Powerful Partnerships

Sunday, September 24, 2017

     As September is coming to a close, we find ourselves back into the swing of things at school.  With a solid month in, we are back to routines and no longer just "back to school."  Those first few weeks are so very busy, and teacher and student exhaustion is almost a daily result those first few weeks.   But now, things are starting to settle in.  We can take a moment and make sure that we have everything in place that we had hoped for for the beginning of the year.

     One thing that I think would be a great point of reflection as we move into October is how we have developed relationships with families.  I have been a teacher for 17 years, and now a parent of school age children for 6 years, and I have come to realize just how important the connection is between home and school.  If we really want what's best for our kids, we should connect both parts of their world: home & school.

     An excellent resource for developing strong relationships with families is Powerful Partnerships by Karen Mapp, Ilene Carver, and Jessica Lander.  Their book discusses ways to connect and communicate with families.  It gives vignettes from teachers and parents, and also video clips to view along the way.

     I was reading it, and I found The Four Essential Core Beliefs for family engagement.  I'm a big core belief kind of girl, so I read this part a little more closely.  They are from Beyond the Bake Sale (Henderson, et al., 2007)  They are:
The Four Essential Core Beliefs
1.  All families have dreams for their children and want the best for them. 
2.  All families have the capacity to support their children's learning. 
3.  Families and school staff are equal partners. 
4.  The responsibility for cultivating and sustaining partnerships among school, home, and community rests primarily with school staff, especially school leaders.
      When I was reading those statements, I'd love to say that I instantly agreed with all four whole heartedly.  And mostly I did.  But there were a few that I started to make exceptions for.  That's when I realized something very important: my own biases and/or experiences should not stop my current and future students from being successful.  The moment that I allow it to be ok that for some kids those statements aren't 100% true, that's the moment that I might stop making connections with families.  Those connections matter for ALL kids.

     It comes back to my own personal mantra, see more rainbows than rain.  (Yes, I Word Swagged myself a year or so ago.)  Many people say it "Glass half full, not half empty."  Seeing your students and families through strength based lenses will help overcome some challenges, even when stress causes us to go towards a deficit lens.  I actually made that Word Swag to remind myself that I believe in "possible."  That even in a storm, beauty can be the result. Having a collaborative relationship with families is definitely possible, though not always easy, but always worth the effort.

     I am a parent.  I really hope my son and daughter's teachers read those 4 statements above, and think they are true of me.  I hope that they reach out and communicate, and that we connect so that my children know that we are a team.  That we are on THEIR team, working together to support them as they learn and succeed.  I hope that when I start to sound like a crazy mom, those teachers are able to see me through a strength based lens, too, and still work together for my kids.  That core belief #1 (All families have dreams for their children and want the best for them.) makes my mom side go into overdrive at times.  I know it.  I own it.  But, it's those conversations about dreams and hopes that will connect us the most.

     Families and teachers, unite!

     How do you connect with families in your school?  Leave a comment below!

The Lightning Thief

Sunday, September 17, 2017

     We were just a few days into the school year, and I was meeting with our assistant principal.  In walks a first year teacher, who had done a few maternity leaves for us the year before, and he says, "Leah, I really want to read The Lightening Thief aloud to my class.  Do you think that would be ok?"

     I had never read The Lightning Thief before, but of course I knew about it.  I knew it was on the longer side, and I almost hesitated, but I also knew this teacher.  If it mattered to him, it would matter to his students.  So, I said "Of course!  When are you starting?"  I figured I would find the book, read it, and give him tips before he began.

     "In 15 minutes, if that's ok."

     "Sure.  I'll be up there in a little bit."

     Slight Panic.

     I ran to another classroom, borrowed a copy, and joined him.  I listened to him read that first chapter to his kids, and I heard his voice become Mrs. Dodds.  Then I went home and read the book so that I could offer coaching support along the way.

     A year later, this showed up in my TimeHop.  It turns out, we both now see that as the day he really became a teacher.  Now, I'm not Mr. Harvey, so I can't speak for him.  But, I'll tell you why I think he became a teacher that day.  He took his own passion, and began to use it as fuel for learning in his classroom.  Teachers who know who they are, and what they believe in, and use that to focus the learning in their class, are often very successful in transferring that passion to their kids.  Here is my view of how that happened with Mr. Harvey.

     It started as a read aloud of a book that he really loved.  It turned into an anchor for the literacy environment of his classroom. 

     After the first few chapters, we decided to use The Lightning Thief to introduce the students to sketchnoting.  We taught them one sentence summarizing and gave them a sketchnote toolbox of strategies, and they were off.  

The sketchnote I modeled to introduce the quest, and digital sketchnoting.
     Once they got that down, we further focused the learning on character development, rather than summarizing, and focused on his quest.  Now, if you teach 4th grade, you probably already realize that the Common Core Standards for 4th ask us to analyze character development and compare and contrast events, like the quest, in RL3 and RL9.  So, that's what he did.  

     When the book was getting a little too long to read, we found a copy of the graphic novel, and started using excerpts of that novel.  What we discovered is that is not only help students visualize the myth based setting of The Lightning Thief, but is also introduced them to the genre of graphic novels, and supported their ability to read them with more rigor.  It also helped his focus on the Greek Gods, and they started close reading passages about those figures that are so pivotal to the novel (more secret Common Core lessons embedded there).

     Then, as the year went on, some of his students started independently reading the other books in the series!  Others were reading more nonfiction about Greek myths.  Some had found a love for fantasy.  Others moved on entirely to different genres, and that's ok, too.  He was still able to refer back to those key lessons on characters, and text comparisons, and how to sketchnote, with The Lightning Thief in mind.  

     To end the year, he actually bought 28 copies of The Lightning Thief, and gave a copy to each of his students with a note.  This year, one of his students actually returned to 5th grade and had that book as her Me Bag item.  It had defined her as a reader, and so many others as well.

     One of my goals as a teacher, literacy coach, and Literacy Coordinator, is to grow READERS.  My goal is not to achieve mastery on the Common Core Standards, though doing so will help them as readers, but we cannot have them as our only target, and forget to inspire our students to actually become a reader themselves.  How can we get our students to see the value of reading?  One of the easiest ways, in my humble opinion, in modeling our lives as readers, too.  

     Do you love reading the sports page?  Show that side of yourself to your kids.

     Do you love comics or graphic novels?  Pass that genre on to your students.

     Do you love nonfiction texts?  Show your students why.

     What is your favorite novel?  If it is grade level appropriate, can you use it to leverage a reading environment in your class?

     Thank you, Mr. Harvey, for sharing a piece of your heart with your students, and in the end creating a room full of readers.  

Number the Stars

Sunday, September 3, 2017

     I woke up this Sunday morning, and discovered that H-Bomb was trending on Twitter.  After reading about 10 minutes of posts, I was ready to allow myself to fall into a ball of anxiety.  (For those of you who know me personally, that actually happens quite a bit.)  But, to quote Senator Chris Murphy from a few months ago from another context entirely, this time I was literally on the verge of nuclear grade bonkers, because this world seems to be falling apart right before my eyes.

     In an attempt to bring myself out of hysteria, I went to social media to find something positive to focus on.  The thing is, both types of news trend on social media.  You can read how the world is falling apart, and how the world is coming back together.  I often tend to read bad news, followed by good news.  Today's good news came from a FB post from Lois Lowry that led to a Facebook live video of Sean Astin.

     Oh, how I love the Goonies.  I was a Walsh myself before I became an O'Donnell.  In fact, Mikey Walsh and I kind of grew up together.  Seeing Sean Astin's character as an optimist who thinks that good can triumph evil, especially when working together with an unlikely team, helped the young version of myself become an optimist, too.  I still am today, thanks to movies and books like the Goonies. 

     Today, I discovered that Sean Astin must be an optimist in real life, as well as in film.  He went on Facebook live to say that it is his dream to turn Number the Stars into a film.  He and his wife have been working on the project for 10 years, because in simple terms he thinks that the message of the books is "Sometimes, good wins."  I whole heartedly agree.

     The world DESERVES to hear this message.

     Number the Stars is a masterpiece of literature.  The themes woven through it are timeless, while the characters and symbols bring us to a time period that we should never forget.  We cannot let history repeat itself, and this book is a wonderful example of war told through a child's eyes.  If we can get children to see the world differently, then perhaps the world will be different.  They are, after all, the keys to our future.

     Whenever I see a student reading Number the Stars, I always ask them what chapter they are on.  If they haven't yet read Chapter 14, I tell them to find me when they have finished it.  Chapter 14 has to be my favorite chapter in all of children's literature.  It's when fairy tale meets real life, when the character meets the Big, Bad Wolf.  The path she takes is dark and scary, but full of memories of stories, and those memories fuel her to do the right thing, even in dark times.  Little Red faces the Big, Bad Wolf, and good eventually wins.

     The world would benefit from seeing Annemarie's story.

     Making movies of a film also tends to increase students reading that title.  By making this film, it would introduce children to the long list of books written by Lois Lowry.  That would be a hidden perk to a wonderful film.  This literacy coordinator/coach would love to see her books in the hands of more students.  In our district, it is one of the choices for our 4th grade mentor text.  I highly recommend it.  If the novel does become a film, using clips of the movie to compare to the text would be an excellent way to teach media literacy.  I can visualize students reading, then viewing, Chapter 14, and having conversations about it.  Chills.