Sunday Dialogue: A Talent for Teaching

I am positively giddy over my New York Times 7-Day Home Delivery and Unlimited Digital Access, which I purchased as a gift to myself for all of my hard work this year.

How poignant that today’s Sunday Dialogue discusses what makes a talented teacher! I enjoyed reading the readers’ comments (some of whom are students, some veteran teachers, and some Teach for America “folks”), as they caused me to reflect on my own teaching practice.

This year, my students have shown a great deal of growth in standardized reading test measures. In fact, predictive assessments show that my special education and ESL students have grown by an average of 11% on measures of grade-level reading assessment (moving them from the “Warning/Failing” NCLB category to “Needs Improvement”), with several students showing growth of 20% or more (almost “Proficient”). Additionally, my students have very high attendance (around 95% or so).

I am a sixth year public school teacher, yet I had several years of experience working with children and young adults as an after-school music (piano, voice) instructor as well as experience tutoring college students in ESL. Also, throughout graduate school, I worked as a substitute teacher in the Boston Public Schools, where I currently teach (and plan to teach for a long time).

So, what has shaped me as a teacher and what has made a difference for my students?

1) Mentorship

When I was a student teacher for four months in 2006, I had the great fortune of having Dr. Berta Berriz as my practicum supervisor. This incredible, strong woman possessed a doctoral degree and a NBPTS certification, and she had diligently served for 27 years in the Boston Public Schools as a classroom teacher. How inspiring to work with a veteran teacher who had continued her professional growth and developed her practice over three decades. I worked alongside Dr. Berriz in her classroom, and I found her methods for teaching reader’s and writer’s workshop and building students’ identities as scholars to be positively inspirational. To this day, I incorporate her style of writer’s workshop in my own classroom.

I made up my mind to follow in her footsteps. After becoming an ESL teacher, I pursued my special education degree (just like Dr. Berriz) and I am currently pursuing my National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification. Six years ago, I also made a promise to myself to stick with teaching for 30 years, by any means necessary. I want to be that teacher in the future who teaches her students’ children and maybe even their children’s children.

For the past three years, I have also had the incredible opportunity to work with Mrs. Deborah O’Shea, a middle school teacher and teacher leader who pursued her Reading Specialist license while serving at our urban public school. Mrs. O’Shea recruited me at a difficult time in my career, after I had been asked to reapply to my position at a highly dysfunctional “Turnaround School” and had refused. Mrs. O’Shea encouraged me to continue my professional development and strongly encouraged my enrollment in the MGH Communication Sciences and Disorders Reading Specialist CAS program. This program has not only developed my knowledge of reading expertise, but it has also provided me with a network of like-minded literacy teachers and speech and language pathologists who value knowledge of phonics, decoding, fluency, comprehension, and oral language development as essential elements of classroom instruction. Mrs. O’Shea has been a continual source of encouragement, and she shares my pride in my students for each and every academic and social achievement that they make.

2) Quality Professional Development

When I say quality, I mean research-based. There is a breadth of educational research literally at our fingertips (http://scholar.google.com – Most articles on this site from leading educational journals are accessible from the Boston Public Library website with a library card number and PIN number).

There is absolutely no reason for professional development of any kind that is not research-based. Be skeptical of what you spend your time on and look for the research to back it up. There are tons of “educational products” available for sale. Be wary of “white papers” and research by corporate entities themselves. Look for the citations of research from universities and esteemed professional organizations (i.e. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, The International Reading Association, etc.) when you attend a presentation or seminar.

The best professional development for me has been self-selected graduate courses and programs, as well as a fantastic training provided by our district and taught over several weekends by Connie Henry and Bruce Kamerer on examining the base-10 number system to develop number sense.

I consider the gold standard of professional development to be the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Certification in which teachers examine and reflect on their practice through the careful examination of student work and videos of their teaching in the classroom. Teachers completing this certification must submit a dense portfolio, which includes 4 extremely dense 14-page essays that include description, analysis, and reflection, and they also must pass a rigorous three hour examination that consists of six essays about the content and practice of their certificate area.

Basically, the more I know about teaching and research, the better I can teach my students.

3) Rigor

My students have a lot of challenging work, every day of every week.

They are required to read aloud in our classroom, and they are graded on their decoding and prosody. I assign passages from class novels or selection on articles, and they practice at home, using dictionary.com to perfect pronunciation of unknown words.

My students complete essays regularly using process writing. Every day in my class, they are writing at least a page or more, single spaced. Sometimes they are writing answers to comprehension questions. Other times they are reflecting on a class project. Other assignments include writing, revising, and editing drafts of longer assignments.

What is my classroom management strategy? I provide difficult assignments within the students’ zones of proximal development, and I supply a great deal of encouragement and support. (At this time of year, I can be frequently heard saying,”You know how to do this. I have given you the tools you need. So, reach in the toolbox of your brain and use them!”).

4) Celebration, Joy, and Arts Integration

This is my “warm/fuzzy” side. After we work hard, we party hard (but still maintain our academic focus).

I celebrate students’ achievements. This can be as simple as a high five or a small piece of candy. After students performed in a play, they received certificates, and I put a video of their play on YouTube. When students publish a collection of essays in a book, we celebrate with a publishing party at which students read their work aloud and then they have an opportunity to autograph one another’s books.

After the first and third quarter, students who receive passing grades are invited to special field trips to 826 Boston, a local writing center, and then, they are treated to ice cream at McDonald’s (not the healthiest, I know, but it’s a special treat).

Arts Integration brings excitement and joy to my lessons. Again, this can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. For example, when we studied the concepts of compression and tension, we “acted out” the diagrams of an arch bridge and a suspension bridge in our reading by pushing and pulling of hands. We have constructed a tetrahedron with brightly colored paper in order to explore geometric concepts.

I sing out “Hy! Potenuse” in a silly voice, so that my students can remember the word. I teach using evidence in writing through having students “act out” a weight lifter. Evidence bulks up your argument, just like a weight lifters weights make him strong. A visual image of a weight lifter with rippling muscles is posted on an anchor chart in my classroom that reminds students to “bulk up” their argument with evidence.

One student told me,”When we laugh, we laugh hard, but when it’s time to work, we know you’re serious.”

5) Parental Involvement

My students’ parents are urban immigrant families who work. They are also caring and dedicated parents who love their children and want the best for them. We keep in touch regularly through text messages and phone calls in English, Spanish, and my terrible version of Portuguese-Cape Verdean-Criollo mixed with a splash of Spanish and a dash of made-up words.

At the beginning of the year, students are given syllabi that have my picture and contact information on it and their parents must sign the syllabus, so they at least see who I am. After first quarter, students select their best work and write reflections. Parents are then invited to attend Student-Led Conferences to show their work to their families and to set academic goals for the remainder of the school year. I had 15 out of 18 families from my grade 7 and 8 ESL 3 class attend these conferences.

Conclusion

I will close with one of my favorite quotations: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” I learned this from working with Patricia Suriel of the Mariposa DR Foundation in the Dominican Republic. For my own practice, I interpret this quotation to mean that I do not need to wait around for an administrator or policy maker to tell me what to do.

I will continue to seek out best practices and apply them to my students and teaching. Teachers do not need to wait around for an official or administrator to approve their work or to tell them which program to use. If teachers collect data on students (notebooks and file folders with dated assignments – make your students write the date on everything!) to show their progress, teachers have evidence to show that students are learning and growing. I have found that if I get good results and act professionally, I will be respected and not micro-managed.

Teachers cannot wait for the government or an organization or even the New York Times to tell us what is best for our students. We all can have a critical eye and examine the research on our own. We can look at data (student work) every day, and see what is working for Angel, what is not working for Clayton, what is working for Natalie…no one else knows the children like we do.

We must become experts on the students we serve and learn practices that serve them well and inspire them to take on difficult assignments and challenge themselves academically. Our students are our future. Will we cloak our future in bureaucracy and petty debates? Or will we forge a path of values, hope, and success? We are the ones we have been waiting for, and we can do this.

Being Bostonian: How We Make Boston Strong

Dear Readers:

 I am very pleased to share my students’ latest e-book publication with all of you. It is titled “Being Bostonian: How We Make Boston Strong”, and it is a collection of essays which share how our students, their families, communities, and our school contribute to the City of Boston’s strength. My students have worked diligently to create this publication for Mayor Menino and the Boston Police Department as a humble thank you for all of their courage during all of the recent events.
In a time of great uncertainty, this collection of essays serves as a powerful reminder of why I teach. The students’ writing is expressive and sophisticated, capturing their identities and their dreams for the future. I cannot believe that I am so privileged to work with this group of young people.
Thank you, Jennifer Dines
Being Bostonian (download)

N = 1: Are We Serving the Student in Front of Us?

Last night was the first night of my Reading Diagnostics class at MGH Institute of Health Professions, where I am a student in the Reading Specialist program.

Our professor presented a fascinating concept to us: N = 1.

She said that, when teachers complete academic assessments and instructional plans with a student who we are serving, the sample size is 1. Just 1.

Although researchers utilize larger sample sizes to study trends among groups, those who directly serve children must focus on serving each individual student in the classroom or clinical setting. This means that, although some classroom techniques or clinical practices may serve most students, it really only matters if the services provided to a student work for that particular individual.

She likened the practice to doctors selecting a medicine for a particular patient. Just because a certain type of prescription works for most patients does not mean that the particular medicine will work for the one patient who we must consider as an individual entity, in and of himself or herself.

N=1 makes me feel validated in my approach to students.

I have difficulty examining trends in data about my students – I prefer to take the time to look at each child individually.

I applaud success, and I become very concerned if a child is not thriving, even for a moment on a particular day. I  analyze the many factors involved, and I often follow up with a conversation with that student. Did you eat breakfast? Lunch? Did you sleep last night? Did something happen in the hallway? the bathroom? in homeroom? Did you understand the directions? How do you feel? Did the lesson make sense to you? 

I have learned that I cannot assume. There are many reasons for students to have a “bad day” or a “bad class” at school. My job is to optimize the classroom factors I can control at school for that student and to let the student know that I will never give up on him or her no matter what. Who cares if something works for most students? Different things will work for each and every child in front of us, and we need to take an individualized approach to provide a bridge to  progress and growth.

N must equal 1.

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Week 2

Before beginning The Artist’s Way, I would wake up and instantly reach for my laptop. First e-mail account. Second e-mail account. Third e-mail account. New York Times. I would start the day by drowning my brain in communication with others. Well, The Artist’s Way has changed all that, and now the first thing I do is slide out the drawer of the bedside table to pull out my gold and red Chinese print fabric-covered journal and my InkJoy retractable pen and write down three pages of whatever comes into my mind. Since I am sleeping well for the first time in years, I actually have dreams that I can remember. I usually begin by writing those down, and then I write down whatever else is on my mind. Rather than infecting my brain will e-mails and advertisements, I am beginning the day by slowly massaging the thoughts from my mind and onto paper. It feels great.

Week Two focuses on rediscovering one’s own identity.

The second week of The Artist’s Way focuses on recovering a sense of identity through exploring self-definition, creating boundaries, and exploring one’s personal needs, desires, and interests. Ironically, these themes are something that I periodically I focus on with my own students, yet it never occurred to me to take the time to examine them for myself.

On page 43, Cameron states: “As blocked creatives, we focus not on our responsibilities to ourselves, but on our responsibilities to others. We tend to think our behavior makes us good people. It doesn’t. It makes us frustrated people.”

Prioritizing taking care of others over self-care is an extremely easy trap for those in the teaching profession or any human services career for that matter. In my teaching career, I feel an extremely compelling passion for and responsibility to my students and their families. However, there came a point last year when I began to felt burnt out or, as one friend said, like I’d been put through “the old-time, old-fashioned wringer”. I had spent nearly a decade putting my responsibilities to others over spending time taking care of myself, and I found myself feeling short-tempered, moody, and exhausted. Interestingly, since focusing more attention on myself, I feel more clear-minded, energetic, and self-assured, and I am better able to assist others with my stronger sense of self.

In this chapter, Cameron carefully cautions the reader to be wary of “poisonous playmates” and “crazy makers” in one’s life. She encourages the recovering artist’s to avoid those who diminish our self-worth and increase our skepticism and self-doubt. And she asks the provocative question: “What creative work are you trying to block by staying involved [with those who make you feel terrible and insane]?”

The Endangered Art of Browsing

A few years ago, I attended a meeting at the newly renovated local branch of the library. I arrived early in order to give myself some time to browse. The building, where I had spent many a meandering Saturday , had been closed for some time due to the renovation, and the formerly musty and carpeted interior had been transformed into an airy modern space with brightly-colored furniture and slick tile floors. But something about the new building made me uneasy. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I stared at the shelves, racking my brain to locate the source of my discomfort. And then it hit me.

Where are all the books?

Browsing results in unimaginable possibilities.

Browsing results in unimaginable possibilities.

It wasn’t the new shelves or the brighter space. There were really and truly disturbingly fewer books occupying the shelves. I felt as if I had arrived home to find my house redecorated and my family members missing. The old collection hadn’t been replaced with newer volumes; there were just a sparse number gracing the shelves. But this was a library – a place for books – it was not supposed to be  just some beacon of modern architecture with a couple of novels dusting the shelves.

I attended the meeting in the “community” room, and I sat uncomfortably in the hard plastic chairs that had replaced the wooden and chipped seats of yore. I tapped my foot on the floor beneath my seat impatiently as I waited for the moment when I could ask the question that was pounding on my brain.

When I finally inquired about the missing pieces of the collection, the woman who served as the central library’s representative made a startling revelation:

“When we packed the books, we didn’t seal the boxes properly. So, water leaked in and damaged the books. We had to discard them.”

I asked,”So, when will you replace them?”

“Oh no, we won’t be doing that. We are adding to our digital collection anyway, so people will have more access to e-books. The branches will eventually be open less hours due to budget, but we are doing so much with our electronic collection…”

Her voice trailed off in the background of my mind. All I could see was red, and all I could hear was static. Well, how the *beep* am I supposed to browse here now?

The result of browsing through magazines while waiting at the doctor's office.

The result of browsing through magazines while waiting at the doctor’s office.

I am not a technophobe, nor am I a stranger to biblio-centric social networking or from ordering books online, but browsing is an essential part of my life. I can never spend just a few minutes in a library or bookstore. The shelves of books pull me in like a magnet, and I need to spend a little time visiting at each one.

On Saturday, I lost myself for an hour or so, existing only within the confines of Music Espresso, the New England Conservatory Bookstore. My fingers pushed back one piece of sheet music after another, as I searched for the particular piece I wanted.  I prefer the editions with thicker, darker covers with opaque cascades of notation printed on buttery yellow paper, a hint of the past from whence the music came.

After locating the two pieces for which I had searched in the bins sorted by composer, I crossed the room to a taller shelf containing novel-length books about the practice of music. The Art of the Courtesan. Hmm, I never thought such a book would have existed.  I took out my iPhone and opened up the camera app.Click. Capture that title, gonna share it with my husband. I turned the back of the  book over to read the summary. The Phonetic Alphabet for SingersWhat? Is there such a thing? That’s fascinating…I want to find out more about that. I thumbed the pages, enjoying the flip-book effect of quickly viewing the different phonetic symbols. Click. The Alexander Technique. Oh, I totally forgot about that. I haven’t thought about the Alexander technique since college. I should look into that again.

An idea I had forgotten, rediscovered through browsing.

An idea I had forgotten, rediscovered through browsing.

There is a very specific delight in finding a book, an idea, that you had never imagined would have existed. Recommendations based on previous reading are useless to the browser’s curiousity. I liked The Diary of Anne Frank because of the earnestness of the writing, because it’s a peek into someone else’s world. I don’t necessarily want to read about every book ever written teenagers in the Holocaust. I already have a great Italian cookbook in The Silver Spoon; why would I need three more books on the same subject? These types of recommendations are useful for the aspiring expert, but they are exhausting for the established thinker who craves new ideas and deeply hungers to become lost in thought rather than engaged in some neurotic fact-finding mission.

Interacting with a book through browsing allows you to experience the gestalt of the book, to view the cover, the summary at the back, to experience the true volume of the book’s surface, to thumb through with the soft light reflecting off the pages. It is a tactile and sensory experiences: the pages breathe as you turn them, the cover art may attract you to a topic you had never thought about before, the delicate steps you take from section to section, cradling books of interest in your arms while enjoying the quiet tranquility that naturally occurs in a library or a book store.

An idea I hadn't know had existed, a browser's gold.

An idea I hadn’t know had existed, a browser’s gold.

A digital collection, while offering many benefits for research, cannot provide the same sensuality as an afternoon spent between the shelves full of glorious paper books of all colors, shapes, and sizes, adorned with images, ripe to the touch and full of juicy new ideas just waiting to be explored. The journey of browsing offers no pre-planned destination; it is an adventure into the land of ideas.

Ongoing Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Week 1

Mom: What did you do today?

Jenn: Well, I went on a date with myself, my artistic self.

Mom: (knowingly) And how did that go?

Jenn: Well, I got dressed up. I wore the shirt that you gave me for Christmas. I went to a café by myself, and I downloaded piano music and listened to it for an hour.  I think we’ll probably go out together again. (laughs)

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Self-dating, which the author calls “Artist Dates”, comprises just one of the unique tasks that Julia Cameron suggests will heighten the readers’ creativity and build their relationships with their creative selves . The Artist’s Way consists of 12 weeks of creativity courses, each with a discussion followed by a series of ten short tasks based on that weeks concept. For example, week 1, titled “Recovering a Sense of Safety” discusses negative self-talk regarding one’s own artistic endeavors as well as examining relationships that have either repressed or championed creativity throughout one’s life time.

In addition to the ten tasks, Cameron’s course also requires a commitment to both daily Morning Pages, three pages of long-hand free writing composed first thing after awakening, and weekly Artist Dates – spending time with one’s self for a couple of hours each week doing something creative.

Thus far, the program is encouraging me to pursue the creative work that I enjoy – writing, playing piano, and cooking – as the author points out that unless we ourselves are doing these creative acts, they will not happen.  She also highlights the importance of letting ourselves “try it to see what happens”. Although I do this with my own students, I often neglect to provide this sort of encouragement for myself. I have also been practicing yoga daily during this time. Between the tasks in Cameron’s book and the yoga classes, I have a sense of peace and my mind has been cleaned enough to allow creative thoughts to enter and creative tasks to occur.

For example, a few days ago, I practiced piano for about three hours straight without even realizing where the time had gone. I faced a difficult piece that I have wanted to play for the past twenty years – this piece has literally plagued me and nearly whispered to me: “You are not technically proficient enough to master me.” I even remember that a friend’s sister, two years younger that me, played this piece in a concert in high school. When I asked her if it was difficult, she said,”It’s not that hard.” As if my question was totally ludicrous. Nevertheless, I have been fearlessly practicing it this week, with many wrong notes, and I feel like I am confronting a demon.

At the end of each chapter, check-in questions encourage the reader to assess whether or not they have completed the week’s tasks, Morning Pages, and Artist Date. Although I have never been much of a person for New Year’s Resolutions (I felt affirmed when my yoga teacher offered that the resolutions we make often do not reflect and in fact actively work against who we are meant to be in this lifetime), this book does seem fitting for the time of renewal and rebirth that occurs at the start of a new year.

Citation: Cameron, J. (2002). The artist’s way. Tarcher.

Note: This book came out over a decade ago; I encountered it on the shelf at the library while browsing. I would expect that many libraries nationwide carry copies. Try before you buy!

 

Change Agency: The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

On a snowy New England Sunday, The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, a 40,000 square foot monument to children’s literature, rests atop frosted grounds nestled inside the Pioneer Valley. The decade-old museum offers several galleries full of picture book art, a children’s library, a café, a bookstore, and a performing arts space. Additionally, the building hosts a packed schedule of arts and literature-based activities for children as well as professional development workshops for educators.

A Very Hungry Caterpillar Car is parked at the entrance.

A Very Hungry Caterpillar Car is parked at the entrance.


Galleries

As in a traditional art museum, curators have neatly mounted the featured pieces at eye level. However, the plaques displayed to the left of each illustration do not necessarily contain information about the artist. Rather, the plaques present a quotation from the text that the illustration elucidates. Benches in each gallery contain boxes of picture books connected to the displayed works, and many visitors go back and forth between looking at the walls of the gallery and browsing the picture books to locate the images in context.

A display of illustrations from a Caribbean retelling of Cinderella

A display of illustrations from a Caribbean retelling of Cinderella with text to the left and illustrations to the right.

Short blocks of text encourage close reading.

Short blocks of text encourage close reading.

Illustrations illuminate the language of the story.

Illustrations illuminate the language of the story.

Unfortunately, visitors are unable to take photos in the main galleries due to issues with the preservation of the artwork; the images above were displayed in the children’s library in a smaller exhibit that featured digital prints from variations of “Cinderella” and “The Three Little Pigs”.

Reading Library

An incredible library of picture books sits at the back of the museum. Tables feature selected display books and accompanying activities.

Library Book on Display: Pezzentino (Italian for "little piece") is a small orange cube that searches for his place in the world.

Library Book on Display: Pezzenttino (Italian for “little piece”) is a small orange cube that searches for his place in the world.

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Library Book on Display: Ganesha the Elephant breaks his tusk while chomping on candy, and he needs help from Vyasa the poet. An accompanying worksheet encourages the writing of an “epic” poem.

Printables from publisher’s websites accompanied both Pezzettino and Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth on the display table.

The Bookstore

Book lovers, leave your wallets at home! It’s a bibliophile’s heaven (or hell, if the bibliophile in question is low on funds).

A modern retelling of Strewwelpeter

A modern retelling of Strewwelpeter, a German cautionary tale

Illustration School series: step-by-step instructions on how to draw really cute things

A volume from the “illustration school” series: step-by-step instructional manuals on how to draw really cute things

The Hungry Caterpillar Bookshelf

This attractive display case featured seasonal books.

This attractive display case featured seasonal books.

Mission Accomplished!

The museum provides a space for "anyone interested in the art of the picture book".

The museum provides a space for anyone “interested in the art of the picture book”.