Thursday, March 26, 2015

Using Facebook Groups: Good Idea or Sheer Lunacy?

One nice thing about being a teacher and having your own kids start school, is seeing what aspects of their education you want to add to your classroom. This should of course be even more applicable when my kids enter middle school, but even in preschool and first grade I'm getting ideas from my kids' schools. This idea might be a bad one though.

It's based on something from my preschool daughter's class and my first grade son's school. My daughter's teacher sends an e-mail each day about the class. It is only a couple paragraphs, but it is still wonderful. Not only do I get an insight into her class, but it gives me some conversation starters. My daughter loves to talk about school, but she can't remember what to talk about. Now I can get her going with some informed questions.

At my son's school, they have a school Facebook page and a class Facebook page. This was created by the parents and the teachers are not a part of it. Still, it's really convenient for me to have little reminders about activities that are coming up pop-up on my feed or appear as a notification. It definitely keeps me more in the loop.

My Idea
This has all led me to consider creating Facebook groups for my classes next year. My plan is to do a little paragraph about what we did that day, which I then would, more or less, copy and paste to the other class pages. (Although if I'm feeling inspired, I could say something specific about what happened in class.) If I did this, I would get rid of the blog I keep (which describes major assignments, includes a link to the rubric, and due dates) and instead post assignments on it. I could also use it to send out reminders about conferences, field trips, etc.

Why This Might Be a Bad Idea
This all sounds great, but would it end up being a terrible time suck? And worse, a time suck I start and then can't stop? As I'm looking at going back to teaching next year, one of my goals is to try to be less stressed and perpetually behind; why on earth would I take this on? And, if I did occasionally mention a student's name (which that parent would love), would I have to keep track or endanger never mentioning someone else's kid? Also, some parents don't have Facebook accounts. I wouldn't feel bad that they weren't getting updates, but perhaps that's a problem that they then wouldn't have access to a rubric.

Right now I still think I'll try it. I'm pretty good about writing fast paragraphs, so I think it might not be too time consuming. I really wonder how much people right now, other than helicopter parents, even check the blog I spend time putting together. But once subscribed to a Facebook group, people wouldn't have a choice but to find out. For parents who want to be involved, but either don't want to be too involved or life gets in the way of being too involved, it would be a nice passive way to see what's going on every day. Maybe to make up for the time in updating every day, I would stop posting assignments. I have already given their kids the rubric and if they lost it they can always e-mail me.

I should also add, I only have one real prep (I also have an "Academy" class, but I would feel no pressure to post about that). I am not sure I'd consider this with two or three preps. But still, is this sheer lunacy? Has anyone tried anything similar? Is their something I am forgetting?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Thoughts on How To Improve Homework

Homework seems to be the bane of everyone’s existence. Of course students hate it, but teachers aren't huge fans either. Besides the fact that it can turn into grading, it's really difficult to get right. If you assign too much, you are resented. And students might like it when you don’t give much homework, but then they refer to your class as easy. Additionally, the wide range of skill levels makes it next to impossible to assign a consistent reasonable amount for all students. Now that I’m a parent, I’m seeing a whole other terrible side to HW. It’s sort of like the opposite of TV; it takes up your time and makes your kids miserable.
All that being said, I feel really happy with how homework has gone this year. My son was really struggling at the beginning of 1st grade. It might have mostly been about transitions. I've heard from many parents that going from Kindergarten to 1st grade is a big change. Add to that how my son was switching schools and that he is always extremely slow to transition, and perhaps regardless of what we did at home he was bound to go from having a hard time to doing fine.

Or maybe our homework routine change helped. We started the year by trying to study for spelling tests and doing the random worksheets that were sent home. To keep homework under a 1/2 hour, we were never even getting around to reading. At fall conferences he was not close to meeting for reading or math. Interestingly though,  the teacher said that he didn't care very much about the spelling test and that my son's writing was going fine. So I decided to come up with a HW regime that made more sense for where my son was: reading every day and doing a math worksheet if it came home (and stopping doing most of the worksheets or practicing for the spelling test). Midway through the year the teacher came up to me to say he couldn't believe how much my son had improved. Since then we've switched the routine (after checking with the teacher) to math practice with flash cards and reading.

Again, he might have made this improvement regardless. Still, the following are some aspects that I like about what we did and how applying them more might improve homework in general.

Have parents do the differentiation
Some people I've told about this were surprised that I even could do it: "You don't have to do what he assigned?" Some have also wondered if I might be stepping on the teacher's toes. From my teacher perspective though, my take was he just didn't have the time to differentiate for twenty-eight students. If I want to do most of the legwork, and check with him, he was going to support it. Perhaps though this could become more of a teacher's policy. The teacher works to let parents better know what to focus on, and, in turn, the teachers end up wasting less time trying to craft HW assignments for all skill levels.

Have homework be skills parents can teach
With many of the worksheets, I'm not even sure I'm helping. Like, how much do I correct his spelling? At times with the writing worksheets I wondered if I was actually pushing developmentally inappropriate skills But after reading with him every day, I feel like I have a great idea idea of what he could do and where to push him.

Have parents only focus on one to two skills
I also wonder if there's just something to having the parents consistently focus on fewer skills. He has six and a half hours at school; how can I possibly hope to add much in twenty minutes? Well, maybe if it's the same flashcards every day of the week. And that might be better than jumping around and doing what he's already doing, just for a shorter time and with less knowledge on how to teach it.
How it can applied to middle school 
This will be extremely tricky and I think it would require teaming (where a group of teachers share the same kids). What I notice at middle school, is so much of their homework is just finishing up what they didn't in class. This can result in some quick students rarely having homework and struggling students spending hours finishing various projects. The thing is, for many of the struggling students, I think it would be much more beneficial if they were just reading. Those improved literacy skills might even make those projects go faster in the future.

What if middle school teachers worked to make less assigned homework go home, but instead families worked from a menu of items that fit their kids? These could consist of reading, math practice, grammar, etc for struggling students. And for exceeding students they could work on writing stories, keeping up with current events, logic problems, etc.

Maybe this would cause too much parental involvement for the middle years and I'm sure I'm oversimplifying when applying my ideas to elementary teachers, but I sort of feel like I'm onto something. Too often homework is just repeating what's done at school or finishing what was started at school. How can we tailor it to really fit what parents can be good at helping with and what individual students really need to work on?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Getting Your Kid To Talk About Their Day at School

I usually fail at this, but in my year of taking my son to school there are a few things I've noticed that seem to increase him telling me about his school day.

1. Give Them the Option
When my son gets in the car I often say, "Is there anything you want to tell me about your day? You don't have to tell me anything." He often declines the offer. But when he does share, not only does it feel unforced, but it lets me know what types of things he actually wants to talk about. I also like that it puts the onus on him to speak, while he also has the power not to.

2. Exercise
I could be wrong about this, but I feel like when my son and I walk or bike home from school, he talks more. It sort of makes sense; instead of him spacing off in the quickly moving environs of the car backseat, the energy probably gets him going. I should admit that the sample size is a little low though. We biked until it started raining. And I live in Oregon. He told me a lot those seven days.

3. Try To Find What They Want to Talk About
Easier said then done, right? But it's true. I know from working with middle school students, if I want them to talk, I ask them about their interests. I inquire about the sports they like or the video games they play (yawn) or let them complain about the particulars of their day. There is no back and forth with this conversation; it's just me coming up with ways for them to talk. I can't totally bring myself to fully practice this with my own child, but it's still a good thing to think about. If I really want my son to talk, I should find the details of his day that he would want to elaborate on, whether they have any educational connections at all.

4. Who Got in Trouble
I probably shouldn't do this, but I do find myself asking my son who misbehaved that day. Sometimes he even does impressions of his teacher disciplining the miscreant at dinner. (Karma alert! This has probably happened to me. That is such a horrifying thought that I'm just going to pretend that no student ever brought this up at the dinner table.)

5. It Depends on the Kid
This might seem obvious, but it's always important to keep in mind. Some kids (like my daughter) love to talk about their day and some kids don't. If your kid is or isn't telling you anything, it might have nothing to do with you. More importantly though, different kids react to different prompts. The questioning method totally works with my daughter. Since she wants to tell me about her day, it gives her ideas of what to talk about. With my son I'm basically looking for one question that will get him going, then I kind of sit back. If I ask him anything specific, it seems to throw him off.

So that's what I've found out this year. Is there anything you've found that works to get your kid to elaborate about their day?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Social Studies Common Core Standards Are Great!

Not the normal sentiment you hear about the Common Core standards, right? And, to be clear, I do not know much about the math standards or elementary standards. Also, I am only just learning about the standardized tests that accompany the Common Core, but have some concerns about them being too hard, too expensive, and maybe not so useful.

But I know a lot about the social studies standards. The teacher resources I'm working on this year are fully about them. The series is called Applying Common Core and each book consists of nine activities that, as a whole, cover all the social studies standards (reading and writing). So you can accuse me of being biased or a homer. Then again, I certainly wouldn't have been willing to write these twenty-eight books had I not thought the standards were good. Here are three reasons why.

1. They really aren't controversial
In some ways it cracks me up that people are getting so upset about the Common Core standards. Perhaps it's really just the math and elementary standards, since changing math always upsets people and I have heard complaints from people I respect that the elementary standards push too much academics or end up in confusing assignments. But if they are anything like the social studies standards (and by extension the Language Arts standards, which are derivatives of each other), I'm not sure what the hubbub is about. Seriously, take a look at the 6-8 reading standards and writing standards. Citing texts? Analyzing primary sources? Writing argumentative papers? Revising your writing? Crazy! Honestly, the only offense I can find in them is their overuse of educationalese that makes many hard to understand.
2. They do not affect which historical subjects you teach
 Look at them again. You can apply them to the Civil War, Mesopotamia, or the history of basket weaving. Yes, a teacher would need to construct curriculum with them in mind, but the actual historical subjects one teaches can be anything. This is actually a bigger deal than you might realize. One of the biggest fears of having national standards is the government deciding for a very large and diverse country what is history. The social studies Common Core standards manage to affect social studies teaching without telling states what specifically to cover.

3. They have influenced me to add important social studies skills I was overlooking 
And I feel, if used, that they affect social studies teaching in a positive way. The change on one's teaching is probably individual, since it depends on what your teaching focuses were before. For example, my school has long pushed teaching writing in social studies. So the writing standards are mostly just repeating things I was already doing. But in the reading standards, I had to make some significant changes; ones that I think have made me a better teacher. In particular, I've really liked the focus on teaching with biased texts. Besides being an important skill to decipher what the author's purpose is, it's much more interesting for students than reading overly objective texts. I've also enjoyed adding questions about how the text is organized (e.g. how it is sequenced; what the paper's goal is in the introduction; what is the counterargument, etc.). Not only is this a higher-level thinking activity, but I believe it will make students more conscious of these important structural decisions when they write. Lastly, even though I knew primary sources were important, I had really gotten away from them after switching to teaching ancient cultures from U.S. history. The Common Core standards reminded me to make sure primary sources were integrated into more units.

So there you have it. Another blog about how awesome the Common Core is! Oh, wait, am I alone here?

Friday, March 6, 2015

What Liberals Complain about When They Complain about Schools

One really nice thing about working from home/cafes this year has been that I've felt more in touch with my kids' schools. It's sort of ironic, but as a teacher (which I am most years) it is really difficult to ever pick up/drop off/drop in. Your vacations are matched, which a lot of working parents would love to have, but due to working 7 A.M. to 5 or 6 (with my commute) and having an inflexible schedule (I can't really say, "See you class of thirty, it's my daughter's snack day"), I rarely was at their school.

One interesting aspect to this is talking to other parents and hearing their thoughts on education. A recurring theme I've been hearing is a worry that school will squelch their child's soul. Instead of consternation that their son/daughter isn't being challenged enough, I hear, "They need more time to play," "There's too many worksheets," "I wish it could be more creative," etc.

Here are three thoughts I have as a parent of a 5 and 7 year old and as a middle school teacher:

Who made them pedagogical experts?
My first reaction is a defensive one, especially about the "too many worksheets." First of all, how do they know? They aren't in the room. How many worksheets is too many for a 6 1/2 hour day? Secondly, who says worksheets are so bad? My first year teaching I thought I was above worksheets. We didn't do worksheets; we journaled. Later I realized that all worksheets were not created equally. For me, worksheets usually represented more thought-out questions. A worksheet is just a vehicle to allow students to practice a skill. Some are bad; some are good. I'm an educator, and I don't presume to know what a quality worksheet is for first grade. They have a class of kids ranging from preliterate to reading chapter books. Perhaps the skill at 1st grade is figuring out which worksheet to give.

I kind of agree
I can't get too riled up about this critique though, since I sort of have the same concerns. My son for a while this year despised school. An "I count the minutes until the day ends" hatred. Sending him every day was painful. Fortunately, it passed. But during that time my concerns were solely about him enjoying his time there. Reading? He's going to get there. Math? Overrated. Just make him not hate the next decade + of this life! He is also a fantastic artist and so I prefer any creative outlets the school can provide.

Are teachers aware of this
In these conversations, my teacher self is both irritated (see above) and relieved. As a teacher, I too often find myself much concerned with appeasing the squeaky wheel parent complaining about their bored little genius. It sounds wonderful to instead focus on ways to make my class more creative, light, and fun. A teacher I was planning a lesson with once said, "This seems a little dry. What can we add to make it more fun." I try to always keep this in mind. Making the work interesting, which does often mean adding creative elements, is inherently important (and difficult to do on a daily basis). In a way it's nice to hear that a lot of parents are pushing for this. Perhaps instead of being annoyed by this criticism, I should be wishing their voice could have more impact.

*I could be wrong that these are "liberal"concerns and I'm certainly over-generalizing, but I wouldn't know. I live in an area in Southeast Portland where probably 90% of the parents are democrats. So this is what the liberal parents are complaining about. I'm curious if there actually is a political difference in parental complaints.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Here marks my first post. Let me start with an introduction. From 2000 to 2014 I was a middle school teacher, changing from 8th grade math to 8th grade social studies (U.S. history) to 6th grade social studies. I've taken this year off to write teacher resources and plan to go back next fall.

So why start a blog now? To be honest, the initial impetus is financial, sort of. I want a central place to post the teacher resources and lessons I've written (assuming I can figure out how to link them). But although I might post about the occasional assignment/book I've produced, I plan to mostly use this blog as a place to reflect on education and, hopefully, hear others' thoughts. More than any other year in my life, I feel like I'm on both sides of the mirror in so many ways: as a parent and an educator, as a teacher and a producer of curriculum, and as the parent of two children who I anticipate having very different educational experiences. Hopefully this can result in posts other educators and parents can relate to.

Another goal I have is that the discussion here can be more positive and constructive than the ones I usually see on education. Spending more time at my kids' schools this year, I have been surprised by all the negative comments I have heard about public schools from parents. I guess it's not surprising that people have strong convictions about how their child spends most of their time. Still, I would like for people to be able to give their opinions, while still keeping in mind the many different learners in a classroom. That does not mean I'm hoping for a lightweight conversation. Actually, I find most educational comments extremely light weight, particularly in terms of considering the unintended consequences of a proposed solution. They often seem both shallow and strongly opinionated, an unfruitful combination. Maybe we can do something better here.

That's it for now. I plan to post 1 to 2 times a week and we'll see where it goes!