Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A "Score" of Friendships

If you stumbled into our local pizza shop about 10pm on certain Monday nights, I'm sure you'd think it's an odd sight.  First of all, who eats pizza at 10pm, other than maybe college kids?  And those are DEFINITELY not college kids.  Well, most of them, at least.

There are more than a few gray heads, but some that are just a mature brown or blond.  Then there's that young couple... maybe they're the college kids.  Is it a family?  Maybe, from the way they laugh and talk and pat each other on the back, and move from joking to serious in the blink of an eye.  But they don't really look alike at all!

There's a pilot, a couple of engineers, a few teachers, an architect... and who knows what else!  Some are retired, a couple are just starting their careers, and some are right in the middle. There are men and women, married and single people, rambunctious story-tellers and quiet listeners.  There's a blind guy who has the most positive attitude you've ever seen.  There was a smart old guy who told the most amazing stories about World War II and science and life, but you'll have to catch up with him in Heaven now.  Then there's us... everyone else still calls us the "newlyweds" even though we've been married for four years now!

So how did we all end up at the pizza shop at 10pm, talking and carrying on until they start running the vacuum cleaner as the signal that we'd better leave before they kick us out?  Music and tradition.  We are all proud marching band alumni, and though we might not have anything else in common, that is enough.  We might be as different as a trumpet is from a sousaphone, but we fit together to make perfect songs.  We have represented our university through time and change.  We have tried out, worked tirelessly, learned and grown and become ourselves in the context of the same sacred traditions.  And we still come together a few times a month to share ourselves with each other through music.  18 years old or 90 years old, we can play together and laugh together and cry together because we are tied together through the Band.

And on Saturday, 800 of us will show a football stadium full of fans that a single shared experience, full of pride and tradition, can build connections that span decades and personalities and life.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Google Forms: Connecting with Parents and Students

This year I'm using Google Forms (a component of GoogleDocs) to gather personal information about my students from their perspective and from their parents' perspective.  I've always done a personal information worksheet with students, but this year I decided to go paperless.  It's my first time doing a parent form and I'm really excited about the responses so far.  The online format makes it easy for everyone: they can fill out the form anywhere at their convenience, and all their data is put into a nice spreadsheet for me to read easily!  Moreover, the forms are super easy to create!  All you need is a Google account and you can make a form!  (See the screenshot on the left.)  Creating the form is really simple: you can enter your questions and select from a variety of question types -- more on this below!

Most of the parent responses have been really thoughtful and insightful.  Parents really want to tell you about their child and work with you to have him/her be successful.  Here's a snapshot of some of the data I've gotten from parents:

As you can see, the spreadsheet generated by Google is easy to read and the information the parents gave is detailed and useful!  I love how the one parent told me their child was a "jewel". Such responses show me that the parents are glad I'm asking them about their children!  The students have been giving me similarly important information from their perspective.  It'll be nice to have all the info on my computer instead of on a million pieces of paper!  The spreadsheet is even searchable so you can easily find a certain child or piece of information.

From the parent/student end, the forms are simple to fill out.  There are "themes" you can use when you create them to make them visually appealing.  On the right is a screenshot of part of the parent form showing several question types.   (You can choose from fill-ins, drop-down, checkboxes, and more!)

I'm excited about how this great tool is giving me easy access to the information I need to know about my students.  It's also a great way to let parents and students know that I care about them!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Goodbye Summer

    A few mornings ago, on the last day of real summer before teacher workdays started, I woke up with a poem in my head.  Then I actually sat and wrote it down, which is a big deal since I'm not sure I've written a poem since high school!  When I was done, this is what I had.


           Sun streaming in my window
           looking out over green
                        grass, shady tree
           roses by the mailbox

          Little girls giggle in the street
          cheerful breezes rustle
                         playful leaves
          birds chirp, cicadas sing

         Lounging reading in my pjs
         ice cream, smoothies, s'mores
                       by the campfire
        cool waves of relaxation

         Music filling parks with joy
         red-orange-purple sunsets
                      twilight, sparking stars
        learning, spinning school thoughts

                      Goodbye summer.


P.S. I know this is a day early but I won't be able to blog tomorrow!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Back to School

Despite my laments in the last post about the end of summer, I really do love back-to-school time.  I always loved school growing up, and now I enjoy seeing students who have that same excitement.  I absolutely love setting up my classroom.  This time of year always brings back memories of helping my mom set up her classroom when I was in middle school.  We'd go out to lunch and spend the whole day together getting her room ready for the new year.  I thought it was so fun to create bulletin boards and put up posters!  (Ok, I still think that's fun!)  Now she's a principal and I'm the teacher with a room to set up, and I still love that feeling of putting together a special place for the kids and giving it that "home" feeling.

I worked our school's schedule pick-up earlier this week, and it was exciting to see all the anxious kids with their parents.  They were so excited to see what team they were on and what teachers they had... and of course to see their friends.  The sixth graders were so cute with their nervous, shy faces and overwhelmed parents who were so happy to get some friendly instructions.  They've been all over the building for the past few days walking through their schedules and getting their lockers set up, and it gives the school this anxious buzz of activity that is really fun!

On Friday we had our first teacher workday, complete with a big district kick-off in the morning, that first building meeting, and some much-needed time to work in my room.  As I was working in my room, this little (I mean LITTLE... I think he came up to his friend's shoulder!) 6th grade boy and his friend popped in.  Context for this story: My first two years of teaching, I taught in our district's elementary Spanish program, where I traveled between 6 buildings teaching a tiny bit of Spanish to about 1600 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders.  I saw them once a week for 12 weeks.  Our 6th graders this year are the 3rd graders from my second year of teaching.

         Boy: "I don't know if you remember me, but I went to (Elementary School)..."
         me:  "Oh yeah!" (in my head: no clue!)  "What's your name again?"
         Boy: "I'm ____________".
         me: "Right!  Are you taking Spanish this year?"
         Boy: "Well I was going to but all my friends were taking Video Broadcast and I wanted to be with them... but I'm going to take it next year!"
         me: "Aw, that's too bad, we're going to have lots of fun! But I know it's hard for you guys because you don't get to do very many of the choices!  I'm glad you're taking it next year though!"
         Boy: "Well I just wanted to say hi and to tell you that you always made it really fun at (Elementary  School)!"

SO sweet, right? :-)  I love our students!  I've had so many little moments like that over the past couple of years.  I love middle schoolers because a lot of them are still not afraid to spontaneously blurt out "I love Spanish!" or "This class is so fun!" or "You have the best Notebook files!" or "I love your room!" (all actual quotes from my students last year) in the middle of class.

I'm sure he doesn't realize it but that little guy on Friday totally made me ready to start school again... although I am disappointed his friends talked him out of Spanish for this year.  I'm excited to see the rest of those 3rd-graders-turned-6th-graders next week!


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Too Many Slices! (or, my reflections on a busy summer as it ends)

So today is slice-of-life day, and I've been excited for that for a few days since I love reading other people's slices and getting comments on my own.  However, when today actually got here, I didn't feel like writing at all.  It's not that I don't have anything to write about... in fact, it's the opposite.  There are way too many things happening in my life right now to be able to step back and concentrate on one in a nice writerly way.

School is looming ever closer, like a thundercloud on the horizon just waiting to drop gallons of busy raindrops on my head.  Don't get me wrong; I love school.  I love planning, getting creative, making fun activities, being with kids, watching them learn and interact and grow, sharing my life and my love of learning with them.  But I don't feel ready this summer.  Maybe I worked too hard during summer school this year.  Maybe summer school just went too late into the summer.  Maybe I did too much optional PD.  Maybe I have so many new ideas and too much of this push inside of me (and outside of me, in the form of "accountability" and "merit") to be a better and better and better teacher that I'm stressing myself out.  Anyway, I feel like I don't want school to come just yet.  Will I be excited and ready to go when it does come?  Of course!  I love school and I love teaching and I love working hard on something.  I just know that when school comes, it's here until next summer, and there's no going back.  I will be spending evenings grading and making materials, waking up in the middle of the night with a new lesson idea I just have to write down before I forget, pondering student performance while I'm eating, driving, showering, working out, cooking, hanging out with friends...

The only problem is that I haven't done all the things I wanted to do over the summer, in my "more time"!  I haven't organized the house, haven't cleaned the house, haven't tried lots of new dinner recipes, haven't scrapbooked or done anything else with my pictures, haven't organized my ELL materials, haven't spent lots of time with friends... My husband and I still haven't even seen the new Harry Potter movie!  And we LOVE Harry Potter!  (Although to be fair, that's the fault of bad timing -- it came out right before we left on vacation and then we kind of forgot about it!)  It's hard to feel refreshed and ready to start a new year when there are so many things I haven't done!
Wordle: Mid-August
After looking through my calendar and to-do list, I made a Wordle word cloud to capture how I feel right now. It's not a real cloud, but it does show all the things looming in my mind right now.  I guess this is what mid-August is like: "real" school things (like lessons, materials and my room!) are taking over but I'm also still clinging to all the personal, social, and PD things I feel summer should be about.

Although, now that I think about it... I did accomplish a lot this summer.  Maybe I should focus on what I have done:  I learned about a lot of new tech tools and how I might use them in my teaching, learned a lot about Antarctica with my ELLs and used a class blog for the first time in summer school, starting reading lots of teacher blogs that have already helped me grow tremendously, joined a gym and started exercising regularly with my husband, and started this blog!  I also had a fun and relaxing vacation with my husband!  We played at lots of band events and became co-chairs of the Active Band committee.  I made my first professional presentation, as you know if you read the previous post.  I spent some fun times with my family and friends: the zoo, the fair, the Irish Festival, a Brad Paisley concert, and dinners and lunches out.  Despite all the busy-ness, I even managed a couple of relaxing, stay-in-my-pjs days too!

So I guess it was a good, productive, fun summer -- maybe too much productive and not quite enough fun, but productive is important too!  I think I could be almost ready for school now... it's feeling more like a mysterious new "front" of weather than a thundercloud.  I bet it'll bring some sun and a balmy breeze by the time my alarm goes off on Friday morning for our first teacher workday.  (Ok, maybe not when my alarm goes off, but at least by the time I'm driving to school!)  Until then, I'll be trying to squeeze in some last bits of fun and relaxation. (And just a few of those school things, even though I know they'll be here soon enough anyway!)

P.S. Funny how I wrote a lot for someone who didn't feel like writing!  I guess sometimes we all need to give up those excuses and just write anyway!  After all, I do love to write... just like I do love to teach!

Friday, August 12, 2011

My First Professional Presentation

Today I gave my first-ever professional presentation at a conference full of people I didn't know!  I presented about SMARTboards at the Central Ohio Technology Summit. It was scary and exciting and rewarding.  COTS is supposed to be a great place to present for the first time, and it really was!  My husband will tell you that ever since I said I would be willing to present (back in the spring), I've gone from excited to nervous (WHY did I say that I would present) and back again.  I was afraid nobody would come to my session, I was afraid that people who came would think I didn't do a good job, etc. etc. Now that it's over, I'm so glad I didn't listen to that "excuse voice" in my head, and I can't wait to do it again next year!  I had an almost-full room in both sessions and people seemed to enjoy it and learn a lot!  :-)  As a young teacher, it was really rewarding to be able to share ideas with colleagues in a professional, positive setting!

My session was called "Putting the INTERACTIVE in your Interactive Whiteboard" and it was all about how to use simple techniques in SMART Notebook software like grouping, layering, animation, and the infinite cloner to create your own interactive activities.  Everything I shared focused on creating activities that will have your students (instead of you) up interacting with your SMARTboard.  (My schools mainly use SMARTboards but we also have Epson boards, Promethean boards, etc. I will use "SMARTboard" on my blog to mean kind of interactive whiteboard.)  I love SMARTboards but I've noticed that many people use them as a fancy presentation gadget instead of a learning tool for students.  To me, your SMARTboard should be a tool that your students use more than something for you to stand in front of.  My students' best chance to learn with the SMARTboard is if they are manipulating things on it and I'm sitting in the back of the room watching them.  If you want to see my presentation, you can download a PDF of it (and maybe also the real Notebook file if our district website ever decides it likes Notebook files!) on my teacher webpage -- go to the "For Teachers" section on the right-hand side of the page.

I also learned a lot from the sessions I attended at COTS and I have some new ideas to try out this year!  This was my second year attending COTS and I've been very impressed with the quality of most of the sessions.  It's a wonderful place where educators from a variety of districts come together to share ideas -- and it's free!  This is the type of PD that gets me excited for the school year to start -- such a spirit of excitement and collaboration. 

I'm so proud of myself for taking the plunge from observer to presenter!  :-)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Anniversary Thoughts

Last Thursday was our fourth wedding anniversary.  To me, anniversaries are like the melting clocks in Dali's "The Persistence of Memory".  On one hand, I can't believe we've been married four years already.  (I can't believe my age either -- my self-image is still stuck at college-age!)  On the other hand, it feels like we've been married forever.  We've shared so much together in those four years: new jobs, an apartment, a house, vacations, and a million little everyday moments.  Besides, we dated for four years before that and were friends for the previous year... so really, it's the eighth anniversary of our relationship and the ninth anniversary of our friendship.  No wonder four years seems short in a way, since we've really been together for twice that time!  Freshman engineering courses, meals at the dining hall, movies, marching band, mailing letters back and forth from Spain, planning the wedding, student teaching, searching for jobs... all those things are just as much a part of our relationship as the events of the past four years.

Thursday's dinner out was a perfect image of the fluid nature of the anniversary concept for us, which was at one of our favorite "nice" restaurants.  This happens to be the restaurant we went to for our first-ever Valentine's Day when we were dating (sophomore year of college).  Ryan didn't know where to take me, so he asked one of my friends, who asked her dad, who recommended this restaurant.  Who would have ever thought back then that we'd end up buying our first house five minutes away from it?  As we enjoyed our on-the-house dessert to celebrate our wedding anniversary, I could see shadows of those college kids we used to be out of the corner of my eye, giggling and shyly starting our lives together.  So I'm glad to celebrate our eighth year of sharing our lives with each other -- and our fourth year of doing so in an even closer way.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Changing Education Paradigms

Yesterday at my district's voluntary PD "Leadership Academy", we watched and discussed an interesting video from RSA Animate.  I'd seen and enjoyed several other thought-provoking videos from RSA Animate in the spring, but this one is even better!

The basic "big ideas" out of our small group's discussion ended up being:
  • How do we change education in radical ways to benefit our students when the current structure is so ingrained in our society and "education reform" is emphasizing standardized testing?
  • If we each do as much as we can in our own classrooms to engage students in 21st Century Skills, can our excellent district be a leader for others in changing education from the inside out?
  • Another article we read (by Diane Ravitch) that was supposed to be a counterpoint to the video reminded us that subject matter knowledge is still important too.  We concluded that the article isn't really a counterpoint to the video, but an addition: so-called 21st Century Skills are essential to learning, but so is content.  In the article, Ravitch points out that "one cannot think critically until one has quite a lots of knowledge to think about."  
Another quote from the same article that I really loved: "Until we teach our teachers and our students to love knowledge and to love learning, we cannot expect them to use their minds well." (Diane Ravitch)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Back to the Beach"

I just got an email advertisement entitled "Back to the Beach" from the hotel chain we stayed at on our vacation last week.  And man, do I wish I could take them up on it and go!  Not really for the actual beach, although that was fun and lovely... but for what happens at the beach.

At the beach, I left my "school mind" behind.  I became the rest of myself again.  This may seriously have been the only week all year that I did not think about school.  At all.  I did not wake up in the middle of the night with a lesson idea.  I did not have to run for a notepad as soon as I got out of the shower because my mind had wandered to a new activity I just had to try.  I did not lie in bed before falling asleep with my mind running wild with students, lessons, technology, teacher evaluation, Senate Bill 5, projects, colleagues... etc.  I laid down and I fell asleep.  Then I woke up and went to the beach, had dinner, went shopping, walked along the beach at night, listened to the ocean... and fell back asleep again.  And again.  For days.  With no school thoughts.  Then we went to Charleston, SC and it continued!  A carriage ride, an ecotour, restaurants with "Old South charm", the aquarium... all without any school thoughts!  Amazing... but really the wonderful part was what I thought about instead.  With no school thoughts, my mind was free to rediscover who I am when I'm not busy being a teacher.

I am a reader.  I had already begun to rediscover this during the summer when I found all those exciting teaching blogs I wrote about in the last post.  They re-kindled the love of reading that I lost somewhere along the way in college (especially grad school), when I had to read a million books for my classes and the last thing I wanted to do was pick up another one in my free time.  When I was a kid, I was the Tasmanian Devil of reading.  I tore through books, devouring the characters, the plot, the imagery in every delicious sentence.  I'd curl up with a good book after school for hours and be so engrossed in it that my mom would have to call me for dinner 3 times... even though I was right in the next room!  She would bring a clothes basket to the library to carry all the books I'd pick out for a week and then we'd rush back for more.  I'd get all the prizes for the summer reading program before the summer was half over and keep going back with my list of books (it always ended up around 115 or so) to get the stickers anyway.  When I hit middle school, I ran out of books I wanted to read at my city's library and we started going to the neighboring city's library, which was a little larger.  (My reading level as a child was so advanced that it created problems because I read all the young-adult books in elementary school and then had trouble finding enough adult books that interested me in middle school.)

Sadly, I always feel now like I don't have time to read for fun during the school year, or I'm too tired, or the mesmerizing box of the TV pulls me in with its DVR tentacles. (There's always something good to watch because we record all our favorite shows!)  And while the TV shows we watch have a lot of the same elements I like in books -- captivating plots, intriguing characters, new ideas to learn about -- it's not the same as turning pages, picturing what's happening for myself in my head, and becoming totally lost in another world.   Some people might be able to read a book while watch a show, or read a book and still feel that they are spending time with their family, but I get so absorbed in books that I completely ignore everything else -- another excuse not to read, because I don't want to ignore my sweet husband every evening!

image: Amazon.com
However, at the beach all the excuses go away -- the lack of time, the school things tugging at my brain, the DVR, the fact that at home I only get to see Ryan for a couple hours each day.  My mind is free, the day is free, we spend it all together, and there is plenty of time to sit together and read with the ocean's pounding waves soothingly lulling me into a state of complete relaxation.  This year, I got really into one new book in particular: Ines del alma mia, by Isabel Allende.  It's fantastic, captivating, and I got totally lost in it, just like when I was a little kid.  The Spanish (I love to practice my Spanish by reading, although it is hard work, so I always read the Spanish versions of books by Hispanic authors) is a little challenging for me but it's been a good stretch.  It's historical fiction, which is probably my favorite genre, and it tells a rarely-told part of history: women who worked with the conquistadors to found South America.  Ines Suarez was the real-life lover of Pedro de Valdivia who helped him found Chile in the 1500's, and the book is written as her memoir.  The historical accuracy and personal tone completely make you forget that Ines is not really the author!  An absolutely fantastic read (check out the English version if you like historical fiction!) that, thanks to the beach, gave me back the gift of myself as a reader.  

The "school things" are already tugging at my mind again, but I think the beach is trying to tell me not to let my "teaching self" devour the rest of me this year.  My "music self" has managed to survive every year thanks to OSU Alumni Band practice every other Monday, but I'd like to keep around my "reading and writing selves" too.  Hopefully, this blog will let the writer come out every once in a while, and I guess we'll see about the reader!  I think I must need a sense of calm to really feel like reading a substantial book (especially in Spanish), and that doesn't tend to happen much during the school year.  Perhaps I can make an appointment with myself every once in a while, or something.  Can the little blonde girl with glasses who curls up on the couch and journeys off to far-away lands that make it hard to return for dinner come out to play?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Something New

This year, inspired by Scott Sibberson at my district's "Tech Camp" in June, I became attracted by the world of blogging in several ways:

  1. I set up a class blog for my summer school ELL students.  I was so excited to see how they really got into the blog and many would get on at home to write and make comments -- what a great authentic use of English in their spare time!  I also had a lot of fun reading their posts, making comments, and writing sample posts as models for them.
  2. I found a whole bunch of fascinating, inspiring education blogs (mostly ed-tech, some language arts, and some foreign language) to read as "informal PD".  I put them in my Netvibes feed (My IT specialist husband got me using Netvibes in college but until this summer, I only used it for fun and news!), put the Netvibes app on my iPod Touch, and have since been devouring helpful, exciting bits of fun-to-read tips and tricks every day.  I even found some great ideas to put into practice right away during summer school!  A side benefit of this was that it reminded me how much I love reading (but that's a topic for another post).
  3.  The little "writing voice" in my head that nags me when I tell students that I love to write (and reminds me that I don't do it much anymore!) started telling me that if I liked reading blogs (especially inspiring blogs about writing, like Two Writing Teachers) and having my kids blog so much, I should make my own.  Every year I say I should start keeping a teaching journal to record my reflections, and every year I don't do it.  Since I hardly do anything with pen and paper anymore, maybe a blog would be a good way to make it happen?  Of course, then the "excuse voice" came back with its specialties, such as "I don't have enough time", "Who wants to read MY ideas?", etc.  Thankfully, the "writing voice" won (with some help from my encouraging husband!) and I signed up for my blog as soon as summer school ended!
Of course, then I played around with the layout for a few days, looked at the blogs I read to see how they do it, wrote this post in my head a few times, let the "excuse voice" scare me a few more times... and then it was time to leave for our family vacation to Myrtle Beach for a week! Since I try not to do tech on vacation (although this year I couldn't stay away from reading some of my blogs on my Touch!), there was no way I was going to get started with the blog until vacation was over.

Now I'm finally back and (after writing this in my head late at night a few more times) finally jumping in to my first entry!  At one of the sessions at my district's voluntary PD "academy" I attended today, the presenter reminded us that doing something new grows brain cells.  I know I've read that before, but it was a good day to get the reminder.  Here goes my brain growing now!