Thursday, December 30, 2010

Building the future, one memory at a time...

I just spent three days doing what I love most! I ate mac and cheese with chicken nuggets, played numerous games that I never won, watched as clutter and crumbs spread throughout my house, and slept barely hanging onto the edge of my bed while feet and arms thrashed me throughout the night. While that may not sound terribly appealing at first glance, add to the picture two charming granddaughters and suddenly you have a recipe for happiness! Our quiet, tidy home was transformed for a few days into a noisy, messy scene full of giggles and joy. They live 150 miles from me, so the opportunities to pamper and spoil them do not come often enough, especially during the school months when we are all so busy. But it is Christmas vacation, so we took advantage of the opportunity! We went to the store and selected their favorite foods for our meals, filled our days with games (Farkle, Find it, and Sorry) and sledding, watched movies together each evening (The Sound of Music, Ramona and Beezus, and A Christmas Carol), and (my personal favorite) snuggled in bed with books to read together before sleeping each night.

Early the morning we were to take them home, I found myself reflecting on a much earlier time in my life. I was drawn back in my memories to childhood days in my grandparent's home on the Oregon coast. I remembered playing endless card games as my grandmother taught my brother and I how to play pinochle and cribbage. There were always yummy foods like gumdrop bars (I still have the green cookie jar she kept them in) and lemon chiffon ice cream, as well as fresh strawberries from my grandfather's garden. In the evenings we watched television together. Our favorite programs were Candid Camera and Gunsmoke. Grandma always slept with us, and I remember reading comic books together before we slept. Living by the Pacific Ocean, there was no snow, of course, but Grandma always took time to take us to the beach to climb the rocks and search for treasures in the sand. It struck me that those memories were the lessons that taught me how to be a grandmother. I live by her example, passing on to my grandchildren the loving care that was shown to me.

Taking time for a child is a greater investment than one could possibly imagine. Each memory and experience is a building block for the future. My grandparents, my parents, my teachers, and other significant adults in my past all influenced the life I would eventually lead. The days spent playing with my granddaughters were not only fun times together, they were the creation of memories that will help shape the future of two children that mean the world to me. The time I spend as a teacher, as well, is time that has the potential to impact the future of the children I teach. I hope my teaching is meaningful enough so that students will reflect on lessons learned in my classroom as they grow to be adults. I hope one day many years from now my grandkids will find themselves playing with their own grandchildren and think of the times they spent with me, building the future, one memory at a time...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Let it snow!!!

It goes without saying that we need snow in Colorado. Without snow we will face drought and wildfires in the summer. Our economy will suffer as well, as we depend on snow seeking visitors to spend in our state. as much as we need it, however, the arrival of snow is not always a positive experience! Roads are slick, dangerous, and sometimes closed. Travel is restricted, delayed, or cancelled for a time. Accumulations require shoveling, plowing, and the sanding of roads. During the storms we live with inconvenience, hard physical labor, and unpredictable outcomes for our plans.

In spite of that, we love snow! It has been late in arriving this year and everyone was complaining, hoping it would arrive before Christmas! Why would anyone wish for the inconvenience, work, and unpredictability of life that snow brings??? Because it is beautiful, of course! Snow transforms the drab late fall landscape into a peaceful world of snowmen, sledding, skiing, and winter energy! Snow provides an excuse to sit inside sipping cocoa while reading a good book by the fire. Snow brings the promise of renewal and green in the months ahead as it will ultimately melt and reveal spring flowers and grass. We need snow.

It goes without saying that we need change in education. Without change we will face drought in success stories and wildfires to put out in our schools as test scores continue to decline. Our children will suffer as well, as they depend on us to provide what they need for the future. As much as we need it, however, the arrival of change is not always a positive experience! Change requires hard work and hours of planning. During the change process we live with inconvenience, hard physical labor, and unpredictable outcomes for our plans.

In spite of that, we need change in education! It is late in arriving as the world is transforming all around us while most schools are stuck in the drab late 20th Century model of learning. Why would anyone wish for the inconvenience, work, and unpredictability of life that educational change will bring??? Because it is exciting and inevitable, of course! Educational change will transform learners into curious, motivated beings, full of renewed energy! As teachers learn to facilitate student inquiry and global projects, students will learn that the world outside the walls of the school is an amazing place to be discovered and experienced! They will learn to be global citizens, communicating and collaborating as they create the future. Educational change will bring the promise of renewal, growth, and success in the years ahead as it will ultimately allow schools to catch up with the transformation of the world. We need change.

(There will be those days when the rain melts the accumulating snow, but the snow will fall again. In Colorado, as in education, it is inevitable.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It just takes one...

Inspiring a school district to transform is a big undertaking to say the least. There are many obstacles to change. Is the effort worthwhile? To answer that question, one would have to ask a few others: Are our children worth the time and trouble? Does their future matter?

Our school adopted a children's book as a theme this year. The book is One by Kathryn Otoshi ( ). The book demonstrates how it only takes "one" to make a difference. Our halls are lined with ideas from our students about the things that "one" can do. I would like to add a few.

It only takes one to be an agent of change in education and set transformation in motion.
It only takes one administrator to stop that change.
It only takes one mandated standardized test to suck the life out of teaching.

We do an activity in first and second grade called Making Words. The children are given a set of letters. By moving the letters around they change from word to word. I discovered an interesting possibility with the letters a,e,e,i,c,r,t,v. You can make the word "creative" and with one quick change, have the word "reactive". I would ask which is the more positive word? Which word would you choose to describe the future life of our children? Which is your choice for the future of education?

I took a walk this morning and enjoyed the peaceful, muffled quiet of a walk in the snow. Then it started to rain...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Tale of Two Lessons (and a bigger one for me...)

On Friday morning I facilitated two lesson during literacy time in my second grade classroom. The first had been planned for awhile, the second arose rather spontaneously. Interestingly enough, a third lesson evolved... extending my own learning. For years I have devoted December to teaching my second graders about Christmas traditions around the world. We explore where our holiday decorations and customs originated, learn more about geography, and enjoy traditional legends and stories. Friday was our day to learn about Gingerbread houses from Germany, so, of course, we would be reading the story of The Gingerbread Man! My lesson was tied to skills complete with comprehension questions that required the children to write complete sentence answers using story words, capital letters, and ending punctuation. A typical, rather tedious reading assignment for second grade. (We would be creating gingerbread houses with our kindergarten buddies later in the day, however, so the fun was not entirely missing!)

The second lesson came to me the night before as I was reading the local newspaper. Our town is in the midst of great controversy concerning a growing herd of mule deer that reside within our city limits. Although there are many of our residents that delight in seeing the magnificent antlered creatures roaming our streets and resting beneath trees in neighbor's yards, there are also a number of citizens that would choose to rid the town of the beasts that eat our landscaping, possibly carry diseases, and, at times, attack our pets. As I read the most recent letters to the editor of our local paper, I decided to address this problem with my students.

The lesson took no planning or preparation on my part. Everything I needed to facilitate the investigation by my students was already available on the internet. As our morning began, the children were expected to complete any unfinished assignments from the week ("finish up Friday"). As student work was completed, I handed out the original Gingerbread Man story and questions, directing them to independently read and complete the questions using the skills we had been learning for answering comprehension questions. Within a short time, I had a group of students who were finished and ready for a challenge.

I asked the kids if they would like to work on solving a problem for our town. They enthusiastically responded that they would be quite interested in doing that. A short discussion revealed that they were all highly aware of the deer issue and ready to learn. We set up chairs in front of a large computer screen and brought up the website. The site is a new partnership between the Smithsonian, Microsoft Partners in Learning, and TakingITGlobal. I knew there was a recording of a recent webcast on the site that would extend the background of my students. The program was called "Deer in the Forest: Can There Be Too Much of a Good Thing?" with Dr. Bill McShea, Wildlife Ecologist, from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. As the program began, I was, to say the least, surprised at the level of engagement the seven and eight year old children displayed. They were looking at charts, maps, and graphs and listening to a speaker that was addressing many adult listeners. We stopped the recording periodically to make sure the kids were understanding. They were...

"There are 50 kinds of deer in the world." "Some are endangered and there are others that there are too many of." "Herds of deer are growing because there is plenty of food and few predators." "When there are too many deer, some kinds of plants disappear." "When the plants disappear, so do the insects that birds eat, so there are less birds." "People got rid of wolves so people are the biggest predator for deer here." My students were making connections to science lessons from the past. They were discussing habitats, food chains, food webs, predator-prey relationships, and openly applying what they knew to the problem in our town. Most importantly, they were interested and engaged.

We moved to the board where we wrote the problem and listed the facts we had just discovered. Next would come the search for a solution. The students partnered up and began to search the internet for ideas. Their search revealed that this problem is not limited to Craig, Colorado. They found articles about the same exact situation in towns in Oregon, New Jersey, Michigan, and Connecticut. The people in those towns were struggling with the same issues we are facing today. After reading, we came together again to discuss what we learned. The students had many ideas of how to solve the problem. One suggested building a large fence around our town (like the Woodland Indian stockades they had learned about). Another suggested locking up all the livestock, pets, and people, then turning lose wolves in our town to kill the deer. Yet another student suggested hunting the deer and giving the meat to poor people.

We did not solve the problem, but the children learned facts about it that they will take home and share. They thought critically and applied their thinking. They listened, discussed, read, comprehended, applied their thinking in creative ways. They learned.

The lesson for me? That happened at the end of the day. After lunch, we moved on to math, emailing Santa, and making gingerbread houses with our kindergarten buddies. Great fun and a marvelous end to another week of school. As we lined up to go home and the children licked the last bits of frosting from their fingers, guess what they wanted to talk about? "Mrs. Arnett, I have another idea for what to do about the deer..." and the discussion began again. I have no doubt that when their parents asked them what they learned today that the answer was not the typical "nothing..." I have no doubt that the students who took part in the lesson about the deer will have great discussions at home this weekend about the issue. I have no doubt that we will still be talking about it in class next week. My lesson? Don't underestimate the thinking ability of small children. Don't limit their learning to the same old things we have always done. Yes, they love Santa and frosting, but they also love to be challenged and be respected for their thoughts.

If you have read my earlier blogs, you will understand when I say, "The bridge to nowhere is back under construction...."