Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Useful Accidents.

On Monday afternoons, my daughter has gymnastics. That evening, I planned to make flatbreads for dinner but in order for that to happen on a gymnastics night, I needed to make the flatbreads the day before or the morning of, which I didn't. So after gymnastics, we made a quick stop at the store to pick up a pizza crust. I grabbed a package of thin crusts, and headed to the check-out with the kids. As I put our items on the belt, I realized that I had inadvertently grabbed two packages! I thought about putting the extra one back, but then decided I could just throw it in the freezer to have for next time.
Fast forward to dinner prep and I opened one of the packages of pizza crust. To my annoyance, it was moldy! As I opened the second one, I prayed it would be edible. And it was. The irony was not lost on me--if I hadn't accidentally grabbed that second package, and decided to keep it anyway, we'd be having a dinner crisis. And if I hadn't opened the moldy one first, it would be in the freezer right now, waiting to give me an unpleasant surprise the next time I decided to make a pizza!

So, what do you make of it? I always say: everything happens for a reason! (Needless to say, I made a quick run to the store this morning before work to return the moldy pizza crust...)

{Click the orange slice for more stories over at Two Writing Teachers}

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lessons of Adulthood

If you've ever read Gretchen Rubin, you are familiar with her Secrets of Adulthood--the seemingly small lessons we learn in the process of becoming an "adult." When I was a kid, or even in college, it seemed like my parents had a manual for dealing with life. In my ripe old age (not really--I'm only 36!), I realized that the manual is self-written. Every day, you learn a new rule when dealt a new challenge.

Here's what I learned yesterday, and don't laugh!

The dishwasher has a filter that can be removed and cleaned. 

Okay, so it's not a major revelation, but in some ways, it's a game-changer. My dishwasher hasn't been behaving efficiently. I thought it was just because it's not really a top-of-the-line dishwasher. But when I noticed some food stuck to the bottom of the dishwasher, I leaned in to remove it and noticed that it was actually stuck to the rim of something that had arrows indicating Open and Close. It was slick with grease, so I grabbed a towel and turned the rim. Out came a filter, the mesh coated with a thin layer of white grease and some soggy greens stuck to the inside. If ever there was a moment when you expect to see a light bulb literally appear over someone's head, this would've been the moment!

I gave it a rinse under the tap, and replaced the filter. I turned the dishwasher on this morning before I left the house, so we'll see if there's anything to be gained from this lesson!

Secret of Adulthood: Most appliances have mechanisms that allow for simple home maintenance to keep them running smoothly.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Back to School!

We've been in school since August 26th, so Labor Day Weekend felt a little anti-climatic. I will be happy to see the hot weather go, and welcome the cooler days of Autumn. As it is, the mornings and evenings have been cooler even if the days have been very warm, or downright hot. I'm thankful to work in a school with air conditioning! I remember the hot classrooms in my old school in the Bronx, and it was not pleasant. The heat made the students lilt, and it was hard to motivate for learning. 
Now, I look forward to going to work, knowing that I'll be comfortable as I work with students and help the literacy coach set up new systems for making intervention tools available to teachers (which is something I'm excited about and is a whole other blog post!) 

So, hi-ho, off to work I go in this un-back-to-school-like weather. 

{Click the orange slice above to read more SOL stories!}

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Winding Up.

Though I haven't been a classroom teacher in over 7 years (as long as I taught now, I just realized!), the prospect of the first day of school makes me giddy. Of course, I had grand plans this summer to do some work-related reading and writing for the new school year but par for the course, it didn't work out that way. I'm facing a lot of unknowns in this coming year--everything from my schedule to the work I'll be doing. 
Before school let out for the summer, there was talk that my role would be expanding to include reading intervention along with writing intervention. I'm excited about this but I also don't know what to expect as the program is being revamped, and I haven't been part of that planning process this summer.  With work off my mind, I've taken advantage of our flexible schedules, with no pressure to do something or nothing. 
Last week, I got a letter in the mail about a district-wide convocation which will feature Taylor Mali as the keynote speaker. And with that, my mind is back on school and wondering what the new year will bring. In June, I brought home my notes and journal with the goal of reviewing them and making notes for the upcoming year.  That will probably be the extent of my planning and while it's a strange feeling to have no concrete plan at this point in the summer, I recognize that is the nature of my new role as a paraprofessional...which I guess is not so new anymore, is it?, with a school year under my belt already. 

{Click the logo above to read more #SOL15 posts from other slicers!}

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Exit Slip

It's hard to know what to write, on this, the second to last day of school, for me. This year was big, as you readers know. I went back to work, I moved from being a classroom teacher to being a paraprofessional, so much growth and learning happened for me this year.
I spent much of the year feeling insecure, wondering if I was doing things the "right way," knowing that there was so much I don't know, trying out different strategies and ways of teaching, crossing my fingers that something would stick, being nagged by a feeling that I should be doing more even though I'm only here 20 hours a week.
But I'm ending the year on a high note, with a positive evaluation from the higher-ups, and some changes in the works for September that will allow me to do more meaningful, deeper work with the kids. As I pack up my room for the summer, and sorting through things to keep and things to chuck, I'm doing the same with the content I taught this year--what worked and what didn't work, keeping a list of ideas I want to carry over to next school year, and new things I want to try.
And because I will always be a teacher, I know part of my summer will be spent thinking about these things, and doing some "teacher" reading, and I don't mind at all!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Getting Down To Brass Tacks

I often feel a sense of urgency when the kids walk into my room for writing intervention. Twenty minutes is not a whole lot of time, and in this season of testing and field trips, (and before that, snow days!), I get even less time with the kids. At the beginning of the year, I started intervention sessions with a Do Now-type activity or a quick jot but began to shuttle that in favor of getting right to work.

Even if I get there fast, I still need to take it slow. I didn't know it was possible to spend twenty minutes working on just a few sentences, but it is, I've discovered.  When I reframed my thinking to approach intervention on the sentence level, I poked around the internet for ideas and examples of this in action. Specifically, I was trying to figure out how to scaffold this small unit. Why focus so much on the sentence? For one thing, working with a whole piece of writing can be overwhelming. It can be hard to know where to start when the entire piece is riddled with poor sentence construction, grammar mistakes, and a lack of elaboration. And there's also this, from Doug Lemov:
Over the past few years I’ve come to believe more and more strongly in the power of the sentence as a tool for developing proficiency in reading and writing.  The fundamental problem, for students who don’t write or read as well as they could, is often that they aren’t good enough at creating sentences that capture the nuances of a complex idea or the relationships of complex ideas and they similarly fail to successfully untangle the nuances and interrelations in such sentences when written by others. 

So, how do we scaffold sentence construction? The same way we scaffold everything else for kids: I do, We do, You Do. In Lemov's Art of the Sentence, that means providing sentence starters. It is important to model well-written sentence, and to make these models interactive so that students can get a feel for how to write a well-crafted sentence. Training wheels, if you will. In his post, Lemov shows how, in the beginning, sentence starters are generous and as students begin to gain skill, the starters become more sparse.

But I also want students to understand how elements of a sentence relate to each other, and that means teaching straight-up grammar. In a session with a student that I see for elaboration, we went through a piece he wrote, sentence by sentence. In each sentence, we identified, where used,  the independent clause, the dependent clause, and subordinate conjunctions.  If we want students to write complex sentences full of specific detail, breaking the sentence apart like this allows students to see the opportunity for refining a sentence. The student was also able to see how adding or changing punctuation marks would alter the meaning of the sentence. And in the cases where there were two dependent clauses, with no independent clause in sight, parsing the sentence made that error obvious.

In my haste, however, I've often forgotten to focus on the most important aspect of these intervention sessions-- the strategy itself. Though I know I need to first develop background knowledge, discuss the strategy and model the strategy, according to the principles of SRSD, I often rush right to the implementation of the strategy. It's overwhelming and counterproductive--it really beats the point of intervention in the first place, which is to move the kids towards independence. With only four weeks left in the school year, my sense of urgency is growing but like I told a teacher today, quality over quantity.

I continue to grow and learn in this new role as a interventionist, and I'm really thankful that I've had the space to do that, that it's not just me figuring things out. The literacy coach with whom I work brings years of experience to her position, but she also is figuring out what RTI should look like in this new context-- a part-time paraprofessional, limited to periods of the day when students are not in core classes or taking specials. But we're teachers. Somehow, we get it all done.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

#Rhizo15: My First Thoughts

Oh, yes. Look at me, posting twice in one week... like I said, it's been a slow week because of testing. 

And speaking of testing, I learned about #Rhizo15 in my Twitter travels this morning. My very uptight and anxious nature is completely uncomfortable with the concept of Rhizomatic Learning, developed by Dave Cormier. It's one of these things that sounds intriguing to me but also makes me squirm with insecurity. Where's my roadmap?!

But there is only the sketchiest vision of a map. I can work with that, though.

Back in 2004, I took a road trip through the Andes with a few friends. We rented a pick-up truck in Quito, Ecuador and took off for Guayaquil. Have you ever driven through the Andes? Probably not, because it is not possible to drive through it. You have to drive around it. Around and around and around and around. Higher and higher and higher, then lower and lower and lower. You get the picture. Here in the US, we have the luxury of well-lit highways and road signs every few miles that reassure us that we're headed in the right directions. You can pull off the road if you need to pee and grab a bag of gummy worms. In the Andes, not so much. Those curvy roads are the width of a one-way street but are meant for two-way traffic. And there are no lights. And there are no road signs. The "map" we got was a picture of some lines that showed approximate locations of some major cities. Were there even any distances on it? I doubt it.

It got darker and darker as we wound our way around the mountain. Then, it got foggy. Driving through a cloud forest in the dark on a twisty road with no guardrails is not for the faint of heart. Also, we were fighting off feral dogs that kept trying to jump into the truck bed. (Not kidding.) So, what did we do?

 Mike drove, and I leaned out the window shouting "right, left, right, left," so that we would not take a nosedive off the side of the mountain while Sue and the other Mike fended off the dogs. Then, a truck with bright headlights appeared behind. We quickly pulled to the side to let the truck pass and then followed that truck's lights all the way down the mountain, matching it's every turn until finally we coasted into a sleepy town on the outskirts of Guayaquil, in the earliest hours of a new day.

That was a nice anecdote, but where was I? Oh, testing. This week, Dave asks what kind of learning can't be measured?  What should we be counting?  The very nature of my job requires me to measure and track everything, as a writing interventionist. I count how many words students write in a given period of time, I count how many different types of sentences students construct in a piece of writing. I count how many words have been spelled incorrectly. I count how many pieces of punctuation have been missed. And I track it all, looking for upward improvement.

But is there anything valuable about writing intervention that can't be counted and charted? Maybe. How about the realization that adding an exclamation point completely changes the tone of a sentence? Or that a comma can alter the meaning of a sentence? How do I measure the intensity of the lightbulb that flickers on in those moments? I don't think I can, but I'm sure it counts!

Emily Purser asks:
Meanwhile, the powers that be at my institution are of the 'questionable' variety of view that a valid indicator of our 'performance' as educators would be to count the number of hits on our website.... if only they were kidding. Not only that, but it's a website we didn't design, and that doesn't represent my work in ANY way that I find meaningful or accurate! please. But what are they supposed to do? - they're being given silly spreadsheets from on high will boxes to fill with numbers. They could stop being so compliant, and shout "a pox on your box!"... but then maybe there is something sensible to measure, that we can supply instead? 

Is the trouble with the tools, or the tradesmen?

I say, it's a combination of both. True, valid measurements of what students are learning requires time, money, and wherewithal. School administrators are typically short on all three.  Packages and programs produced by publishing companies are alluring. It makes things neat, systematized, standardized, reproducible and easier to think of skills as widgets. I get it, I really do and I freely admit that having a program makes my life easier too. After all, I get twenty minutes a week or every other week with each student. Efficiency and effectiveness become important, even when I know that kids need time and space to delve into the messy work of writing. I strive for balance, and work around this by focusing on the micro elements of writing-- the sentence, the word, the puncutation.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Shaping A Vision for Push-In Writing Intervention

A working lunch. 
It's been a slow month for me at the middle school, because of SBAC testing, so I've had a lot of time to reflect on my first year as a writing interventionist, and how I will use what I've learned so far in the next school year. Yes! It's only April but I'm already thinking ahead to September. Why? Because this next month and a half presents limited opportunity, amidst our busy schedules, to connect and plan with the literacy coach before we part ways for the summer.

When I came into this role back in October, I was at somewhat of a disadvantage. First, I wasn't around for the first month of school and didn't have the opportunity to connect with the grade-level teams or plan ahead with the literacy coach, or assist her in identifying students who needed Tier 1 or 2 support.

Secondly, I was a replacement hire. The teacher that was originally in my position served in this role very differently and had a different relationship with the English teachers. (The job description changed at the time I was hired.) So, this meant that I had to negotiate a new understanding of the writing interventionist role with the classroom teachers, while at the same time, no one was really 100% sure what my role would look like, since it was a new position.

Third, and most significant, I was and am transitioning from being a full-time classroom teacher to a part-time writing interventionist that works with a small group of students on a narrow scope of writing skills individualized to each student. What does this mean? It means that when I taught high school English, I was more of a generalist. With 175 students, I inevitably gravitated towards teaching to the middle or upper middle of my classes, with very little time for differentiation, despite my best efforts. I also spent much of my time in a reader response mode with the students, and instead of delivering explicit writing instruction, I taught the 5 paragraph essay and "taught" writing via margin notes on papers and the use of "formulas."

As a writing interventionist, I do what every English teacher wishes she could do in the daily running of her classroom. It's basically a dream job but I've had to shift gears-- I still think in terms of the big picture but I also have the luxury of zooming in on the little details within the picture that help students with the micro elements of writing--the sentence and paragraph level, in other words. It's like the Slow Movement of education.

This year, I did a combination of push-in and pull-out, though it did take me awhile to figure out what push-in for writing support might look like, since students typically don't spend a whole period working on writing, nor do many teachers have any regularly scheduled writing routine. This, I understand from my classroom teaching days but now, with the benefit of hindsight, experience and observation, I see that there are probably many ways to make writing happen every day in the English classroom, even under the constraint of 45 minute periods. Some of this writing might be low-stakes and some might be high-stakes. Steven Covey says we should schedule our priorities, and not the other way around. If we value and prioritize writing, then it can happen everyday and there are many, many teachers who do exactly that. All writing counts! I had to remember this, in order to realize that push-in works with low-stakes writing too. Journaling or doing sentence exercises at the beginning of class, during the Do Now, presents an opportunity to reinforce the skills and strategies that students have been working on during intervention.

So, what does push-in look like for a writing interventionist?

  • Non-intrusive
  • Non-disruptive
  • Follows the lead of the teacher and the flow of the classroom
  • Sometimes, I'm crouching desk-side, supporting students with a specific part of a task, like sentence construction. 
  • Sometimes, I'm sitting with a small group of students, all working on the same task, and offering guidance as they work through it. 
  • Sometimes, I am walking around, ready to assist any student, not just the ones I see for intervention. 
  • If possible, I check in with the teacher before I come in, or as I'm entering the room. 
  • Sometimes, I am sitting in the back of the room, observing the lesson and taking notes, so that I can model the same language used by the teacher and teaching points during intervention sessions. 
That last bullet point is particularly important, as it is helpful to know what students are doing in class, so that I can be consistent and provide continuity during intervention sessions, in order to avoid confusion. Whatever strategies I give to students, those strategies must work within the framework the teacher uses in the classroom. 

I have another month and a half (thanks to all the snow days!) to work on this model of push-in support for writing intervention, to learn more lessons about balancing push-in with pull-out, and to begin to develop toolkits that students can access during class, whether or not I'm in the classroom. (I'll share what I've learned about toolkits, specifically in an intervention setting,  in a future post, as that is still under development!) 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

When To Hold 'Em and When to Fold 'Em?

As a writing interventionist, I see my students for 20 minutes a week. For some students, intervention happens every other week. It's kind of maddening but it can't be helped because of the way the school schedule is structured. 

One of the challenges of this schedule is the time spent on a piece of writing. I'm finding that working on an essay might not be the best use of my time with these students, only because it takes many, many weeks to finish a standard 5 paragraph essay. Right now, two of my students are working on persuasive essays. We are looking at elaboration strategies and how can they be used to develop ideas and organize an essay. Trouble is, we've been writing these pieces for so long, it is starting to feel tiresome, stagnant and boring! We ran out of steam awhile ago but I feel compelled to follow through and finish the piece. 

So, the question is: should I stop working on these pieces with the students? And if I do that, how do I close it out or explain why we are leaving the pieces incomplete?

I do know this: I need to rethink what kinds of writing I can realistically accomplish with my students in the limited time that I have, without dragging it out forever. Paragraphs are great writing practice but when a student needs to work on organization, a paragraph won't suffice. Time to get creative! 

{Click the orange slice above to see more Slices of Life at Two Writing Teachers.}

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I think I'm Gonna Like It Here...

On Saturday afternoon, when my 6 year old daughter wished aloud that we could go see Annie, I impulsively said yes. Normally, I would beg off or find some excuse to not take them out to the movies, and spend a whole bunch of money on tickets and popcorn and candy. But that day, I said yes. So, I found a theater that was offering Annie and saw that we had time to make the matinee. I had babysat two nights before so I had a little extra spending money for this treat. The promise of a movie, popcorn, candy and a date with Mommy was enough for my girls to break a speed record in getting dressed to go.

And go we did. Alice, my 6 year old, was held rapt by the film the entire time while my 4 year old, Stella, started to get restless in the last half hour (thanks to the overlong previews!). As the movie came to it's resolution, Alice turned to me and said "Mommy, I can't stop crying," and truth be told, I was a little weepy too! I'm a sucker for a happy ending, and I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Stella, not one to be left out, reported, "There were tears coming out my eyes, Mama."

The movie might not be the most well-written movie but it was engaging and had plenty of climaxes to keep the girls interested, and invested in the movie's outcome. I thought about how this is true in getting my kids interested in books. Right now, Alice is not reading what I would consider Caldecott Medal-worthy books but they get her reading, and connecting with characters. It's been thrilling to watch her emerging literacy, and learning to verbalize her response to a text. be it a movie or a book, in increasingly sophisticated ways!

Alice's favorite song from the movie:

{More Slices Here! https://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/2015/01/20/an-invitation-sols/}

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Best Gift.

For Christmas, my husband and I decided to gift each other with a class we each wanted to take. My husband wants to take a blacksmithing class, and eventually learn to make knives. I fully support this creative endeavor and am happy to support him in a hobby that takes him away from his computer, which he sits in front of all day at work, and a lot of times, when he gets home, too.
As for me, I wasn't sure if I wanted to take a writing class or a class in mending and hemming. One is a structured creative outlet that I need, and the other is a skill that I would like to learn. In the end, I decided on writing. This past Sunday, I found myself at a writing workshop in Bethel, at Byrd's Books. The workshop was led by Judith Marks-White, a local author.
It's been a long time since I took a writing class, and I wasn't sure how I'd do. I knew that she would ask participants to share their writing, if they wished but I thought I'd be too nervous. We gathered at tables set up in the middle of the bookstore and were asked to choose from a list of prompts, and write for 20 minutes, maybe more. It felt like a long time!
And write I did. I had an idea right away after looking at the prompts, and wrote a story that had been working away in my mind for a few weeks now. Having the time and the space to write was a blessing, as I didn't think I would ever be able to get the story down on paper.
But I did. I wrote, and read what I wrote, to myself, and wrote some more, did a little self-editing, and wrote some more, until I felt that I had something to work with. I listened to fellow workshoppers read aloud before gathering my nerve. I read my piece aloud in a shaky voice, testing the tone of the piece.
The feedback was positive and affirming, and I felt like it was genuine. It was not really a setting for hard criticism but I didn't feel that people were "just being nice," one of my constant fears when I present something I've created. I felt encouraged, and motivated to keep working on my story until I have something that can be shared with the world at large.
Best Christmas ever, I think.

{Read more slices here: http://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/share-your-story-2/}

A TWW Tracker

Part of my job requires me to set goals and track progress for each of my students. Some of my students are working on their writing stamina, which is measured by Total Words Written (TWW) on a CBM piece. I was having a hard time finding a chart that students could use to track their own progress towards a goal, so I decided to make one for myself. The tracker is a Word document so you should be able to edit the document to fit your own needs. (The goals listed on the sheet are based on my district's numbers.) Just click on the image below, and you'll be able to download the Word file from my Drive.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

So Little Time. So Much Intervention.

Photo Credit: PearsonSchool.com

One of the challenges of being a part-time writing interventionist is that I'm only available to students twenty hours a week, and not even all of those hours because of their class schedules. Since I started this job, I've fallen into the habit of comparing my current position with my former one as a full-time classroom teacher. One of the luxuries of being a full-time teacher is being able to experiment and try out new ideas, knowing that there's always another period, another day, to reflect, take stock and decide what direction to go in. When I see a student for 20 minutes a week, I don't have the luxury of time and getting it right feels more critical, more urgent. As a teacher, I'm used to developing my own materials and drawing on my own experiences to create meaningful lessons and opportunities for learning. As a writing interventionist, I'm learning to rely more on materials that have already been published. Instead of using my creativity to construct materials, I focus on delivery and engagement.  Even there, I feel pressure to get it right the first time. Maybe that seems unfair, to put that kind of pressure on myself, but with only 20 minutes a week for each student or each group of students I see, it feels imperative to stick my landing, so to speak. And I'll admit, I am less amenable to the idea these days that I should take my work home. Quite frankly, for the money I make, I am going to leave my work at work. When I was a full-time classroom teacher, my job occupied so much space in my brain, and I spent hours upon hours outside of work thinking about my students, developing materials and planning delivery.

My secondary task as an interventionist is monitor the progress of my students, and when it comes to writing, that can be a bit of a challenge.  First, I have to figure out what skills my students need to improve, then I have to figure out how to quantify or measure those skills, in order to show an improvement of those skills over time. For some skills, like spelling, that's pretty easy. Using a Curriculum-Based Measurement (CBM) approach, I can simply count up correctly spelled words (CSW). Other things, like organization, are more open to interpretation and require a qualitative analysis, such as looking for logically ordered ideas. In that case, there might be more than one answer, so I have to decide whether the student grasps the concept of organization in an essay and point to specific lines in the student's writing that demonstrate this, and of course, this will be different for every student.

In my school, we are following an Response-To-Intervention (RTI) model, which is new to me so that has been another challenge in this position. Not only am I learning about this model but I also have to figure out how it applies to writing. There is a wealth of information online about using RTI with reading and math intervention, but less of it for writing, I'm finding.

But as I've said, I'm really excited about these new challenges, and I'm happy to have been able to find a position doing what I always wanted to do when I was a classroom teacher--work closely with students and give them the attention they need and deserve.