Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
Photo courtesy of

Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Involving my Students in Fundraising for Homeless & My Running!

For this year’s eighth grade spring Student Service Learning project, my students will be taking part in a two-part intensive project. Part one involves students completing a detailed poster project on recycling. Their end products are now displayed around the school. Part two allows students to expand on this project by focusing on the important issue of homelessness.  

In exploring homelessness as a key societal issue, the students have decided to raise money for a successful organization that works directly with the homeless called Back on my Feet (BOMF). BOMF is a nonprofit organization that promotes the self-sufficiency of homeless populations by engaging them in running as a means to build confidence, strength, and self-esteem. BOMF provides a community that embraces equality, respect, discipline, teamwork and leadership. BOMF currently have chapters in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. The nonprofit is expanding to Boston in May 2010 and Chicago in fall 2010.  

The students’ ultimate goal is to raise at least $500 for BOMF through a spring chocolate sale at lunches during the first week of May and a fun field day experience during period 7 on Friday, May 28th. Both events will be supervised by my colleague, myself, parent volunteers, and other eighth grade teachers. When students purchase a chocolate bar for only $1, we receive 60 percent of the profit for BOMF, and the student receives a complimentary pass to participate in the field day. The students are also creating posters about homelessness and the chocolate sale around the school building. During their advisory period, the students will be further examining the homelessness issue by writing letters, poems, and compositions.  

If the students raise at least $500, then I will be eligible to run for 24 hours as a charity athlete in the BOMF Lone Ranger Ultra Marathon in Philadelphia July 17-18, 2010. In this ambitious race, I will see how many 8.4-mile laps she can run around the Schuylkill River Running Loop in 24 hours. To prepare, I am running a marathon a month and a 200-mile endurance team relay leading up to the event. Every cent the students raise in these efforts will go directly to BOMF, so we are encouraging students to buy chocolates and help support the homeless!

If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to our project, please visit:  Thank you for your help and support with this important, exciting, and worthwhile project for our students. I couldn't be more excited about this fun and worthwhile project and running challenge!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Oh what fun it is to see students unleash their inner artists!

Mention the mere word "Shakespeare" to your typical 8th grader, and most will cringe, whine, moan, or ask, "But why do we have to read what this dead old white guy wrote?" The same reaction was evident with my students early on this quarter when they realized there was no escaping the greatest playwright of all time. Luckily, the focus in our eighth grade curriculum is on characterization and theatrical interpretation of the Shakespearean comedy, As You Like It, rather than a literal dissection of every line of his iambic pentameter verse.

Now, I have to be honest. While I may be a middle school English teacher, Shakespeare and I have always had a rocky love-hate relationship. He frustrated the heck out of me during most of high school, but I still managed to fall in love with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (Perhaps the 1998 film version of R&J with Leonardo DiCaprio had something to do with that? Hehe). In college, I had one of the most knowledgeable and passionate Shakespearean scholars alive teach me during junior year, and while the class was impossibly hard, I walked away with a newfound appreciation and admiration for this man who lived four hundred years ago.

So, how can I possibly transfer true passion and hunger for Shakespeare to my students with such a volatile past experience with his works? Simple. I have to remember my own personal struggle with understanding Shakespeare's plays, particularly his crazy use of pronouns and antecedents, obsolete but ever-entertaining vocabulary, original new words he coined for the English language, and the endless puns -- and often obscure allusions and references to historical events and people of his time -- within his 5-syllable words and lines. At no point did I easily understand what Shakespeare was saying, and at no point was I ever truly comfortable with his language.

Add this complexity to trying to teach Shakespeare to students who have learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, emotional disturbances, and/or are just learning English as a second language, and you've got a whole new set of problems. The solution? In our on-level classes, my co-teacher and I introduce the play with a graphic novel/comic book version of As You Like It written in more modern English. We have the students choose character roles and read through the book aloud. This process not only gets the students feeling comfortable performing in front of one another (which will come in handy later on), but it immediately increases their engagement and reduces their anxiety about having to tackle a Shakespeare comedy, particularly as it relates to his characterization, plot, and language.

After presenting the graphic novel to students, we show bits and pieces of key scenes from the play on-screen to help students visually see the acting and plot. We also identify and analyze common film shots used and why the director chose to use certain camera angles. At this point, the students feel much more comfortable breaking into groups and focusing on one key expert scene from the play.

Another true motivator for the kids? Giving them the freedom to decide the costumes, gestures, blocking, lighting, and venue for their scene performances. I assign students to directorial roles who are natural leaders but may not have had the chance to fully showcase their leadership potential yet in the class. I raid our theater teacher's wardrobe for a collection of silly, serious, and just plain "Shakespeare" costumes. My co-teacher and I assign character roles ahead of time to minimize time wasted or arguments within groups. We summarize the scene for the students and constantly check-in with them during scene rehearsals to make sure they understand the plot, character, vocabulary, and purpose of the scene.

The end result? Each student has the chance to play a vital and pivotal part in a Shakespearean scene without being afraid or intimidated. It is always refreshing to see each student's creative interpretation of a character and witness how many students come alive on stage. Sometimes, all they need is the confidence to know they can understand a hard text and portray characterization originally -- and well -- in front of their peers in a safe and supportive environment.

We have only begun our scene performances, but I continue to look forward to witnessing true student creativity and artistry on stage. Such imagination and performances are now all-too-difficult to find time for in our classrooms. What can we do about that?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Inspired by a True Mentor Every Day

I have been very distracted at work recently. I find my mind racing constantly as I think about my aunt losing her year-long battle with advanced cancer. She is my godmother and like a second mom to me, so you can imagine my anxiety and desire to be by her side in Maine rather than in DC.

Grieving aside, I am trying to be the kind of person she always has been, one who puts others above herself and never seems to have a bad day. My students often comment that I am always happy and have too much energy, which I suppose is a better compliment than being told I am a mean grouch. My Aunt Ellen always knows how to make people laugh, sees the positive side of every situation, and teaches those around her to be grateful and thankful for each day. Just as Randy Pausch inspired me two years ago with The Last Lecture book, my aunt is teaching me more about life through dying than I could have ever thought possible.

Every day, we bring our personal issues, baggage, opinions, beliefs, and assumptions into our classrooms. We hope to approach each new day with a positive outlook and fresh start mentality. We want the best for our students and desire to have the best intentions for each and every one of them. We also want to put our best foot forward and not give up on ANY student, regardless of how impossibly difficult or hopeless he or she may seem. However, as teachers, we are also human, and sometimes we are tired and want to throw in the towel.

At a school improvement meeting with two community superintendents today, I was reminded once again of my Aunt Ellen and why I entered the teaching profession in the first place. No day is easy, no day is predictable, and no day is guaranteed to be a success. We must have the courage to have difficult conversations with colleagues, the wisdom to know what's best for our students, and the sincerest intentions and inner core beliefs that ALL of our students can be taught -- and deserve nothing less than the highest quality education possible.

In every school today, as in society, race matters, and schools must engage in these difficult conversations about race and equity. After all, our schools are microcosms of society. We have to become comfortable talking about the uncomfortable. In doing so, we must never run down a child's ego and know enough that we CAN teach ALL children when we want to do so. To do, three conditions must exist in our classrooms:

1. High expectations for ALL students
2. Positive and CARING relationships
3. Cultural competence

The question then becomes -- How can we motivate our entire staff to be caring and meet or exceed these three important conditions? We need to have the WILL to make a difference.

One of the superintendents left us with a challenge at the end of this afternoon's meeting, asking, "Can your school be a poster child for building positive relationships with students in our county?" I'd like to think we can be, and I think I'd make Aunt Ellen proud in the process.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Using Museums as Partners in Our Students' Education

I am blessed to have a long-time friend and fellow teacher referenced in this recent New York Times article. I truly hope it gets all of us thinking about how to incorporate valuable museum trips into our curriculums, regardless of our students' ages or subject areas taught. Enjoy!


April 21, 2010

Museums Take Their Lessons to the Schools

SUTTON, Mass. — Sitting in the dark, knees crossed, looking up at the stars projected on the planetarium dome, the fourth-grade class might have been on a field trip to the Museum of Science in Boston.
But instead, they were having what Katie Slivensky, an educator from the museum, calls a “backwards field trip” in a portable, inflatable planetarium set up for the morning in the old gym at Sutton High School — a 50-minute lesson on the stars, moon and planets, tied to state learning standards for physical science, earth and space.
Over the last few years, many schools have eliminated or cut back on museum trips, partly because of tight budgets that make it hard to pay for a bus and museum admission, and partly because of the growing emphasis on “seat time” to cover all the material on state tests.
To make up for the decline in visits, many museums are taking their lessons to the classroom, through traveling programs, videoconferencing or computer-based lessons that use their collections as a teaching tool.
“Even if they can’t come to the museum, we can bring the excitement of science to the school,” said Ms. Slivensky, one of seven traveling educators at the Boston museum.
At the Museum of Science, where school visits have dropped about 30 percent since 2007, demand for the 14 school travel programs — from the $280 “Animal Adaptations” to the $445 “Cryogenics’ — is booming.
Annette Sawyer, director of education and enrichment programs, said the museum would do almost 1,000 travel programs next year, 400 more than four years ago.
On a sunny spring morning, the Sutton schools, about an hour from Boston, have brought in both the planetarium program and, for thekindergarten, “Dig Into Dinosaurs.”
“It’s $275 a bus, and we’d need three buses for a grade level,” said Michael Breault, the principal. “We pay for field trips and special assemblies from a magazine fund-raiser at the beginning of the year, and this year, we didn’t sell as many magazines.”
And museum admission costs $7.50 a head.
Money is not the only issue. Mr. Breault’s school recently adopted standards-based report cards, rating children on dozens of standards like “recognizes properties of polygons.”
Given the pressures to meet those standards, teachers said, the travel program’s efficiency is appealing.
“With a trip, there’s all the planning, the buses, the permission slips,” said Erin Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher. “It’s hard to be gone a whole day. We have a lot of things to get through to get them ready to go into fifth grade, and there’s never enough time.”
Ms. Sawyer said her museum is “agnostic by design” about the relative merits of bringing students to the museum or taking the museum to students.
“Of course there’s a question about whether the travel programs cannibalize museum attendance,” she said. “But I don’t think so.”
Still, travel programs cannot replicate the excitement of the Museum of Science, where students visiting the theater of electricity scream loudly when they hear the bangs and see the artificial lightning snaking through the air.
In New York, both the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History reported a dip in school visits, and a spokesman for the natural-history museum said it was concentrating more on teacher development, including printed and online materials that could be used in the classroom.
Even as they pour their energies into taking museum resources to the classroom, some museum educators worry about how the shift might affect long-term attendance.
“It’s such a conundrum to advocate as strongly as possible for the magic of the real thing, but also create greater access using the Web, hoping we aren’t dissuading people from feeling the urgency of coming to see the real thing,” said Dana Baldwin, education director at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, where school visits dropped more than 40 percent from 2007 to last year.
While it is difficult for art museums to take their wares on the road, her museum has developed handbooks, online materials and posters for in-class lessons. But, she admits, something is lost in the process.
“The experience of looking at art or posters in the classroom is so far removed from looking at art on a field trip to a museum,” Ms. Baldwin said.
At the Charleston Museum in South Carolina, Stephanie Thomas, the education coordinator, said educators began taking their programs to schools when gas prices went up. The mummy stays put, but the traveling educators have plenty of portable artifacts.
“We do a class on ancient Egyptian life, with a boys’ outfit and a girls’ outfit to put on, pieces of papyrus, a copy of the Rosetta stone, and some things that have been de-accessioned or are not in great shape, or come from someone’s grandparents’ attic, but we don’t know the provenance,” Ms. Thomas said. “We have an Egyptian headrest that’s chipped, but the kids don’t care that it’s chipped.”
The emphasis on specific learning standards for each grade, and No Child Left Behind assessments, has brought a fundamental shift in thinking about museum education.
“It used to be a given, like mom and apple pie, to take classes to the museum for enrichment, or as a reward for good behavior, in the spring,” said Ted Lind, deputy director of education at the Newark Museum, which had 84,000 student visits last year, down from 101,000 in 2005. “Now that there’s so much more pressure on time in the classroom, and learning standards, it’s all about how it will help students learn the curriculum. ”
No wonder, then, that for many students, the experience of wandering around a museum, exploring at will, has given way to formal lessons. In the Sutton gym, Ms. Slivensky began with basics. Star-watchers, she said, need to know time and direction. So which way is north?
“It’s up,” volunteered a tiny voice.
But are places north of Massachusetts, like Vermont, straight up in the air, Ms. Slivensky asked?
While the fourth graders discussed the night sky, the kindergartners passed around fossils, as Christina Moscat, the museum educator, asked them to guess what they were.
“I think this was a knee,” said Damian Weber.
Ms. Moscat identified the fossils, to much giggling. “You guys were touching dinosaur poop,” she said. “Only it’s not poop anymore, it’s stone. We call it coprolite, and it tells us what the dinosaur ate.”
Of 19 children in the class, only 7 had visited the museum.
“In this program, they get more focus on what paleontologists actually do,” Ms. Moscat said. “But they miss the wow factor of actually seeing that huge Triceratops skeleton.”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A colleague's response to the Times article....

I know I am responding very late on this but felt compelled to, after reading and letting it "simmer." I worked in an alternative setting for students who had been expelled from BPS, this outplacement (which no longer exists) was a school of 20, 5 kids per "grade" and class. The population was comprised of students from very needy situations including abuse, drugs, violence and gang involvement. The "behavior system" of the school involved a binder following students as a class throughout their day in which was a page for each student with individualized behavior and academic goals, some all had, others were student specific based on IEP goals/counseling goals. At the end of each class the teacher would sop class 5 minutes early, check mark goals that had been met and discuss this with the student. These check marks translated into weekly points/percentages which earned the kids 3 things: 1. a color coded behavior sheet (pink, yellow, green) that corresponded with outside break privileges, 2. if you earned a certain percent of your checks you earned Friday reward (a time where those who had earned could go as a group to the movies and out to lunch or to an arcade or on swan boats, free of charge) AND 3. ALL students regardless of level earned money per check mark that was given by the school and stayed in an "account" for two yearly shopping trips... before winter break and before the end of the year. On these two shopping trips (at a mall in New Hampshire and local malls for students who weren't able to leave the state due to police involvement) teachers would hold on to each student's money and were required to accompany the students from store to store until they had used their money or elected to save the balance.

I haven't thought about this setting in quite awhile but am now teaching elsewhere and am happy to have the opportunity to reflect on motivation having worked there and in other systems. What I observed in this setting was that some students became confrontational with teachers about not earning check marks, would lose their temper, shout, throw desks, etc... Other students realized how many checks you needed to make Friday reward and once they could not earn it for a given week would give up entirely for the remainder of the week and not attend school on Friday. Other students also knew the system and would misbehave and disengage academically once they had earned the minimum checks needed for Friday reward. The ones who didn't earn were put in the same room to complete work to earn some on site free time in the afternoon. Often fights/arguments would flare up constantly in this room and practically no work was completed, some kids even slept. Staff rotated watching this room throughout the day. It was decidedly unpleasant for everyone involved.

Granted this situation isn't typical of most classrooms and this is decidedly a very needy group of kids with big challenges and a VERY detailed system, but this experience provided me with very fertile ground for my own thinking about my practice and motivation. It is different from the system in the article also, but i felt parallels could be drawn. I realized the days I felt best about working with this system were the days I could have conversations with kids about doing well and noticing improvement, and helping them reflect on their behavior and work. Some good conversations happened and students frequently knew how they were doing in all of their classes. I was able to pair this check mark with authentic praise. My approach was not the norm... check marks were used to threaten kids, or happened in isolation of conversation. Some teachers felt pressure or fear to give undeserved checks to avoid retaliation/anger/fights that would ensue. Some teachers completed their checks on Friday for the entire previous week! I think the motivation you get from paying kids lacks in comparison with what you can get by having a strong relationship with students, holding them accountable, using statements of caring and authentic praise, conferencing around growth and celebrating gains. It denies kids the priceless feeling of accomplishing and seeing a challenge through to the end. It DOES cheapen the learning, paying limits the effort you'll get.... only as good or meaningful or as long as the reward in in place. Learning is hard and doesn't always feel good but it is powerful to hear students reflect on their skill development and take pride in their work. I am left wondering about how results would look at these paying schools if every staff member FREQUENTLY communicated, checked in, showed caring, discussed goals, praised and held students accountable for who they were in the school community as a learner and as a community member. Would they still need the "capital gains" and paychecks? In my own classroom the only external motivator I use is our "shout outs" during Friday morning meeting. We gather in a circle, greet each other and I read a positive statement about 2 or 3 students that I have noticed during the week (ex: turned in all homework on time, wrote an interesting poem to display in the library, demonstrated kindness, showed kindness, etc..), I then name the student, they stand, we clap, I give them a certificate and also post a copy on our classroom entryway, they get a pencil of their own (many of our supplies are community or shared), and they get to choose their classroom job for the next week (bin emptier, mail delivery, etc...). The kids congratulate each other, stand a little taller when they are recognized, love having their own fresh new pencil, reread the postings on the wall, show their parents and friends from other rooms where their certificates are and are VERY motivated by this relatively simple practice.... and not one desk has been thrown when someone doesn't get a shout out, there's always next week to look forward to and try for! I hope our thinking as a nation moves away from systems like the ones highlighted in this article and we are inspired as educators to know our kids and how to reach their learning spirits to keep their motivation and curiosity alive.

Sorry for the length and/or hope you enjoyed my "rant!"


Sarah B.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Should we bribe our students to achieve?,8599,1978589,00.html

This is a really interesting article in Time Magazine that will cause most of the people who read this blog, especially my fellow educators, to cringe big-time.

To a "lay" reader, the arguments here likely seem quite reasonable. But the article treats internal motivation as simply an unrealistic ideal, or at least something that cannot be accomplished without first providing external motivation. It gives no consideration to the Dewey & Duckworth approach of building on learners' own curiosities and prompting further curiosity. It assumes that learning is something destined to feel like a chore.

What is it about constructivist-leaning educators that so often prevents us from getting our knowledge and perspectives represented in the popular media? This is certainly something to chew on...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

What makes a teacher highly effective ... and what allows transformative learning to occur?

I had the privilege of meeting with my Cluster Initiative group yesterday. With Professor Garfield Gini-Newman, we discussed what it means to make progress with our students and truly assess them. What is progress? What is the criteria we use to assess it? What makes a teacher highly effective? And what allows transformative learning to occur in a given classroom??

When studies on highly effective teachers were conducted, six common traits emerge:

1. Expectations for students are clearly stated, and exemplars are provided that are not just student work! These exemplars do not need to be exemplary, but the teacher can show the students a range of papers instead and figure out the criteria for evaluating each one.
2. Student work can be found EVERYWHERE!
3. The teacher does not stand still and lecture but constantly moves about the room.
4. Multiple small group activities for students can be found. Rarely are students seen sitting in rows.
5. High levels of instructional discourse are present!
6. Clear organization of materials, lessons, and the room is evident. Materials are easily accessible, and no class time is wasted due to the teacher's lack of preparation or provisioning.

We all know that great teachers come in a variety of different packages. All great teachers, though, build in clear, daily routines for their students. The students know why there desks are arranged the way they are. Frequently, they are responsible for arranging the desks themselves into a given arrangement, as much movement is incorporated into their lesson. These kinds of great teachers have students access multiple kinds of memories: automatic, emotional, auditory, episodic, and semantic. The teacher is all over the room!!

In nurturing a community of critical thinkers, highly effective teachers encourage students to make up their own minds, provide reasons and supports in students' observations, behaviors, and conclusions, and seriously consider others' perspectives and alternative approaches to a given problem.

For students, transformative learning can only occur when a variety of important factors are put into place in the classroom by this highly effective teacher:

1. Students' thinking and perceptions of the world are altered as a result of new knowledge.
2. Students integrate new knowledge and create connections to deepen their understanding of themselves and their world.
3. Learning leads to a shift in mindset and consciousness.
4. Students are willing participants with a vested interest in the learning process.
5. Students are encouraged to engage in inquiry.
6. Students examine personal assumptions.
7. A heightened awareness of oneness develops through critical inquiry.

All effective teachers must then ask themselves: "Do I teach to the curriculum guide or to transformative learning?" Well, luckily, student assessment can be as learning and FOR learning! Instead of evaluating all the students' work themselves, great teachers know how to make assessment part of their daily lesson for students through self or peer-reflection.

To create true transformative learning, great teachers need to provide the following for students:
* daily and frequent assessment for learning
* effective classroom questioning
* teaching for conceptual understanding
* using visuals as a source and mode of representation
* teaching to students' talents and needs
* interrogative written text
* considering multiple lenses and approaches
* embedding student choice
* self-regulated skill development
* making learning purposeful.

As Lorna Earl says to her students about assessment for learning, "Everything you say, write, and do in here is part of my assessment for your learning." Here, the teacher is a true facilitator of student interactions and discourse.

There are six steps to design critical challenges for students, which is NEVER easy! The teacher can ask students to:
* critique the piece
* judge the better or best
* rework the piece
* decode the puzzle
* design the specs
* perform to specs

Some examples of these student tasks include:
1. Write three powerful questions related to ___________________.
2. Does the illustration effectively represent the situation? Why or why not?
3. Rewrite the story's ending from a different perspective.
4. Create a better solution to this problem.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Upcoming Summer Adventure!

Aside from teaching and running, another main passion of my life is international travel. After teaching in Shanghai, China in 2005 and in rural India in 2006, I am now getting the travel itch again -- it is time to go explore somewhere new and teach there during the summer!

My colleague, Catherine, and I recently began exploring possibilities for an upcoming summer adventure and decided on Korea! Both of us have always wanted to go there and know there is no better time to do so than now! We will be traveling there and volunteering through a reputable organization called CADIP, the Canadian Alliance for Development Initiatives and Projects ( 

Here are the exciting initial details of their new project we will be participating in:

       Jeju Island          July 26 - August 7, 2010
Volunteer project: The project is organized together with “Gotjawal Small School” since 2007. Jeju Island, also known as the Hawaii of the East, is a popular tourist destination. However it has a tragic history caused by ideological conflict. The school emphasizes the importance of "Peace and Life" and educates local children and youth in beautiful Jeju nature. The aim of this volunteer project is organizing two summer camps with the help of the international volunteers.
The main tasks will be supporting the coordinators run 2 summer camps under the theme of Peace and Life. During the two camps being in nature and think about importance of “Peace and Life” with veriety of activities, such as organizing peace concert and making small monument in Peace memorial park.
Special requirements: Should enjoy being out in the nature and working with children.
Language: English
Free time: Camping at Dolharubang (Icon of Jeju) park. Picnic at the beach.
Accommodation: A rented house in town.
Location: Jeju Island; one hour flight from Seoul. Travelling by ship is also possible.
Terminal: Jeju Domestic airport (1 hour from Inchoen international Airport)
Age range: 18 - 35 years old
How awesome does this sound?! As a teacher, I fully believe that our summer time allows us a multitude of opportunities for personal and professional growth. So, why not take some time to take our craft abroad to help benefit children who truly need our help?!
I had a long talk with my father today and discussed how I really want to take this kind of unforgettable volunteer trip every summer while I still can (before children!). I have decided to put aside a portion of my paycheck whenever possible to fund these kinds of experiences.
Let the adventure begin! Now if we could just book the flight easily....

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Thinking Critically: Easier Said than Done

Critical thinking really means the ability to think in the face of multiple criteria. The good news -- we intuitively use this all the time!!

For example, a powerful headline needs to be informative, relevant, interesting, and concise in order to be effective for the readership of the publication. Perhaps when asking students to read a section of information, we can ask them to "Read the text and come up with a better headline or title." After all, our students need judgments and decisions to make. How, then, do we create a genuine community of thinkers and learners? How will kids make their judgments??

This process of growth and discovery all begins with the kinds of questions we present to students in the classroom. They can be one of three kinds: factual/recall, preferential, or judgment. Any simple question can be turned into a critical thinking question (ie: "Is Hamlet a sympathetic character in your eyes?", "Why ______________?", "Rank in order from this list", and "Who is the protagonist in Macbeth?"

I was fortunate enough for my advisor at Harvard to be Professor Eleanor Duckworth, who truly believes in empowering learners and putting the learning in THEIR court. Her phrase, "thinking deeply about simple things" (2006), often enters my mind and influences my classroom instruction. How do we create classroom communities where every student has access to meaningful content and learning opportunities?? Our goal here becomes transformative thinking, as Professor Gini-Newman suggests.

Since children are currently living in the "nearly now" in their classrooms and communication systems, the jobs they will have do not call for a vending machine list of knowledge/type of right or wrong answer. Instead, they will need to utilize a collaborative, problem solving, and creative thinking model. School needs to prepare them for these skills through powerful, meaningful learning. If we as teachers are to teach our students exploratively, we must use exploratory learning as learners ourselves (Duckworth, 2006).

In planning for lessons that center on building our students' critical thinking skills, we must ask ourselves:

1. Does it require reasoned judgment based on criteria?
2. Is the challenge likely to be perceived as meaningful to students?
3. Will significant curricular understanding be uncovered as students work through this challenge?

These critical challenges can take on one of six forms:

1. Critique by using the piece and judging the merits of someone.
2. Judge the better or best.
3. Rework the piece.
4. Decode the puzzle (concept attainment).
5. Design the specifics.
6. Perform to specificity.

Are we up to this challenge??

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Traits of Critical Thinkers

I have been talking a lot about critical thinking recently, and with good reason. We simply do NOT devote enough time to it in our classrooms. And we NEED to.

What are the true traits of a critical thinker, then?

Professor Gini-Newman cites the following characteristics of critical thinkers:
* uses multiple perspectives in new ways
* sees the bigger picture
* thinks outside the box
* likes to ask questions
* addresses different learning styles
* possesses good listening skills
* has perseverance in completing and sticking to tasks
* makes connections
* creative
* evaluative
* flexible
* reflective
* makes claims
* attentive
* non-judgmental

How many of these traits do YOU possess? How about your students?? Have they even had the chance to begin showing you what they are capable of??

As educators, we need to balance direct instruction with a genuine invitation for students to join us in learning, discovery, and development of their all-important critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is, after all, a complex activity, not a simple set of generic skills for students to acquire. Concerned with judging or assessing what is reasonable or sensible in a situation, critical thinkers are focused on the quality of reasoning. Thus, kids need to know HOW to arrive at their answers, not just be told what the right answer is. As it stands, kids are more interested in using information to solve a problem and not necessarily knowing WHY they are doing what they are doing or WHY it matters.

This all depends on how students learn to develop and possess relevant knowledge. What will they DO with what they learn each day? And how do we engage students in thoughtful learning in a critically thoughtful and valuable way?? The answer remains to be seen.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sometimes, only a few words are needed to make your day....

Today, at the end of one of my classes, a male student I've been working with a lot this year said to me:

"Hey Mrs. L. Thank you for teaching me this year. Seriously. I'm really gonna miss you next year."

Coming from this particular student, that was a compliment in a million. Thanks to him, I succeeded in avoiding a case of the Mondays and left my classroom with a refined sense of purpose and excitement for my profession.

Sometimes, all it really takes is a few simple, meaningful words to make your day as a teacher....

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bystanders, Bullying, and Our Schools

Here is a recent intriguing article and accompanying letters to the editor re: bullying in our schools. How can we stop this horrible epidemic??

April 3, 2010

How to Stop Bullying in the Schools

To the Editor:
Re “9 Teenagers Are Charged After Suicide of Classmate” (news article, March 30): The story of Phoebe Prince’s suicide after being bullied beyond despair is heart-wrenching.
Bullying is all about power: one person has it, one person does not. Technology accelerates bullying. Social media make it easy for bullies to enlist large, often anonymous groups to carry out relentless attacks with messages and compromising photos of the victim. Adults have been removed from the equation. We are not there to intervene.

Reluctant to seek help, victims feel ashamed and powerless, and fear retaliation should they “rat out” the bully. It is unrealistic to expect kids to make rational, self-protective decisions while under emotional stress.

Strong antibullying programs are needed to provide a means to report bullying anonymously, to train all school personnel to take reports of bullying seriously and to offer workshops for children on how to respond to being bullied.
Karen Schulte O’Neill
West Long Branch, N.J., March 30, 2010
The writer is on the executive board of the New Jersey School Counselor Association.
To the Editor:

I applaud the decision to charge nine teenagers in the bullying case that led to the suicide of Phoebe Prince, 15.

Now let’s look at the adults who must claim responsibility. Educators are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse. If it is true that some staff members were told and/or witnessed bullying and did nothing, they, too, must be held accountable in a court of law.
By natural extension, the parents or guardians of the nine accused students must be held morally and legally accountable for a lack of values that could lead to this kind of destructive disrespect.

The broader solution to bullying is to address and attack bullying in pre-school or earlier. It should be a part of the curriculum, as should self-esteem building.

Laws should reflect not only the horrific physical and emotional bullying but also the latest technology that allows for insidious cyberbullying.
Joan P. Kaufman
Hurley, N.Y., March 30, 2010
The writer is a retired instructional superintendent for the New York City Department of Education.
To the Editor:
Re “Playtime Is Over” (Op-Ed, March 27): David Elkind raises an interesting point regarding the possible relationship between the loss of playtime and the rise of bullying. The relationship seems intuitively obvious. What is not so apparent is how to replace the important normative life experiences that result from unstructured playtime.

In the “old days,” pick-up sports (stickball, stoopball, touch football) involved any child who was outside and willing to play. That meant children of all ability levels were included. As a result, good players learned tolerance, patience and acceptance from playing with weaker and perhaps younger players, and these weaker players learned skills from the better players. In different ways, each benefited from the experience.

In the absence of these spontaneously occurring opportunities for socialization, we need to develop programs that move beyond the Band-Aid approach, like the use of recess coaches.
Over the last decade, a number of “whole school” programs have been designed in which administrators, staff and teachers work together to reduce bullying among students. But perhaps it is time to expand the whole-school concept to include school-community partnerships involving community agencies and organizations like the YMCA and the Unified Sports program of Special Olympics.

Programs in which schools and community groups work together to create new recreational sports opportunities for children and youth at all levels — not just the athletically talented — are an important next step in addressing the bullying problem.
Gary N. Siperstein
Boston, March 28, 2010
The writer is director of the Center for Social Development and Education, University of Massachusetts Boston.
To the Editor:
I agree with David Elkind. Children learn kindness and how to get along with one another through play. I believe that the increase in bullying over the last 10 years is due, in part, to what children see and hear from the adults around them. After all, children are exposed to bullying words and tactics by elected officials, radio and television personalities, and, sadly, in some cases, their teachers.
Children take this in. They watch. They learn.
Judith Pack
Red Bank, N.J., March 29, 2010
The writer is an early childhood specialist.
To the Editor:
I am a public defender in Massachusetts who has represented juveniles, many of them teenage girls. “The Myth of Mean Girls,” by Mike Males and Meda-Chesney Lind (Op-Ed, April 2), misses the point. Physical violence is only one manifestation of mean-girl bullying. Mean girls use verbal abuse, intimidation and exclusion, and it’s most viciously directed at girls who are liked by popular boys, as we’ve seen in the recent tragedy in South Hadley, Mass.
While it’s wonderful news that girls’ arrest rates for violent offenses are down, that statistic doesn’t begin to measure the terrible damage being done to girls by, yes, “mean girls.”
Mara Dolan
Concord, Mass., April 2, 2010
To the Editor:
While the writers of this article may have a point, the only mean girls who mattered to Phoebe Prince were the ones who made her life a living nightmare. I know all about “mean girls,” having been victimized as a freshman at a Catholic girls’ high school in the early 1960s by five of them.

When they tried to resume their harassment at the beginning of my sophomore year, a senior (whom I did not know) stepped in on my behalf and shamed them into considering how their behavior was hurting me. They backed off and never bothered me again.
It took only one concerned person to help me; how sad and troubling that I have not heard about one student, teacher or administrator in that entire high school who had the courage to defend Phoebe Prince.
Dolores Soffientini
Holmdel, N.J., April 2, 2010

Friday, April 9, 2010

Critical Thinking: Valued but Misunderstood in our Classrooms

Today, the phrase "critical thinking" causes salivation among administrators and teachers alike. We value it but are often uninformed, confused, and not clear on it. Frankly speaking, kids need to be thoughtful about what information they absorb and write down.

To do this, we must create a foundation and springboard for critical thinking to be encouraged in our students, especially adolescents. We must create a real, problematic situation for our students followed up with higher level questions such as, "What else do you see? What can you infer? Why? Here we have our contradiction." We cannot just give students the answer; then it is NEVER about thinking. Otherwise, why should students even bother?!

ALL students can critically think, which we often hear but do not often truly believe. We assume struggling readers cannot solve problems, which could not be further from the truth.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Students as Intelligent Creators and Consumers of their Own Learning

Professor Garfield Gini-Newman says intelligence "implies flexibility and creativity, the ability to slip the bonds of knowledge into meaningful use." Intelligence, then, becomes how we use and locate information to solve a variety of real world and complex problems.

It is no surprise that kids today have their brains wired differently than previous generations. They are more visual, more comfortable at multi-tasking, and have become great scanners of information who can develop internal, natural filters in what they are reviewing. These kids are part of a "participatory culture," where, according to Gini-Newman, 50 percent of adolescents create media content and over 30 percent of them share content with one another online.

In my first lesson with him, Gini-Newman explained that "distributed intelligence" involves the role resources, such as libraries, the Internet, tools, and experts, play in helping us to solve problems and meet various challenges. People possessing this kind of intelligence are able to select appropriate resources to solve problems of many kinds. After all, in the 21st century, intelligence is now immediately "distributed" around the world. Our students are bombarded with this information constantly. The challenge becomes encouraging and motivating them to be better readers and thinkers about the information they encounter. How do we create this kind of collaborative, meaningful community in our classrooms??

The problem with our students being so programmed to multi-tasking is that the more they multi-task, the less deliberate and focused they become. Therefore, according to neuroscientist Jordan Grafman, we need to teach kids when to multi-task and when not to.

Gini-Newman argues that two imperatives for 21st century education emerge:

1. To understand and respond to children growing up in an ever-increasing digital and global world.
2. To prepare children for success in an increasingly complex digital and global world.

As educators, several goals emerge to work on every day with our students:

1. To ensure learning is meaningful and has the potential to be transformative.
2. To create classrooms of true inquiry where students are invited to explore critical issues and make reasoned judgments in light of evidence presented.
3. To ensure classrooms are interactive and collaborative.
4. To find ways to help ALL students engage with the curriculum in meaningful inquiry.

We often presume that certain students CANNOT think. And THIS is a huge problem. Students play an active role in monitoring their own learning. Our real challenge, then, becomes nurturing a classroom community where students see themselves as reflected as part of the global community built on a valued culture of respect and understanding. Can we rise to the occasion?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Nurturing Critical Thinking in our Students....

This school year, I have the exciting opportunity to work with teachers from around my county's cluster on a special "Cluster Initiative." Through this work, we get to work with Garfield Gini-Newman, a Senior Consultant at The Critical Thinking Consortium, and collaborate with subject-like colleagues to better plan for and design engaging curriculum for our students.

Especially with our current students, it is beyond essential to develop creative critical thinkers in our classrooms. We are the seeds to plant this love of learning and thinking in them. But how can be best nurture and cultivate critical thinking in our adolescent students?

According to Gini-Newman, we need to tweak what we do, fortify the activities we engage students in to push them a little harder, and incorporate use of specific, advanced technology that directly speaks to and engages students. After all, technology is a great enabler to education. So, how do we change our students' learning? How do we help them to better sort and use information in their daily learning? To do so, we must ask not how smart our kids are but instead HOW are our kids smart?

Inquiry projects like our Cluster Initiative help us think about HOW kids think and help us learn how to better engage them, as people, technology consumers, and learners. Using prompts such as, "I want you to look into and tell us" and "Tell me more about...." are solid starting points to facilitate this difficult and often messy process. This, in turn, helps students understand how they can use thinking skills to better solve problems.

The wheels keep turning......

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A True "Race to the Top"?

As we all know, state and national standards are under intense scrutiny by schools and policy makers alike. Former President George W. Bush's NCLB act has forever changed the way schools are held accountable for student performance and achievement. Now, the U.S. Department of Education is taking this responsibility to the next level and challenging individual states to create assessments that assess students' progress and academic ability, even more authentically than current state standards.

This afternoon, Education Week posted an informative article on the latest developments:

$350 Million 'Race to the Common Test' Starts Now

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The U.S. Department of Education has given the green light to the $350 million Race to the Top assessment competition, which will award grants to groups of states to create rigorous common tests to complement the common standards effort already underway.
The $350 million is part of the larger $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund grant program. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced in June 2009 he wanted to peel off $350 million to help states create the "next generation of assessments."
According to the final regulations out today, a consortium, to be eligible for the awards, must be at least 15 states big. The department is expecting to give out one to two awards, at around $160 million each, according to the application materials. For insight into what these assessments might look like, read my colleague Catherine Gewertz's story on the run-up to the competition.
Even as EdWeek reporters begin wading through the 85 pages of regulations and even more hoops in application materials, intrepid Teacher Beat reporter Stephen Sawchuk already has found one noteworthy item about this competition: If states get letters of support from their colleges and universities, saying, for example, that they'll use these tests to exempt students from remedial work, then states will get bonus points in the competition.
Within the $350 million, there's going to be a smaller, $30 million competition for states to design end-of-course tests for high school students.
The $30 million high school assessment competition is open to smaller consortia of states, those with at least five members. But there will only be one winner in that competition, the application materials say.
It's important to note these are final rules; there will be no more public comment or hearings—input that's already occurred.
Catherine, who covers and blogs about assessments, is sure to have much more about these competitions tomorrow.
Applications for both will be due sometime toward the end of June (the exact date is 75 days after the final rules have been published in the Federal Register, and that hasn't happened yet). Money will be awarded in September.
For the full article, please visit: