Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Never Too Old to Learn

One of the toughest school years is over. We lost two teachers, long-time friends, my daughter’s teachers within a month of each other. Each was planning to retire this year. We celebrated graduation with 400+ seniors stepping confidently into their futures. We lost students, and students lost beloved family members. We raised over $130,000 together as a school, to aide others. We endured our state policymakers’ continued attacks on our profession. We survived.

Along the way, I had nearly 300 students in my class – thousands of books were read, close to a million pages. I kept track of my extra hours (not finished yet reading and analyzing final exams) and am over 450 hours donated to my students and school.

I read over 150 books, most recommended by my students, and carted home fifty or so more to try to read over the summer.

One of my students is the daughter of two former students, connecting all the schools in Norman at which  I’ve taught.

I took a misstep off a school bus and face-planted on our way home from volunteering at Special Olympics. I used ‘closed head injury’ as an excuse for all my mistakes for a week before students told me it was time to give it up.

I know the lessons I hoped to teach, but I know every teacher actually teaches many lessons in unintended ways, but the way we address the class, grade and respond to papers, handle classroom conflicts…

But what did I learn?

·         Time is precious and plans are just that – plans. I learned sometimes we may hold on too long…
·         Young people will rally together for a cause.
·         I can still stay in a dorm (one night only) with a bunch of teen agers.
·         Introduce a volunteer to Special Olympics, and they’re hooked for life.
·         Some hugs are earned only after years of trying.
·         The supreme joy and pride of being a ‘teacher guest’ of an Academic All State scholar. Irene Lim is still perplexed by the fact I burst into tears when she invited me.
·         Most policymakers don’t care what citizens think – we are easy to ignore when ALEC money seems to fuel their campaigns.
·         Schools, in the search for elusive test scores, will sacrifice kids’ artistic lives – my daughter-in-law, a music teacher at a Title I school, was laid off, leaving her students with no one to care for their musical talents.
·         I still love to read students’ Reading Logs and final exams – I pore over them to make next year better.

I learned – relearned – I am in the exact spot I’m meant to be – in S216, surrounded by books and teddy bears and kids. Surrounded by bulletin boards with more kids, and kids of my students…Home.

Next year I’ll graduate with the class of 2013…fifty years after I graduated from high school, I’ll graduate again. Next year will be its own combination of bitter and sweet – I think I’m ready.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Final Exams Can Be Fun

Students will rise to our expectations; we all know this. I expect my students to be deep thinkers, insightful readers and writers. I expect them to predict, make connections, ask questions. I never thought of expecting them to write their own final exam, but that’s what we did last week.

My class, Reading for Pleasure, is a successful English elective at Norman North. For over five years, this is the only class I teach…five sections a day. Another colleague, Kathy Woods, teaches one section. So, in our school of about 2400, we offer 12 sections of R4P a year. Most of the classes are at or close to capacity. Currently mine are 28-31.

I love the freedom to create self-reflective assignments for students – reading memoirs, midterm self-assessments, Reading Logs. I love the fact I can’t give my students a multiple choice test with only one answer. 150 students, all reading different books, reading at wildly different reading levels (this semester 2nd grade level to post-high school), makes it impossible to test kids with the same narrow questions.

In the past I’ve written open-ended, self-reflective questions for my take-home final exam to encourage insights and self-knowledge. I’ve read their work all semester and know the level of thinking to expect of each student. I love reading students’ answers and I often glean hard and soft data about the value of my class from their answers.

Finals are coming and I looked at the different versions of my final. Honestly, I was bored with those questions and knew I needed new ones. I decided to let my students try their hands at writing. I told them by now they know what I value, how I ask questions…they should be able to compose great questions for their final.

I asked each student to write one question on his or her Log to bring to their small group…then with three or four more, they composed two group questions and wrote a rationale for each. With five sections, there were lots of duplicate questions, and many could be combined, making even richer questions. We ended up with 13 strong, interesting questions – interesting for them to answer and interesting for me to read.

The next day I gave students a handout with their 13 questions. We all agreed there were too many questions for students to answer fully, and we decided there would be five required questions, and five they would choose to make their exam ten essay questions long.

They voted on the questions they thought were the most fair, given our semester, and the ones they wanted to write about. They voted on the five they thought should be required for all students to answer. I did explain I would be slipping my favorite question into the mix…prerogative of the ‘oldest person in the room!’ It’s a wonderful question requiring students to read quotes about books and reading, and to connect one quote to a book they’ve read this semester.

More than a week before our finals my students and I already have ours written!  And it truly is ours. Students wrote the questions, collaborated on them, prioritized them. They've already begun thinking of how they'll answer the questions. I posted our final exam on our Moodle website so my early-birds can start working.

My friend, Lisa Hunt, talks often about authentic assessment, and we have hopes that Common Core will expect teachers to find multiple, authentic ways to assess student learning. I think a project like this shows clearly what students have learned, what they value, what they know I value.  The answers I’ll be reading soon won’t be canned answers, playing the ‘game’ of school, trying to figure out what the teacher wants to hear. The answers I’ll be reading will be rich, deep thinking. They’ll be individualized and meaningful. 

Students will tell me how our semester together has changed them as students and readers.
Asking students to write the exam questions already gave me a glimpse into what they’ve learned and what they value, even before they take the test.

I can’t wait to grade my finals!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Special Olympics is my life"

That statement was made by a young man who won the Oklahoma Special Olympics Athlete of the Year. His greatest thrill was to meet Barry Switzer, the honorary coach of SOOK (Special Olympics Oklahoma). My own involvement began in 1980 when I attended a track and field event as an observer. I quickly saw all the fun was on the infield, so I sneaked across the track and have been deeply involved since then.

For the past 20 or so years I've taken student volunteers to the State Summer Games in Stillwater, OK. This year will be no exception. The Norman North volunteers are exemplary in all ways, and several of my former volunteers are now special education teachers. Working with SOOK IS my life, has changed my life, has enriched my life.

This is my favorite story of an opening ceremonies several years ago.

Silence. The blond boy smiled shyly, stepped to the microphone, and raised his violin to his shoulder. The man behind him patted his back for luck and stepped back.

With a bracing breath, he placed the bow on the strings. Clear, soft notes. “Oh, say can you see….” His face mirrored his growing confidence and his determination. Each note strengthened him. I watched in bemusement, trying to remember if I had ever heard “The Star Spangled Banner” on solo violin. Pep bands, jazz bands, full orchestras, rock musicians, yes. But one lone violin simplifying this melody to its very essence? No.

The young boy continued. The audience recognized the song. The melody rang clear and true. I had never heard it so pure and clean. No harmonies or chords. Only the crystal notes of the melody.

A voice joined, singing softly, singing the words we all know. Another. Voices singing in unison. More voices. What began as a murmur rose into a chorus. No embellishments, no vocal fireworks, no mad virtuoso flights of fancy and conceit. Just a solo violin and enthusiastic voices, many far off-key.

The young boy smiled as he heard the reflecting voices.

The song built to its conclusion. Nearly 10,000 voices sang reverently, thoughtfully, never overpowering the single instrument.

I wasn’t singing, caught up in the sounds and the faces. I looked around at these beautiful Special Olympics athletes singing from their hearts—many didn’t know all the words, or the proper melody. They didn’t care, and neither did I. They were participating. They were honoring their country and their fellow athletes here, in this place, for Open Ceremonies of Oklahoma’s Summer State Games. Their sounds were not the skillful work of professional performers, here to be seen and to be heard. They were joining this chorus in love and a sense of togetherness only Special Olympics affords them.

The audience carried the soloist to his last note, held for a long moment.

Then silence. The shared experience echoed in the silence.

The young boy lowered his violin, smiling in relief, only then aware of the size of his audience as they had joined him singing, and now applauding. He bowed once, again, beaming with the pride that only comes with accomplishment.

His guide gently turned him, took his elbow, and led the sightless boy from the stage.