For the love!

A few months ago, in the depth of Christmas Music Season, my wife and I were having a conversation about our favorite Christmas songs. I shared that most of my favorites are specific renditions of certain Christmas songs. Of course, like you, I always tear up reminiscing about Carol Brady singing “Oh Holy Night” at the end of the Very Brady Christmas Special. But there are others on the list, too.

A couple years ago, I stumbled on a new favorite. Take a second and watch Canadian musician Sean Quigley:

So what is it about watching this video that I like so much? What is it in this video that warms my heart and shines a Linus-like spirit into My Christmas each year? It’s his joy! What a beacon of happiness! Does this guy look like he loves what he’s doing, loves his life, and is adoring each breath exhales! And by watching him shine his happiness, I’m drawn to this rendition each each. Now hold that thought.

Part of my role in the enrollment process for new students at our school involves selecting a home room and a teacher for the new students. It’s funny to me how different teachers respond differently to this news. I remember one time reviewing the file of three new incoming family members.  As I looked at current class lists and determined these students’ new homeroom teachers, I planned my trip through the elementary wing to explain to their new teachers that they would be receiving a new kiddo the next morning.  I won’t go into the details of how the first two teachers went, but I’ll just say it was the typical reaction.

What I want to focus on is teacher #3.  The conversation unfolded something like this:

Me:  “Mrs. So and So, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to let you know you’ll have a new young lady joining your class tomorrow.  I wanted to tell you before the end of the day so you could let your class know they will have a new friend in the morning.”

This is where I brace for the “I just put up a new bulletin board with my kids’ names on it!  Now I’ll have to add another one!” or “Well, I’ll need another desk in here!”

Teacher: “Great!!  That’s exciting!  Can you tell me anything about her?  Hey guy – we’re getting a new student  tomorrow morning!”

Wait.  What?!  I was thrown by how enthusiastic she was about getting the student!  Here is a teacher who already has a tough load and plenty of challenges in her personal and professional life…yet she’s completely excited to have the chance to get to know a new student!  

THAT’S who I want teaching my girls.  THAT’S who I want impacting change in our building.  THAT’S someone who exhibits the same passion, enthusiasm, and straight-up JOY that we want leading our students through academic experiences!  

Like the drummer, Sean Quigley, her love for what she does shines to those around her!  What do people say when they talk about your lasting impact?

Vandalism in the Classroom

There are countless things that fifth graders do that make me smile.  Sometimes it’s even part of a lesson!

Every now and then, as I’m scanning the classroom, I notice a few too many glazed-over eyes looking back at me.  It’s time to whip something special out of ol’ toolbox.

Raising the volume a little and probably jumping onto a chair or bookshelf, I exclaim in my best adventurous voice, “Now, reach deep into your pocket [as I act out that my pocket might be four miles deep] and pull out…your imaginary pencil!”  Suddenly heads snap off of elbows and grins appear on faces.  Without hesitation, they all reach deep for their own pencil.

“Now, on your giant imaginary paper in the sky [I’m near-yelling at this point], please write your answer to this question:  What type of figurative language is, ‘The light is as bright as the sun!'”  On cue, 23 kiddos start making giant letters in the air holding their imaginary pencils with perfect, yet imaginary, grip and precision.  Each letter is narrated in unison: “S-I-M-I-L-E.”  Next, comes the predictable student who exclaims, “Ah, mine broke!” and runs to the pencil sharpener.  Everyone gets in a good laugh.

Then we take it up a level.

“Now, everyone take out your imaginary…paintbrush!”  Again, they reach deep for both their imaginations and and their paintbrushes.  We spend the next few minutes painting our imaginary canvases with answers to figurative language questions – forcing both an understanding of types of figurative language and correct spellings of relevant vocabulary.

Then we take it up a level.

Credit: HiResSquad @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/hiressquad/

“And now…[At this point, I’m definitely atop a bookshelf and crouched down for effect]…reach deeeeeep in your pocket…and pull out…[they’re about as fixated on my next words as you hopefully are!]…YOUR IMAGINARY….SPRAY PAINT!”

Cheers erupt and figurative language vandalism ensues.  I usually end up getting chased around the classroom by Landon as he attacks me silly string-style with his imaginary spray paint cans.  When it gets too loud or it’s time to wrap it up, I just drop to the ground while clutching my face.  As they get quiet and gather around, I sob, “Alright, that got out of hand.  I got paint in my eye!”

“Aw, Mr. Malany!” they yell and return to their seats.

Bad Words

Most years, during the First-Week-Here’s-How-I-Roll speeches, I write a list of words on the board.  It’s the Mr. Malany Bad Word List.  It goes without saying that certain four-letter words are banned in my classroom, but this list spells out a few additional naughty vocabulary words.  They include your “retards”, “shut ups”, “gays”, “sucks”, “screws”, “butts”, etc.  Basically, the you-shouldn’t-say-them-in-front-of-your-mother list.  I let them get their chuckle in, then from that point forward, we don’t hear them.  Every now and then a student may need a friendly reminder, and occasionally a deeper “here’s why” conversation, but for the most part, those words don’t enter my classroom.

This year I want to add to the list.  I’m not going to write these words on the board though…I just don’t want the kids to know them.  They’re teacher words.  I paid lots of money to go to college.  In fact, I spent a lot of time doing it.  And I worked hard doing it.  And I like to think that there are a few things I got out of college that I wouldn’t know otherwise:  teacher words.

In education, we seem to throw around buzz words to/at/in front of/near/around/toward students.  The more buzz words we throw, the better teachers we are, right?  And surely, the more syllables in the buzz words…well…we just have the ammo to put John Keating to shame!

Hogwash!

So here is my list of words that originated as “teacher-only” words…and..in my opinion, need to return there:

1.  objective

2.  assessment

3.  formative

4.  summative

5.  intervention

6.  differentiated instruction

7.  indicator

8.  standard

9.  benchmark

10.  learning target

11.  critical thinking

12.  divergent

13.  classroom management

14.  graphic organizer

15.  21st Century __________

16.  integrated

17.  data analysis

18.  scaffolding

19.  supplemental

Don’t get me wrong!  I’ll DO these things.  Oh, I’ll do these things constantly!  But can’t ten-year old kids DO without knowing they’re DOING something?  I know, I know…kids need to know learning targets so they have clear objectives to accomplish during a lesson…blah, blah blah.  I call that teaching.  Integrate it.  (Oooh look – a buzz word!)  Integrate it deeply into a conversation or a self-directed activity or a discovery lesson or a technology experience.

I don’t care how you use your fancy buzz words.  Just integrate them.  And don’t tell the kids you’re doing it!

 

 

Think, boys. Think!

Remember that line from “The Music Man“?

And remember the dark day when I yelled at my students for being too creative?

It came back to bite me.

After state testing finishes, all teachers, regardless of if we should or not, feel a weight off their shoulders.  Some teachers even remark, “Now I can start teaching!”

During the fifth grade intervention time, my awesome team of coworkers decided to spend the last few fragmented (assemblies, field trips, traditions…oh my!) weeks of school doing book groups.  We left the structure open – allowing each of us to choose a novel and a group of students based on our hearts – not data.  Gasp.

I had a group of hybrid ability-levels and interests.  I chose Jerry Spinelli’s, “Maniac Magee.”  If you’re not familiar with the story, it involves a runaway boy who deals with death, racial tension, and family.  It’s a great one-of-the-first-coming-of-age-books kids should read.

Long story, short: as we read the book each day, we discussed some of the more mature, underlying themes in the story.  One major issue, race, kept coming up.  With one African American student in my group, it was a very significant issue that needed dissected.  At one point in the story, we had a few “heavy hitter” racial-based paragraphs – the kind that put a lump in the teacher’s throat as he’s trying to read aloud.  When I finished the chapter for the day, the room was silent.  With ten or so minutes left during the intervention period, I asked the students to take out a sheet of paper and gave these instructions:

“Wow, that was some heavy stuff!  Why don’t you take a few minutes and write a reflection of how these paragraphs made you feel?”  Just a general reflection on the end of the chapter will be fine.”

I walked toward my desk.

“Huh?”  “What?”  “What are we supposed to write about?” “What do you mean?”

The questions erupted from the previously shell-shocked group.

As all good teachers do when students ask clarifying questions, I repeated the instructions, verbatim, only louder.

The students must have sensed the frustration in my voice and began to [attempt to] work.  I collected the papers at the end of the time, paper clipped them, and stuck them in my take-home bag to read that night.

As I sat down to read them that evening, I was excited to see how the chapter had impacted the students.  I was excited to hear from their hearts.  I was excited to see them freely write about their emotions, their depths, their values.  And here’s what I got:

“The main idea of this chapter was mainly about…”

“I know that this chapter was mainly about Maniac because in the story it said…”

“The chapter is mainly about Maniac.  I know this because…”

“The theme of the chapter is about feelings.”

“Maniac Magee is the main character in the story.  I know this because…”

For the second time that day, I got a lump in my throat.  I had failed my students.  They didn’t reflect.  They didn’t think.  They didn’t feel.  They performed.  And it was disgusting.

It was a bad day, make no mistake.  But hopefully, through the lesson that they taught me that morning, I can change how I teach – maybe even change why I teach – and provide for my future students what it is that I want them to receive: passion.

The Real “Bad Teacher”

Teaching in the 21st Century…and blogging about it, requires that we’re willing to share the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Many of us share the good with the hopes of allowing others to replicate our successes.  But we can also learn from the bad and the ugly.  Here’s mine:

We all have our low moments in teaching.  One of mine surfaced last spring, just before our state assessments.  First, let me say that my teaching philosophy juggles, 1) the authenticity of real teaching – meeting the students at their level and interests, and 2) preparing students for these tests.  If everything goes well and I have mastered the former of the two, the latter will fall into place.

It was just a couple weeks before the reading test.  As the only reading comprehension teacher for my 70 fifth graders, their reading scores would fall on my shoulders.  This particular day, I was working with an intervention group with a passage about the history of chocolate.  The students sat, reading the practice passage and responding to comprehension questions about cause and effect, main idea, theme, fact/opinion, etc.

I had worked with the students on constructed response questions a zillion times.  One way was to give the students past released test questions as well as the official rubric that was used to grade said questions.  The students had to assess a variety of responses to the question using the rubric.  Scaffolding on up, I then had them create rubrics for questions.  No passage, no responses…just questions and rubrics.  “What are they looking for?” I’d say.  It [earily] is really just a formula.  If the question is, “What is the main idea of this selection?  On your answer docuement, explain the main idea and use three supporting details from the selection to support your answer,” then the students get one point for their correct main idea, and one point for each correct supporting detail.  Congratulations: 4/4.

Side note: For the previous part of the year, we had worked on good writing form.  This included topic sentences, supporting details, and concluding sentences.

So back to the bad day.  The students began to read their responses out loud to the class:

“There are several important things to know when it…”

“Chocolate is very interesting for many reaso…”

“When learning about chocolate, it is…”

“No, no, no!” I cried, cutting off each student!  And then I said it:  “STOP BEING CREATIVE!  JUST GIVE THEM THE ANSWER THAT THEY WANT!

Silence rushed the room.  I fell back in my chair, shocked, disgusted at the teacher who had the audacity to borrow my mouth.

I dismissed my intervention group a few minutes early that day.  It was only 45 minutes into the school day.  I needed time to regroup.  I had a full day of interacting with kids in front of me, and I had just told a group of them to, “Stop being creative.”  I spent a few minutes sitting alone at my desk.  I looked in the mirror in my closet.  I got a drink of water.  And when my next class came in, I started over, doing that thing I love to do: teaching.

Did my mistake that day come back to bite me?  You betcha!

Good Peer Pressure, You Say?

As I move into my sixth year of teaching, I’m excited my Toolbox of Effective Teaching Phrases continues to grow!  Here’s one of my favorites:

As I have spent the first five years teaching fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, I’m well aware and probably overly-sensitive to the effect of peer pressure on my students.  But is it always a bad thing?

Every now and then, when there is that one concept that I just don’t have a good way to teach, I drop the following line:

“Listen carefully…you don’t want to be that guy or girl who writes ______________ on ______________!” Insert the commonly used wrong answer and assessment name, respectively.

There’s nothing that perks of sleepy ears or wandering minds faster than the threat of looking vulnerable in front of peers.  Make no mistake: this is one of those don’t-use-it-too-often-or-it-will-never-work concepts.  But every now and then, I throw it out in an attempt grab a few unengaged students and use the [positive] power of peer pressure to be heard.  Also, rest assure, I don’t publicly tease students for incorrect answers on assessment, but the thought of me doing so is enough to grab a few wandering minds every now and then.

Speech: Underused In the Classroom

Just a quick post about a rather underused OS X feature in the classroom:

Thinking back to the good ol’ days of MacOS 7.x (Yes, I’m old enough to remember…thank you very much!), what was the single greatest feature of Apple’s SimpleText application?  That’s right.  Its text-to-speech functionality (using MacInTalk or PlainTalk for the Apple historians in the room).

Boy, were those days fun, or what?  One could spend hours trying to get your Performa 5200 PowerPC to correctly pronounce your last name after several hundred attempts at spelling it phonetically.  And when no one was around, maybe, just maybe, you even had Ralph, Fred, Cellos, Kathy, Princess, or Bubbles whisper a few certain four-letter words at you.  Rebel, you were.

But alas, in my teenage mind, that was the extend of the functionality of SimpleText: digital swearing.

Then I became a teacher.

As my fifth graders work through the writing process, what’s the single phrase I use the most when Johnny tells me, “I’m finished.”?  Yup: “Have you reread what you wrote?”

So back to Johnny’s desk he goes to pretend to reread his work through the end of class.  Enter: Apple’s Speech System Preferences.  One of the great, updated features of Apple’s OS X is the ability to quickly highlight text on your screen, hold down your hotkey combination, and have a choir of voices read you your text (with eerily close voice inflections!) right back to you.

Speech

As I’ve been working on my grad school work, almost every abstract, journal, reflection, paper, or key assessment has had itself highlighted and read aloud before I print or submit.  Why not do that in the classroom with your students???

We all know that during the process of hearing your work being read back to you, you’ll catch gramatical mistakes, spelling mistakes, and better-phrasing opportunities.  Since a vast majority of my students’ work eventually makes it to a screen of some sort, why not make this a required step in the writing process?

Just a thought.

What self-check tech solutions have you used with your students?

Drill and Kill at its Finest

So at some point in that secretive, allusive  “teacher school” we all attended, they dress the males in ABC ties and the females in jumpers and make us chant: Drill and Kill is Bad, Drill and Kill is Bad, Outdoor Recess Duty is Fun, Drill and Kill is bad…

Okay, so maybe your experience wasn’t exactly like that, but you get the idea.  Our professors uncovered the unyielding power of the meaningful, experiential education world, filled with self-discovery and connections to relevant material.  This leaves little educational value for the repetition of massive amounts of similar problems in an effort to work toward mastery.  Essentially, those math worksheets of 200 addition or multipcation problems make Piaget and Vygotsky turn in their graves.

Or does it?  Are there some things that can be mastered through rote experiences?

My district’s adoption of a “Balanced Literacy Framework” outlines a “Word Study” component that is based on a classroom “Word Wall” made up of high-frequency (often ruleless) words.  During a recent unit, I came across the challenge of teaching the word “beautiful.”  As the lesson-planning wheels started cranking in my head, out came Jim Carey’s “B-e-a-utiful” line from Bruce Almighty.  The more I ran “beautiful” through my mind, the more I thought about Taylor Mali’s popular video On What Teachers Make. Assuming you’ve seen it (or just clicked on it), you’ll remember his repetitive approach to spelling the phrase, “definitely beautiful.”

And so launched my Fifth Grade Definitely Beautiful Challenge.

Over the next few weeks, my students spent every “free” moment writing “definitely beautiful” on any small slip of paper they could find, adding their initials and homeroom on the back.

100_1593Basically, there were two parts to the challenge.  First, the individual challenge:  At the end of the competition, four slips would be drawn from the container (for which I had to eat 7.2 million cheeseballs) and the winners would all be invited to a Definitely Beautiful Pizza Party with a friend.  Putting it in fifth grader language: the more slips you fill out, the better your chances are to get pizza! For the group challenge, if my 69 kids were able to produce a total of 5,000 “definitely beautifuls,” their oh-so-masculine teacher (that’d be me) would dawn a pink tutu for a full day of school.  Over the next two weeks, the following transpired:

– notes from parents asking if they could participate!

– students choosing to sit in the autidorium part of our gym during indoor recess to definitely beautiful (yes, it became a verb)!

– contacts from parents saying that this contest should be extended because their student ceased fighting with a sibling while she definitely beautifuled (apparently a past-tense verb as well!) each evening!

– students writing “definitely beautiful” all over every paper they submitted, in an effort to show off their mad spelling skills!

– 5,815 definitely beautifuls (look, a noun!) appeared in the contest tub.100_1604

So alas, two colleagues drew the pizza party-winning names (much to the disappointment of some sore-handed non-winners).  And as promised, there I taught with my pink tutu, magical fly swatter wand, and my homemade Definitely Beautiful t-shirt.  I even busted out the tiara from my costume drawer in my curricularium at home.100_1598

Funny what things make it to YouTube, as well.

Well?  Have my students mastered the spellings of definitely and beautiful?  Ask them to find out.  Are there appropriate uses of drill and kill?  Ask them to find out.

TMI?

Last night was our open house for my new fifth grade class.  It went really well!  The kids have a lot of energy, their parents seem very supportive of the kids, and I’m really….really…looking forward to a great year!

As is typical with open houses, parents often want to give you a heads up on things they think the teacher should know.  “He really struggles with reading,” they say, standing in front of the child.  I usually want to reply, “Well if he didn’t before, he will now!”  I understand where they’re coming from and recognize that they’re just trying to do what they think is best for the child.

Teachers do it, too.  Each year, as I send on the kids that I’ve invested so much in, I always want to talk to their new teachers and explain what works…and what doesn’t.

But what about the fresh start?

How much information is too much information?

Exit reports and informal conversations are all aimed at providing a student with future success.  But like I said, that’s their aim.  Is that really what they achieve?  Or are they really assigning undue bagagge to an unsuspecting student hoping to turn over a fresh leaf?

Is there an answer?  What does your school do?

Resourced Out

I’m moving to a new building and new teaching position this year – seventh grade social studies to fifth grade language arts.

To support me in this transition, my district has done an outstanding job of providing tons, and tons, and tons, of resources.  We have a district literacy consultant.  We have two literacy coaches.  My new principal is our district’s former (position cut) curriculum director.  I have textbooks (don’t use ’em!).  I have workbooks.  I have website subscriptions.  I have supplemental material.  I have supplemental material for the supplemental material.  I have Spanish, Braille, and audio versions of the supplemental material for the supplemental material.  I am RESOURCED OUT!

Too much of a good thing?

Too much of a good thing?

Looking at my filled filing cabinets, overflowing bookshelves, and forever-scrolling bookmark lists, there is no possible way I can digest that amount (or even close to it) of information in my lifetime.  And I don’t know that I need to.

Don’t get me wrong: I would much rather be over-resourced than under-.  I certainly recognize that there are still teachers in our society who are given class lists (maybe), a key to their classroom, and a good-luck handshake.  But with all these resources, am I forgetting still one more?  Me.

Didn’t I spend a whole slew of time, money, and energy going to college (“teacher school” as I tell the kids) to learn not just how-to-teach, but how-to-THINK?  I know exactly what kids need.  I know exactly how they learn.  I spend hours reading blog after webpage after tweet after book after magazine about how to truly master teach.  I don’t need more resources.  I need to use the one resource I’ll always have with me.

So late last week, when I went in my room and saw the stacks of resource books, file folders, and legal pads that I had tried to categorize, I made a simple, but profound move: I put them all away.

Make no mistake, I’ll use them.  But I don’t want to start with them.  I want to start with what’s in my head…and my heart.  I still believe in myself.  On the days where those two things fall short in giving me ideas or direction, only then will I reach for the filing cabinet.