* Checking Out in the Middle Grades

Here’s a parent’s perspective on homework (his kids are “typical” learners, not special education).

Taste of Tech

It was fifth grade when my daughter decided that she didn’t like school. It was her first year in an intermediate school. In our community, learners go to the same primary school for grades K-4, and then switch to an intermediate school for 5-6 before moving on to middle school (7-8) and high school (9-12). It’s the intermediate school where things tend to change. We have similar challenges in the school district in which I work, where students attend intermediate school in grades 4-5. Both students and parents tend to experience a sense of disillusionment at this level. 9557767183_fd5cc9fb1b_zIt’s an age where students are becoming increasingly independent. In many schools, they switch classes for the first time. They’re expected to keep track of assignments and due dates more than they did in the past. They have lockers and study hall and more freedom and more accountability. But at the same time…

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* Homework follow-up: What do YOU think?

This is what I posted a couple of weeks ago: If you read my post on homework, you know what I think about it.  Now I’d like to hear from you.  (I can’t identify respondents, by the way.)

Thank you for voting!  Here are the totally unscientific results:  33% voted “no” and 67% voted for “only under narrow circumstances.”  No, I didn’t vote.  🙂

* Hoarding

Ask almost any teacher if they collect odds and ends to use on their class.  Each one will tell you that they save corks or styrofoam or buttons or cardboard tubes because, wait for it… I MAY NEED THESE SOME DAY!  After all these years, even though I haven’t actually needed most of it (my husband would say any of it), I still collect teacher “valuables.”  The hardest part for me in leaving one school for another is that I must handle every treasure, evaluate its usefulness, and promptly pack it into one of almost a hundred boxes.  I have this little metal roller skate, about 1 inch long, with wheels that actually turn.  I have four boxes of old fire engines.  I have marbles, chalk, board games with essential missing parts, rolls of adding machine tape, and plastic Easter eggs shaped like frogs and basketballs. Sometimes I watch that hoarding show on TV to scare myself out of a few valuables, but as soon as I toss them, you know what happens, right?  I kind of need them.  Not a life or death thing, but I’m sad that I don’t have those old telephone wires or my pressed flower collection.  There are resources for hoarding out there (see image below), but no one truly understands this passion for valuables except another teacher.  Believe me, the life of a teacher has its share of heartache.jillskitchen

* The Lightning Club

This is a post on one of the most delightful social skills groups I have ever taught.  There were seven kids in the group.  I was desperate for an eighth student for partner activities, but we managed.  The kids were in fourth grade but all of them had been retained, so they were fifth grade age.  Three were labeled with behavior/ emotional disorders and four were high functioning autistic students.  It was one of those wonderful groups where we actually had a non-lunch time slot and it was at the end of the day.  That meant we weren’t rushing to cram down our food and I could squeeze every possible second out the session.

The kids were a joy to teach.  They were wildly enthusiastic about everything, including bossing each other, winning every game at any cost, and being in charge of everyone else’s business.  I much prefer a group with spunk, and these guys had it in spades.  They arrived like firecrackers.  I’d selected the bossiest student to remind the others,going class-to-class, that it was time for our group,  They assured me, panting and out of breath, that they had all walked down the hall.  Of course, they immediately tattled on each other for running   So we started off in fine spirits, with additional bickering about who got to sit on the edge of the table closest to me.  I smiled at the thought of all the skills they were going to learn.  (Eventually they learned to walk to my room 76% of the time.)

Because everyone in the group was so strong-willed, it took us weeks to decide on a name and theme for our “club.”  We ended up being The Lightning Club.  They thought it was a cool name; I thought it was prophetic.  What made this group so appealing?  I loved their honesty most of all.  Everything was out in the open, including their disputes and struggles in class and at home.  They would tell me that our role-playing had no effect at all on their classroom behavior.  In their respective classrooms, and with each other, they were social outcasts.  They had been at the same school since kindergarten and had grown to dislike one another as much as other kids disliked them.  When we started The Lightning Club, none of them would pick anyone else to be a partner, citing numerous old grudges and the “disgusting” behavior of their fellow Clubbers.lightning-bolt

I started us off with games.  I could only manage two games or groups at a time, because there were so many conflicts.  Everyone memorized “Play fair, Take turns, and Say nice things” pretty quickly.  The kids used checklists to monitor themselves, although they much preferred to monitor everyone else.  “Winning and Losing” was another challenge.  I would ask, “Do you want to win or do you want friends?”  The answer was “I want to win at all costs,” but I could identify with them, easily being the most competitive of all.  They rather enjoyed smearing me in games.

We worked our way through basic skills, spitting out “nice” words to each on command.  I videotaped everything and we watched edited versions, which they enjoyed a great deal.  We role-played a skill (which was nicely done in practice), then I set them loose and refereed the semi-chaos.  We laughed a lot, because I did let them demonstrate how NOT to make friends.  They were experts at NOT making friends, so we had plenty of fun with those skits.

We’d been together about a month when I initiated our altruistic phase.  I wanted them to experience the satisfaction of helping others.  Their suggestions?  All variations of me buying them stuff.  Ultimately, they decided to record a series of self-created puppet shows on social skills for younger kids.  I had dramatically described the difficulties these younger kids were having, so my wild group was quite eager to set the little ones on the right course.  The puppet shows were challenging.  Lightning Clubbers had to agree on a theme, fight over the more desirable puppets, and take turns being the bossy director.  I kept reminding them of our purpose, to help these poor little kids who had no friends.  It was a worthwhile project for a couple of reasons.  Their practice was more authentic than it had been when rehearsing for themselves and the videos were actually engaging to younger kids.

By winter break, The Lightning Club coalesced into a real community.  We settled into a natural rhythm of activities, often suggested by the kids, with opportunities to role-play, critique videotapes, and work through conflicts between group members.  Kids no longer had to be forced to think of positive comments for others.  Yes, there were days when keeping everyone separated was my best strategy.  Like a large family, we laughed and struggled together.  We had parties to celebrate almost everything.  When the kids decided to make gifts for one another, I felt like a contented mother hen with a brood of spunky chicks.

I wish I could say that the rest of their school year was as successful.  On the last day of school (a half day, at that), most of my group had been transported to me for an impromptu “session,” booted out of their rooms for disruptive behavior.  Their presence was bittersweet under the circumstances, but I was thrilled they could spend their last few hours at school under my wings.

* A world without writing

What a fun and insightful teacher this is! Her thought-provoking lesson would inspire the most reluctant writer. Discovery Education is a great resource, if you haven’t tried it.

Ginger In A Snap

On Friday afternoons I work with a group of 5th graders for reading and writing. Today I had a video for them to watch on Discovery Education which has to be my new favorite teaching resource. It has tons of video clips on every topic imaginable for a variety of grade levels.

The clip I had them watch today was about the development of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. Afterwards they were working through a response journal. I had asked them to brainstorm some things the write down every day with the intention of getting them to think about how difficult life would be without a written language.

Being the uniquely minded kids that they are, though, this group started coming up with an elaborate system for getting by without writing. They were discussing different roles they would perform and who would be responsible for remember what information. We ran out…

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* VoiceThread

VoiceThread is a cool platform for encouraging student collaboration and reflection.  It may also serve as a digital student portfolio and authentic assessment by teachers.  The platform serves as a forum for sharing ideas, based on an uploaded image, video, or document.  Let’s assume a teacher wants her students to comment on the plot of a read- aloud book.  She may post a picture of the book, assign accounts to students, and moderate their comments.  There are five ways to respond on VoiceThread: audio recording, video recording (using webcam), text, uploaded audio file, and phone conversation (the latter method is probably not useful for elementary school!).  Students or teachers may “doodle” while recording comments, using an online pen (with a nice palette of colors) to emphasize or add to their thoughts.  I use a free account and keep my VoiceThreads private, with comments allowed only by invited participants.  Teachers may purchase a license for up to 50 student accounts for $79 a year, or a district may purchase accounts for thousands of kids (at greater cost, of course).

If you have never tried VoiceThread, check out this one (scroll to the bottom of the page for the actual thread):  Fifth grade student-led parent conferences.  The teacher has written a clear description of her goals for the project, along with a step-by-step process for creating this 15 page thread.  She includes tips and challenges (but notes that it was an easy project).

VoiceThread has much potential for special needs students.  It allows collaboration which requires no written responses, which can allow twice exceptional students to capture their advanced ideas without the laborious writing process.  It is useful for ASD students who may not participate easily in a group discussion that flows too quickly for them to “jump in.”  It can also be useful for improving social skills for high functioning autistic students; it allows feedback on videotaped role-plays, photos, and other prompts to which kids can respond.   VoiceThread also supports more reflective thinking, since collaboration does not occur in real time.   The platform is so engaging that it may be a useful reward for students on a behavior contract.