Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What You WOULD Have Seen...

Today our school was besieged with visitors - important people in suits, with reporters and camera crews. Among the visitors were the presidents of the American, Michigan and Detroit Federation of Teachers, DFT Vice-President, Detroit Public Schools new Emergency Manager, and an asst. superintendent. In all I counted at least 15 people, maybe more. This wasn't a surprise visit. On the contrary, we were told of the visit last week with plenty of time to prepare ourselves both physically and mentally. We were even given a schedule of which classes they would observe and when they would come. My 1st grade classroom was on the list, last stop.

I am not new to this profession and this was not the first time my school has been scheduled for a visit. I know there is a degree of uncertainty as to whether the visit will actually take place, if the plan will stay the same and who will actually show up. I know better than to place bets on what will happen come D-Day. So it was no surprise when an apologetic person appeared at my door at the scheduled time to announce that they were running behind schedule and would not make it to my class.

Things like this happen, it was no one's fault, schedules just get behind sometimes. While I was a little relieved, I will admit that what I mostly felt was disappointment. A lot of emotional energy had been invested in this visit, along with a considerable amount of time spent cleaning and de-cluttering. Elementary teachers are solitary creatures by profession - just us and our room full of darlings for 7 hours a day. Most of the time this suits me just fine. However, I get so excited about all the great things we do every day and how much my students are growing I look for opportunities to showcase our class. (see previous blog entry and my invitation to Arne Duncan) An opportunity like this coming at the end of the year, when routines and expectations are established, projects are in full swing and students are filled with pride over their accomplishments was just to good to be true. Alas.

So, as a small consolation, I will tell you just what you would have seen, if you had come to my class this afternoon. To do that I'll start with what you wouldn't have seen. You wouldn't have seen me teaching to a large group, or even to a group of more than 2 or 3 at all. That is mostly done in the morning. Mid-afternoon is the time when we work independently on individual projects, catch up on missing work, get some individual instruction or work in small groups, practicing skills.

At the time of our scheduled visit you would have seen a group of four students at a listening center practicing fluency skills. Today, they were struggling readers who benefit by hearing the week's reading selection read and following along in their book. You would have seen one student sitting off to the side of the room with headphones on practicing this week's spelling words by listening to them with a Califone Card Reader. The card reader allows me to record blank cards with the spelling words. Students then run the cards through the reader, see the word and hear it spelled. They can then run it through on their own and record their own spelling and compare it to the correct spelling.

You would have seen various students around the room sitting with Neo2 keyboards and one at a computer typing the words they wrote to the wordless Tomie dePaola picture book "Pancakes for Breakfast". You may even have seen one student with a red pencil and the printed version of his story, checking for spelling errors, punctuation and making other corrections. And you would have seen one or more of these same students illustrating their story for publishing. Hopefully you noticed some of the already published stories hanging outside our room in the hallway.

If you had looked on the carpet, you would have seen me with a group or 3 or 4 students going over the procedures and rehearsing for our end of the year reflective interviews. Each student was given a list of 6 questions about their year in first grade to ponder and make notes about. The questions are designed to look back at their year and reflect on what they have learned, what they have enjoyed most, the friends they have made and what they would like to do next if we had more time.

After completing the questionaire in groups of three, the students will videotape a "interview" around these themes. One will be the interviewer, one will be interviewed and the third will videotape using a Flip camera. Then they will switch roles. These videotaped interviews will become part of a digital portfolio that each student will take home next week. On the dvd will be scans of their best/favorite journal stories, class videos from our Christmas performance, field trips and reader's theatre, individual videos made for class projects like the interview and television weather reports students wrote, and a slide show of all the photos I took this year.

For the 15 minutes or so that you were in our room what you saw may not have always appeared orderly. It may not have always been quiet. And more than one time you would have seen me running from student to student to give guidance on this or that. You may have even seen a student off task for a minute or so before they caught my attention. But for the most part you would have seen a group of students engaged in challenging and hopefully fun activities designed to encourage critical thinking and problem solving skills.

This is the important thing I would like everyone to take away from the picture of my class this afternoon. I have an unuasually small class this year. In fact, until this week I was afraid to publicize that I have averaged around 15 students since November, lest someone decide to close a class and combine the two first grades at our school. I have been teaching for 22 years and this is the first time I have been blessed like this.

Truthfully, it is the children who have been blessed. In the past my classes have been anywhere from 27 to 37 students. I would never have attempted something like a digital portfolio with that many students. There would never have been enough classroom technology for every student to complete projects. Perhaps more importantly I would never have had enough time or energy to devote to each student, indiviualizing to the degree that I have been able to this year. So excuse me while I step up on my soapbox for a moment. When you start hearing talk about class size and so-called school reformers are talking about how class size doesn't matter, please think about my small class where students have options and materials and attention. And then tell them class size matters, it matters very much.

Special thanks to David Hecker, Mark O'Keefe and Jack Elsey for stopping in for a few minutes to see some of our class videos, because as you know, when you tell children something is going to happen, it's important that it does.

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