Express Yourself

Be who you are and say how you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.
--Dr. Seuss

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

New Ideas Are Flowing...Javier and Juanita

I thought that I would have a chill day at work. I thought that I would take some time to relax after a very stressful last two days. The chill, however, never happens on Wednesdays. On Wednesdays, the students have two specials periods of 45 minutes. They attend a health fitness and art class. We  get that time to plan and have data conferences. We planned what we would do with our Math groups next week. That meant that I couldn't get the letters to send out to parents for the parent meetings, make copies for Math or Reading, or get to take some time, create, and think. I need the morning time to be my time to relax, unwind, and allow the creative juices to flow. I wondered how the rest of my day would go. Usually if my morning is off, then I am off. Not good.

When my students came back from specials, I got back into the pre-testing flow. This flow I really enjoy. It brought me back to why I love teaching. It put me in an incredibly wonderful mood. I reviewed with them the analysis pyramid created by Alana Morris.
We went over the parts and how it relates directly to the reader and writer within each one of us. I was amazed at their ability to expound on each one so effortlessly. I loved the discussion that we had around craft elements, structure, tone and mood, and language. This time we were able to go even deeper with the theme and thesis as well.  Then we read for 15 minutes. Everyone was enjoying their time to read. When time was up, they complained that there wasn't enough time. They then found a partner to discuss what they read including the entry point of genre.

During my lunch time, I was thinking how I could incorporate something like I did with Edna

and Eduardo. I drew two Texas Education Agency scorers for the students

Meet Javier. He is the Texas Education Agency's test writer.
to meet. I told them that these scorers were wanting to read quality writing. These people would be their scorers in Austin.  They referred to Edna and Eduardo often. I had to take them down for a day due to testing. When I hid them in a closet, they complained that the room wasn't the same without Edna and Eduardo. Because of this, I brought them back out. Yesterday, my whole room became a morgue. I had to cover everything in my room with white or manila colored paper. Edna and Eduardo were closeted again. Today, they told me that they miss seeing their Edna and Eduardo. Because of this, I decided to create two more Texas Education Agency people for Reading. I created and introduced Javier and Juanita to my students. (Edna and Eduardo are closeted for good.)
Meet Juanita. She is another test writer.
These two characters, Juanita and Javier, would be the Texas Education Agency's reading test makers. I told them that Javier and Juanita are the test creators and they want the students to understand genre and to show textual evidence. I also mentioned that we were going to crack the code on what Javier and Juanita were looking for in the test. It wasn't important what answer they liked, but rather what transaction Javier and Juanita were making. Now we are going to crack the code in test format and understand what the test writer wants the student readers to think.  They loved it. (They asked about the Math people. I am thinking of calling them Donald and Diane.) I like where we are headed. I hope that there is enough time. My students are wild readers and writers. Now, I have to transition them onto the genre of the test.

What I thought would be a wild Wednesday turned out to be quite productive and creative. I returned to my chill pattern, worked on some Reading and Math, and lived through it. Wednesdays are long with very little down time. I took my lunch time to refuel and good things came out of it--Javier and Juanita! The kids loved it, and that is ultimately what matters. It is fun creating these characters.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Post Testing Ponderings 2016

The test is over and done!  I am feeling so much more relaxed now that my 4th graders have taken the fourth grade writing test. What are my ah-hahs right now? (I am going to write them down now, and I will mostly come back in the few days and revise.)

  • Some students will show their work.
  • Others, no matter what you have shown them and what they have continually done in the past, get test amnesia and forget everything. (I forgot about that one.)
  • Water bottles can be used as musical instruments. The lids can be used as little figurines representing may things to many students. The bottle and lid become the characters in Minecraft or some other video game. 
  • Pencils lead breaks easily. It is wise to have many pencils sharpened prior to testing. I always sharpen an extra 20 or so. I used the pencils that were given to me, but I also used a few of my own by the end of the day. (Always invest in a good pencil sharpener. The nice one that we have in our planning room used to work efficiently. Now, not so much.)
  • When you put a test in front a some students, it serves as a sleep inducing agent.  It also has many bladder effects too. With in 30 minutes students need to go to sleep or the restroom. The restroom reference is interesting because I took them to the restroom before the test started 30 minutes prior. Hmmm!
  • When some students take the test, they procrastinate and procrastinate and procrastinate. They look around, fiddle with their pencil, play with eraser extracts, look around, flip the pages, look around, play with pencil lead, and bring the eraser extracts together to form an imaginary Texas A and M bonfire. Some find it necessary to go the restroom after spending time drinking bottled water and eating string cheese. Oh, I forgot a new procrastination method: peeling and eating string cheese. This could take a full twenty minutes.
  • Recording pee pee breaks is a new duty of proctoring teachers. It is about as fun as watching the grass grow. 
  • Testing is testing. You have your highs and lows. The last hour is takes forever! You have 60 minutes, 45 minutes, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and 1 minute left.
  • Watching children test is an extremely stressful endeavour. It seems as if it would be easy. It is nerve racking and painful. I would rather get a root canal, have ACL surgery, or be stuck in Houston traffic on 290 at 4:30 on a Friday.
Having written all of this, I can't wait to do this again in 2017! (Not really.) 

Monday, March 28, 2016

STAAR Writing Test Eve...Reflections

I am extremely exhausted. I reviewed with my students today and I hope that they will do what they know how to do. I hope that they try and not give up. Some of my students are extremely hard workers and will try their best. I have a few who need to exert themselves more and show their work. I don' t know what will happen tomorrow. It is scary because it is out of my hands. I am glad, though that this journey of testing is coming to an end. As I stated in my last post, I have left it all on the floor. I gave all of my heart, mind, and soul to this endeavour. I honestly do not know what more I could have done. I have given it more than my best and we will see what happens. Leaving it up to God is the last thing that I need to do. I know there is a saying by a very wise person. "You must do everything as if everything depends on you, and pray as if everything depends on God." That is where I am right now.

My room is very sad. I had to take some things down and then cover the rest of my walls and anchor charts. Most of my room is covered. It felt like a funeral covering up everything. I tried to use the same color of cover up with the color of my anchor charts so that my students may look over. The hope is that the familiarity of color and shape may trigger a memory and concepts learned. That is my hope.

One thing happened today that I didn't expect. Two of my students were absent. These students are rarely absent. They both are good students, but they would have benefited from one last review day. We had Friday off and previously a week off from spring break. I worked so hard last week catching them up from a week off of school. But really, what can I do? I cannot control this. Either they are ready or they are not. I just hope these two do well. 

We will see what happens tomorrow. I am happy, but a little frightful too. What if...what if...nah I am going to bed early. I will make sure I say my prayers tonight.

Friday, March 25, 2016

STAAR Writing-Ready...Or Not! (Refections of a Tired Fourth Grade Teacher)

It has been since February since I last posted. I know. Business and preparation have taken me away from my love of posting and blogging. I must say that I still post quite frequently on Face Book and Twitter. It is easier to post comments and photos that way. To post photos here, I need to upload the photos to my computer and then post. I could do it from my phone, but the screen is too small for my forty-something eyes. I also really want to take the time to revise and edit. For this reason and many others, I have not posted in quite sometime.  I apologize.

What has compelled me to write today?  I think that I am at a juncture where I can turn off all of my passion and intensity and get to writing. You see I have been in a whirlwind of testing, preparing documents and planning with colleagues, working Saturdays and spring breaks, after school grammar camps, and acquiring stomach viruses and several colds thathad developed into bronchitis. My plate has been extremely full and boy, how it runneth over! Today, I finally can sit down with a clear mind and write.

What has been constantly on my mind and heart?  My students and my school. Next Tuesday, my students and school will be embarking on a state test called the STAAR 4th Grade Writing. They will have four hours to answer 18 editing and revising multiple choice questions and write a composition on a 26-lined page. I believe that I have done everything in my power to prepare them to be successful. I have a group of 22 beautifully creative students. Over half of my class will take the test in English, and  less than half of my class will take the test in Spanish. Phew! Lots to do and manage.

Has it been easy? Yes, easy as having root canals on all of my teeth and crownings on the same day. Easy as building Rome from the ground up. Easy as peeling a thousand onions and then scratching my eye after seeding habaneros and jalapenos by hand.  Easy?  There is no such thing as easy when it comes to education. There is no such thing as  purple Nexuim pills. Nope. Easy does not run in my veins, nor do I subscribe to that channel.(I do, however, shop frequently at Staples.) But then again, nothing that is worthwhile is ever easy. The job that I choose to do is nothing short of ingenuity, creativity, dedication, efficiency, and roll-your-sleeves up- and-get-to-work-stinking-work. HARD WORK!

I love my students and school. Because of this love, I am 1,000 percent dedicated and devoted. I am all in, and there is not doubt about my allegiance. I have worked incessantly and fearlessly, along with my colleagues, creating plans, staff developing, developing Saturday camp curricula, Grammar Week Plans, (Please do not think that this week is the only week that my campus taught grammar. We coined the Grammar Week term as an after school additional review. We borrowed the term from Abydos Grammar Week.) and of course, going the extra mile of teaching daily, alongside some wonderful young writers.

I am a bilingual teacher. I have students in my class who are transitioning more and more each day from Spanish to English. When I say transitioning, I mean that they are becoming more bilingual and bi literate. By fourth grade, many of my students are becoming fully bilingual. As such, they will be taking the English Writing test. Other students are also transitioning, but they are not ready yet to be successful on an English Writing test. They will be taking the Spanish test and hopefully will do exceptionally well.

As you may know, there are discrepancies in English and Spanish. Some grammatical rules are the same, such as every sentence needs to begin with a capital letter,  verbs are needed to make a sentence a sentence, and all sentences have some type of end punctuation. But then there are the exceptions and differences such as in the conjugation of verbs. In English, you will always have the subject and verb mentioned in each sentence. (Unless it is an imperative sentence where the subject is assumed.) In Spanish, the subject is sometimes mentioned and other times no. The verb conjugation shows which person is speaking. Hablo for example has no subject mentioned. It could have, but doesn't have to have the subject mentioned. I know that the subject is Yo (first person singular) because of the verb conjugation that is particular to first person singular. In English, we write I speak. We don't write speak and automatically know who the subject might be. There are more differences as well.

When I began teaching 4th grade, I knew that it would be a balancing act between teaching Language Arts in both languages. I had to teach all of my students the grammatical structures of English and Spanish in about 7 months and show the format of the STAAR Test before they would take the state test. I will say that 100% of my students did not have the grammatical and syntactical structures remotely understood or even explored, before they walked through my classroom door. Two languages, two structures.
Now let's talk about spelling. There are so many exceptions in English and Spanish such as where to add the tilde or accent mark and not, when to use the b/c, h mudo (silent h), m/c, and z/s (singular and plural) among others. The English is just as daunting for the my emerging bilinguals. What about the irregular verbs, doubling of the consonants, changing y and adding ies, i before e except after c, the words with s/c, the silent words with silent letter such as know and knife, words with singular f changing to v when plural? Did I mention sentence combination, compound and complex sentence patterns? I haven't even scratched the surface. I am supposed to teach all of this in 7 months. Yepper, Skipper!

Previously, I had structured my class so that students would receive English Language Arts for a week. Then I would teach the following week in Spanish for Spanish Language Arts. I followed this pattern for a while. I realized that there wouldn't be enough time to cover all that I needed  for those testing in English and Spanish if I continued down this path. I changed course sometime in January.
I decided to teach my students in groups. (They had been taught in peer groups, one on one, and whole groups, but I had to change the group configurations,) Some skills they were taught whole group as mini lessons in either language, but the majority of the time, I worked in two groups. I worked with students testing in English and then in Spanish. The other students that were not working with me had work stations and projects to complete, as I worked with the others. Then I would switch groups and so on. Based on the data that I collected, it seemed to work, and I felt better about their progress. My English testers were progressing better than my Spanish testers. I knew I had to change some things around again.

In February, I changed course. My students required an even smaller group setting. I started working with 4 groups a day or so. I felt really great about their progress now and the personalized learning that these groupings provided me. The students made steady progress in  both languages.

During this time, I experienced the art of juggling again, but this time in greater depth. I had Spanish groups, with Spanish materials and then English groups with English materials. Each group had their particular needs beyond language. It felt like a whirlwind. Sometimes, when teaching, I would start writing in English and inadvertently write in Spanish and vice versa. My students laughed when they saw me do this. I said, "It is a good thing that you are a bilingual, because we are able to trans language and understand one another." I knew I was in the zone when this was happening. Bilinguals do this all the time. It is a natural way the brain works in a bilingual.  This juggling was a challenge, yet so very exciting! I loved it.

Some days, I was completely exhausted and ready to throw in the towel. Other days, the light bulbs were going off everywhere in my classroom. These flashes of brilliance were so bright that I had to invest in a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses.  Needless to say, it was and is like a roller coaster. Some days the students would wow me and other days I would feel my heart arrhythmia when they would forget some things. I, however, knew that this was going to happen. Roller coaster rides always happen this time of year.

The best thing about this ride is seeing the progress of my students. Holding onto hope and keeping it alive has served me well. I could not have renewed this hope and perseverance without the support of my team. Anytime I felt down, team members would give me encouraging words or make me laugh. Joking goes a long way. Either way, having someone to listen to me and share the load impacted me. It gave me the strength to keep my eyes on the prize--my students and their progress as writers and thinkers.

The great thing about my school (so far) is that my principal believes in me (us). She trusts my judgment and expertise. We had to take a writing benchmark at the beginning on November. It was an end of the year test containing 28 editing and revision questions and a writing sample. This same test was given to students in 4th grade the previous year at the end of March. An end of the year test was given to my students the first days of November. Of course they were not prepared as of yet. I had just began to teach expository writing a week before. (I was following the yearly road map.) I knew that my students were not going to do well, and I certainly had not done any format practice yet. My students, who had about 8 weeks of instruction, bombed this test. My principal looked over the data and asked my team to be reflective in our practice. She didn't ask us to buy a new product or follow a plan from outside of ourselves. She allowed us to see where we were and make our own decisions about what we needed to do. That is what I did. I convened with some of my teammates, made a plan, developed curricula, staff developed this curricula, made formative assessments (according to what I had taught and would be teaching), and monitored and adjusted. The majority of my work came from Abydos Learning, Gretchen Bernabei, Jeff Anderson, Ralph Fletcher, Tom Romano, William Zinsser, Lev Vygotsky, Steven Pinker, David Sousa, Nicholas Carr, Scott Barry Kaufman, Lucy Calkins, and a shared experience of 45 plus years. This process, to me, would be research in action.

I already knew why my students did not do well on the November benchmark. They needed more time. I also understood that the upcoming 2016 March test would be comprised of 18 multiple choice questions, dealing with grammar mostly and very little revision. Seventy per cent of the test was weighted in the multiple choice. I decided that I need to balance my teaching more with grammar in context. I had previously had taught mostly composition and could have worked a little closer with grammar. Making sure that this grammar didn't come from worksheets, was my priority. Worksheets, in my opinion, offer little engagement and have no stick factor. Stick factor refers to the way the brain processes information from working memory, to short term memory, to long term memory. In order for the brain to learn something, it needs two things. The brain needs concepts to be relevant and to make sense. I decided to have the students practice conversation around the different grammar rules and to use it immediately in their own writing. Thus you have met the brain's criteria of relevancy and making meaning...stick factor. I used ideas from Jerome Bruner and social interaction and Noden's Image Grammar. This all came to fruition in Gretchen Bernabei's Grammar Keepers. In addition to that, I used Jeff Anderson's Everyday Editing and Mechanically Inclined. The students went wild for all of this learning.  They were learning grammar and sentence combination in both languages. Talk about synapses popping and dendrites growing! Things were definitely moving and grooving.

Next Tuesday, my students will be taking the state writing test called STAAR. Next Tuesday, I will be on pins and needles, hoping that they will put all of what they have learned into practice. It is like watching my daughter go from training wheels to riding without guidance. It is scary. What if she falls down and hits her head? What if she doesn't look both ways when crossing the street? What if my students go blank and forget the doubling of the consonants or that you have to add a comma and an fanboy (coordinating conjunction) when combining sentences? What if they suffer from amnesia and forget that you can AAAWWWUBBISize sentences as well? What if they forget to add more details to their composition?  What if they forget that arbol has an accent or that botas is spelled with a b instead of v?  What if?  The ifs and the buts can kill a person. I won't let that happen to me because I  take comfort in knowing that I did everything, and I mean everything that is humanly possible, to prepare these precious  young writers to be successful in fourth grade and beyond. I keep thinking back when I provided feedback on a million stickies late into Sunday evening/Monday morning in the student's notebooks, the numerous small group conferences, and the one-on-one conversations. Are they all for naught? Itruly have done all that I can, and now it is time for my students to inch up to the edge of the nest and soar! I cannot wait until Tuesday...well, sort of.