This is my space to rant and rave, vent and vex about education, my passion. I am calling it "Mining for Hidden Gems" because of the above quote and because as a teacher, my job is to look for those gems. The real valuable ones are not usually on the surface. You have to dig deep to find them.


I am also borrowing from Katherine Bomer's wonderful book Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching From the Brilliance in Every Student's Writing. It has changed the way I look at not just student work but students themselves and all people around me.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Gem of a Book: Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The best way to read Kwame Alexander's Crossover is in one sitting from start to finish.  You don't want to take your eyes off of this performance for too long .  The novel in verse tells the story of Josh and his twin brother and that of their relationship with each other, with their father and with the game.  At times the entries made me, a complete ignorant when it comes to basketball, feel as if I was dribbling the ball across the court, performing a crossover and dunking:

Dribbling

At the top of the key, I'm

               MOVING & GROOVING,

POPing and ROCKING -

Why you BUMPING?

             Why you LOCKING?

Man, take this THUMPING.

Be careful though,

'cause now I'm CRUNKing

               crissCROSSING

 FLOSSING

 flipping

 and my dipping will leave you

 S
   L
      I
        P
          P
            I
              N
                 G   on the floor, while I

SWOOP in

to the finish with a fierce finger roll...

Straight to the hole:

Swoooooooooooosh.


At other times, I felt as if I was watching spoken word poetry, performed with passion on a stage:


In fact, I would read the book several times.  Once, for the music created by the language, once for the vocabulary instruction:        
               
ca.lam.i.ty noun 
As in: The HUGE bald patch
on the side
of my head is a dreadful
calamity.

and once for the life lessons disguised as rules of basketball:

Basketball Rule #3
                 
Never let anyone
lower your goals.
Other's expectations
of you are determined
by their limitations
of life.
The sky is your limit, sons.
Always shoot
for the sun
and you will shine.
                                                                                                 
If ever in search of a book to demonstrate the power of voice in writing, look no further that this.  Not only does the reader hear the voice of the characters, but there is so much richness and so many layers to the way language is used, that you cannot help but feel as if you are hearing a symphony played on the pages of this book.

This book can help those who love the game of basketball learn to fall in love with the way language can be used to describe their beautiful game.  Or, as was the case with me, help a lover of language cross over to appreciate the rhythm and energy of the game.



(Image source:  http://www.bookinaday.org/)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Gem of a Book: The Aurora County All-Stars by Deborah Wiles

I know a book is good when:

1.  I find out it is all about baseball and I continue reading
2.  I do not skim over the sport jargon and play by plays
3.  I cry like a baby in front of whomever is sitting in a room when the surprise pinch hitter saves the game and all the pieces of the story come together.


Last year I found a gem of a book in Love, Ruby Lavender.  I loved the language and the rhythm of the story.  The vivid characters and the rich dialogue put the book on my list of all-time favorites.  As a bonus I found out that it is actually part of a trilogy of books by Deborah Wiles about a small Southern community.  I had read Each Little Bird That Sings aloud with my daughter when she was in fourth grade and still had time for read-alouds with me before bed.  I just finished reading The All-Stars and can't recommend it highly enough.  Besides all the qualities that made Ruby Lavender a great read, this book also carries a strong theme of community.  Life in Mabel, Mississippi gets complicated when the annual little league baseball game, a 4th of July pageant and the death of the town's mysterious recluse Mr. Norwood Rhinehart Beauregard Boyd, age eighty-eight, happen to coincide.  As the story unravels, friendships are tested, past wrongs are visited and the strengths of characters are measured in more than one way.  At the end, folks in Aurora County realize that they are "each other's family".  When one person in that family hurts, they all hurt and when one part wins, they all win.  At the climax of the book past and present unite and the words of the mystery man begin to make sense:  "It is hard to see inside someone's heart unless you have an invitation, and, even then, you must agree to come inside."

Of course, baseball lovers will love this book.  But I think, as was the case with me, so will tender-hearted readers of all ages that love mystery, suspense and  mistaken identities.

(image source:  http://deborahwiles.com/site/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/all-stars-cover11-198x300.jpg)

Gem of a Book: Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” -Einstein
My first year as a teacher, I had a student, Jonathan, who struggled with reading and writing.  It was surprising to me as a novice teacher who knew very little about learning differences, because I saw so many other strengths in him.  He was great at math and making astute observations in science.  He just hated to write and struggled with reading fluently.  Often he would call himself dumb and other degrading names.  I forbade him from talking negatively about himself.  His frustrations with learning manifested themselves in behavior that landed him in the office often.  He used inappropriate language and was at times aggressive.  I did my best to show Jonathan that he was smart in many ways.  Almost at the end of that school year, I heard a presentation on dyslexia and immediately saw all the symptoms in Jonathan and all of sudden everything made sense.

I wish Jonathan could have read Fish in a Tree back then.  I wish all of my students would read this book.  Jonathan would have seen himself in Ally.  He would have identified with her struggles to read and write, her efforts to cover it up.  He would have understood why Ally's teachers and principals misunderstood her and he would have appreciated Mr. Daniels's efforts to show her her strengths.  The rest of my students would have also learned about the diversity of talents and interests that each and everyone of them brought to our classroom.  Hopefully, they would have learned to look at each other as unique individuals worth knowing, beyond the grades on the report card and beyond the right or wrong answers in the classroom.



I would recommend this book to students that are finding it hard to see strengths in themselves, who are used to measuring their worth by what others think of them.  I would also recommend it to those who don't struggle with the way we do school right now.  It can help build empathy and understanding for all their current and future classmates.  And finally, I would recommend it to teachers.  Mr. Daniels is a great mentor for all new and veteran teachers.

(image source: https://nerdybookclub.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/fish-in-a-tree-final-cover.jpg)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What Matters


It happens every year.  It happens to the best of us.  There comes a day when we ask ourselves is it all worth it.  Are we making a difference?  The task seems so daunting; the demands ever-increasing.  As teachers of small children, we rarely see immediate results of our efforts.  Last year, on one of those days I wrote these words and left them in my colleagues boxes as a small token of encouragement:

The sum of our days is a tally of all things good and bad. 
Every day, every moment is a chance to add a little bit to the good
 or a little bit to the bad.  
The choice is ours. 
So we show up every day, 
see the best in every child, 
do the best we can and 
hope that we have added 
a bit to the good in their lives.  
When it’s all said and done, 
that’s all that matters.  
All that we can ask for 
is that we are remembered 
because we let them go 
a little bit smarter, 
a little bit more confident, 
a little bit happier 
than when they came in 
through our doors. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Mathematical Thinking


It seems to be socially acceptable, even among educators, to admit that we don’t like math or are not good at it.  I know that none of us would say publicly that we are not good at reading.  We may say we don’t like reading but that does not mean that we can’t read or comprehend a text if it were part of our job.  So why is it all right to say “I hate math!” or “I am not a math person”?

If math is problem solving, logical thinking, drawing conclusions, providing proofs, checking for reasonableness and justifying an answer, shouldn’t all of us learn to be good at it?  Can anyone go through life not needing these skills?  Can we afford to treat mathematical thinking as the domain of only a few, if we aim to have a democratic society where every member is contributing his or her share?

We are lucky enough to live in an age where the computational part of math can be done using machines, much faster and more accurate.  Machines can also remember all the routine formulas and algorithms.  We can program them to do whatever we want them to do.  But that is not all there is to math.  Only humans can do the thinking part of math. 

We are wired for communication.  And for at least 10,000 years we have needed to measure and communicate about time, quantity and distance.  We developed language and script to communicate our thoughts and feelings.  We developed the language of math to solve problems and have a way to communicate our solutions.

Every day children sit in our classrooms that will take on a future none of us can even imagine.  They may dream of working in fields where mathematical thinking is indispensable.  Is it right for us as teachers to take that opportunity away from them, because we decided that math was not going to be the focus of our careers?  The choice should not be:  You are good in math, you should become an engineer.  It should be:  You want to be an engineer?  Then you need to become more proficient in math. 

But there is more at stake than a choice in careers or access to higher education.  The opportunity to learn to reason and problem solve is the right of every human being, man or woman, rich or poor.  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Simply Teaching

Teachers, like gardeners, are in the business of building beauty.  It's a messy job.  You have to get your hands dirty and you never know if or when the seeds you are sowing will sprout.  But we do it for love and we do it to add something positive to this world.  So why is it that we are so stressed out?  Why do we walk around with the weight of the world on our shoulders? We feel under-appreciated and over-worked. And we forget that this is supposed to be the best job in the world!  I know teaching is complex.  But does it have to be so complicated?

What does it take to teach effectively and in a way that is fulfilling?  What kind of attitude will get us through the bureaucratic mandates passed down by those who don't really know our kids and the realities of our classrooms?  Is there a critical lens that we can use to evaluate the myriad resources, tips and strategies that are thrown our way? As I was searching for the smallest set of guiding principals that would answer these questions, I thought of the work of the Ruhi Institute.  The mission of the Ruhi Institute is to raise capacity in all segments of a community to perform simple acts of service.  One of these acts, is that of teaching spiritual and character education classes to children.  The "teacher" is anyone who has a desire to perform this service, of any age and educational background.  Because much of this work is carried out in parts of the world where access to formal education and sophisticated resources is limited, I thought I would see how they go about training otherwise inexperienced people, sometimes as young as 14 or 15, to become teachers.  I found that they use two ideas to prepare the mindset of the would-be volunteers:

1.  "Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value."

2.  "Whose ariseth among you to teach . . ., let him, before all else, teach his own self, . . ."

In my job as an instructional coach, I study a lot of theory and research about best practices in education.  But I really believe that these two principles can be used by all teachers to fight through the clutter of these ideas, bring the joy back into our practice and sustain us when we are faced with challenges.

The first one refers to the need for an almost religious belief in the essential giftedness of each and every child.  For some students, their gifts are easy to see.  They are right there on the surface.  They shine in the traditional classrooms we have set up.  But for others we have to dig a little deeper to find them.  Sometimes, those gifts are not what is needed here and now but it is a gift nonetheless.  This kind of mindset will help us not lose hope in our students.  It will guide us in putting assessments of all sorts in their proper perspective and will motivate us to look for strengths and find ways to leverage them against weaknesses.

The second idea will keep us as teachers in a constant posture of learning.  It puts us in this loop of learn, do, reflect, repeat.  When we embrace this never-ending cycle of learning, doing and reflecting on our practice, we no longer search for cure-all strategies.  We approach new initiatives and approaches as ways to refine our practice and add to our repertoire of tools.  We also become better at our craft because we begin to guide our students as one who is also learning.  (see also Where To Stand in the Classroom)

As an experiment, I have been trying to examine the challenges of my work with these two ideas in mind and I find that although the frustrations do not completely disappear, they do help me put things in perspective and keep me motivated to do what is best for my students on a daily basis as well as in the long run.

Teaching in the American public education system is hard work.  There are many demands on a teacher's time and energy that do not always translate into better teaching.  But dealing with these demands is the price we pay for the privilege of teaching children and building beauty.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Who Gets to be a Writer?

I always wonder how babies know to instinctively move their bodies to the rhythm of music.  I am also surprised that as soon as a baby starts to dance we don’t immediately start criticizing his footwork.  We do not expect everyone to become accomplished ballerinas or competition ballroom dancers.  We are all expected to get up and respond to the music, have fun and make fools of ourselves.  Dancing is a way to show feelings, express ourselves, however clumsily.  So is writing.

If writing is putting our thoughts into words and transcribing them on a permanent surface to preserve, to share and to propagate, then we all have as much right to write as to dance.  We may not all become published authors and go on book tours.  But we all have a right to scribe. 

So who gets to be a writer? If you have a thought, you can be a writer.  If you have feelings and opinions you are entitled to your own piece of paper and pencil.  My job as the teacher of writers is to help you learn the craft writing, just as a dance instructor does with dancers.  I coach you in getting better at articulating your thoughts and feelings in a way that moves others, convinces them or informs them. 

When I was eight years old, I started taking ballet classes.  One day as I was chasseing across the floor, my teacher admonished me to not bob my head like a pendulum.  Needless to say I did not dance for long.  When young writers come to me to show their work and I find myself reacting first to the missing period, the lack of the capital letter at the beginning of their sentence, the crooked f or the misspelled words, I am afraid that they won’t write again either. 

Katherine Bomer says:

“Learning language follows a developmental course from ‘fluency’ to clarity to correctness.  Writing begins in meaning making, and until students feel ‘fluent’, that is comfortable, strong and at ease with putting their thoughts on paper, they cannot work well on the quality of their own writing; they cannot move toward ‘clarity’ (organization, logical sentence flow) or ‘correctness’ (grammar and punctuation).”

As teachers and curriculum writers we have a choice:  Spending the first few years of early literacy helping our students find their voice, articulate their thoughts and opinions and make a connection with their audiences or drilling conventions and rules.  The consequence of the first choice may be young writers that will have something they will want to say.  They will attempt to publish their work.  They will type it into a word processor that will tell them where their errors are and even help in correcting them.  The consequence of the second choice is a stack of writing with perfect grammar and punctuation that are graded, returned and promptly recycled because they are of no value to the teacher or to the student himself.

When I read the confessions of today’s most accomplished writers, I am even more convinced to just let them write!  I am so glad that Gary Paulsen or Gabriel García  Márquez did not stop writing because they were bad spellers, because the world would not be the same without their stories and their words.