Tuesday, February 19, 2013

This Place is Like a Three Ring Circus!

Every year at  Bear Tavern Elementary School we have a very special week; Circus Week! You may be thinking, "why devote a week to the circus?"  Well, I guess I'll need to give a little background to explain that.

In the winter we have artists-in-residence from Circus Kid Productions come in to work with our students.  Basically, our schedule gets blown up and rearranged so that all of our students in K-4 have workshops with with them and the 5th graders work more intensively with them on various circus skills from Monday through Friday in order to put on a circus performance for the entire school Friday afternoon and then on Friday evening for the parents.  Parents sign an agreement indicating that they understand that students must make up work missed when they are out of the classroom for their practices (and we have always had 100% participation in the 10 years I have been at Bear Tavern!)

But why?  It seems like a lot of time to spend on circus skills.  Most who hear about it don't understand until they've experienced the week.  The younger students anxiously await their 5th grade year so that they can be a part of the circus.  The parents eagerly wait for their children to participate since they have heard about it for years and want their children's excited dreams to be fulfilled.

So the question still remains, "why does a school principal value circus week so much?"  Simple; because of the intangibles that are learned during this week.  The best analogy that I can think of is the NFL draft.  When teams are evaluating players for their draft boards, they look at the numbers and the data to find players who are statistically successful players.  However, they all talk about a player's intangibles like character, leadership, perseverance, team-orientation, drive, work-ethic, respect, demeanor, to name a few. These intangibles can often be more important than the stats.  Let's face it, whether your a Patriots fan or not, Tom Brady was taken in the 6th round for some reason and it wasn't just his numbers.  That has worked out pretty well.

The skills that our 5th grade students learn during this week are the intangibles that lead to future success.  Doug and Eric, our circus coaches, bring out the best in our students through the medium of circus skills.  All you have to do is ask anyone who works with 5th grade to find out just how amazing this week is for the students.  I think that one of the most subtle and striking character lessons that is evident from the first day is the support that each student shows for the group.  Everyone is responsible for the success of the show and thus they must take care of one another to make that happen.

This means that when someone drops a ball during juggling or trips during an acrobatic performance, the rest of the group cheers them on and encourages them to keep trying until they get it.  It is heartwarming to hear classmates cheering for one another when they "get it!"  Generally, the normal reaction when some one makes a mistake is giggling or some form of ridicule, but there is none of that.  The boys and girls learn empathy and understand that others feel just like them when they make a mistake.  This makes it harder to find fault and more natural to support.

Another amazing thing that I see during this week is perseverance.  It is incredible to see the focus of the most distracted students when it comes to perfecting the globe walking or diabolo routines.  They are so eager to succeed in this performance and contribute to the overall circus that they practice and keep practicing until they can do it!  Also, we see the emergence of natural leaders.  They may or may not be the best circus performers; however, they help ensure that everyone is on task and moving in the right direction.

This is the week that signifies the coming of spring for me.  I know that Punxatawny Phil has some role in the prediction, but the BT Circus week is the week that I see our 5th graders truly become a cohesive group; they are the epitome of a community.  I think this week also reminds them that they need to support each other when they move up to middle school and have to navigate a larger population.  This year even our 5th grade teachers got involved in the action and performed with the children.  It was fantastic.

We also weave other disciplines into Circus Week.  Our students create artwork that adorns the gymnasium.  Our students write about their circus experience during language arts.  It becomes a topic of discussion in all classrooms during Morning Meeting.

Fortunately, our parents and our PTO see the benefits of this program.  They help to support it by helping children practice at home and helping to raise funds to pay for the program.  If you have not had the circus at your school, I'd highly recommend it!
Enhanced by Zemanta

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Twitter - What's in a Number?

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase
When I rejoined Twitter for the second time to focus on the professional side of the social network rather than following celebs, I never realized the effect it would have on me.  A number of my previous posts are reflections upon various opportunities that have arisen due to my connections on Twitter.  However, I really started to think about the journey this weekend when I received this tweet from one of my Australian tweeps:

We all keep track of the number of followers that we have.  For some it is a fun game, for some it may be competitive.  I am not sure what it was for me until I thought about the above tweet and responded thus:

That last sentence truly sums it all up.  Since I have been connecting on Twitter, I have met, interacted with, and learned with so many amazing educators in the virtual world.  These are people with whom I would likely never communicate if it weren't for what I consider to be the most influential tool for professional development in my career: Twitter.  In addition, Twitter relationships often become live, in person ones via tweet-ups at conventions, conferences, edcamp unconferences, and various other educational learning forums.

So, I guess the number of followers that I have is kind of fun to watch grow; however, I think the number that is really more important is the number of true connections made. I feel lucky to be learning with so many dedicated and innovative educators.  I've been having phenomenal conversations since the first few weeks that I logged on.  Folks like @Cantiague_Lead, @Joe_Mazza, @L_Hilt, and many others helped me understand back then that this was more than just 140 characters and pithy sayings; it is a full-fledged conversation geared toward improving ourselves and demonstrating how important it is to connect for professional growth.

education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)
On a daily basis, I find new resources shared by members of my PLN and I do the same.  Additionally, I can pose a question and get responses from all over the globe.  I am now a part of things like #edcampNJ and #njed chat.  Every time I click the Twitter app on my phone or log in on my computer, I know that I will come away with something new to nourish my love of learning, teaching, and education.  If you are not using this tool for your own professional growth, I can't stress enough how important it is to start.  There are so many resources out there for beginners like:

Using Twitter for Professional Development
Twitter for Educators - Twitter Cheat Sheet
A Simple Comprehensive Guide on The Use of Personal Learning Networks in Education

As for the chocolate confetti?  I sure hope so. I guess, I'll see soon.

***Update Feb. 11, 2013
Hit 1000 followers overnight and there was no chocolate confetti; nonetheless, I am thrilled to keep growing my PLN.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, February 4, 2013

Balancing 21st Century Writing with Tradition

This afternoon we had a half day professional development program.  The district allotted the time in the Elementary Schools for the grade level teachers from all schools to get together and work on creating and preparing for common benchmark assessments.  The grade level with which I worked already finished creating its benchmark assessment in reading for the second marking period.  Over the course of the next week the teachers will be giving the assessment to the students.  So, today we spent some of our time calibrating our holistic scoring practices by reading several passages and real student open-ended responses and scoring them using the NJ Open Ended Response Rubric.  Overall, the group did a wonderful job and was fairly consistent in their scoring of the responses.

While this was a successful exercise and I believe it prepared the teachers for the work of the next week and a half, it was one particular discussion that caused my mind to race for the rest of the afternoon.  One of the teachers was having a difficult time with the responses because the grammar, punctuation, and overall writing mechanics were poor, yet these responses did not receive the lowest scores.  How could this be?

Well, on a basic level it is fairly simple.  These open ended responses are designed to gauge reading and comprehension ability, not writing ability.  There is a writing portion of the test that takes care of that.  So we looked at the rubric and really studied what each of the four points asked and were able to come to agreement on the higher scores even though the writing did not reflect strength in traditional composition techniques.

The reason I wrote everything above was to give background for this part of the post.

Some teachers were lamenting the demise of the rules of writing and saddened by the comment that these responses, which were drawn from an online bank of past test questions and response, made on the state of traditional writing.  As I saw the pain in one particular teacher's face and felt for her (by the way, she is a wonderful teacher and her students are well prepared), I couldn't help but feel a bit differently.

In the interest of full disclosure I must say that I was a high school English teacher and I taught the 5 paragraph essay religiously to my students. I understand the mechanics of writing; however, I feel that sometimes we hold on to the past at the expense of the future.  Let me explain what I mean.

1. 5 Paragraph Essays - When was the last time you wrote one?  I am not saying that we shouldn't all learn to write them, but realistically we learn to write them in elementary school so that we can write them in middle school so that we can write them in high school so that we can write them in college so that we can write them.... where?  Not really anywhere.  I am sure all of the professional essayists out there are quite angry with me right now and I know that learning to write those essays helps me in all of the writing that I do now, but I wonder if I needed to learn that form of writing or if some other form would serve me just as well.

2. Mechanics, Punctuation, etc.- All of these things are important to learn.  Writing generally makes little sense if one does not have a grasp of these concepts; however, sometimes we focus on these things so much that we do so at the expense of thinking and creativity.  Writing is not proper form.  Writing is thinking.  I have brilliant students in my school who will likely be innovators of the future that will change the world; however, if we hold back their creativity because they don't conform to our rules of writing we may never get to see that.

3. Indenting- Another focus of the discussion was the loss of indented paragraphs.  Most of the responses that we were scoring (as well as several typewritten examples we found in a book) were written in block paragraphs with no indentations.  This was troublesome to some teachers.  I made the comment that this particular convention of writing is not as important in many areas of modern writing.  Take the blog for example.  If you surf through many blogs you will find that there are many who indent and many who don't.  The key in blogging is relating to your audience, not necessarily traditional form. (I hope that I am still relating to you.)  By the way, in 2013 blog writing is a more likely activity of the average person than most forms of writing that would require a 5 paragraph essay.

4. Tradition- Now here is the real controversial point.  I would lay odds that moving forward our current students will interact with their writing in an increasingly dynamic fashion rather than a static traditional fashion.  What I mean is that  we are all becoming increasingly comfortable and fluent in the dynamics of electronic reading.  As you read through this post there are hyperlinks to various terms.  These links will take the reader to a different location to gain more information about various topics.  Additionally, there are graphics included in the blog to bring certain concepts to life.  In many electronic writing pieces there are also links to videos that illustrate points in the writing.  What I am saying is that writing has become dynamic and interactive rather than static.  Who knows, maybe even writing in 140 characters or less is an art form to be appreciated by writing teachers?

5. Shakespeare- The works of Shakespeare are considered classics.  I taught his plays and he is one of my favorite writers.  Based upon Shakespeare's understanding that writing was a medium to bring ideas to life whether on the page or on the stage, I have to believe that if he had the tools of the 21st Century at his disposal, he would have exploited those tools.  Hey, not everyone liked Shakespeare's writing as is evident when Robert Greene wrote in Greene's Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance, 

William Shakespeare
Cover of William Shakespeare
"There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."

In the passage Greene is complaining of a young upstart Shakespeare who is an actor that thinks he can write as well as the educated writers of the time.  It sounds like Greene was a bit of a traditionalist and Shakespeare was shaking the foundations of his world. Hmmm...

6. The DictionarySo why does the dictionary keep getting bigger every year?  As time marches on new words are introduced.  We add words to our collective lexicon when they become ubiquitous in our culture. Words like "blog" or "crunk".  If you want to see some that are being considered check out here.  Once again, if we stuck with tradition there would be no progress; we wouldn't be able to just "Google" something, we'd have to "find something by searching with an electronic search thingy."

I guess the point of this post is that I think that we have to remember that some of the greatest developments in language come from accepting the changes that the future brings.  We must defend the rules of writing to a point, but not to the point that we hamper the creativity of thought.  Let me be clear, I know the tasks for which we must prepare our students and I am committed to doing so; however, I would rather see a child who can think, create, problem solve, infer and demonstrate it through a visual representation than one who can't but can write a nice paragraph.  Is that crazy?
Enhanced by Zemanta