Thursday, August 10, 2017

Back to School

Firing up the old blog again for a few reasons:

1. Writing is my biggest area for growth as a teacher. While I walk the walk with reading and absolutely live the reading life I encourage my kids to have, not so much with the writing. Since my classroom is a no hypocrite zone, I better get on this now before school starts.

2. The Teachers of the Internet have given me so much. It is 100% accurate to say that I would not be the teacher I am today without Twitter and all the awesome teachers on it. Blogging is my tiny way of adding to the sea of info that's out there. HOPING to share what is working for me this year right along with what isn't.
3. I plain ol' like writing, that's what!

So about me to see if what I'm writing about might be of interest to you (redux):
* I have left early ed and now teach 4th grade.
* I am incredibly inspired by my time in early ed- I truly believe it is where the real revolutions in thinking are happening. I plan on bringing that spirit of inquiry and choice into my classroom.
* I am OBSESSED with creating life long readers. Obsessed. Like, "get a hobby" level obsessed (I can't, teaching IS my hobby).
* I'm allllll about history, as well (which works out because I teach ELA and social studies!). I don't think that the way history is taught today (crammed into language arts...) is serving anyone. #unpopularopinion
* I'm at a Catholic school. It's awesome.
* I am deeply committed to the representation of all students in books and media. My community is unique in that we are about 35% Korean-American. You'd be shocked at how I have to scramble to find books that speak to my kids' experiences.

So that is me. Plus a husband, a three year old, and a 1 year old who has no plans on sleeping through the night anytime soon. Hope you'll stick around for this journey.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Winter Break Ramblings

Ah, another year almost over and a new one about to begin (that's right, I just plagiarized John Lennon's Christmas song.  Deal with it!).  Now is the time to refresh, recharge and eat a metric ton of rich, delicious, fattening holiday foods.  


But with the year coming to a close, it also seems like an ideal time to reflect on where we are as teachers.  

My mantra as of late has been, "why are you doing what you're doing?  What purpose does it serve?  Who are you doing this for?"  Whenever I'm about to design a lesson plan, lay down a rule or stop a child from doing something, I try to ask these questions.  A surprising amount of the time, the answer is "because it makes life easier for me" which does not always go hand in hand with what is best for the students.

To that end, I give you The Switch That Changed My Life.  Before this year, I did the typical pre-k/kindergarten routine: themes of the week.  Cute, manageable, CONVENIENT.  So convenient that at this point, teachers don't even have to do any real planning anymore- just pop on over to Teachers Pay Teachers, etc. and you can print out games, centers, worksheets (ugh) for any number of topics.  

But is that what pre-k or kindergarten should be?  Are we really saying that after a week, a child has mastered a topic?  Do you take any real meaning out of something you studied for a week?  And what are the topics we're exploring?  Do they have any real meaning to kids or do they just make for cute projects?  And one final question: why do we teach?  To earn a salary or to change lives?

That's why I switched to project based learning this year.  It takes more thought, more planning, more creativity and more time- but it is infinitely more rewarding.  And as a bonus for you, the teacher, it also produces students capable of work you never imagined.  My kids want to write because they need places to express their ideas, they sit focused at morning meeting because we're talking about things they care about, they hit state standards that I was not even targeting during choice time because it dovetails with what they're working on.  

So how does this work?  Well, as with anything, you first have to come up with a topic.  Ideally, the children's interests will lead you to this (first main difference from theme of the week).  For example, my kids are OBSESSED with the squirrels they see every day outside our windows.  As in, activity stops when one passes by.  So when we get back to school on the 2nd, we will be studying (you guessed it!) squirrels.  Unlike theme of the week, these projects last a long time.  It's up to you to sense when the interest is drawing to an end.  For the purposes of this post, we'll be looking at my last unit of study: buildings.

Sweet E checking out a picture of a building.

Your job starts before the kids have even been introduced to the topic.  You need to research whatever you'll be focusing on so that you can guide discussions, help find answers and see where your standards will fit in (and they ALWAYS do!).  I find that the easiest way to accomplish this is through a thought web.  I put the topic in the middle and try to think of where the kids thoughts will go/where I can guide them if needed.  So for buildings, some things I thought worth exploring were: buildings serve many purposes (great for sorting- sort structures into categories: restaurants, living spaces, work spaces, etc), buildings come in many shapes (more math!), buildings can look different depending on region (hello, neglected social studies), buildings have labels (words and numbers- suddenly you're hitting literacy and math in a meaningful way!).  

The first day of our study, I brought in tons of pictures of buildings and invited parents to send in more.  And the magic started.

I started us off with wooden block and legos in our block center.  The students (without my asking!!) grabbed books and pictures and started building off of what they saw in pictures.

A likes McDonalds.  Here he is trying to recapture it in blocks while referencing a photo.

Then A encountered a problem.  He fell in love with the design of Epcot and wanted to build it.  But it's round ("and spiky looking!").  So his friend E suggested play doh- I built on that and brought in clay so the kids could make more permanent structures.  That led to a week of building with clay and many more problems.  Our sky scrapers started collapsing.  After reading "Building a House" D suggested that the reason our buildings weren't standing was because they had no support beams.  So he pulled out some pipe cleaners, folded them up, placed them on top of his clay and then covered them up.  A FOUR YEAR OLD did this.  He saw a problem, thought about it and SOLVED it using pretty sophisticated vocabulary.  J built on this further when she suggested we needed better foundations.  I almost died hearing those big words out of those little mouths. 

What you would see if you could look through D's building!

At this point, my knowledge was wearing thin.  The kids had questions I couldn't answer.  It was time to bring in some experts.  I put out a call to families and a few parents with construction experience volunteered to come in and share what they knew.

Mr. O is an an engineer.  His talk brought blueprints into the picture (more numbers, more shapes!).  The kids loved it and left our conversation producing blueprints of their own, adding features that were previously missing from our discussions.  Mr. D brought in tools and we fell in love.  The kids got difficult questions answered and were so excited to get to play with 'real' tools instead of the plastic ones we had in class.  

Oh my... I see you D!!!!

That led us to our culminating activity: building real houses made of wood.  With real hammers and real nails (eep).  HEAVILY supervised, the kids used all the knowledge they had accrued to build structures of their own.  I was floored.

Yes, there is a child SLEEPING THROUGH HAMMERING in the background.  Color me impressed.

We finished our unit with a special party for the kids to showcase their hard work- we opened a buildings museum and invited family and friends to check out what we had been doing for the past month (yes, MONTH- it was incredible!).  

I can't speak more highly of the Project Based Approach.  It literally changed my life as a teacher.  I love coming to school every day to see what the kids will come up with.  Parents love it because of the amazing knowledge their children come away with- about the topic, yes, but the kids really delve deeply into state standards while working on the units.  From one of our visiting 'experts': "Nina loves school, thank you so much for everything you do to make school fun and interesting. The kids are extremely knowledgeable and very well informed on a challenging topic.  I was very impressed."  But that's nothing compared to how much the kids love it.  They rush in every day to finish up projects, start new ones, ask questions and find answers.  

See this?  All them.  They came up with the idea to build a skyscraper from boxes and a bulldozer 'to dig foundations.'

Lev Vygotsky once wrote that "In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior.  In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself."  Project Based Learning is proof of that sentiment.  It's hard work that requires a lot of thought (no more falling back on teachers pay teachers in a pinch) but it is life changing. We live in a world that requires critical thinking but teach in a system that often squelches it.  If there's one thing I can say about my month immersed in buildings, it's that I witnessed every. single. child.  think critically as they made inquiries and strove for solutions.  And yes, you can still do cute projects.  It wouldn't be winter without a snowman or two!

Scrappy Teacher is enjoying all-day-pajama-days while she can!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Scrappy Teacher Gets in a Scrape

When I picked the moniker "Scrappy Teacher" for the purposes of this blog, it was without much thought.  I liked it initially because it's a good reflection of my classroom at any given time- slightly messy, buzzing with activity, full of heart.  That's certainly one definition of scrappy and it's one I'm proud to be associated with.

People's Exhibit A for the Scrappy Classroom

There's another meaning to the word though and I've been thinking a lot about it today. "Scrappy: determined, argumentative, or pugnacious."

Here's the story (and I put a lot of thought into whether or not I should share this):
I am in a weird situation at work.  I can't PROVE this but I'm 99% certain that the person who teaches the other section of my grade level doesn't like me.  And because the only thing we've ever talked about is teaching, I can't help but put those two things together.  The first day I met this individual, she insulted my philosophy of teaching big time.  As in, she literally ask me how my students learn if they don't do worksheets.




First of all, noooooo, work sheets in early education classrooms!  Nightmare of developmental inappropriateness!

Second, WHAT???  Even if you THOUGHT that why would you say it???  Or at least say it like that?  "How do your students learn anything?"  And it was not meant as a curious question it was meant as a MEAN one, and (I assure you) was asked in a mean tone.  I politely explained to her that my students learn through a variety of methods- we write a message out together in the morning, we hunt for letters, play letter games, look for patterns in our environment, write bills out for our customers in the dramatic play center, etc etc etc.  I didn't even get into the whole critical thinking aspect of everything because yiiikes clearly not the time.  (And just to be clear, this was not started by me inquiring about how she taught.  The conversation arose from her asking me what worksheets I was planning to use for the classroom.)

Artist depiction of aforementioned teacher.

Now I get that because of past experiences, depictions of kindergarten on TV, and the results when you google 'kindergarten lesson plans,' a lot of people think early ed is just worksheets, Hallmark themes and letter of the week (shudder shudder).  Heck, I even see how one could incorporate letter of the week into a developmentally appropriate lesson plan.  What I DON'T understand is why as a teacher you wouldn't make it your business to keep up with modern thought in education- and then judge me, who you just met.

So I'm feeling very scrappy lately and (I'll admit it) defensive- of my teaching methods, yes, but more importantly of children's rights to be children.  To play and inquire, to not be taught at constantly.

Bottom line, I'll take practicing writing names in shaving cream over copying letters on a worksheet any day of the week.

Scrappy Teacher says, "Take THAT, worksheets!"

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11 in Early Education Classrooms

Today I want to talk about 9/11 in early ed. settings.  Do you address it with your kids?  My guys are still fairly young and (in my opinion) are not really equipped to grapple with such a complex, terrifying event that is essentially a completely abstract concept for them.  

It's hard to completely ignore, though, even if you wanted to.  The elementary school I work at had the older students interrupt classes over the loudspeaker at the time the first tower was struck for a brief reflection/moment of silence.  My solution of late has been to talk about the day from its service aspect.  9/11, of course, was declared a National Day of Service several years ago.  On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, President Obama stated, "even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11."  I love that quote and believe in the sentiment behind it wholeheartedly.  Who among us old enough to remember that day doesn't remember the lines of people at blood banks, the shopkeepers donating food and necessities to first responders, that incredible spirit of togetherness that briefly united us all?  

So the kids and I talked about what service means, about how we can help others, about how others help us.  Then we worked on making cards for service men and women overseas.  The words they dictated or wrote were so amazing.  One child drew a house and wrote, "You keep me safe at home. I love you, soldiers." Another boy COVERED his card in googly eyes and asked me to write "a lot of eyes so you can find your way home!"   What beautiful little souls.  Kids are so naturally generous and caring and this group seems particularly motivated to help their neighbors- I'm genuinely looking forward to more projects like this over the upcoming year.  And hopefully, they'll carry the spirit of service with them into their adulthood!

Scrappy Teacher says, "googly eyes = love in the right hands!"

Monday, September 10, 2012

First Full Day of 2012: Revenge of the Kiddos

Another year, another promise to keep up with this blog daily!

SO: here's a list of everything that went wrong this morning before I even made it to the START of class on the first, full day with the kiddos:
1. Woke up 20 minutes late.
2. Forgot my folders for the kids at home (inexcusable!!).
3. Got stuck in 20 minutes of traffic (whyyyyyyy?).
4. Had my parking space stolen!!!  Grrrr... I haven't gotten to park in it ONCE yet.  Not cool, parking spot bandit.
5. I don't know what was happening with temperature/humidity in my classroom this weekend but when I walked in this morning, everything I had hung on the walls was on the floor.  Thank god I don't overdecorate so that the kids can have ownership of the room, otherwise I would have cried.

SO first impressions (!):
- Biggest class I've ever had.  As in intimidatingly big.  As in I'm pretty sure if they all banded together and rushed me and my aide, they could take us out with their tiny fists of fury.
- There are a few kids who've never been to school before in my class this year!  That's very unusual for me.  There were only two who I could REALLLLLLY tell had no prior experience in a classroom.  These were the young ladies getting up and walking around whenever they felt like it (womp wooomp)- with little clueless, innocent expressions when they got called back to join the group.  But they were also the two ones who I had to pry out of the classroom at the end of the day soooo go figure.  I guess they're ready to learn.  :)
- Wiiiiide distribution of prior knowledge based on the few evals I got to sneak in today.  No surprise there I guess, but it's intimidating when there's so many little minds to develop.
- Grade school gang alert!  Three boys already formed a rough and tumble team.  Oh my.  I see lots of deep, calming breaths in my future.

It was a full day.  ...And yes, that's totally teacher code for challenging.  I did a good job of slowly transitioning everyone into the classroom swing, but I could have done a better job of laying down my expectations.  Tomorrow I'm building demonstrations of learning centers into my lesson plans so hopefully that will ameliorate any future problems (particularly with my never-been-to-school kids).

Really beautiful to get that magic moment back- when your students go from the mysteries of names on a list to real individuals with opinions, interests and personalities.  How lucky to be a part of their journey this year.

Scrappy Teacher says: it's good to be back.  :)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Life is happening! - Liz Lemon

Soooo big news… I got a new job for the fall!!!!


Same grade, but this time at an elementary school that’s much MUCH closer to my house.  I can’t tell you how excited I am for September.   I’m already in the process of revising old plans and making new ones.  Nerdy, yes, but there are few things that I enjoy more than planning for a new year- figuring out what’s worked in the past and researching ways to be more effective for the future. 

But my awesome new job is not what this post is about (no matter how awesome and new it is).  Today’s post is about a book recommendation.

A few weeks ago, I was in the car and turned on NPR for company (don’t stop reading yet).  The guest on the program I was listening to was Dr. Meg Jay, a psychiatrist/author of a book called "The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter- and How to Make the Most of Them."  “Hey,” I says to myself, “I’m in my 20s!” I says.  So I listened in a little more attentively than I normally would have and at the risk of exaggerating, it kind of changed my life.  For the immediate future at least. 

(NPR.  "Seems legit," says Scrappy Teacher)

FLASHBACK! Last year, when I was looking for a job, my boyfriend (soon to be husband, whaaaat) told me that I should contact anyone I knew who worked in school systems I was interested in.  I refused.  I felt like that was cheating, that if I couldn’t get a job on my own merits I didn't want it at all.   I wound up employed, but it wasn’t the place for me.  For a variety of reasons, chief of which was distance.  An hour long commute when you’re ALSO running aftercare is a nightmare.  Something had to be sacrificed: school or personal life.  And because I’d die before I cheated a student, it was home life, which wasn't fair to me or my fiancĂ©e. 

BACK TO CURRENT TIMES!  I’m listening to NPR and this woman repeats K’s advice exactly.  But she adds that if I don’t make the call, someone else will.  For some reason, that thought never occurred to me before.  Not when K suggested I reach out to contacts, not when my teacher friends agreed.  But now all I could picture was another teacher taking a job I KNEW I was super qualified for while I was lost in a stack of resumes because I was too proud to ask for help.  So I made the call.  And I got brought in for an interview and sample lesson.
And I got the job. 

I couldn't be happier.  I know I have this job on merit- I respect the woman who hired me more than I can possibly convey.  So my advice to you is this, no matter what field you're in: use. your. contacts.  People WANT to help you if they're able to. The more people I tell this story to, the more I stories I hear about others who got their jobs the exact same way. Just no one ever talks about it.

Anyway, I can't recommend this book enough if you're in your 20s.  A lot of material the author discussed pertained to me.  A good deal didn’t (mostly relationship stuff).  But there was not ONE issue she addressed that I haven’t heard someone else my age voice.  So if you have a sec, pick it up.  Very quick read, very insightful.  Part guide book, part reality check, part Grandmother Willow from Disney's Pocahontas.  All worthwhile. 

Scrappy Teacher apologizes for how long this post was and offers you this adorable picture of a former student/current family friend in the middle of an awesome lesson on multiple integers as a consolation prize.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Hitting the Restart Button

Well.  It’s well past the end of everyone's school year and I’m finally ready to start writing again.  How’s that for timing?  But when you fall off a horse, you have to get right back on (that’s right, I’m a WORDSMITH!), so consider this my restart button. 

Part of the reason I didn’t have time to write last year was because my grandmother was very ill.  So when I wasn’t at work, I wanted to be at the hospice with her.  I'm telling you this because this is primarily a blog about teaching and Mary O’Neill was the best teacher I've ever known.  She had a remarkable love of learning (we’re talking about a lady who got her BS in biology in the 1940s!), raised four scarily intelligent children on her own in a time when that was not-a-thing-you-did, found a good job and worked harder and more cheerfully at it than almost anyone I’ve ever known and exhibited a warmth and kindness that I strive to take with me in the classroom and in life.

I have a new, daunting challenge starting up in September that I’ll talk about in another post- but I know I’ll be drawing on Grandma Mary's influence as I rise to meet it.

Scrappy Teacher is happy to be back!