Saturday, October 22, 2016

Saturday Sayings: Building Bridges

I'm a bridge builder. When I tell my mathematicians "Don't let yourself freeze up. You have strategies you know how to use," I'm building a bridge, since I'd already used that same language in reading workshop. When I say, "Christopher, thanks for throwing away your candy wrapper. Our new clean-up crew will so appreciate how you take care of trash," I'm building a bridge because the day before a crew from our class spontaneously started cleaning up the playground at recess. 

My day is a giant web of bridges. I'm constantly making connects between ideas, words, actions, learning, and even students. These connections add invaluable layers of meaning to the learning, inviting all participants to cross over to new understandings and application. In other words, bridges increase sticking power.

I'm intrigued by the realization that though building bridges is pivotal to my teaching, I'm rarely intentional about it. I've never written these connections in my lesson plans. Nor have I jotted them down on my palm for easy access before the day begins. (As if I'd ever write on my hand.) I seem to create connections subconsciously. It happens in a split second. In the moment, I seemingly know what connection to make and how to make it, like I did in the above examples. This happens all throughout the day. 

I don't want to give the impression that I'm a master at connections and have no room for improvement. Intentionality is a must, so I should be challenging myself to view bridge-building in a more purposeful context. I would imagine we all should think more purposefully whether making connections comes naturally or not. If recycling ideas and content in repeated and sometimes unexpected ways helps make our teaching stick and increases student understanding, it's something worth thinking more intentionally about.

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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Saturday Sayings: Cool to Ask Questions

This year I'm part of a cohort of Idaho teachers called The Coaching Network. We met for the first time in early August for three days of professional development. As I sat and soaked up all I could from our four coaches, I also took mental notes about the quality teaching strategies they were using. I'm learning from all four coaches, but I found myself latching on to a consistent strategy used by one of them in particular. She repeatedly said these words:

What questions do you have about...?

Pretty much, without fail, she would ask that question after she finished teaching or giving directions. The frequent use of this phrase let me know it was cool to ask my own questions, to ask for clarification, or to admit a misunderstanding. 

I also made note of her wording. Whereas in my classroom the phrase would sound more like, "Do you have any questions?" there is an element of intentionality in her wording that though subtle, seems important and powerful. The assumption is that asking questions is not only welcome but expected. 

After hearing her ask this question repeatedly throughout our three days together, I made myself a goal to do the same for my own students. I can say I've done a fairly decent job and plan on making it a habit, as it is with my coach. When given the chance, even first graders have insightful questions to ask, and learning that it's cool to ask questions is the message I want them to hear loud and clear. 

P.S. I now have a Facebook page. Click on the graphic to come say hi. :)

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Saturday, October 1, 2016

Saturday Sayings: Find Your People

There's a lot of talk about tribe these days. Last year I relied on mine. I was in a place of frustration and doubt, that in my eyes, overshadowed my 21 years of experience. 

When I couldn't see the forest for the trees, my tribe offered perspective. 

When I needed to vent, they listened. 

When I needed to cry, they let me and hugged on me as well.

But they never left me as is. 

They couldn't alter my situation or manipulate my circumstances, but they repeatedly spoke truth into my life, that at the time was nearly impossible to recognize on my own.

I remember a particular poignant and inspiring moment about halfway through the school year when my cousin Laurie offered me a completely different perspective to consider. It didn't change my circumstances, but it began a gradual work of healing in my heart and mind. Following this conversation, maybe within a month's time, I woke one morning after another frustrating classroom situation to a revelation of my own. It felt like a breath of fresh air. Again, my situation didn't change, but my burden felt lighter. Without a tribe that was offering me a different outlook, I doubt I would have been in the right place to receive my own revelation in a time when I needed it the most.

I told a group of new teachers at an orientation meeting this Fall to find their tribe. The same advice could be offered to teachers with countless years of experience. We must all find our people. Who are yours? 

P.S. I now have a Facebook page. Click on the link to say hi. :)

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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Identity Day

Thursday was an exciting day in Miss McMorrow's first grade class. It was Identity Day. We all shared our identities, which I explained as our passions. I learned some new and valuable things about my kiddos. 

I wasn't exactly sure how to tackle the format, but I think my system worked pretty well. While the class sat on the floor, the presenter shared and then asked for questions. For the sake of time, the audience was allowed two questions. After every fourth presenter, the class was then allowed to visit any of those four, ask additional questions, make comments, and look more closely at any visuals the presenter brought. I put a limit as to how many kids could visit a presenter at a time for various reasons. Smaller groups equal better crowd control, and it ensured that all four presenters would always have an audience. I gave a signal when it was time to switch and visit another presenter. Then we'd repeat the process with four new presenters.

I have George Couros, author of The Innovator's Mindset, to thank for our special day. First off, his book is an inspiring one. Read it. Secondly, considering the time of year, I kept my version of Identity Day fairly simple, but I invite you to read how Couros' whole school participates in Identity Day here and here. His posts will help you catch the vision. 

This is the letter I created for parents.

From sewing to art to horses to Legos. These things motivate and inspire my learners. Now how can I use their passions in the classroom? This is my challenge.

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Saturday Sayings: User Stories

Who are the users represented in your classroom? No doubt you have a unique set.

Here are a few of mine.
  • the active student
  • the special needs student
  • the advanced student
  • the reluctant student

I'm in a program this year called the Idaho Coaching Network which supports teacher leaders specifically in the areas of ELA and Literacy. The coaches have prompted us to think about our users when designing units. 

Who are my users? 
What will my users want to get out of this unit?
How do I best meet their needs?

Yet the most enlightening part of this conversation came when I was asked to consider user stories. Here is the user story template. 

As a (role) student I want (feature or practice) so that (benefit).

For example, when considering my active students, I wrote their user story like this:

As an active student I want to move and create so that I can learn and think better.

Each user has their own story, and the challenge is to keep their stories in mind when planning our time with those users. I believe it's worth taking the time to write their stories down and then think deeply how to meet their needs in a practical way throughout our teaching. I know I'm guilty at times of teaching to the elusive average student, who by the way doesn't even exist, while there are students around the edges who need an open door to content. They need a teacher who is aware of their needs and has provided a way to access the curriculum. As Couros suggests, it's wise to think about the learning from their perspective. 

Who are your users and what's their perspective?

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

PR is Real

Public relations in the classroom is a real thing, especially at the beginning of the year. It's hard to please everyone, but I work hard to make a good impression with parents. It's my job to get them on my side as soon as possible which often requires some sacrifice of both time and money, but I know parents notice.

They notice the phone call I make to them before school even starts.

They notice the personalized post card I send to their child before the year begins.

They notice the apple and note I give them at Back to School Night.

They notice the balloon I leave at their child's desk when they meet me for the first time.

They notice the fact that I update our class website daily and add pictures and descriptions of what their child is doing each day.

As the year starts and parents notice the extra things I'm willing to do to make them comfortable with this person who will watch over their child for the next nine months, I'm essentially making deposits to their account. In fact, before school even starts, their accounts are accumulating with positive reasons to trust me. Along the way though, when I make an error or there's some kind of misunderstanding or an issue arises and it feels like a withdrawal is being made, most parents are more likely to show an extra amount of grace because their accounts were already full. This is less likely to happen with an empty account or one running low on funds, and it usually results in a deficit.

So the little extra things we teachers do for the benefit of our parents during the craziest time of the year when there are already a million things on our plates are worth doing. Don't stop, teachers. Parents are important players in this game, and we want them playing for us and not against. 

What types of deposits are you making?

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Saturday, September 3, 2016


Yesterday while reading Watch Me Throw The Ball by Mo Willems, the substitute next door slipped into the hall and quietly closed her classroom door, because there's only one way to read Watch Me Throw The Ball -- with enthusiasm! I actually considered the door closing to be quite a compliment, and it wouldn't be the first time a teacher's door has done that during one of my read-alouds. 

It's my job to make every book I read aloud come to life, even if that means people down the hall wonder why someone's screaming. "Oh yeah, Miss McMorrow must be reading to her kids again." Once I place that book into some basket on the floor or shelf, I want it to call the name of every little person who heard me read it. That doesn't happen without some passion from the first reader -- me.

I've been a believer of the importance of the teacher's role as a reading salesman for a long long while. This year though I've been throwing my weight into that role. I ramped up the number of daily read-alouds during the first few weeks of school. I checked out over 30 irresistible books from the library. I put 20 of them into a large box on the first day of school with a sign that said Do Not Open (until Friday). And I told the new teacher I'm mentoring about this all-important role she's taking on. If our students can't help but want to read because of how over the top we are about books and our love for them, they'll be more apt to try to be readers, even when it's not easy.

This morning I read a post by Kylene Beers that puts the exclamation point on the end of everything I've been thinking and doing. I love the way she talks about increasing "wantability" before increasing "readability." Read this post. It's short, brilliant, and worth your while.

Wouldn't it be really cool if all our school hallways were filled with the sounds of teachers reading aloud to their kids? Maybe we'd also have more classrooms filled with kids who want to read those same books themselves.

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