Friday, November 18, 2016

A Long and Emotional Introduction to Starting a Sudbury School

I've been staring at a blank page all day.

I've been trying to write about the two weeks I spent in another state visiting a Sudbury school, and I think, instead, I'm letting my perfectionism control me. I wanted to write up a sweet, little blurb about the school that they could add to their list of things cool people have written about them. I wanted it to be a positive, little thing that we could all share around and be happy and proud about.

But the truth is, my experience there and my thoughts about Sudbury aren't entirely positive.

The reason I can't write is because I haven't been true to myself. I've been trying to hide. I've been trying to hide all of the real-life, potentially negative aspects, both from myself and from everyone around me. I've been trying to convince everyone that there are simple solutions and that I trust myself to make positive change happen.


Okay, back up. You deserve more context for all of this emotion I'm spewing at you. I've been writing a lot about how teaching high school went last year, but I haven't mentioned anything about what I'm doing this school year.

Well, I'm not teaching.

For years I've been entertaining a daydream about creating my own school. That's the logical outcome for this entire blog, right? Surely that's why I've been exploring so many aspects of education, right? What else would one do with this knowledge?

And yet it's remained a dream for so long.

Almost two years ago now I started seeing a therapist. It has been an incredible journey of self-discovery and insight into the psychology of humanity. I've grown more than I ever expected to, difficult as a journey as it was. I've found parts of myself I didn't know existed, parts of us that we all have in common but never speak of, parts of humanity that make us flawed but beautiful. I've discovered how to embrace the parts of life that are uncomfortable and learn from them. I feel like I am foundationally almost a different person, continually changing and growing and learning and living--intentionally.

I've learned that my life is my own, and I am in charge of how it goes.

Subconsciously, I've been living in the pattern, the system, that modern society has created. It's not a bad pattern. It does very well for most people. But that doesn't mean that I have to be confined by it.

That school doesn't have to remain a daydream. I can bring it to reality. It's a lot of work, but I  can make it happen.

There are people out there that do great things. They are real human beings, just like I am, and I, too, can do great things. I know I can because they can. We are fundamentally the same. We are all made of star stuff, after all.


The journey to create a school still probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground if it weren't for the random happenstance of realizing that Joanna, an acquaintance, a friend-of-a-friend, also had daydreams of creating a school. We come from different backgrounds--I'm an unsettled teacher; she's an unsettled parent--but that unifying desire to make something great was all it took. Neither of us were going far on our own, but as partners, we pushed each other to accomplish more. It's her children I think of now when I start to question myself.

My research, having gone through a Montessori phase, was now travelling through the land of Sudbury. We hesitated but then went all out on a successful internet fundraising campaign to raise $675 and purchase a School Planning Kit from Sudbury Valley School.

The first goal after receiving the kit was supposed to be looking through the material more thoroughly to determine whether this was, in fact, the path we wanted to be on. It was roughly timed, though, because Joanna got caught up in other aspects of life, and my brain simply refused to look critically at the material. Every time I sat down to ask myself, "Is this what you want your school to be?" the immediate response came, "Uh, well, of course. We spent all this money, and it seems like the right choice." Our progress stalled. At least I had set up that two-week visitation to one of the schools I had been in contact with! I allowed the dust to settle while I waited for the trip. "Everything will be better after the trip," I told myself. "You'll go and see how perfect it is and come back motivated and eager to keep going all the way to the finish line."

But nothing is perfect, after all.

I am so incredibly thankful to the school for hosting me for two weeks. It was a fantastic experience that I still haven't completely unpacked yet.

Again, mostly because I'm afraid to. I'm afraid to come to terms with two major points. But we don't move forward without difficulty, so here we go.


The first point is partially an issue with my own expectation. I had built myself a little bubble of how I imagined Sudbury to be, and I was unsettled when I didn't find it to be true. Or, more accurately, when I found it to be truer than I completely realized.

"It's the atmosphere," I told everyone who asked my first impression. "It's an atmosphere of literally doing whatever you want and not feeling any amount of judgement for it. It's one thing to know that, conceptually, but it's another thing to actually witness it."

What I meant to say was, "I'm happy to see the littlest ones running and playing in the main room where they have a lot of space; their bodies and minds appreciate all the physical movement and activity. I'm also happy to see the group of kids playing video games in the computer room; they're learning to solve complex puzzles and be efficient and control technology. However, the teenagers just hanging out and talking make me uncomfortable."

Perhaps it's because I'm still stuck in the current societal system of, "Okay, you're going to be productive now, right?" In the Sudbury framework I had built for myself, it was okay for the children to play all day because they are learning in their own ways, and when the appropriate time comes, something will click inside of them, and they will produce something. They will become something. They will have something to show for all of the work they did when they were younger. They will prove to all the adults watching with scornful faces that freedom is a shortcut to a happy, productive adult life.

How could these teenagers just sit around talking when they had so much to do? They should have been well on their way by now. What happened? Did they join the school at too late of an age? Did they not get what they needed out of their younger years? Was the system failing them?

Boy, did these teenagers have something to teach me. And, in true teaching fashion, the seeds they planted in me when I met them at the beginning of the month are just now starting to sprout. I suspect I won't be harvesting fruit from them anytime soon, but for now, the sprouts are reminding me what trust is all about.

Trust is the backbone of the entire Sudbury model. Again, it's one thing to know, conceptually, but it's quite another to actually practice it.

Because teenagers, you know... Teenagers like to hang out and talk. That's true of teenagers everywhere, and it's true of Sudbury teenagers. I know, logically, that they're getting a lot out of it, just like the others running around in the main room and playing video games in the computer room. They're learning what is socially acceptable. They're learning how to treat others. They're learning empathy, current events, and how to have a conversation. They're learning how to interact with others. They're learning connection.

It doesn't matter that the girl with the sketchbook couldn't draw every day with all the conversation buzzing around her. It doesn't matter that she admitted she doesn't "get any work done at school" and does most of her drawing at home. She chose to stay in that room and participate in the conversation instead of finding a quite space to be by herself, and I'm choosing to trust that she's getting what she needs.

The oldest teenagers were actually the ones that had been there the longest, and, as difficult as it was for me to see at the time, they were serving as impeccable role models for the younger students. They were the ones who ran the weekly school meeting and judicial committee that met whenever a problem needed to be solved. They were the ones that scolded the younger ones for running in the halls and kept the school running smoothly. Sure, they didn't do a perfect job, but I'm choosing to trust that they are getting out of it what they need.

I can tell it will be a long journey to actually embracing this. It will take a long time and a lot of struggle on my part, but if I allow myself, I can form myself in this way. I've had 28 years of society forming me, so that it will take effort and patience to unlearn is to be expected.

But how can I also convince parents to trust their children if I am also struggling?


Which brings me to my second point--I'm still not convinced Sudbury is the model I want to follow.

I am hyper-aware of my tendency to, as my husband puts it, follow the novelty. I'm the type of person who likes to explore everything. There's always something new to look into. Who's to say that in one year's time I won't feel the same about Sudbury as I do about Montessori. Goodness knows the Sudbury community is rife with drama.

But even more than that, settling down with one model for what, at this point, seems like the rest of my professional career... That scares me more than anything else. It almost seems like a compromise of my own values. In the aforementioned "list of cool things people have written about" the Sudbury school I visited this month, I found links to where two other visitors like me had written of their experiences. Two other people who explored alternative education. Two other people on this endless quest.

I don't want my quest to be over. I don't want to settle down and decide, "This is the best. There's no reason to keep looking." And that's the biggest reason I'm hesitant to commit to the Sudbury model.

Joanna and I have played around with the name of our future school, which we're still planning to open September 2017. Nothing seems quite right. We almost settled on Wichita Creative Learning School but then decided it was too ambiguous. Immediately upon returning home, I decided we had to commit, at least partially, to Wichita Sudbury School so that we could open into an already existing community. We could keep our business name as Wichita Creative Learning, Inc., but the school itself needed to completely comply with the Sudbury model so that we could have support that came with it.

Now again I'm questioning that.


There are no easy answers. Life is not that simple.

I'm fully aware that this school could fail. I'm also fully aware that even if this school is successful, it's not necessarily the only thing left in my professional career. I'm hoping that it can grow and change with me, but I'm not quite sure how to let it.

And that's where I stand now, eager to proceed but nervous that I'm going in the wrong direction.

But I can trust myself.

One thing I've learned from therapy is that there is no right direction. Any direction I choose to go is fine. Regardless of what happens, I will continue to grow and learn. If I let fear of failure control me, I won't do anything great. And I know that I can do great things.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

DIY Notebooks and My 2016 Take on PBL--Individual Study

Sometime right before winter break in my second year of teaching high school English, I got this idea for a do-it-yourself notebook. You see, I have this specific something instilled in me that's part environmentally-friendly, part OCD, where I don't like things to be wasted. I've been saving paper that's only been used on one side since high school (and, boy, did I get teased because of it!), and I've amassed quite a stack of it. I encouraged the third-graders I taught to draw and color on the blank sides, but the practice never quite caught on with teenagers. I'd been taking notes and doing daily writing on them, but the stack was growing ever taller, regardless.

It was around this time I started thinking that I should just carry some of this scrap paper around with me. Like a notebook.

But... more like a 3-ring binder because, as much as I like having the pages in a notebook securely attached, I enjoy the flexibility of being able to reorganize, add, and remove pages as necessary.

But... full-sized sheets are so large and cumbersome. I'd definitely need to cut them in half to be a good size.

But... one thing that's awesome about 8.5x11 pieces of paper is that.. well, they're a standard size. So when you put them in the hole punch, one of my favorite toys, all the holes are in the same place. There's not a standard hole punch for 8.5x5.5 papers.

Wait! What an excellent critical thinking opportunity with real world application! I offered my students some extra credit and gave them 20 minutes to come up with the best solution.

I finally settled for one offered by two of my juniors--If you align the papers at the bottom of the hole punch, like usual, the holes are awkwardly positioned. Same for if you align them at the top of the hole punch. It's not so awkward if you turn the hole punch to the right side, flip the pages to the back so that the used side is showing up, align at the top, and then punch! It took some getting used to, but it totally works! I was so happy to offer that opportunity to my students, and even more so to let them see me use a design they helped come up with on a daily basis.

A few months later, I decided that size wasn't right for my needs. I needed an even smaller size, a quarter size, to fit inside my purse. That was a bit of a struggle to design, as well! Eventually we decided that this one wouldn't work if aligned at the top or bottom; we just needed to center it between two of the holes. The pages weren't exactly the same size, which is what I was afraid of, because I cut several pages at the same time in an inexact method, but it really didn't matter. All that mattered, after all, was that the holes were a standard distance from each other. Neat!

Alright, switching topics, just a little. I knew I wasn't coming back to work the following year about half way through third quarter. That being said, I really wanted to go out with a bang. I wanted to give my students something they would really learn from and remember, something important.

At that time, I had a sophomore who was teaching herself Russian in her spare time, which I was immensely proud of. It reminded me of teaching myself Japanese when I was younger, and that spurred an idea I had been considering after reading Summerhill School.

It had a basis of Project Based Learning, and that's how I sold it to administration, but in reality, I just wanted my students to realize that they live in the digital age. Literally ANYTHING they want to learn is at their fingertips. Mostly, I wanted them to have more control over their learning, to have more ownership of their own learning.

Thus, it manifested like this: Individual Study. Once again, I threw the entire curriculum out the window for the final month of school, telling my students that we were going to be doing something more important--focusing on whatever they wanted to learn. I stressed how important it was to follow your passions, not let anything come between you and what you want to learn, and turn hobbies and interests into viable options for study and bettering yourself. I reminded them that this is what it means to be a 21st century learner.

But being a public school teacher, I still had to enter grades into the computer, unfortunately, so.. Remember those journals I had the students help me on? We made more, and they became logbooks.

This is what I told students I was grading on:

This hastily-hand-written-and-then-photo-copied sheet became "conference sheets," and students were to keep them to use as a reference every day. We discussed the entire sheet at length together, but also during conferences. I'll go through each bullet here like I did then.
1. Logbook
I. Participation - Are you filling out your log book every day?
II. Legibility and neatness/organization - Can someone else pick up your logbook and understand what you're doing without context?
III. Completion - Does each entry have everything it needs? Include the following:
i. Date
ii. Pre-planning with signature of approval
iii. Reflection - What do we mean by that? Here are some examples:
a. Self-exploration / meta-cognition - Thinking about your thinking. What are you learning about yourself during this time?
b. In depth explanation of process and findings - What path did your thinking take? What problems did you come across, and how did you solve them? What were the answers?
c. Analysis of findings - What do you make of what you found? What can you generalize or apply to other areas? What does it all mean?
2. Presentation of findings
I. Communication of ideas - Can you explain what you did in a way that everyone else understands and learns from, too?
II. Advocating for self - Are you enthusiastic about what you're learning? If someone is critical of you, do you stick up for yourself and what you're doing?
3. Weekly conferences
As you can see, the logbooks were the backbone of the project. It was a difficult line for me to address because I wanted to demonstrate to other teachers, parents, and administrators that this plan could work. I wanted them to be a physical representation of students learning on their own with minimal guidance, but to do that, I had to set a secure infrastructure. I wanted to leave enough room for the students to explore and be able to come up with their own, innovative ideas, and I knew that involves being able to fail. It's so much to learn in just a month. I knew it wasn't reasonable, so I built myself a safety net. I started a spreadsheet of what I noticed the students doing each day.

The truth is, I hated keeping this. I felt like I was judging my students on something they shouldn't be judged on. Isn't that all grading in a nutshell? Yet this felt worse, somehow.. Like I was giving them false freedom. Like I was keeping secrets from them. It felt like judgement, but it never entered into how I graded. It's just what I had to do to ascertain that I was still doing my job as a public school teacher, and I still hated it all the while.

It did, however, free me from keeping unnecessarily close tabs on the logbooks. Once they were created, I let the students conduct their business in whatever way they wanted and only asked them about their process during conferences. Thus, they knew what the expectations were and could choose to act on them or not, hence the pages being kept for reference and being revisited during conferences. They knew that the expectation was they kept their entries dated, for example, and could decide how much not doing that counted off of their own grade.

Here's an example of what one looked like. Again, the sophomore teaching herself Russian. (She chose to use the backs of scrap paper, as I did in my own journals. Other students used lined paper.)

The presentations were a little difficult to get started, my students all being hesitant to talk about themselves and having been instilled with a fear of the word "Presentation." My Juniors, however, were extremely grateful to realize that they didn't have to be formal presentations and arranged themselves into a big circle on the floor on presentation days. They went around the circle describing what they were learning and answering questions from the others. It was informal and pleasant, and it went so well that the biggest struggle we had was the time limit because of the bell system.

My favorite part of the entire project were the weekly conferences. I met with each student in their own space, joining them on the floor or in the desks, and let them flow through the Conference Sheet at their own pace, expounding on whatever they felt most important. I got to hear their genuine voices during these times, how they thought and what interested them. I asked them questions about their work and process, and then asked them what they would grade themselves, which was an incredibly interesting undertaking. Some students were hypercritical of themselves while others weren't as much, but, regardless, I always asked them how they would improve during the following week. It was an honest, authentic conversation, and one in which I felt like I was doing my best work as a teacher. This speaking quietly with students in a relaxed environment, listening as they explain what interests them and how they can and are growing as humans, while the other students work and play conversate and live around us.. This is what teaching is about for me. <3

I know this was a unique experience for my students, and I hope that they got something out of it. My biggest hope is that they will remember these four weeks at some later time in their lives and that it sparks some sort of renewed flame in pursuing passions. Teaching is sewing seeds of inspiration that won't grow into anything noticeable for years. I have faith that in 10 or 15 years, this one month will make a difference in the lives of some of my students.

And as for now.. I may have found another transformation for those logbooks in a new project of my own... more on that later!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Ownership of Learning in a High School English Classroom

The most difficult thing about being a public school teacher in 2016 is that the students have given up all autonomy in their learning. Especially when they get to high school, they're completely accustomed to being fed lectures, work, problems, solutions, and techniques for every part of their day. By that point, they're even accustomed to being beat back down, and quickly!, every time they try to rebel against the system.

During my second year of teaching high school English, I wanted to give my students just a small taste of actual control.

I had designed my curriculum schedule for second semester very quickly. I probably only spent about 20 minutes on it at most. It looked like this:

My four grades each still had seven unite left, and it worked easier for me to teach the same unit with all four classes, just using different materials. My OCD found it much more manageable that way. However, for the sake of my students, for the sake of something I knew they would benefit from, I relinquished control. I gave them the opportunity to redesign the curriculum schedule.

Now, at this point, I knew giving them complete control would be too much. They wouldn't be able to handle that sort of shift suddenly, so I'd have to decide what was on the table. I gave them each the list of seven units, and they decided how long each should take and how to order them. It was extremely interesting watching how the problem solving discussion evolved differently among each class!

Here's what they came up with:





After our discussions, I transferred all the calendars to separate sheets of paper. At first I thought we could hang them on the insides of different cabinets and open them during the appropriate class, but with the flexible classroom, I had students sitting against the cabinets every hour. Thus, change of plans, I moved them to a pillar at the front of the room. It was a rather inconvenient spot when I lectured, but I tried not to lecture so much, anyway. Plus, I think it was more convenient for the students to be able to see their schedule at the front of the room.

And the results?

First, yes, I was a little bit crazier not having everyone on the same schedule, but it was definitely worth it. When my students have more autonomy, I can deal with a little OCD-related anxiety. I own that, and it's mine to deal with.

It was also very important to me to listen to my students likes and dislikes. I gave them all a suggested time frame of how long I thought each unit should take, but then we discussed and compromised. My freshmen collectively hated poetry. They had taken 8 units of poetry in their school career thus far, and they knew their preferences. Even though I had planned to spend two weeks on that unit, we realized together that one week would suffice. This was helpful to them because they got to avoid more time with something they already knew wasn't their favorite, but also helpful to me because I learned that they had a very limited attention span for that unit. I would need to pare it down to just the most important highlights because if I included anything remotely boring, I'd lose them.

Some students admitted to me a few weeks or a month into the second semester that they were really surprised I followed through with the curriculum schedules they came up with. When I asked why, they told me that they thought it was a gimmick I was trying to sell them to get them interested in class but would eventually go back on. I was sad that they had that impression, but even more glad that I had made the decision to go forward with this idea. A month or two into the new schedule, as everyone realized I actually was serious, my juniors even came to me with the idea to replace their Shakespeare play for that year with Beowulf! They convinced me that it was a piece of fiction with arguably more historical significance, and I agreed. The unit was changed.

Some students listed designing the curriculum schedule as their favorite part of being in my class that year in their evaluation survey, and that makes my heart sing. <3

Friday, September 16, 2016

Daily Writing Journals

I'll be the first one to admit that I don't rely much on routine as a teacher. I'm fully aware that humans, especially young children, thrive on routine, but it's just not who I genuinely am as a person. I find it far more important to be an authentic person to students than to drive myself insane trying to be someone I'm not. (Though I'm sure they get SOMETHING out of the novelty I embrace instead, right?) There aren't many routines that I commit wholeheartedly to. Most of the time, I test something out, see how it goes, and then scrap it. The intent is, of course, to iterate on what went wrong and make it better, but my anxiety usually gets the better of me. Thus, the whole thing usually goes out the window, and we try something completely new. (This is something I'm working on.)

There was, however, ONE routine I did carry from start to finish during my second year of teaching high school English, and that was daily writing.

I think it started with inspiration from Corbett Harrison's extensive discussion of writer's notebooks, most of which I latched onto immediately, right down to his "Sacred Writing Time," which I incorporated into our daily schedule.

One of my sophomores didn't like the use of the word Sacred and took it upon himself to change the acronym shortly after I hung this poster at the beginning of the year.

In essence, it was this: Ten minutes of silent free writing first thing at the beginning of every class. 

In practicality, it was much more nuanced than I realized until now! Let's break it down.

What to write about?

This was the hardest part for a number of my students, children who grew up in the system and were used to always being assigned topics on which to write. I occasionally offered prompts if anything interesting had come up the night before, but students were free to ignore them if they had something else in mind. And for the most part, I actively encouraged them to just write about whatever was on their minds.

We had a few brainstorming sessions on the board at the beginning of the year. Eventually I turned it into a permanent fixture to help a couple with consistent writer's block.

What Can I Write?
1. Things I'm looking forward to. Things I'm excited about!
2. Fears. Things I'm worried about.
3. Vent. Something I'm angry about and need to get off my chest.
4. Something I've been sad about.
5. Exploring my feelings and emotions to see if I can find out more about them or where they came from.
6. A secret I can't tell anyone. (Remember to fold this page over and staple it!)
7. Reflection. When I go over something that happened, I can learn more about it.
8. Stream of Consciousness. Just write whatever comes to mind with no judgements. Sometimes I think thoughts I didn't even know I had!

For some reason I didn't get stories of various genres, poems, etc. down. This poster didn't go up until after Christmas, and I think at the time we had already discussed a lot of fiction. This poster must have been specifically for non-fiction "journal" type writing. (Note to self: Make one for fiction writing, as well!)

And for the record, I let the students know that I WAS serious when I told them they could write anything they wanted. We talked a bit about how to use writing to get things out that one is holding in and what a great stress reliever it can be. If they didn't want anyone (including me) to read an entry, all they had to do was fold it over and staple it shut. (See #6 on the poster above.) Some students did this when they wrote about drama, others did it when they wrote about inappropriate-for-school topics. I'm glad to report that there were typically a couple of folded over pages each day--that means that students were working through and processing something they found stressful or otherwise important, always a sign of good mental health! (Also see the section on Grading, below.)

And, yes, to return to one of my favorite points, I DID have a few students who frequently felt they had nothing to write about. That's one of the successes of this program! I'm glad I gave my students something different to constantly struggle with. It was a known struggle, something 99% of them continually overcame, despite difficulties, and what might be considered the public school version of "being bored," the necessity to rely only on themselves for ten minutes.


At the beginning of the year, I thought I would just keep a chart of participation. If someone wasn't writing, they were docked points. I quickly realized that wasn't something I wanted to spend ten minutes doing. Thus, an iteration! Here's what we ended up with:

Journals were collected at the end of every month for participation points, two points per entry plus an additional two points for reading through their entries again, identifying which one was their best work, and writing a short explanation for why on a sticky note on that page. (It usually worked out to be about 40 points per month, or roughly 20% of their overall grade.) If students were absent from class, they just had to make up the writing time at a later date, either during homeroom or as homework, as long as all entries were accounted for.

I had one student working on a story of her own, especially during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), so I allowed her to work on that during writing time. I knew that if she wrote "Worked on novel" under a dated heading, I could trust that she did so for that day. Shortly before term papers were due in History, I had a handful of students do the same, "worked on history paper," as well as shortly before college applications were due, "worked on college essay."

I didn't read every entry, but made a point to at least read the "best" entry, as well as a few more, time allowing, and leave a little feedback, all of which was about content, not structure. The intent was to hear the students' voices and to make a positive connection along with a little encouragement.

I didn't speak much on how much writing was expected, since this was a new concept for them, so for the most part, if it was more than a few sentences, and it was ABOUT something, I counted it. Some frequently lost points for writing, "I didn't do anything. I don't have anything to say." These were students that were already on my radar, and I conferenced with them, but probably not as much as I should have, considering it was still occurring at the end of the year. Definitely one of my biggest mistakes of the project.

Grading typically happened during self-led activities in class or during homeroom, so the students knew that I didn't open folded pages but did hold them up to the light to ascertain that there were, indeed, paragraphs of words. I felt transparency on that issue was worth taking a class period to do while they studied for tests or did other projects on their own, and it was never a problem.

What did it look like in practice?

We used the timer from Online Stopwatch on the SmartBoard to make it visible to everyone. I started the timer soon after the bell rang each English period, and there was to be no talking while the timer was going. If students wanted to share with someone, they were to save it until after the timer. If they had a question, I encouraged them to write it down and see if they could figure the answer out for themselves.

I used a flexible seating arrangement in my class, so students came in, sat in a desk or found a cushion, got out their notebook and pencils, then chatted with friends, waiting for the bell to ring. There were occasions when I had to make a quick announcement before writing time, but I tried to start the timer when the first bell rang as often as possible so as to maintain the routine and not distract them from what they were planning to write.

My seniors got in the habit of listening to music on the SmartBoard while writing. They would give me suggestions of what to play (which ranged from hard rock and metal to dance-y pop to literal classic music), and I would queue it up on YouTube. My juniors selected one student to play DJ (the same person every day. They must have all appreciated her taste in music), and she played mostly Disney songs and pop-ish country music from her phone. My sophomores and freshmen preferred to listen to their own music on headphones or write in silence.

Once music was set and the timer was going, I gathered my notebook and found a spot on the floor among the students, modeling expectations. I tried my best to write with my students every day. That was my intention, anyway, but I had four main English classes. Forty minutes of writing every day is wonderful for me because writing is what I do, but to have it segmented in quarters was a test in patience and developing new skills. Just as my students were learning how they could write EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. for ten whole minutes(!), I was learning how to chunk my writing. The buzzer frequently went off right as I was getting into the flow of my work.

And then there were the occasion or two where I just needed to get some paperwork done quickly, and the ten minutes at the beginning of class felt like the right time. That's not a good excuse, and I was always disappointed in myself whenever I did so, but the students were rather forgiving because they knew I wrote with other classes.

After the timer went off, there were a couple of minutes during preparation for grammar in which students could share their writing if they wanted to. At the beginning, I frequently read what I wrote aloud. It was mostly silly little stories back then, but my students loved hearing my writing voice, and I loved being able to model it for them. I encouraged them to share aloud, as well, but they rarely did. Instead, I started giving them two or three minutes to share with a friend before moving on. To encourage feedback (which we also discussed) I handed out sticky notes to anyone who was sharing, on which their partner wrote one reaction they had to the writing and one question. This was an interesting idea, but it didn't seem to work well. Only a couple students gave feedback. Others just read and handed the journals back, perhaps to discuss privately later.

Student feedback

My other greatest failing was not scaling the project up properly. I started with expectations right where I wanted them to end up--ten minutes of writing every day. I didn't even realize that I should start slow. My juniors and seniors adapted pretty well, but after winter break, my freshmen and sophomores were burnt out. We held class meetings about how to make it better, and they decided (separately) that they would like to write every other day for the rest of the year. After that, they were satisfied.

This would have been a good way to begin the project, only writing every other day. Or perhaps only for five minutes per day, as my sophomores were contemplating. Especially for younger students, starting with a lower time frame and slowly increasing would have been preferable. Another idea I had after the fact that would have been especially good for younger students is workshopping a different type of writing every day at the beginning of the year. It would probably work well in an elementary classroom to workshop different genres and styles for the first semester, then free write after winter break. Alas. Live and learn!

Regardless, my juniors took immediately well to journal writing. They actively looked forward to it, scowled at any distraction while the timer was running, and thanked me numerous times for assigning it. The seniors generally disliked it but didn't complain.

Final thoughts

I'm thoroughly pleased with how this program turned out. We may not have written many formal papers this year, but we DID write. Every. Day. (Okay, Monday through Thursday. Fridays were blocked for another activity. I guess I forgot to mention that.) I'm so pleased to have shown my students that writing isn't a scary thing--it's just something we do, and it's a useful tool for a myriad of instances. I'm glad to have given my students an outlet for some of their difficult teenage emotions, and we talked at the end of the year, especially my juniors, about how they could continue this project on their own, even when it wasn't an assignment. A couple eagerly agreed that they would. <3

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

"Flexible Seating" Classroom

When I arrived in my high school English classroom in August 2014, I left much of it as I found it. As I've written about before, I was nervous, low on confidence, and trying to do things "the right way," so I left the desks in the forward-facing rows as they had been.

I left my desk alone, too, sectioned off at the side of the room, a little bubble for adults only.

That worked fine for a year. I hardly even thought about it. I had so many other things going on. Occasionally I had the students rearrange their desks in small groups for activities or fish bowl discussions, and a few times we moved them to the side of the room completely to have the entire floor plan at our disposal, but we always moved the desks back into rows before the bell rang.

In August 2015, I stepped into a coworker's room and saw her rearranging her desks in a semi-circle and remembered that I had other options. Yes. Yes, this was what I wanted. I went back to my room and did the same. (The lone desk to the side is for the para I had in my room a couple hours of the day. Oh, and for the record, yes, the light at the far side of the room DID work, the students just decided that it made the room too bright to have both on.)

But the students hated it, especially the juniors and seniors. Accustomed to the status quo, they became nervous at the prospect of all being on the same level, not being able to feel like they're more prominent than the others or hide behind anyone. So I moved back to the rows temporarily (I noted that the other teacher did, as well, only keeping the semi-circle arrangement for a small seminar class) and started thinking about my next move--a deskless classroom.

I did a bit of research on going deskless (links below) and decided that it was too big of a jump to make immediately. Instead, I opted for what I called a "flexible seating" arrangement at the start of the second semester. I was thinking about surprising the students with it, but then I realized that that wasn't helpful behavior on my part.

Instead, I discussed with each class how they felt they learned best and then relayed my plans to them. I let them know that if they felt like they learned best while sitting in a desk, that would still be an option. However, if they felt more comfortable laying on the floor to work, that would also be an option. We discussed what acceptable behavior in the classroom was and how it would be handled if behavior wasn't acceptable. I particularly enjoyed this conversation because it felt authentic, and we revisited it a few times throughout the rest of the year. The students could tell that the flexible seating arrangement was something I enjoyed being able to provide, but that I was nervous about being told off by administration. They reminded each other that, "If another teacher walks in right now, they're gonna think you're sleeping if you're laying like that. They're gonna tell the principal, and he'll make us bring the desks back. So you gotta sit up and look like you're working!"

The day before Winter Break, I had the janitors help me move all the desks but five to storage. My husband and I just so happened to be buying new furniture around this time, so I brought in all the cushions from the old ones. (I considered bringing the couches themselves, but had no good way of transporting them the hour's commute.) There were also five plastic chairs that belonged at the back computer table (which no one ever used. I considered repurposing that table, as well, but never got around to it) in which to sit, but mostly they wound up serving as places to put things.

And the students thoroughly enjoyed it. They spent a couple of days exploring different seats but then settled into their claimed spaces for the rest of the year, as human nature is wont to dictate. Some students still felt more comfortable at familiar desks, and during junior and senior English, all desks were filled every day. Another favorite was under the computer table because even older students like to hide like preschool students do! (The room was such that they were still completely visible while under the table.)

Thus, here is how the room looked between classes (cushions were stacked by the back wall at the end of the day so that the room could be vacuumed):

And a couple of action shots! The timer indicates that these pictures were taken during daily writing time:

The biggest change for me, personally, came one morning when, completely frustrated by something or other, I realized that I was "hiding behind my desk" and "needed to be out on the floor with the students." I had a couple of students help me pick the teacher desk up, turn it around, and shove it against the wall (so that the drawers could still be accessed). I disconnected the desktop computer, connected it to the SmartBoard (quite tricky since all of the wires needed to stretch to where they were going now), and instead, used the laptop as my primary computer because it was able to roam the room with me. The "teacher chair" became available for anyone to use, much to the joy of my freshmen.

Here's a couple of action shots during homeroom from those times:

On the note of the "teacher chair" (which was gone from the above pictures. Maybe I was sitting in it that day?), I was actually surprised that there wasn't any fighting over it, which was unexpected because there was only one. The students must have recognized instinctively that if it became an issue, it would be the first thing to go. Thus, I never had any problems with it. The one, small thing that DID come up was that while a freshman was rolling around in it, he had to be reminded to watch where the wheels of the chair were so that he didn't crush anyone's fingers in the process. He did, after that, and no one was hurt.

So! Takeaways? Hmm..

This is definitely achievable and definitely leads to a more relaxed atmosphere that increases student engagement. For the record, the administration was always open to allowing me to try. Most of my pushback came from other teachers, some of whom actually walked into my classroom and scolded me for it, telling me to change it back. I replied that I had consent from administration and smiled politely until they left. The para and some of the students told me at the end of the year how surprised they were that we had so much success with it. I'm glad they considered it a success, but even more so, I'm glad that we experimented with something new.

Further Reading:
MindShift - To Foster Productivity and Creativity in the Classroom, Ditch the Desks!
EdTech Magazine - Is It Time to Get Rid of Desks in the Classroom?
Daily Press - Classroom with no desks a hit in Newport News
Tim Bedley - My Unusual Elementary Classroom
Milwaukee, Wisconsin Journal Sentinel - Some schools giving desks the boot
Indonesian Teacher Reflections - My Deskless Classroom...
Grant Boulanger - Reflections on teaching without desks
Utah's KSL 5 news at 6 - 4th grade teacher Annette Krueger (Youtube)
Punavision - Punahou School, Honolulu, Hawaii's French Teacher (Youtube)

Friday, May 13, 2016

An Open Letter to Chris from "Special Books for Special Kids"

I'm openly expressing my vulnerability on this issue again because it's something I'm uncomfortable with about myself and something I'm working on changing. Our world is imperfect and full of diverse individuals, and it's beautiful that way. I want to be able to give kindness, love, and patience to each one of them. Here is an email I sent today:

Hi, Chris! 
I'm a teacher who, admittedly, has some trouble with individuals with special needs. It mostly stems from lack of connection with people who have trouble communicating. If I can't tell that they're thinking or comprehending their surroundings... well, I.. it's difficult to say, so I'll just make myself do it anyway: If I can't tell that they have thoughts or are self-aware, what makes them different than animals? (More on that later.) 
Patience comes more easily for me with people who can communicate. For instance, I have students who need to get up during class and stretch their legs, students who need to make noises. We all have different needs. I saw the video of you sitting on the floor and taking off your shoes to get comfortable while giving a speech--I'm the same way! My classroom has a few desks, some floor cushions, an a few chairs, and I encourage the students to sit wherever makes them feel comfortable. I, myself, prefer to sit on the floor with my students (shoes off if possible!). I like to teach my students that they can articulate these needs so that others are aware of them and can accommodate for them. We can't give you what you need if we don't know what it is!  
But sometimes the hardest part is realizing that you HAVE a desire and figuring out how to put that into words. Last week, one of my students called a group meeting to tell her classmates that it was very distracting to her if a nervous tic made repetitive sounds, such as a shoelace tapping on the metal leg of a chair while someone is bouncing their leg. She acknowledged that the bouncing of their leg is helpful for them to concentrate, she would just prefer it if that motion didn't make noises. I thanked her for sharing and suggested that, if she asks anyone to stop doing something like this, not to take it personally. She agreed, "Yeah, it's not like I'm trying to tell you how to live your life. I just can't focus when the repetitive noise is happening." I was very proud of her for being able to articulate this, and it was helpful for everyone to hear it and understand. <3 But getting there is a long road, I know.  
A few years ago, I read an eye-opening book called The Reason I Jump. It was written by a nonverbal 13-year-old boy with autism, with the help of a computer, iirc. The writing was beautiful, deep, and awe-inspiring. The boy was able to articulate the reasoning behind his actions, sincere emotions, and even the realization that he didn't know why he did some of the things he did--all while being nonverbal! I learned a lot about myself while reading that book.  
I experienced a similar sensation during lunch today while watching a video someone linked to on Facebook, one in which you explored why a student kept asking you questions you knew he already knew the answers to. The way you reflected on what most of us would be annoyed or frustrated by nearly inspired me to tears. I adored the way you kept thinking about it until you realized that he was just trying to make a connection and have a conversation with you in the ways he knew how! 
After sharing that video, I followed the link to your page and kept watching. My next hour was an independent study with a few students, one of which I realized would like watching you, as well. He's a seventeen-year-old with two little brothers, both on the autism spectrum. He's expressed a desire to become a counselor when he grows up, so I've recently been encouraging him to use his independent study time to find more information about that field. I was right--he did love the videos as much as I did. We spent the hour watching your videos, laughing together at the silly jokes in them, and discussing the individuals we met through them. He had his phone out the entire time, because I allow my students to do so, and after the bell rang, he sincerely thanked me for sharing the page with him. When I told him I was glad he enjoyed it and thanked him for watching and discussing with me, and he said, "Yeah, I already went and followed his page. I want to watch the rest of the videos when I have time at home." 
So.. I think this is a long-winded way of saying thank you for being you and for sharing your world with the internet. You have inspired at least two more people today. <3 
And as for those individuals that I have trouble connecting with because they don't communicate in a way I understand? I'm continuing to develop my patience and ability to hear them in the way they DO communicate. Thank you.

Further resources:
-Referenced video of Chris reflecting about a student
-Referenced video of Chris's preferred way to give a speech
-Special Books for Special Needs website
-Chris's Facebook Page
-My review of The Reason I Jump

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Universal Basic Income and Its Potential in the World of Education

Today's adventure begins with a foray into the world of economics, with short stops along the way into politics and humanitarianism. We'll get back to education before the end, I promise, so bear with me, even if you can't see where I'm going with all of this. It will make sense in the end.

Five Thirty Eight, a data-driven news blog, recently posted an article on Universal Basic Income, an idea than every citizen be given a no-strings-attached living stipend. It's a philosophy that I've heard in passing before and agreed with, despite my lack of knowledge on the subject. The article is a little lengthy, but well worth the read. For the purposes of THIS article, I'm going to assume you've read the Five Thirty Eight one, so go ahead. I'll be here when you get back.

Interesting stuff, right? To learn more, check out the thorough Wikipedia articleBasic Income Earth Network's website, including their YouTube video playlist, and Techdirt's podcast episode with Albert Wegman.

The proposal has been touted as something that everyone can get behind, from socialists to libertarians, Martin Luther King Jr. to Milton Friedman. It supposes that once everyone has their basic needs met, they can participate more fully in society, and that if they aren't struggling to survive, they can focus on more important things. That is, if one isn't forced to work a meaningless job because "it pays the bills," they can, instead, focus on making their lives better, a la, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

I can hear the collective gasp in response as I type this. There are a number of reasons why today's American society, if not the entire world, would balk at the suggestion. The one that I've heard most frequently when I've brought it up in the past (and one I'll discuss to day, as the others have well articulated responses in the links listed above) goes, "If no one had to work, they wouldn't. They would just sit at home, and nothing would get done! Productivity would go out the window!" I'm here to posit that that just isn't true. 

As Rutger Bregman puts it in his TEDx Talk, "If I asked each one of you in this room, 'Would you stop working? And I'll give you, you know, about 1,000 euros a month,' about 99% of you would say, 'Of course not. I've got dreams. I've got ambitions. I'm not going to sit on the couch, no.'"

Andrew Flowers of Five Thirty Eight backs this theory up, as well. He writes, of the Negative Tax Income pilots in the US, 
"Unsurprisingly, work effort did decline. Some NIT recipients cut back their hours, but the declines were modest: no more than 5 to 7 percent among primary earners, and a bit more for secondary earners.
But participants quitting altogether didn’t happen ... 'Some of the experimenters said that they were unable to find even a single instance of labor-market withdrawal,' wrote Widerquist in his 2005 paper summarizing the studies."
And I concur. Perhaps it comes from my belief in humanity. Yes, perhaps some individuals, Bregman's 1% of the audience, might choose to stay at home and relax unproductively with their stipend, but I choose to believe that the majority of humanity would do something with their lives, even if they didn't "have to." I believe that the natural curiosity and instincts inside each of us would push us to pursue our passions. I know I would still be working in education, regardless of pay, and my husband has said that he would still be in software development. Humans want to do things and feel productive. They want to feel like they're making a difference.

(I might also remind the reader that we don't know the stories of those individuals that would choose not to work. Maybe they've been working harder than the rest of us and actually "deserve" the respite. Maybe they're suffering from an unseen mental illness and would use that time as healing. Their lives are not ours to judge.)

Flowers conveys an idea of venture capitalist and author Albert Wegner's, "[He] wants less time spent on tasks that could be automated and more time spent on issues he thinks are insufficiently addressed: fighting climate change, exploring space, preventing the next global pandemic." Or, you know, bringing about the cessation of war. These are the real issues of our age, the serious problems that need to be settled, the ones we currently don't have time or funding for. I believe that humanity can solve these issues, and moreover, that we want to, we have a drive to. I believe that, given the opportunity, there would be an insurgence of people rushing to solve the world's most pressing issues. Right now, without the agency to do so, we've just become apathetic.

One concern of mine is that, as we have seen in the past, further half-hearted studies will ruin the name of Universal Basic Income. The most likely, in my opinion, is that a short-term study will determine that this proposal doesn't work--that the majority of people don't pursue their dreams, that they do buy alcohol and junk food and "waste" their time at home on the couch. The short-term studies will "prove" what everyone has been thinking all along.

Only a serious, long-term study will demonstrate the true strengths of humanity, their resilience and curiosity and passion, because here's another belief of mine: Humanity has a certain structure at this time. We have a schedule and a time table and someone telling us menacingly, "Do this or else." Without those things, we WILL take some time to explore our new-found freedoms. We WILL excitedly go to the store to pick up some "free" junk food and go home to relax on the couch and watch some shows. So if that's all the time the study allows for, yes, that's what it will find. However, if the studies give us more time and patiently sit back to watch what happens, after a while we will sit up and say, "I'm bored. I don't want to watch TV anymore. I want to do something fun!" And THAT'S when the good part will begin. THAT'S when we'll start to explore what we can REALLY do with ourselves.

We just have to be given the chance. And, as Flowers demonstrated in his article, there aren't any sufficient studies to yet prove one way or the other.

Alright, still with me? Now it's time to turn this train around and head back to the world of education. This is where it gets difficult for me because I'm about to discuss an issue that I am entirely too attached to. I feel vulnerable letting people see it because I don't want anyone to hurt it. But my opinion is a fortress, and I know that letting it out will either strengthen it or knock it down, and what do I want with a fortress that's too weak to withstand a little criticism, anyway? Thus, I welcome the criticism because I want the best ideas for my students. If this is not one, so be it. If it is, let's strengthen it and make it the best that it can be.

While I was exploring the world of Montessori, the philosophy that stood out stronger than the rest was, "Follow the child." Perhaps we might all have different takes on what precisely this means, but to me, it means, "The child is best suited to learn whatever he is most curious about," and, "The natural curiosity of a child is his key to education." Dictating what a child must learn and when will only serve to frustrate him, make him rebellious, and turn him against the idea of learning all together.

And I've taken this idea almost to an extreme, it seems to some people I know. When I explain this to others, the most common response I hear is, "But children will never learn if we don't make them."

Aha. Sound familiar? Thus, I return to my previous point: Yes, they will. 99% of the children in the room, if given enough time and started at the right age, have the natural curiosity and instinct to pursue their passions and make something with their time. And that means learning along the way, REAL learning. Not memorizing multiplication tables or the order of the presidents, because that information can be "automated," or in this instance, easily referenced. What learning would they do instead? I'm guessing the same learning that adults would be doing: "fighting climate change, exploring space, preventing the next global pandemic." Or, you know, bringing about the cessation of war.

But again, we can't expect this to happen in one or two years, especially, as I'm learning currently and will discuss in a later post, not starting with high schoolers. If I were to tell my high school students, "You don't have to go to school. Go learn anything you want on your own," the majority of them would excitedly go to the store, buy some junk food, and then go home to sit on the couch and watch TV. Only after they've had their fill of that would they say, "I'm bored. Eh, okay, let's see what else there is to do." But I'm assuming that many of them would be too far down the wrong path and struggle to get back to the right one. I think that's because they've been shoved into the current model so long, it's the only thing they know. 

But if we started with four- and five-year-olds, it would be a different story. If we asked them, "What do you want to learn about?" each would be bursting with their own answer. If we begin with the excitement of the young child, allow them to pursue their passion, patiently sitting back to watch what happens, I believe he will retain that passion throughout his life and eventually turn it into the solutions to humanity's real issues.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Creating a Test and the Question Formation Technique

As a final project for their Beowulf unit recently, I had my Juniors design their own test. This was the first time they had thought about the questions on tests as well as my first time assigning students to do so. Thus, it was my favorite kind of activity--a learning experience for everyone involved!

We started off with a discussion about what this assignment was for: a glance at the Bloom's Taxonomy poster quickly let the students know that creating a test required more brain power than merely remembering answers. With a little more investigation, they discovered that they would also need to be analyzing--both questions on other tests to figure out how to ask a good "test question" as well as their own questions in order to word them appropriately. (Okay, I guided them quite a bit to get to this point, but it seems like they understood where we were going with it.)

We didn't do much with analyzing questions from previous tests. As 11th graders, they've taken their fair share of tests and figured they knew by intuition what made a good question. I didn't push much on this as I would have with younger students.

Instead, I just set them out to start the process with question writing. I assigned each student to develop 10 questions for the final. They recognized immediately that they needed to have a good grasp of the material in order to ask a question about it--they had to analyze what points were significant enough to the story to elicit questions PLUS have enough information to know the answer to the question themselves.

When everyone had 10 questions, we broke into partners and shuffled papers. Each team had twenty questions between them, and, armed with different colored highlighters, read through to determine which ones made the best questions and which should be worded differently. They discussed in partners, first, then as a class, offering rationales for why some questions were better than others.

Finally, a volunteer typed up the 10 best questions on a computer connected to the SmartBoard so everyone could follow along, and the whole list was analyzed again. It wasn't until then that they realized they had selected some questions that asked for the same information and had to determine which of THOSE were better!

I did have the students take the test, mostly at their own urging, but I had seen everything I needed for assessment purposes through the creation process. Considering that this was their first time with such an activity, I was thrilled with the results. I noticed them getting a little bored towards the end of the process, but almost everyone was actively involved and participating cooperatively. I called it a success.

After completing this activity (which we spent about a week on), I did a little more research. This was a good first step, and now it's time to bump it up.

The Right Question Institute has a six-step strategy for developing questions they call the Question Formation Technique. Their website is packed full of amazing resources, and I recommend digging through it. To begin with, here is a guide on facilitating the QFT formatted in such a way that I would put it up on the SmartBoard for students to follow along with each step, and here is a list of tips for teachers to follow while conducting it. There are videos of other classes using the method (which I showed to my students, as well), and a TON of other things.

I'm just starting out with the QFT, but it seems to work well because it encourages students/people to KEEP ASKING. We tend to ask a couple of questions and consider ourselves finished with the activity, but this follows a concept I've been running through my mind recently, which is this: The good stuff comes at the end. At the beginning of any activity--writing, drawing, exercise, discussion, etc.--it is almost NECESSARY to cover the basics first before digging deeper and getting to the all-important details. It's as though we need to ascertain that everyone's on the same page first and foremost. We have to sketch the outline of the picture before we can focus on the fine details. We have to stretch our legs before we can actually push them to their limit. In the same way, we HAVE to ask the basic, mundane questions about a topic before the life-shattering, world-breaking questions come up. The QFT allows that to happen.

Plus there's the discussion about the pros and cons of asking open- versus close-ended questions. It's easy (for teachers as well as students) to assume that open-ended questions are "better" than close-ended, but that's not necessarily true. Both are useful in their own ways and serve different functions. The discussion makes students (and teachers) more aware of what they're doing when they ask one or the other. And being able to ask the same question in different words is awesome.

I did a couple of practice QFTs with my juniors and seniors, and they went well, again, for first-time activities. With more experience, they will be master questioners! I'm excited to do more work with this. According to this blog, it ties well into ownership of learning, unsurprisingly, and here's an article from Mind/Shift that speaks highly of it, as well. The creators at RQI have a book I'd really like to pick up at some point. I have a lot of work to do!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A Lesson from 15-16 and a List of Topics to Reflect Over

As the 2015-16 school year draws to a close, it's time to start looking back in reflection. My goal was to make at least one blog post a month, but that didn't happen. My OCD gets super frustrated when I try to start writing about something that I feel is still in progress, so if I don't have all of the data about an issue I want to think about, my brain rejects it, tells me, "Eh, we should wait until we have more information." That's something I want to try to work on next year because it's still helpful to work on an ongoing issue. I don't have to wait until the end to make conclusions. Wait.. poor word choice. :)

Here is a list of topics I want to try and cover:
-Student-designed calendars
-More Shakespeare stuff
-QFT (and student-created Beowulf tests)
-My month of PBL and log-books (with quarter-size notebook problem solving)
-Flexible seating classroom environment
-"I wish my teacher knew..." activity
-Weekly goals
-10 minute writing and writer's notebooks
-MCHS visit

Based on previous experience, I probably won't get to each topic, though that's the goal I'm shooting for. Every time I make a list like this, I inevitably feel like I don't have enough information to write about something or just put off writing until it doesn't seem relevant or pertinent anymore. Regardless, my main goal to focus on from now until the end of school is going to be focusing on these ideas and articulating my thoughts about them. Wish me luck!

What I can say already, though, is what I feel is the biggest lesson learned the hard way this year: To make any real change, I need to make sure to get everyone on board--coworkers, administration, parents, students themselves. I have the capacity to create change, but I CAN'T do it alone, no matter how hard I push. I can't push down this brick wall by myself, but the more people I get to help me, the easier it falls. Get people on board. Stop waiting for "leadership" that doesn't yet exist. BE the leadership. If I want to make something happen, start the process and get others to help.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Book Review: Think of Something Quiet

Think of Something Quiet: A Guide for Achieving Serenity in Early Childhood Classrooms by Clare Cherry

Published in 1981, Think of Something Quiet is a relatively old book, as far as non-fiction goes. At least, it's older than most of the education books I read. Regardless, it's still very relevant today, and I found few instances of outdated material (the most notable in a section called "Tense and Hyperactive Behavior").

Cherry doesn't go as far as Teacher Tom or Janet Landsbury in "sports-casting" actions and facial expressions to explain emotion and self-reflection, but she does include many things that they don't get into, like body awareness. She includes exact words to say to children, which is great, especially for educators just starting out. The directions for games are very detailed, and she also writes out full stories to tell. My favorite is an "eyes closed" story called And Everyone Was Sound Asleep. Here's an excerpt from it:

I made a little pillow with my arms and put my head down on my cushiony hands just like this (demonstrate). I closed my eyes, and listened to the quiet, quiet world.
(Pause for the children to get comfortable and close their eyes. Remind them that this is an eyes-closed story.)
At first I didn't hear anything at all. But I was very quiet, and I listened very hard. Soon I heard a tiny, squeaky sound saying, "Meow. Meow. Meow." I knew what that was. It was my baby kitty cat saying, "Goodnight. Goodnight. Goodnight." Then my kitty cat rolled itself into a furry ball, put its head down on its paws just like you, and was soon sound asleep.
The world was very quiet.
The house was very quiet.
I was very quiet, and I listened very carefully.
Soon I heard another sound. It went, in a tiny, tiny voice, "Woof-woof. Woof-woof. Woof-woof." That was the little puppy dog who lived next door, saying, "Goodnight. Goodnight. Goodnight." Then the puppy dog put its head down on its paws, just like the kitty cat and just like you. It closed its eyes and soon was sound asleep.
The world was very quiet.
The house was very quiet.
I was very quiet, and I listened very carefully. ...

Cherry includes information on things I wouldn't have expected, too, like room furnishings and weather, as well as the expected things like yoga, body awareness, and emotions. It's a good introduction and a quick read. Nothing phenominal, but still something to recommend to those that could use it.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Reiche, Community Schools, and Teacher-Powered Schools

I typically scan briefly through the NEA magazines that come in the mail before tossing them in the recycling bin. There's not much in them that I usually care about, but an article in the Winter 2016 (When Teachers Take Charge by Mary Ellen Flannery, no link because it doesn't appear to be available online edit: link below) caught my eye. I folded the page over and saved it for reading later.

The article tells the story of Howard C. Reiche Community School in Portland, Maine (which kept throwing me off every time I read it because my mind automatically assumed we were talking about Oregon), a "teacher-powered school," meaning that a few of the teachers act as part-time leaders, eliminating the need for administration.

The website listed at the end of the article,, lists 90 schools currently utilizing this teacher-leader structure. This may be the extremist in me speaking, but this idea doesn't seem crazy or outlandish at all. In fact, compared to some of the things I've written about before, this seems rather mundane. I've spoken about students running schools. OF COURSE teachers can function as part-time administrators. Why would anyone ever find that strange?

So, there are those links for anyone that finds it interesting. The website even includes guides for getting started converting your existing school into a Teacher-Powered School.

What I found more interesting were the pictures included in the NEA article. Reiche is a beautiful, open layout school that looks like a huge library with tons of open space available for small groups to use as necessary. The school's website lists 3-4 classes per grade, so I assume the class structure is pretty typical, unfortunately, but seeing the pictures, I couldn't help but dream, anyway. Think of all the good that could be done with that nice, open layout, book-laden space!

Reiche labels itself as a "Community School," which also sounds intriguing. Wikipedia describes community schools as places open for education of the entire community, which is awesome. I always imagined my dream school as a place that doesn't close down in the evening because there's always something going on, adult continuing ed. classes, parenting classes, extra curriculars, etc. There's also some federal funding for such programming, but it's unclear at this point in my research whether any of it goes as far as my ideal.

Hopefully at some point in the future the article about Reiche will become available online so I can post it for the picture!

Edit 4/2016: Found it! Check out these awesome pictures!