Sunday, September 24, 2017

Start Ups

The 2-3s came roaring back to school all ready to go. What an amazing start it has been so far. 

Every year we are immediately caught up in preparations for our special 2-3-led Assembly on the Friday of our first full week of school. How to pull it all together as a team in such a short time frame? My years of doing this have taught me this most important fact: trust the children

Trust that their enthusiasm to lead this event will carry them through any nerves, fears, and the super-silliness that sometimes comes with the nerves and fears. Trust that if they are given choice about what they want to do--as long as it's realistic in our time frame--they will do their absolute best to pull it off. Trust that I need only to coach and facilitate because the children I am so lucky to teach are ready, even as we are only just starting up, to take on this big responsibility. And know that we are building our community and connections through this shared start up event.

We are now spending our time learning regular routines, tweaked each year as I grow and learn in my educating. I am getting to know my new students. I also see my returning 3rd graders with fresh eyes as the young make such dramatic leaps in the months that make up a summer. 

We have started up our Morning Work routine that Monday-Wednesday will be Word Work with the children deepening their understanding of spelling rules and phonics through hands-on practice. The Power of Flexibility kicks off our Thursday mornings with a curriculum that leads the children to investigate and test their ability to be flexible on academic, emotional, and social fronts. Kate Howe, an Averill Park speech therapist, and I have been working on this curriculum for three years. Kate will take the 3rd graders from last year's stopping off point while I will bring the 2nd graders through the curriculum from the beginning.

The children have been writing through assignments and their own creative projects. I have already had them getting used to composing rough drafts that are then transformed into final polished pieces--emphasizing craftmanship in both form and content. We have started up our reading lives in the 2-3s with discussions about "just right" books. This is a long discussion that will go on through mini-lessons over the next couple of weeks. 

At Parker, our first month and a half of school is spent slowly launching our work and going over expectations and routines for our social lives together. We have beautiful discussions about friendship and our responsibilities to the people we care about. We think about and act on how to take care of our classroom environment with daily jobs. We talk, always, about how to treat our beautiful land. 

Most importantly, we discuss the power of mistakes. That it is okay to mess up because each one of us is learning and we must allow for the inevitability of mistakes. From errors in our social and academic lives comes the most beautiful clarity about who we are now, what we currently know, and what we are still trying to master. Mistakes point us in the right direction way more effectively than a life led trying to be perfect. 

I couldn't hope for a more powerful start up to my school year with your precious children. I'll be back to report updates in this space. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Community Identity

I'd like to take on language I sometimes hear to describe education at Parker. This idea that your child's work at Parker is "unstructured." Together, we need to address and correct this idea. Parker classrooms do not lack structure by any means, and our students' days are filled with structured schedules, routines, and traditions.

Your child is not attending a feel good, anything goes institution. Instead, we are a school built around a philosophy and movement that has its roots in the nineteenth century. John Dewey and fellow educational philosophers and academics saw the purpose of education as preparing students to be active participants in civic life, engaged in and informed about the world, and contributing strong and creative thinking to their communities and own lives. They were, and I am, dead serious about this educational approach.

The adults at Parker have the teaching degrees and expertise and do not surrender control to the kids to do whatever they want. We absolutely create certain non-negotiable structures for our students' academic days--the skills and content we teach. But whereas in more "traditional" schools, teachers are literally and figuratively at the center of things, dispensing information and making all the decisions, a Parker classroom revels in making the space to hear your children's ideas and opinions. That's what is different from many parents' and grandparents' educations. It's different from the way I was educated. And, boy, should I have been educated at Parker.

At the core of a Parker teacher's mindset and our community, is that we support our students' autonomy and trust in your child's ability to mull over and handle decisions that directly affect his/her academic work and social life. At Parker, the moves we make and leadership we show is directed towards sharing power and decisions with our students. Not to make things easy for us and the kids. Oh, no.

In "traditional" schools, children are taking in the teacher's ideas and thoughts and are expected to reiterate them. But instead of restating teacher ideas, at Parker we ask our students to construct their own understandings of their studies, make decisions about how to act on their understanding, and communicate their ideas to us. Making sense of a concept and finding your own way to work that concept--that's far more challenging.

As social beings, children need to talk things out and share explorations with friends. We are not in rows. We share supplies. We collaborate. And work alone. I adjust as necessary to meet your child's unique needs. Our students explore ideas with the teacher as the guide, and then are expected to take on the responsibility for the "doing," completing assignments with care and beauty and their own original voice. When something goes wrong either academically or socially, the work we do is to have children reflect on their decisions and see it all in a continuum of choices they can and should make. A constant dialogue in my classroom as kids go about completing the work is "where is the bar?" and "is this work above or below that bar?" I  know. But more importantly, each kid knows. And are sent back and challenged to do more. 

In other words, the child in a Parker classroom is not acted upon, but is instead participating with us. All with a community spirit that empowers students.

So, how does a teacher go about "doing" this kind of education? 

As stated earlier, I have the overarching objectives, but the children help to create the path we will take on our educational journey. I am consciously and regularly establishing opportunities for my students to fully participate in their own education and our community life.

Two recent examples that have signaled to my students that their voices and opinions matter, and that they have the power to decide: 
  • We established our classroom rules together. It would be much easier for me to just establish classroom rules and announce them to my students. But they would absolutely lack meaning and purpose for them. Our process involved a two-day brainstorming session and a third day spent confirming (through votes) that we had gotten it right. We launched by talking together about how we want to live in the room, what we all need to learn our best, and how we can all feel most comfortable with each other. The kids worked in pairs and small groups to articulate their expectations of themselves and each other. We noticed patterns and groupings and together, the kids helped me to organize them into categories. As the facilitator of this process, I drafted statements that matched the categories. I then presented the drafts and asked for feedback. The kids offered suggestions until we were ready to take a vote on each rule to be sure everyone was bought in and in agreement. Throughout this entire discussion, I brought the foundations of our country's democracy into the process and talked them through how writing laws (which I used to do in my previous life in the State Legislature) starts with a draft. And that in a democracy, citizens have the power to weigh in and let lawmakers know if the proposed laws are important to them. Investing time in this process at the start of the year sets the tone for the whole year.  
  • On Friday, we will celebrate Robert C. Parker Day with an Assembly. It's a busy week, with the Hudson River trip the day before, and of course it is tempting to just decide for the group what we are going to do. Instead, I presented two ideas and asked for input from the kids. I asked the kids if they all needed to do the same kind of project or if it would be okay if we had more than one way to present. And then facilitated their discussion. What ended up happening was the magic of working at Parker. The kids had very definite preferences for what they wanted to do and we ended up having about 3/4 of the class deciding to work in small groups on posters while the other 1/4 decided to create some writing. With the writers, at first I thought I'd have the writers all work in the same genre and then asked myself, "why?" Among my writers, I have poets and one person who decided she would write a brief story. What came out of this was total enthusiasm and ownership over what they will present. And it will be their moment.    

I always go back to Alfie Kohn, an educational philosopher and advocate, who helps me best explain what we are doing at Parker. This work is "...characterized by what I like to call a “working with” rather than a “doing to” model. In place of rewards for complying with the adults’ expectations, or punitive consequences for failing to do so, there’s more of an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving..."

So what's the outcome of this approach? Children whose natural curiosity has been celebrated. Children who want to come to school. Children who feel heard. Children who learn to take initiative. Children who are motivated to express their own ideas. Children who have experience thinking and sharing with others. In other words, an active and engaged Parker citizenry.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Our long summer days get shorter.
The nights get crisper.

And then one fine September day, our beautiful school building--busy all summer with campers--sees the yellow buses pull up again, delivering bright, shining faces to our front door. The parking lot is once again crowded with parents and their children.

Another school year begins.

Every school year provides us all with a fresh start. What I love so much about teaching is that it continually taps into and renews my hopes, aspirations, nurturing, and wonder. Every year, we have new dynamics, friendships, academic needs and goals, and social agendas that must be addressed. Every year, I get to know my 2nd graders as scholars and social beings. Although I can hit the ground running with my 3rd graders, I get to see them in a new light: this year's mentors and leaders, and the learners I know so well and for whom I have the very clearest of goals on all fronts.

Right now, my class of 2nd and 3rd graders is transitioning. Out of summer. From their long days with you, moms and dads. Separating from the bounty of those picnics and family gatherings. Maybe adjusting to having more structure again in their daily lives. There's a letting go of those delicious summer days that needs to happen. For us all.

Sometimes in these early days, you may notice your child is more tired, cranky, or clingy. Your child is doing a whole lot of work right now. Gearing up for the challenges and joys ahead and adjusting to being in the company of scores of other humans. As the adults in their lives, we can provide comfort and ease through this transition by setting up clear routines, certainty about what happens where and when, and resetting expectations about their responsibilities to us.

In school this week, we will craft our classroom rules together. We will establish classroom jobs. Keep strengthening our response to the signal for quiet. At Morning Meeting, we will greet each other each day with strong eye contact and a kind and respectful tone. We will notice and share the kindness we see in our classmates, and discuss what it means to be a good friend. We will re-start our Power of Flexibility curriculum and work on bending and altering course when the situation requires it.

And we will read, discovering and reinforcing what a "just right" book means for each child. We will write, moving from drafts they have completed into a second go at revision, a task quite challenging to most 7, 8, and 9 year olds. We will continue reviewing and strengthening concepts in math, such as place value, automaticity with basic facts, reading word problems with care, and taking the time to share thinking on the page.

And we will laugh together. Often.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Day 1

Here are the 2-3s on day 1 in music, finding their inner dance stars. 

We shared the book, Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon, one of my favorite picture books about a teeny tiny girl loving herself in spite of being clumsy, buck-toothed, and having a voice "like a bullfrog being strangled by a boa constrictor." While others might find this cumbersome to getting along in the world, Molly has always heard from her grandmother that she should believe in herself. And so she does. 

Molly's confidence is put to the test at a new school with a boy who belittles her. Repeatedly. Molly stands tall, proves herself, and wins everyone over, including that boy. 
This book provides a great jumping off point for us as we form friendships, work on our friendships, and build a strong community. It helps us talk about how we should treat each other. And it reminds the children to stand tall and believe in themselves. 

It was a fantastic first day with your thoughtful and talented children!!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Classroom Life in Pictures--Part 4 Sciencing

Parker students "do" science. They observe and record findings from our land. They utilize tools to expand their observations. They move. They think. They share. Science class is active.

As we begin our spring unit on China, science learning is circling around inventions as so many were created in ancient China. Activities right now are all about kid-created inventions.

Our Hudson Valley Community College student teacher, Hannah, led a lesson on inventions. Each child was given a collection of items, from puff balls, nuts, and washers to googly eyes, plastic utensils, tape, and glue. The children were tasked with creating devices, tools, or creative renderings from these humble materials. The group was completely absorbed and with such an open-ended assignment, their imaginations took over!

Right before spring break, Kate took the group down to the creek. Their task: creating inventions from only sticks and stones for use by forest creatures. There were bird houses, bird gyms, fairy houses, and the like. The children worked in teams and then explained to us what they had designed.

Here they were earlier in the year, learning the basics of pH testing in the science lab:

Exploring the pond's turbidity:

Using microscopes to look closely at wooly bear caterpillars, the Isabella tiger moth, and other moths.

Observing wooly bears and measuring their segments:

There is still so much sciencing ahead!!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Classroom Life in Pictures--Part 3 Making Our Learning Visible

This is a group of makers. Over the course of this year, the 2-3s have created countless things to both discover and share new knowledge.

In art class, the 2-3s drew dinosaur skeletons and are now making paper mache models of their dinosaurs. This work deepens their learning and makes their understanding visible.

While working on last semester's theme--How Our Land Changed Over Time--these creatives never tired of building their model landscapes and structures to complement their research on Native Americans, colonial settlers, or cities.



Their life-size paintings also demonstrated a connection to period clothing styles. 

To complement her exploration of water turbines during our theme study, one 2nd grader worked at home with her dad to construct a miniature water wheel that actually powered a light. She presented her work to us and we all got so much out of that fantastic extension of learning.

The 2-3s also make things as an expression of artistry. Here the 3rd graders kicked off our unit on 2-D geometry by celebrating their talents with geo-boards and pattern blocks. Yes, they went 3-D with the pattern blocks. They couldn't help themselves. :-)

If you offer these makers a chance to make mini-apple pies, they are immediately on board. ;-)
Sarah, last semester's fantastic Hudson Valley Community College student teacher, closed out her time in the 2-3s with this baking experience.

Give a 2-3 a piece of paper and you never know what might emerge. 

Origami and paper airplanes, for sure...

...and also one fine day, signs to advocate for endangered animals.

Followed by an impromptu rally in the hallway to raise awareness among middle schoolers.