Wednesday, August 10, 2016

My #pb10for10 2016

It has been a few years since I’ve participated in #pb10for10. However, this annual celebration of books holds a special place in my heart.  It is because of Cathy Mere and Mandy Robek’s that I have a blog.  Cathy persuaded me to post my #pb10for10 back in 2013.  (You won’t find my original #pb10for10 post because it was before I migrated over to Blogger.) 

Below, you will find my current list of ten picture books that I cannot live without.  I’m sure this list changed once I pushed the PUBLISH button a moment ago. However, this list contains titles that my fifth graders seemed to really love.  These books are the ones that I’m usually saying, “Does someone have _______, I need it for the minilesson today.”  

Some of these books are meant to be read just for fun.
Some have beautiful poetic language.
Some make me cry (Morris Lessmore does it every year.)
Some can be used for symbolism.
Some are great inspiration for writing projects.
Some are hilarious.
Some have a wonderful theme.
Some are about growth mindset.
Some are old. 
Some are new. 

All are classics. 

Twilight Comes Twice by Ralph Fletcher

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

Are We There Yet? By Dan Santat

The Bear And The Piano by David Litchfield

The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

This Is A Moose by Richard T. Morris

Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great By Bob Shea

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

It’s May…Things Are Getting Good

May.  The last month of school for many of us. Some teachers spend the month of May in a post-state test hangover counting down the days until all the students are gone and summer vacation starts. I, on the other hand, do not want to spend the last days of the school year pushing my students out the door. I want to push them up not out. I strive to push them above and beyond what they think they can do. I want to provide them experiences that ask them to synthesize all the skills they’ve learned and honed throughout the year. I want my students to culminate, not coast.
Learning Menu students used

Today, I gave my students the entire afternoon to engage in a more personalized learning experience than they’ve experienced in the past. “Personalized learning” has many different definitions based on whom you ask. I’m still trying to grasp how personalized learning looks in a fifth grade classroom. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure what happened today was “personalized learning”— some may argue yes or no. But, today I witnessed students using the skills and knowledge they’d gathered over the course of this year.

We started just as we usually do. Students returned from their lunch/recess break and sat on the carpet ready for the reading workshop minilesson. “Raise your hand if you’ve always wanted to choose what you want to work on?” All hands fly into the air. “Raise your hand if you sometimes feel like reading in the morning when we are doing math workshop?” Hands quiver in a frenzy.

I continue by telling them that they are going to be able to choose what they want to work on AND decide how long they want to spend on their tasks. I projected a learning menu that students would be using to select their afternoon tasks. Some of the tasks were “required,” but most of their tasks were not. I go on to explain that this learning menu will be used over a number of days and by no means do they need to finish every required task.

You should know that fifth graders at my school are all immersed in a number of projects right now, including finishing our year-long capstone project, preparing for a student-run EdCamp and writing a fifth grade reflection essay. Of course, those fit in the “required” box because I wanted to emphasize the importance of these tasks. I told students they needed to work on two of the required tasks. Mainly, this was to keep students focused and provide some structure.

By the time I was finished explaining how this would work, and taking into account a 15-minute debriefing of this experience, students were left with about 80 minutes. My students are used to reading and writing for about 40 minutes each during our literacy block, so I figured twice as much time minutes would be a good challenge for them. Students selected their tasks and determine how long they wanted to spend on each task. I let them divvy up their time allotment. Some students chose two required tasks and spend 40 minutes on each. Others chose four tasks and spend 20 minutes on each. If they weren’t successful with this, it would be a great conversation during our debriefing.

Students got started and I looked around the room and observed quite a few students who were really taking this choice seriously. I saw Tyler, pencil pressed to his lips and eyebrows furrowed, truly contemplating his own path of learning. I saw Ayele and Emily whispering together as they were planning what time they wanted to meet up to work on their EdCamp presentation. I walked around the room and glanced at everyone’s plan. They were genuinely engrossed with their learning. Some students had iPads. Some students had their journals. Some had a book in their hand. Some students were collaborating. All students were involved and engaged.

Most of my time was spend circulating and checking in with students. I had a few reading conferences with students who were using iMovie to make book trailers. I spent quite a bit of time working with an ELL student who was having difficulty planning his EdCamp presentation on the Arabic culture. Everything was going smoothly until I hear the familiar ringtone associated with the iPhone FaceTime feature. My head darts up in shock as I look to see who would have dared FaceTime during class. “Sorry, I set a timer on my iPad, so I knew when to switch to my next task.”

At the end of this experience, my students and I had a very informative debriefing. We all agreed that this was a great experience and we definitely need to do it again. When asked to rate this experience all students gave it a 4 or 5 in our usual “Fist of 5” evaluation. Students’ feedback was this:

PLUSES (Positive Parts)
  • There was choice in what we get to do. We could work on something based on what mood we were in.
  • Got to do a variety of things.
  • I was more focused because I got to pick my task.
  • I got to make my own schedule.
  • I got to pick how long I could spend on a topic.
  • I got more accomplished.
  • I felt more organized.
  • I liked learning from each other because we had to ask our classmates questions if you (Mr. Jones) were busy.
  • I got to choose what I needed to work on and something that was a challenge.
  • It gave me time to catch up on work.
  • Felt good to be able to choose tasks that interested me.
  • I felt more mature and grown up working independently.
DELTAS (Things to change)
  • I lost track of time
  • I was trying to mutli-task and I got confused.
  • It was hard to coordinate if I had to work with a partner on a task.
  • There wasn’t enough time. We should spend longer so I can accomplish more.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

SOL - A Tune For Tuesday

It's time for another installment of
Each Tuesday, I will try to post a song from my playlist. These are songs that would be on a soundtrack of my life. I hope you enjoy them.

*         *          *          *          *

Both Sides Now - Joni Mitchell

"Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud's illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all"

This is one of Joni Mitchell's best known songs.  Once you listen to it and listen to the lyrics, I think you'll understand why.  It's hard to ignore this beautiful melody.  But the lyrics and their message are equally as powerful.  For me, this song represents how our point of view about simple every day events like clouds, love and friendship change as we have life experiences.  When I look up into the sky, I am always in awe of the sometimes puffy, sometimes wispy clouds.  However, when I am in a plane looking at clouds from high above, clouds become a nuisance that block my view of the beautiful landscape below.

As I enter the phase of life called "middle aged," I often try to consider things from different points of view.  I always thought that as I grow up I would learn more.  We think that we will know everything.  When, in fact, all that we know for sure is that "I really don't know life at all."

Monday, March 7, 2016

SOL 4 -- Learners Must A.S.K.

I believe the purpose of education is to provide learners with a set of attitudes, skills and knowledge they need to be life-long learners and educated citizens. Learners are the most successful only when they are provided with a mixture of all three ingredients: Attitude, Skills and Knowledge (ASK). But, lately, I’ve noticed that one of these three ingredients is missing from much of our curriculum.

But, what happens when teachers are no longer needed to be the givers of knowledge. Knowledge has become easily available by a simple Google search.  Comedian Pete Holmes has a brilliantly worded comedy routine about this very topic.  This is perhaps one of my favorite comedy routines. I am constantly reminded of this almost every day:

In my classroom, I always strive to have a classroom where students are not told new knowledge; rather, they discover it. Most of my learning targets in the classroom are skills-based. When I make my learning targets, most start with “I can…” or “Readers always…” only to be followed by a verb, or skill. But, where does teaching attitudes fall into our curriculum? Attitudes are those internal drivers of behavior. Attitudes such as:
  • Integrity 
  • Hard work 
  • High expectations 
  • Commitment 
  • Empathy 
  • Self-confidence 
  • Enthusiasm for learning 
  • Love of reading and writing
I, like all of you, use the current set of learning standards (e.g. Common Core and Ohio Learning Standards for Science/Social Studies) to create the learning targets, which provide a focus for my students’ learning and help them establish their own learning goals. When closely inspecting our standards, one can see that they focus heavily on the SKILLS and KNOWLEDGE parts of learning. This is not enough. If I focus solely on teaching the standards (i.e. skills and knowledge only), then I am robbing my students of a major ingredient in the recipe for learning.  The ATTITUDE and mindset that the learning process is more valuable than just knowing something.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

SOL 3 – Pa

My Grandpa Scott lived to be 101 years old. With his passing about four months ago, I began to learn more about this incredible man and his impressive life story. Maybe my interest comes from the fact that I am his namesake, or maybe it’s because I was his first grandchild. Whatever the case may be, I have become more intrigued with the life of the man I called “Pa.”

I grew up knowing him mostly as my father’s father. I would see him 2-3 times a year when he traveled from his Chicago-area home down to my high school choir concerts, as well as for most Thanksgivings and Christmases. I would also see him each year as my family spent those Glen Lake summers in Northern Michigan. I can still remember those warm summer days as a young boy watching him play tennis with a group of his life long friends—a ritual repeated year after year. He showed grace and class on the tennis court. “The trick to winning a tennis match, Scotty, is just play your best game without being too flashy. Let your opponent make all the mistakes.” A simple lesson meant for the tennis court, but applicable to life.

My grandpa was always one to tell a great story. And, boy, did he have plenty of them. From his experience in World War II to his days working in downtown Chicago, he always would share some amazing tales. Here is my favorite story about my Grandpa Scott…

One night, while an undergrad at Princeton University, a young Scott Jones was rushing to the library when he saw under the light of a streetlamp, a man on his hands and knees crawling on the grass. Perplexed by this strange sight, Scott stopped and asked the man if he could be of assistance. The man looked up at Scott and in a thick German accent said, “I seem to have lost my pipe.” In the soft light from the street lamp above, Scott instantly recognized the face of this man. The man on his hands and knees, crawling like a dog, frantically searching for his pipe was Albert Einstein. Scott joined Einstein on the grass and searched for Einstein’s pipe. After a few moments of searching, it was Scott Jones, my grandfather, who found Albert Einstein’s pipe in the grass on the quad of Princeton University.

When I reflect on my time with him, Pa always seemed more of a legend than a man. I remember him for being more dignified than I do for him being loving. He was a wonderful grandfather who played cards with me and always inquired about my life. Yet, looking back, I think I always viewed him as someone with such reverence and fondness. Early on, I understood that Pa was the glue that held our family together. He was a kind-hearted and benevolent man with a passion for poetry, the French language and nature. He was a man that was always the center of attention when he was in the room. This was not because he demanded the attention or was talking overzealously. He was admired and beloved by everyone he had ever met.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

SOL 2 - Which path?

“No, Mr. Jones. None of them.”  This was the response given to me by three former students when I asked them which class they liked the best.

“Not since fifth grade.”  That was the response given to me by the same three students when asked if they had read a great book lately.

A few weeks ago, I was finishing up a few things in my classroom when, through the intercom, the school secretary’s voice announced, “Mr. Jones, you have some visitors here to see you.” I made my way to the office to see Nathan, Tyler and Grant standing there staring at their phones as they waited. After shaking their hands, and a few “Boy, you’ve gotten tall” pleasantries, they said that they just stopped by to see the classroom.

Walking down the hallway, I noticed that I was looking at them eye to eye. This was a bit unsettling for a teacher who is not used to looking at students at eye level. While their faces are more chiseled and voices are deeper, their demeanors and speech patterns had not changed. They were the same Nathan, Tyler and Grant from four years ago. I felt honored that they wanted to come visit me. Seeing former students is one of my favorite parts of this job. I love knowing that they are okay and seeing the direction in which they’ve gone. Now freshman in high school, I was interested to talk about where their personal and academic journeys had taken them. I stifled the urge to ask the kinds of typical teacher questions, and just let them lead our talk.
As our conversation progressed, I started to feel uneasy about what I was hearing. Amongst the laughs about sharing of memories, our discussion was starting to take a pessimistic digression. Gradually, I started to get the sense that I needed to ask those “teacher questions” about grades, homework and work ethic. I was about to open my mouth to ask about their grades, when I didn’t have to.

“High school kinda sucks, Mr. Jones,” Tyler offered.

“Yeah, teacher just talk at you and make you do worksheets,” added Grant. I sat and let them share their high school stories with a stoic face. On the inside, I was starting to feel a little defensive, as I got ready to defend my fellow teachers from the verbal attacks of these 14 year olds.

Again, just as I was about to interject, Nathan spoke up and added, “Now, all we talk about is grades and GPA. School doesn’t seem to be about learning. It’s more like a game now.”

As a fifth grade teacher, I have grown accustomed to seeing students leave and move on to another school. I do see students occasionally at high school football games, the grocery store and other spots around our city. Yet, I have not seen many of my former students since the last day of fifth grade. I guess I always assumed that when students leave my classroom community they would continue on in the same manner. My vivacious readers would remain readers. My expert problem solvers will excel in advanced math classes.
As I sat there listening to these three former fifth grade boys talk about their current school experience, I started to feel sad. I feel sad about how they don’t feel valued as learners. I feel sad when these guys say homework points make up a large percentage of their grade. I feel sad that they think school has become more about points used in a punitive manner, instead of being about the learning process. Sure, there was a tinge of the usual teenage angst to consider. Yet, there was also a sincere feeling of skepticism and distrust that came from these 14 year old learners.
Tyler, Grant and Nathan may only be 14-year-old knuckleheads who spend more time on their cell phone than reading or talking face to face. But, they get it. They know that school is not working for them.

Even though this reunion was a few weeks ago, it has stuck with me. It has made me reflect on my own teaching and the decisions I make with my students. When I look out and see those 26 faces sitting on the carpet staring at me during a reading minilesson, I sit and wonder. What will happen in four years? Will they feel like school is a game that’s been set up to see them fail? Can I inspire a love of learning for learning sake? Can I instill the Habits of Mind to make them active global citizens? Am I preparing these students to be engaged thinkers and problem solvers or passive consumers of Google-able knowledge?

I will continue to use these questions to inform how I build my classroom culture.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Slice Of Life - Day 1

I have decided to join the March Slice of Life Challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. As with the many others, I intend to write every day in the month of March.

I attempted this last year, but only could sustain for one week. This year, I hope to carry on through the entire month. Why don’t we do this in February, which is three whole days shorter?

Also, this year, I have decided to invite my students to join me in this blogging challenge. Unfortunately, I was not in the classroom today because I attended a district curriculum committee meeting. However, tomorrow I am going to explain this project. I am not sure how many of them will accept this challenge, but I hope it will be a good number. I anticipate that a majority will start this challenge along with me.

My hopes for this project are that my students will:
  • Be more motivated to write
  • Be more engaged in the writing process
  • Discover their own writing process
  • Establish connections beyond our classroom walls
  • Understand more deeply the power of effective feedback
  • Feel empowered by feedback and comments from each other, family members and strangers who visit our blogs
  • See that writing is something that can be fun
  • Encourage others to write
  • Feel like part of a community of writer
Most importantly, I want my students to have fun. This time of year can be chaotic and tedious. There are many disruptions, such as preparations for state testing and scheduling for middle school. It’s time to put some fun into our daily time together.

I cannot wait to see where this Slice Of Life challenge takes us. But, I look forward to seeing what kind of impact it will surely have on my classroom culture.