On coffee and curriculum

Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back on Starbuck’s coffee menu.  As a coffee purist, I have surprised myself at how much I enjoy these “liquid autumn” beverages, as my friend calls them.  Perhaps it’s more than the flavored coffee that I’ve come to love; perhaps it is all that they have come to represent.

A new school year is underway, and by these weeks in mid-September, I have come to know more than 80 new students with whom I will have the privilege to learn over the next nine months.  We are settling in together with new expectations, programs, and lessons.  In our school, sixth grade is the first year that students experience learning with netbooks at their fingertips all day, and the immediate research is exciting.  Validity, reliability, and responsibility are words that are quite familiar to them already.  Together we’re maneuvering a new online math program, ALEKS, and we’re discovering all that it has to offer in terms of individualizing math education.  With our first sixth grade writing assignments, the challenge of composing a quality thesis statement has brought us some 1:1 bonding time during writing workshops.  We’re reading for pleasure and for purpose, responding with an appropriate degree of “textual evidence,” as emphasized by the language arts common core standards.

As we read some current events during our non-fiction Friday session this week, the 10th anniversary of the attack on our country came up in the discussion that ensued.  One student commented, “Oh, yeah, my mom told me that story.”  It occurred to me just then that, to these 11-year-olds, 9-11 is now his”story”, and it is incumbent upon all of us to help them understand how history truly shapes our nation and ourselves.

Teaching is not, nor can it be, a one-man or –woman job, so while students may call me their teacher, I know that I am but one of many teachers in their young lives.  It takes the right combination of perspectives and experiences to shape young minds.  If done well, it becomes a perfect blend.  Maybe that’s another reason why a long-time coffee purist has come to love the added flavors of a Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Grande – Non-fat – No whipped cream – Please.


imagesSummer break officially begins today for teachers in our school district.  There has been much discussion about education and educators especially during the past year, and the public perception seems to be that teachers  have it pretty easy with those three months off every summer.  While it is true that we do enjoy some time off during the summer, it is certainly a misconception that we have three months “off.”

If one were to look at our school calendar, the last official teacher day for 2010-2011 was yesterday, June 8, and the first official teacher day for the 2011-2012 school year is August 11, equating to just a bit over 8 weeks (2 months).  Beyond that technicality, however, these eight weeks are prime time for us to gear up for the new year.  My  agenda this summer includes the following personal learning opportunities that will undoubtedly translate to enhanced learning for students:

  • meeting with colleagues to plan curriculum and common assessments
  • re-reading Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, as part of our all-staff summer enrichment
  • attending a literacy workshop at Purdue University, where Kelly Gallagher is a keynote speaker
  • working with Dr. Joyce VanTassel-Baska from the College of William and Mary and colleagues from throughout the State of Indiana to write language arts curriculum units that align with common core standards.  (I will have the opportunity to “field test” the sixth grade unit in my classroom next year.)
  • re-organizing and purging over-stuffed cabinets in my classroom . . . a yearly event that never seems to yield the results I hope for
  • writing additional math lessons to integrate student use of a Bamboo pen and tablet to accompany their netbooks (Thanks to 3M for the grant toward this engaging opportunity for students!)

Just as I suggest that my students do, my summer will also involve learning opportunities beyond the classroom. I will read for pleasure.  I will visit my son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law in Washington, D.C.  We’ll tour the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, and the monuments in 100 degree heat with tens of thousands of others.  I’ll work in my garden and try new recipes in the kitchen.  My husband and I will also lie on St. Augustine’s Beach and let our minds clear.  We’ll probably over-indulge at some good restaurants and ride our bikes the next day to work off some of the damage.  We’ll visit our family in Illinois.  We’ll watch the Cubs lose and bemoan their existence, but we’ll continue to be fans.

The first week of August will arrive, and I’ll wonder where the summer has gone.  I will begin my 29th year of teaching, still loving the profession and the new batch of sixth graders with every ounce of my being.  That’s just what educators do, and that’s just how educators feel.  But for right now, it’s summertime.

Testing . . . can you hear me now?

do not disturbIndiana students are in the midst of state testing this week, and this time of year brings about much reflection for me. Mostly, I think about what standardized testing does not measure. I’d like to believe that most Americans are well aware of the limits of such tests, but recent political agendas lead me to believe otherwise. Standardized testing does not reflect many of the accomplishments of our students. This is just one week’s glimpse of what goes on in our schools on a regular basis.

  • Eleven sixth graders from ZMS were awarded semifinalist status in the national Letters About Literature reading/writing contest. They will be honored at a reception at the State Library on Saturday. Two of those students ranked in the top three places in the state, and Dominic R. was among the top 14 letters nation-wide. He wrote to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemmahttp://www.in.gov/library/lal.htm
  • A cadet teacher from Zionsville High School, Rachel Bing, has been helping in my sixth period literature class. Her lessons revolve around a book she read to the class, Undercover. Students wrote letters to the author, Beth Kephart, who is featuring the students’ letters and Rachel’s email exchanges on her blog. Authentic audience at its finest!
  • Hundreds of parents, students, and other important school supporters flocked to our annual Spring Fling Arts and Film festival last Thursday evening to view students’ artwork, film productions, and class projects. For a cakewalk at this event, sixth graders created hundreds of beautifully decorated, delicious cakes that raised over $1300 for neuroblastoma research. The final charity (A.N.N.A. Fund) was their collective decision after researching and ranking many of their favorite charities.
  • One hundred twenty track team members brave our unpredictable spring weather each afternoon to run, jump, throw, and hurdle.
  • Band, orchestra, and choir students performed in spring contests, and more first place trophies grace our display cases.
  • A look at our school calendar this week shows a busy schedule of extra-curricular events, including Saturday’s Z’Run, sponsored by our PTSO. Don’t forget to register at www.tuxbro.com!

This is far from a comprehensive list of students’ work. Outside of school they are involved in local and travel sports teams; they take music lessons; they attend church events; they baby sit, dog sit, house sit, mow lawns, and spread mulch. They are kind, loving, respectful, young people . . . the majority of the time! ; ) And a standardized test won’t reflect this part – the biggest part – of them.