Junior Great Books: A month of learning & reflection


I have been implementing the wonderful program, Junior Great Books with my group of Enrichment students for a little over a month.  I have had mixed experiences, though none related to the program itself.

Implementing the program has required me to do a lot of reflection on best practices and management issues as well as opened my eyes to some real problems with how my students are and have been receiving instruction during their short academic careers to this point.

The Challenges
The main challenges I am facing are: the lack of a classroom, the size of my group, specific behaviors in my group and the time window I have in which to teach.  I have a group of 17 students in grades 1 and 2, with a range of reading levels.  The only room available to me is a section of tiered rowed seats in our IMC (Library).  I don't have a place for my students to sit in circle or tables or desks to configure to best meet the needs of the program.  The library itself is too wide open to make discussion possible and there is not a table big enough for all of us. I also only have about 30 minutes with my students each day due to transition time (they all come to me from different classrooms and grade levels and I have to take them to lunch, which eats about 5 minutes at the start and end of each period).

I have tried my best to stay true to the program, taking the first day to just read through the story as if it were a bedtime story for pure enjoyment.  The stories are so engaging and well written that the students are always engrossed and attentive. We have also taken time to discuss the guiding questions in the margins of our books on the second day.  We have spent our afternoons (an extra 20 minute period tacked on at the end of the day by our region for 'intervention') creating VoiceThread projects about the stories with drawings done by the students.  We have also worked on the worksheets provided to delve deeper into vocabulary and concepts in the story.

The most challenging part of the program to teach, the Shared Inquiry discussions, has been, not surprisingly, difficult to run without a way for my students to sit in a circle, and with trying to engage 17 students in a discussion.  We have managed to have some great conversation, though it took some real patience on my part to pull the ideas out of them.  Many of my students have been, for lack of a better phrase, spoonfed for many years. They have been allowed to sit back and have the teacher do most of the work while they sat passively and received information*.  In addition, with the stress of mandated testing, many of our students are used to there being a 'right' and 'wrong' answer.  They often look at me with blank expressions, hoping that I will finally give away the 'answer.'   I have been very open about the program, explaining over and over that I don't have the answers, that we are looking for answers together.  I understand that this change in roles from me as the holder of information to them doing most of the work will not happen overnight.  I am open with them that we are learning something new together and I am not expecting everything to come together overnight.

You can see an example on the left of how my students struggle with thinking deeper about the stories in this worksheet filled out by a student. He simply chose a definition from the box and plugged it in under a question. I should add that the third question (which used a word not defined in the box) he did begin to answer with his own thoughts.

The last challenge I have had is something that comes naturally when you have 17 students from different grades and classes coming to you every morning. I have spent the last few weeks wrangling my group back together after a disjointed winter.  We have had to relearn some procedures (such as passing out books and cleaning up), and I have 2 students who struggle with the program's structure itself.  Many of my students complained a couple of weeks ago that 'we don't do anything.'  I explained the purpose of the program and I have explicitly mapped out how each day works and what we do on each day, but for a few of them just sitting and reading is not really doing anything.

After a few student conferences and re-explaining I think we are all on the same page (no pun intended) but I have two students who struggle with just staying in a seat or staying focused.  I have sat them next to me, but it is distracting to the other students. I have tried sitting them behind the other students so they are not distracting, but they tend to wander away from the group.  I also have a point sheet for them that they can use to keep track of their behaviors (being in their seat, participating, listening, etc...) and earn points toward our 'free time' on Friday afternoons.  This has worked so far for one of them, but what the other really needs is someone to sit next to him to keep him on task while I teach, but unfortunately that does not seem to be an option.

Another hurdle has been the overarching culture present in my school that goes against the underlying goals of the program. Many of my students tease each other, pick fights and are not used to Socratic discussion.  This has required me to spend time establishing class norms and expectations as well as addressing issues that my students bring from their different classrooms as well as addressing personality differences/conflicts before we could even tackle the program head on.

I haven't given up, and I am still pulling together ideas and trying new things. Teaching is a Science, after all.

Finding Solutions
I have found some solutions and have had some successes overcoming challenges.  During discussion I found that the best strategy was not to let them raise their hands or try to jump into the discussion, but rather to just call on someone out of the blue and then move on to someone else without anyone knowing who would be next.  Still, with 17 First and Second grade students, a deep discussion can be difficult to hold.  We managed, while reading Arap Sang and the Cranes, to decide that the Vultures were lazy, that the Cranes were nice and that Arap Sang was nice. We even managed to pull proof from the text, but ran out of time to really continue the discussion.  I celebrated with them that we had found answers to our question: "Why do the cranes help Arap Sang, while Vulture and Elephant do not?"

To solve the problem of such a large group discussion I have now broken the group into two groups so that I can work with a smaller group for discussion while the other group works on an independent project.  I also got a great idea from a Great Books trainer, Deb Bowles, who came to 'check in' on those of us at my school who are using the program.  She suggested that I have the other students not participating in the discussion play a kind of 'tic-tac-toe,' keeping track of how many times a boy speaks, or a girl, or how many times a word is said, etc....  I will definitely be trying it! It may even be a way to keep my fidgety students focused for all of our activities.

We have only been doing this program for a few weeks, with many interruptions due to testing, snow days and meetings I have had to attend for my role as Technology Teacher Leader.  I don't pretend to have become an expert, but I feel my students coming around and I also know that I am asking something of them that may have never been asked of them before, so it is bound to be quite a journey.

In some ways, we're in the same boat!

I look forward to seeing how my teaching improves and how my students' independence and confidence grows over the final weeks of the year.


*This refers more to the mandated curricula that has been forced on our school, though it is most likely a mixture of mandated, scripted programs and teaching style has contributed to the problem.
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How Google Might Save My School: An Update


In lieu of all of the wonderful comments on my recent #edchat post, I felt the need to vent some frustrations about the initiative I started with some colleagues a few months back that I blogged about here.

Long story short, I started a Google Group around a school-wide initiative aimed at improving the climate at my school.  It started with about 10-15 members that immediately dwindled down to about 5, which is now close to a measly 4.  Despite the group messages I send out asking for help or asking for input, I am always met with responses from the same 3-4 people.

I held a meeting today. I announced the meeting last Friday, it was in our "Daily Gram" posted at the front counter. I was out sick for two days and came in JUST to be at this meeting.

2 people came.

We were supposed to be hashing out a schedule to bring the School Store (part of the incentive program) around to the classrooms since our previous schedule had been turned on its head by newly mandated blocks of scripted teaching and a change in the grade group meeting times.

Instead, I found myself frustrated and hopeless. I was close to giving up completely.  "We can't do this alone! People want these things to happen, but they don't want to help!"

I thought about some of the comments (including my own reflections) on my #edchat post. Many people expressed how refreshing it was to hold meaningful conversation about relevant topics or how comforting it was to hear that others were also experiencing what they were living in their classrooms from day to day.

#edchat has become a community. A virtual community many of whose members have never met face to face.

This is what is missing in my building. Conversation, connections, community. The 3 or 4 colleagues who have helped make this initiative happen are like my #edchat community. They enjoy collaboration and sharing of ideas, they are open to new things and seem to thrive on it just like I do.  But 4 people out of 45 is not a functional community.

I started realizing that being a principal could be a really hard job. How do you unite your staff and motivate them to take on leadership roles if they are not intrinsically motivated to do so?

It also made me realize how important it is for a school to be able to choose its staff members. Teachers need to work as a team. They need to come to a school prepared for a give and take process.  This means discussion, time and collaboration together. They need to come to school with a common vision, purpose and dedication to a set of ideals.

My #edchat community incarnate.

I'm at a point where I don't have the patience for apathy anymore. Now that I've come across so many passionate people with so much energy to collaborate, reflect and discuss it's hard for me to tolerate anything else.  The teachers will call me in my room: "When is the store coming? It didn't come to me today." But when I ask for volunteers or ideas or feedback, I'm met with silence.

I was close to saying "Let's just close the store." Well, actually, I did say it. My colleagues reminded me that the initiative was for the kids, despite the fact that the adults were letting them down.  We as a committee had made a commitment to the kids, and it was important that we didn't let them down.

We finally decided to create a sign out sheet for the teachers so they could sign out the cart of goodies when it was a good time for them.  We as a committee will be  responsible for stocking the store, keeping it neat and making it available.  We have shifted the responsibility from us to the teachers in hopes that they will take more ownership of the initiative (and in hopes that their students will pressure them to bring the store around!).

I would hate to see this initiative fail, as we put so much time and effort into it and it was successful for a few months.

Now I am faced with the fact that I'm frustrated with my own colleagues and feel unsupported.  What do we do when we feel this way in our own building? (Aside from running to Twitter every Tuesday night at 7pm?)  Does this mean it's really time for me to move on, to find a new community that is more connected and willing to take risks?  What do I do if such an opportunity doesn't arise?

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My Guest Blog Post on Edutopia


I was honored last week to be asked to do a blog post about last week's #edchat topic: "What teaching methods work best with at-risk students?"

Betty Ray has a great guest blogger series going on based around various #edchat topics.

If you are not familiar with Edutopia as an organization or a resource, get acquainted! There are some wonderful resources, discussions and articles on their site and in their magazine.
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#edchat: Making Real Changes


I have been participating in the weekly Twitter discussion, #edchat, since August 2009.  It has been amazing watching the conversation grow and expand, pulling more and more people into the conversation. The topics range from educational technology to best practices in education and schools.  Many times the conversation is heated, often it is inspiring and it is ALWAYS fast-paced.

Many nights I have found my thoughts challenged, or had my beliefs validated. I have learned what it may be like to teach in other parts of the country and the world. I have learned that many of the struggles that I face here in Philadelphia are not isolated to my school or my district. I have also learned that perspectives are very different depending on many factors such as what state, suburb, city or rural town you teach in, whether you teach in a private school, public school, charter school, high school, elementary school or in higher education as well as many others.

Sometimes we get caught up in our own bubble, and #edchat has helped burst that bubble.

That said, there are those who feel that #edchat is a group of educators "preaching to the choir," that it is merely a gathering of like-minded people agreeing with each other and not making any real 'change' in education.

However, I have found that certain #edchat discussions have forced me to think and/or rethink how I teach, what I teach or a belief that I hold. While I may not go back to my classroom and immediately implement something from the night before, my goals and approach to teaching has been influenced by the conversations I've had with others from around the country and the world.

How has #edchat made 'real changes' for you in your classroom, your school, your district or your professional life? 

Please leave a comment below.  I am collecting ideas to share as part of the Real Time Communication and Education panel at the #140 Characters Conference in NYC on April 20th.
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edcamp Philly 2010


Momentum is picking up fast here in Philadelphia for an 'unconference' like no other: edcamp Philly!

When: Saturday, May 22nd

Where: Drexel University

What: An unconference of sessions run by attendees focused around education issues, methodology, best practices and exciting projects.

Cost: free!

This exciting day was inspired by a trip to BarCamp Philly that I blogged about here. Myself and the other organizers of edcamp had never met face to face before, but we decided to hash out a session called "The Social Media Survival Guide for Schools."  It was so fun and exciting that we felt that teachers would benefit greatly from the experience.

Thus was born edcamp Philly.

So what is an 'unconference?' It means that the day's sessions aren't predetermined--attendees sign up to run them at registration time--it means that attendees run sessions and attend them as well. It means that you can 'vote with your feet'--if you don't like a session, you can find a different one to go to. It means there's no corporate sponsor booths or vendors, it means that impromptu discussions are everywhere and are highly encouraged.

For more information about edcamp or to register, check out the website: http://www.edcampphilly.org

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Just last week my friend Chad Sansing challenged me to respond to his blog post, #EduThingsILike. In his post he listed things that he would like to see in schools, districts and education as a whole. His post was in response to Tom Vander Ark's post Things I Like.

Here are the things I like in education:

  • I like educators who work together as a team to serve their students.
  • I like administrators who listen to their teachers and their parents.
  • I like parents who are invested in their child/ren's education.
  • I like when schools allow students to have a say in their learning process.
  • I like when teachers take on leadership roles in their own schools.
  • I like district leaders who are in touch with their schools and teachers and meet their needs.
  • I like when teachers and administrators take risks in the name of better teaching their students.
Let me know what kinds of things you like in education!

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    Shame on You, Newsweek


    I have been subscribing to Newsweek magazine for almost 5 years now.  I look forward to each week's thought provoking articles and commentary by smart, educated and well-informed journalists. This doesn't mean I always agree with everything I read, but I enjoy the discourse nonetheless.

    I was appalled, however, to unfold this week's cover as I pulled it out of my mailbox.  The Key to Saving American Education with We must fire bad teachers written over and over on a blackboard like the intro to a Simpsons episode. (When was the last time a teacher actually used this method of punishment, I wonder?)

    I turned to page 25 and began reading.
    Much of the ability to teach is innate--an ability to inspire young minds as well as control unruly classrooms that some people instinctively possess (and some people definitely do not). Teaching can be taught, to some degree, but not the way many graduate schools of education do it, with a lot of insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy.
    These two statements back to back make absolutely no sense. In one sentence, the authors state that the ability to teach is innate and then proceed to blame schools of education for poor teaching skills.

    The article is rank with these kinds of non sequitur statements. The sentence following the quote above states, "...within about five years, you can generally tell who is a good teacher and who is not."  What they don't mention is the fact that many young teachers, who graduate from these programs with 'insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy," don't receive any kind of support within their first years of teaching to help them become successful teachers.

    The article should state: "....within about five years, you can generally tell who can teach themselves how to teach and survive their first few years alone to become a good teacher."  I say this from experience as a teacher in one of the schools the authors keep referring to.

    Over time, inner-city schools, in particular, succumbed to a defeatist mindset. The problem is not the teachers, went the thinking--it's the parents (or absence of parents); it's society with all of its distractions and pathologies; it's the kids themselves. Not much can be done, really, except to keep the assembly line moving through "social promotion," regardless of academic performance, and hope the students graduate....

    How is this an issue with teachers? How does this statement justify the authors' viewpoint that we need to fire bad teachers?  To me, it's a perfect description of how the problem is NOT the teachers.  First of all, letting parents off the hook is the worst thing a school can do. Second, did they mention that this 'society' often comes with hunger, violence and hopelessness? Did they mention that most teachers don't WANT to push kids through an assembly line, but are forced to by district constraints on what to teach and how to teach it?  Did they mention that the poorer performing a school is, the less freedom teachers have in what they teach and how they teach it?

    In my school, teachers only 'teach' for about 2 hours a day. Students spend over 2 hours a day receiving scripted Direct Instruction programs mandated by the regional superintendent. So is it REALLY the teacher's fault if these programs don't work?

    Then, of course comes the school model of Biblical proportions: KIPP.

    KIPP schools don't cherry-pick--they take anyone who will sign a contract to play by the rules, which require some parental involvement.
    Another non sequitur.  Isn't that the definition of cherry-picking? Being able to only include people who 'play by the rules?'  Which require some parental involvement. Translation: If you aren't involved in your child's education, you're not welcome here.

    Translation: regular public schools get overwhelmed with all of the students and families who don't play by the rules.

    One more. This one is about Teach for America.
    Her idea was to hire them for just a couple of years, and then let them move on to Wall Street or whatever.
    How does this help make a point for how wonderful the TFA program is? This is followed by, "Some (about 8 percent) can't hack it, but most (about 61 percent) stay in teaching after their demanding two-year tours."  What the authors fail to mention is how long this 61 percent stay in teaching as well as what kinds of supports are in place to support these teachers. ("We provide the training and ongoing support necessary to ensure their success as teachers in low-income communities."--from TFA's website)

    In addition, the authors state:
    It is difficult to dislodge the educational establishment. In New Orleans, a hurricane was required: since Katrina, New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public-school system was wiped out.
    In Philadelphia, we are experiencing our own hurricane: the Renaissance School Initiative.  What the authors don't state is what "educational progress" means. Does it refer to test scores? Filling classrooms with highly-qualified teachers? School climate? Improved buildings and improved school environments? No one knows what these schools will look like in ten years.

    Granted, there are some statements in the article with which I agree.

    For one: "Many principals don't even try to weed out the poor performers..."  I also agree that unions need to stop protecting bad teachers. For their own sake. It's those 'poor performers' that make the rest of us have to work harder.

    I also agree that we need to ensure that we have highly qualified teachers in every classroom. However, it's not the teachers' fault that there are ineffective teachers in the classroom. The hiring process in Philadelphia is ridiculous.  Principals cannot always choose all of their staff and are stuck with whoever shows up in August.

    In addition, teachers enter the classroom after taking classes, passing some tests and spending about 6 weeks in a real classroom.  Often, student teaching is done in a suburban school, but the new teacher finds him or herself in an inner-city school, completely unprepared for what he or she faces on a daily basis.

    When it comes down to it, I am disappointed that Newsweek's cover story was so poorly written, poorly argued and contained such generic cliches.  I look forward to reading the comments on the article as well as any letters printed in next week's edition.  I hope someone can explain to me how this article ended up in the magazine.

    For more reflections on this article, check out Larry Ferlazzo's post: Did You Know That THE Key to Saving Public Education is Firing Bad Teachers? There are some great comments there, too.

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    All You Need is Love


    J is often in trouble. He is often reprimanded. He stands on chairs. He can be mean to the other students. He fights. He gets angry easily.

    He is also very bright.

    J is in my reading group every morning and every afternoon. I have been working with him and his father to help get his behavior under control so he can focus on learning.

    Yesterday, out of nowhere, he leaped into my arms, nearly knocking me down and exclaiming, "Ms. Hertz, I love you!" To which I replied with a smile, "If you loved me, you wouldn't try to knock me down!"

    Today, he got angry. He kicked the lunch basket, which I quietly told him to fix. Which he did. He got angry at the computer and walked up to me, stamping his feet and yelling, to which I calmly replied, "Please stop stamping your feet and change your tone of voice. You're yelling.  That tone of voice will not make people listen to you." After a few times of repeating this, he finally calmed down. "The stupid computer won't work," he said. "Well, I can help you with it, but how do you tell me that you need help?" "Put my flag up?" "Yes." He walked quietly over to his computer, put his flag up and sat down. (I have laminated tags that attach to the computers with velcro.)  I went over and helped him and he continued to work quietly.

    Later, while I was working with a student sitting next to J, he began yelling in the same tone of voice as before. I shot him a look. He put his hand over his mouth and responded, "Sorry Ms. Hertz, I'll never use that tone of voice again." I gave him a high five.

    I could have yelled at him when he kicked the basket. I could have yelled and reprimanded him when he was stamping his feet.

    This would not have helped.

    As I ran on the treadmill at the gym later in the evening, it came to me. J needs patience. He needs someone who will care about him and work with him despite his flaws.  Maybe I won't teach him higher order thinking skills or reading strategies (though he already has a very inquisitive mind), but I can give him patience.  Right now, that's what he needs. And love.

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    Save Trees: Don't print me!