my second graders. I hadn’t even known these children a week and here was the biggest teachable moment of a lifetime. I fell asleep willing to let my students lead the discussion the next morning and see where it would take us.

The funny thing about teachable moments is that they can’t be planned, they just happen. As it would turn out, the next day in my classroom’s morning meeting the hot news was the big black bear at one of the bus stops. Just like that, the plans changed and we were all over black bears; what they eat (not 2nd graders) and sharing what we knew about them and what to do if you ever did meet up face to face with a bear. We took out books, looked up facts, and then the children wrote all about bears. We were so happily engrossed in research and writing bears, that it was lunchtime before anyone mentioned anything about airplanes hitting buildings. Those lessons would be learned over many teachable moments in the coming weeks.

So, it wasn’t in the plans when I walked into Lynn’s second grade inclusion class and was told that the teacher I was replacing for the day was out because her beloved Golden Retriever had died. Lynn explained how the children all knew that this dog was Mrs. V.’s best friend and companion as she had been sharing Jack stories with the children all year. Lynn looked at me and said, “Oh, well, throw the lesson plans out the window! We’re just going to go with it. I’m looking for my Dog Heaven book by Cynthia Rylant and we’ll discuss it and have them write letters to Mrs. V. The writing we were going to do can wait.”
With great sensitivity, Mrs. T. (Lynn) explained the situation to the children and why I was in their classroom that day and not Mrs. V. The gasps were immediate and genuine as the students offered their thoughts and expressed concerns.
“Jack was a golden retriever, I have a golden retriever.”
“She told him everything.”
“I know how she feels, I had a bunny once.”

We read Dog Heaven and Hans Wilhem’s I’ll Love You Always and the discussion continued.
“Jack was like a child to her.”
“They did everything together.”
“She must feel so sad, I feel sad for her.”

There were some tears throughout the classroom before we were done and the discussion took up most of the class period; but we saved time for writing heartfelt notes to Mrs V. We knew these letters would be special so we decided to make them little pop-up books and we told the class we would construct them together after they finished their letters. With little more direction than to write Mrs. V. a letter and draw a picture to make her feel better, the children enthusiastically and quickly got right to the task and started writing. Their words came right from their hearts and poured from their souls like the gentle rain outside the window.

Teachable moments are often magical. No, they might not be in the plan for the day, but when they happen, it’s like a gift from the teacher gods and you just have to let them keep happening. The results are often bigger than any lesson planned. This particular classroom is a learning community the teacher has been growing since the first day of school. The students and teachers knew each other well, they cared about one another and it was obvious from their letters filled with compassion and oozing with empathy.

It was an amazing day and I’m glad I had the opportunity to share it with this class of exceptional learners. Maybe if more time was spent addressing these teachable moments, we really could bring about the social change this world so desperately needs. Sometimes you just need to throw out the test-driven lessons and teach to a “higher standard”.

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Taking My Own Advice

one little daffodil up close & personal…

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Looking at the World Up Close

I’ve put my paintbrush and drawing supplies away for a few days and exchanged all my usual supplies for my camera. I’ve spent hours out on the trail enjoying the gorgeous and unusually warm weather. The views have been exceptional and I always love the plethora of greens found in the woods at the beginning of spring. What I love more than a vista is getting down into the earth and observing whats happening right under my nose.

My camera is great for this with a built in macro option but even better is hitting the tail with a couple of loupes in my pocket. I’ve used loupes in my classroom for years and found nothing helped set the stage for an exciting year of discovery than introducing them on the very first day. We’d go on a discover hike around the classroom and around the school grounds and the enthusiasm was contagious. Even the bricks of the school building are exciting to look at through a loupe! From that point on, rather than squash that bug, someone would yell, “Grab a loupe, let’s loupe it!” Even the custodian would bring us his findings including giant luna moths and preying mantis. Have you ever really looked at a stink bug?

Following the simple theory of thinking by analogy as outlined by The Private Eye hands-on learning process, we “louped” our way through our curriculum. Thinking, drawing, and writing and questioning and discussing everything. Spring is a great time to get started and I suggest you get some loupes, check out The Private Eye and make your classroom an exciting happening place.

If you are without a classroom like I am, and you can’t wait to get yourself a loupe, grab a camera and get up close and personal with spring through your lens. You’ll never see the world the same again.

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I’m not quite sure I’ve always doodled, but I’ve been at it for quite a while now. The first evidence I have found of my doodling are from notebooks my senior year in high school. All through college and beyond my notebook margins are full of doodles. The journals I keep while attending conferences are littered with drawings and doodles among the key points and quotes. Prior to that, I know I liked to draw but that was left to art class or a separate piece of paper. My love of drawing did get me through biology because my lab reports always were well illustrated. I do remember my fair share of daydreaming early in my school career and I can’t help but wonder if there is a direct correlation between my grades and my habit of doodling? Regardless, over the years my GPA improved steadily along with my doodling.

Just last weekend I was at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion conference at Columbia. I arrived with a freshly prepped notebook- a composition book covered in gesso and swirled in two colors with watercolors. I left with very few notes on the inside on my notebook, but both sides of the cover had become one big doodled design. On several occasions this past week, I found myself in conversations with other participants who attended the event and same keynotes. I surprised myself by how much I had recalled from the talks I had been listening to while doodling and how my colleagues agreed with key points I enthusiastically shared. Maybe there is something to all the buzz and research about doodling and how it improves memory 29% as well as helps us concentrate. NPR and Time have published articles which indicate improved recall and memory when the brain in actively engaged in activities such as doodling. If you haven’t had a chance, do watch the Doodling in Math videos which take doodling to a whole new level! I’m particularly fond of the Spirals, Fibonacci and Being a Plant series.

In just the past few months I’ve witnessed more than once a teacher tell a student to “Stop doodling and pay attention!” What I also noticed, which the teacher did not, was how the same students gazed off into space and totally lost focus and no longer participated in the discussion after that point. Scary. How often I wondered, did I do things in my classroom that had the total opposite reaction of what I was striving to achieve?

A lot of my thinking about the best way to teach students began at a Math Their Way instructor training conference back in the early nineties when we started to explore learning styles and the new field of brain research. We were privileged to have among our speakers Pat Wolfe and Dr. Anthony Gregorc. Pat Wolfe was humorous and informative as she translated the latest brain research into classroom practice and should be a must in every teacher’s education. I know it transformed my teaching. The Gregorc Style Delineator was fun and a real eye opener and not surprisingly one of my colleagues with very similar teaching style to mine, both ended up with results and a graph almost identical. My staff at school was for the most part quite the opposite or somewhere in the middle.

Once you understand a little about how the brain works and it impacts learning, the change that can transform and the impact in the classroom is amazing. If you can’t see Pat in person, read her book, Brain Matters: Translating the Research to Classroom Practice or The Brain Compatible Classroom: A Teachers Guide.

Now I sit here thinking about how to get more educators to invest in the latest brain research and its practical applications in their day-to-day teaching. Maybe the answer to doing well on the test is as simple as learning how to teach so our students can learn. Could it possibly start with a doodle?

If you want to improve your doodling and hopefully your memory, google: Zentangles.

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Poetry Month is Almost Here!

Tomorrow begins another month but not just any month- It’s Poetry Month! Now not everyone waits until April to start writing poetry in the classroom but even if you haven’t had much time to squeeze it in between test prep and core standards, it’s not too late to start now on something I think you’ll want to include in your classroom every day from now on, no matter what subject you teach.
It’s time to take those novels you were planning to replace from overuse and rather than toss them, recycle them into poetry. What better way to include reading and critical thinking and creativity into something to do when you’re “all finished” with the daily assignments?

Found poetry is easy, fun and there are no losers. Everyone can find success but finding words on a given page and sequencing them into a new “found” poem.

Start with any page from any text- consider catalogs too where descriptive language can be abundant. With a pencil select words or phrases that appear pleasing. Once you’ve selected all the words you may use on a page, go back and tweak it by omitting or perhaps adding additional words found on the page to form a poem. Once I have found the words I want to use, I erase any others, and go back and circle the words I have chosen with a Sharpie marker. Then I like to go to town and draw around my poem or do Zentagngles to complete the page and finally mount it on either a mat board or even plain construction paper. Other options include, cutting out the words and arranging them on a page or using watercolors, stamps or whatever to decorate the poem. Let your creativity flow and I’m sure you’ll think of other ways too.
These examples were done right on the original page:

There are even a few poetry contests that you may want to consider including The Young Author’s Contest sponsored by Tri-County Reading Council for members only (information about becoming a member is on the site and it’s not too late to join for this school year) or the New York Time’s Found Poetry Contest. The later is slightly different but equally interesting kind of “Found Poetry”. Check it out!

I guarantee the hardest thing I have found about doing Found Poetry is tearing a page out of a book!

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Signs of Spring

This gallery contains 13 photos.

As a lover of winter and snow I still hold out hope for at least one little snowfall. It’s late enough now and safe to say that it wouldn’t last long. One good snowfall would sweetly freshen the earth. The … Continue reading

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