Sunday, June 3, 2012

Just Do It.

Emptying the dishwasher is an easy job.  Loading it~ not so much, say my 11 and 12 year old sons.  After observing their first few attempts, I would agree. 

Shoving Cheerio-soldered bowls in with ketchup covered plates and dried up peanut-butter knives, the boys were not off to a good start.  Hence, the mini-lesson on rinsing.  Their second and third attempts were better, as they realized that cups have a better chance of ending up clean if you load them upside-down. 

Still, an intervention in plate placement was necessary as well as the follow-up garbage disposal tutorial and counter-wiping reinforcement.  Still, after a few months of coaching and praise, I still wonder if it would just be easier to do it myself.

 So why does the dishwasher torture continue?


It's hard to stand by and coach while you observe children making attempts that may or may not be exactly what you had hoped they would be.  When teaching, I especially find this to be true as I work with my readers.  Teachers (and with this generalization, I mean, I) love to impart their knowledge.  They love to model and talk and disseminate their wisdom.  The hard part for many (and by this, I mean, ME) is the gradual release of responsibility, and allowing children to take ownership of their learning to construct knowledge. 

It is tough to watch the struggle.  Over the years, however, I've come to understand that a big part of my job is the struggle.  In order to become better readers, my students know that they will need to work.  We set goals together and I coach through mini-lessons.  They read books at their "just right" instructional level.  I allow my students to make mistakes and try again.  My role is a coach and also a cheerleader as they generate their learning through these multiple attempts and my guidance on the sidelines.  We do "real" reading.  Lots and lots of it. 

Why?  Because of the end goal.  Independence. With all of my knowledge and expertise about reading, I must let go, stop talking, and just let them do it for themselves.  And when they do it for themselves, they own it and can continue without me.

Maybe that is the hardest part as a parent and a teacher.  Knowing that in reality, if I have done my job, my children and my students are not going to need me anymore.  That realization can be hard to acknowledge at first.  It feels good to be needed, imparting my wisdom and expertise.  What is better, I have found, is knowing that I have empowered others to do it for themselves.


That is why.

(Playing with the sprayer is an added bonus.)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Black & White

I did it. 

Putting on my do bahk (that's 'uniform' in Korean), stiffly starched and retina-searingly white, I officially began on my path to "black belt excellence" last week.  In a previous post, I shared my turning point, when I realized that my fear was the only thing holding me back.  I have moved off of the bleachers and out of my comfort zone.  I am now a beginner.  A white belt.  10th Gup.
Tang Soo Do is one of the Korean martial arts that has military roots.  When you begin, your rank, or gup, begins at 10, and as you continue to progress, you move upward through the ranks in reverse number order.  My 11-year-old son, who has been doing this for more than four years, outranks me as a 1st Gup, soon to be "Cho dan bo" (black belt eligible).  No matter how hard I try, and how often I go to class, he will always be my superior, and I will call him, "Sir."
I stand at the end of the last row all the way in the back during class, making my best attempt to match my blocks and kicks to the precise artistry that I observe in the front row where he stands.  As effortless as he makes it look, I know my stumbling attempts are nowhere near par.  Coordinating my mind with my hands and feet commands my full concentration, and repeatedly I fall short of the mark.   With each Ki Hap I try again to step with the right foot while simultaneously engaging my "chamber" while moving both my arms in opposite directions AND maintaining my balance so I don't splatter face first onto the gym floor.  It's not easy.  It requires every ounce of my concentration, and it can be embarrassing and even frustrating at times.

In other areas of my life, I have gifts and skills.  Cooking is art to me, and it is something enjoyable that comes easily.  Professionally as a reading specialist, I am able to adeptly assess a student's area of need in reading and provide instruction for that student to scaffold and support his reading development.

So why?  Why begin Tang Soo Do?  What is my motivation?
I see the end goal.  From the very end of the last row at the back of the class, I see what is to come.  Through the expert coaching of my karate instructors, I know that if I work diligently and practice, I will progress through the ranks and earn many colorful belts.  I know that if I am patient, persistent, and committed, I will be a black belt someday.

At school, my students have many talents and gifts.  They are tournament wrestlers, football players, competitive gymnasts, artists, and yes, even black belts in Tae kwon do.   However, they enter into my classroom because they need to be there, not out of choice.  They have been recommended, screened, and qualified.  Although I wish it was not true, many have been embarrassed and frustrated by their struggles with reading.
Reading is a complex interactive process, requiring the coordination between interpreting the black and white code (the text) with the reader's background knowledge and strategies for making meaning.  The fluent reader makes this process look easy.  How must it feel to observe others performing the seemingly effortless art of reading, when you know that it requires every ounce of your concentration and effort when you engage in the task?  What is your motivation to continue through your embarrassment and frustration?  How do you visualize the end goal?

In reality, my students know the end goal.  I do not take it personally when they tell me that they don't want to be in reading support.  Some are surprised when I tell them that I share their sentiments.  Rather than seeing reading support as an end in itself, I see it as a path to self-reliance.  My role as a teacher is a balance between art and science as I coach my students toward independence.  It will require practice and concentration, but if we are patient, persistent, and committed, we will get there.  Along the way, we will check our progress and celebrate our growth until our goal is achieved.

Our goal is reading independence.

My goal is black belt excellence.  

Sunday, April 15, 2012


April by K. Bispels

Feathers of color peek out of branches
Chartreuse, harlequin beginnings 
Plumes of magenta and cerise burst
From dormant gray quills

April is National Poetry Month, and so I thought I'd begin with a free-write poem.  Where I live, spring has arrived in full force.  I love to visit my garden at this time of year as my plants and trees begin to wake up and pop out of their winter shells.  My daffodils give me the first sign of hope for warmer weather, and their appearance each year prompts a "happy dance," which I do to the great chagrin of my children.  (Mom, must you do that OUTSIDE?)
This is our second spring in our new house, and I distinctly recall last year's discoveries.  Now I know when to expect the sprouting bulbs, the blooms from our peach and apple trees, and the emergence of leaves from our Crepe Myrtle.  I had never had a Crepe Myrtle before, and being a Northeastern girl, I didn't even know what the gorgeous tree with fuscia blooms was called until I took a picture of it and asked my facebook friends to identify it for me.  When all of its bark began peeling off last year, I panicked, thinking that the centerpiece of our garden was dying.  Again, I did my research (via Google this time) and discovered that this occurrence was typical.  Only then was I able to appreciate the beauty of the pale bare wood below.   Still, I did another "happy dance" this weekend when its leaf buds began to emerge.  Despite my research online, I needed tangible confirmation that growth was occurring.  My prize needed to show itself to me for real.

March typically brings with it a certain depression, as winter ends and spring has yet to begin.  I think that it is also interesting that it is also the month when we do our standardized state testing (PSSAs - see my previous post here), both of which leave me with a cold sense of dread.  For my students, who are not reading on benchmark level, it is a time to witness struggle, frustration, and failure.  Notwithstanding our mutual efforts, and the gains that they have made in their reading progress, it is a period that punctuates the fact that they are not there yet.
April brings hope.  My students and I resume our good work, and we continue to check in on our reading development, with its tiny feather leaves and occasional bursts of color.  And it brings the promise of May, when we look back to where we began and clearly see how we have bloomed.  This is when my students show me their reading growth for real.  We do our "happy dance" together.  And it is spectacular.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

I Can't

For those who aren't familiar with Tang Soo Do, it is one of the forms of Korean martial arts.  My youngest son discovered it through one of his friends when he was 7 years old.  He was determined to take classes, and began his training under the caring guidance of his first instructor, Master P.
I'm not sure where, deep inside his 7 year old soul, this little one's perseverance sprouted, but now, four years later, he is well on his way to becoming a black belt. 

From the start, I have watched his practices, taken him to tournaments, and chronicled his growth via pictures.  Early on, he asked me to join him on his "path to black belt excellence," but I wanted him to have his "thing" and be the Proud Mom on the sidelines.   His instructors extended the invitation as well, but I always politely declined.
Two weeks ago, one of his Masters pointedly asked me, "Why aren't you out here with us?"  My reply surprised me as it flew out of my mouth.  "I can't.  I'm afraid that I won't be physically able to do it.  I don't know if I'll ever be able to do everything that is necessary to become a black belt.  I don't want to fail.  I am scared."  He looked at me and said, "I know.  I've been where you are."
Mumbling about running errands, I exited the studio, and when I returned at pick-up, I hid behind the other parents to avoid eye contact with the other instructors.  The following Tuesday I watched my son as he trained during his regular class, sitting the sidelines, thinking. 
I can't.
I'm afraid.
What if I fail?

Every day, in my career as a reading specialist, I hear these words from my students.  Sometimes they are direct and explicit,  and sometimes they are veiled in a comment like, "I hate this book," or "I hate reading."  Here's the translation:
I can't
I'm afraid.
What if I fail?

With all of my nurturing guidance, my explicit strategy instruction, and my cheering from the sidelines, the fear remains.  I need to let my students know that I can see it.  We need to face it head-on, and acknowledge it, so that we can move past it and begin a new mantra.

I can.

Reading is tricky.  There will be places where we get stuck.  Sometimes we will fail, we will make mistakes, and it might be hard.  But, I have been where you are.  We will work through it together, and I will support you.
My reading partner and I (in Room 136) have decided to adopt this new mantra with our students.  I've decided to start another blog to chronicle our journey called Room 136.  (It will begin with "I CAN!")

Personally, I have gotten off the bleachers and successfully completed my first two Tang Soo Do classes this week.  It's not easy, and every single fiber of my being is sore, but I am no longer afraid.  I can do it.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

Eat it and Like it

My 12 year old son is a picky eater.  He began that way in the womb, as I craved salty potato chips and chocolate while I was pregnant.  Today, with coaxing, he will try almost anything, but he is still very hesitant when he is presented with something unfamiliar.  If I try to sneak a green "unknown" into his dinner, however, he shuts down and refuses, wary and suspicious of any other hidden agendas I may have included in the meatloaf.
When I was a child, my father's response to my dinner complaint was always, "Eat it and like it."  A bowl of cereal was not an option.  If I did not like it, I did not eat.  I am most likely a bad mom, but sometimes I do give in.  My son will live if he eats a bowl of cereal for dinner instead of my beef pot pie, but I just don't understand his logic.  He likes beef and he likes pie.  Why not together with some other things in a lovely casserole?  He explains it like this, "Mom, you always take something awesome and mess it up with vegetables."

Last Friday, we concluded two weeks of PSSA testing.  PSSA stands for Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, which is our annual standards-aligned test that is administered in the spring for students in grades 3-8 and grade 11.  (If you are really interested in learning more about the test itself, click here. )  Nationwide, states have a test like this that is aligned to core standards, and it is used to determine student, teacher, and school proficiency in the areas of reading, math, science, and writing.   Proficiency is tied to many things, including funding, and most recently, it is now being used to determine teacher ratings.   As we were trained to administer the assessment this year, we were given much more strict guidelines and had to sign a paper attesting that we would adhere to all of the rules of test administration.  I'm sure that this extra measure was due to the fact that there have been nationwide reports of teachers and schools caught "cheating" and changing answers on student assessments.

Now, I am a fan of assessment.  I check student progress daily and use it to inform my instruction.  I monitor student data, and even enjoy analyzing it to determine what my students need so that I can tailor my lessons to meet student goals.  Every time I do a running record, have a student conference, or do any progress monitoring, I have students' needs in mind.  My goal is to grow readers.  I want to model healthy reading habits and feed them strengthening strategies that foster their metacognition, their "thinking about thinking" while reading.  Ultimately, however, I want my students to be successful and I want to nourish their love for books and reading.  My continual assessment and instructional response is my "food" that helps my readers grow, and I feed them every day.   And it is delicious.

The Friday before we began our PSSA testing, we had a "PSSA Pep Rally," and it was a fun, well planned event.  Students sang songs and did a PSSA rap, we had special guests from a local football team speak about "doing your best on the test," and we even had their mascot do a cheer and dance for the students.  Students were excited and prepared and ready to "show what they know" the following week.
When the day arrived to begin the reading portion of the test, I read all of the directions verbatim to my small group of readers.  I followed all of the protocols, and I smiled with encouragement as they eagerly began their work.  I observed their hard work, highlighting words and using their scrap paper to map out PLORE, which their classroom teachers had diligently taught prior to taking the PSSAs.  But as the minutes, hours, and days went by, the students in my small group, most of whom I know personally as readers, began to wilt and lose their stamina.

By the last testing day, one of my students proclaimed, "I hate reading."
I didn't respond.  How could I argue?  I witnessed it firsthand.  They took something awesome and messed it up with vegetables.  But for now, we have to eat it and like it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Epic Fail? Epic Opportunity.

Epic. Fail.
We took three trips up the bunny hill before my youngest proclaimed that he was ready to take the lift up to the top of the mountain.  With experience on the snowboard, he refused to go to ski school this time, and began down the slope with confidence.  Why would skis be any different?  
Nine rescues later, complete with thrown poles and 10 year old cursing (which is not as bad as real cursing, but still...), he proclaimed that "everyone" was laughing at him.  One run.
Quitting.  Failure. 

The day before, I stood in front of almost 200 primary grade students and over a hundred of their parents to do a read-aloud in honor of Read Across America.  Our second grade students had finished a fantastic presentation of "Seussical Junior," and I began my part as the applause died down.  Of course, reading is my favorite thing in the world, so I have the best job in the school.  I get to read ALL DAY.   With practiced ease, I made my way through the Seuss-ified text, tackling the tongue twisters, rhyme, rhythm, and invented words like a pro.  Using my district-supplied iPad, I read the e-book with confidence.  The students were captivated, and read along, "I am I!" on cue.
That darn "Time-Telling Fish."

I am a good reader.  I am a very good reader.  I teach students how to read and monitor their reading every day.  I love to read aloud, too, and I had practiced reading Happy Birthday to You! * three times at home.  I planned where students would read-along with me, and it was going swimmingly well until that darn Fish.
When I realized that I had read the two sets of text backwards on the page, starting with the bottom sentence instead of the top one, I stopped.  I knew it didn't make sense.  With over 300 pairs of eyes on me, I thought, "Did they notice?  Should I just keep going?" Time seemed to stand still as I looked at the crowd, until I met one pair of eyes, wide with horror.  One of my students knew.  She knew I had made a mistake.  Despite my practice, regardless of my reading expertise, I had Failed to read the page correctly.

When teaching my students to self-monitor for understanding, I make "mistakes."  My students quickly catch on as I model metacognitive processes while reading.  They laugh and enjoy the game of "catching" Mrs. B's mistakes.  "All Readers, even Mrs. B, go back and re-read to fix it when it doesn't look right, sound right, or make sense."  My mantra is well known among my students.
This time, though, my mistake was not contrived.  It was real, and my face was burning as I began my self-talk.  In front of "everyone," I confessed that I had made a mistake, and I knew that it didn't make sense.  Backing up, I re-read the page correctly, and continued without folly to the "Birthday Pal-alace" and back home again.  My concluding statements about the joy of reading were met with applause, and many parents thanked me on their way out of the auditorium.  Still, I know that "everyone" had witnessed my moment, including all of my students who struggle with reading every day.  Imagine facing every reading task, knowing that it will involve mistakes, failure, and the perception that "everyone" is laughing.

My son eventually overcame his skiing struggle.  We went right back up and tried it again.  And again.  And again.  And, although he still fell on his last run, he was able to disconnect himself from the notion that he had to be perfect from the start.  He could make mistakes.  He even began to notice "everyone" falling around him as they came down the hill.

My hope is that all of my readers noticed my "epic failure" on Friday.  I want them to come into my room tomorrow and say, "You made a MISTAKE!"  If they do, they will know that it was a real one, not one contrived for the purpose of instruction, and not a game.  I look forward to the conversation that will follow.  I think I will call it an Epic.  Teachable.  Moment.

*Seuss, Theodore.  Happy Birthday To You!  New York: Random House, 1959 Digital edition.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Just keep Whispering...

Whispering.  Sending positive messages about books.  Transmitting positive vibes about the love of reading.  Transforming my students into voracious readers.  Me.  A Book Whisperer...

Two weeks ago, I read   The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, upon recommendation from our district's Language Arts Supervisor.  Reading the first few pages, I was inspired, and I devoured the entire book over the weekend.   THIS is why I decided to become a reading specialist.  THIS is how I want my students to feel about reading!

With renewed energy and much reflection, I decided to focus on my 5th grade reading support students, who openly express their dislike for all things in print.  (Ok, I am exaggerating a bit.)  I have two very vocal developing readers in the group.  They all read what I assign, write according to the skill or strategy that I teach, but I know that even the quiet students do not read or write with their hearts, fully engaged in the world of literacy.

Re-vamping my lesson plans, purposefully making time for engaged deep reading during my class, I began the first week with book bins full of a variety of non-fiction selections at their reading levels and a smile on my face.  And, when I shared our new plan, with reading choice (in the area of non-fiction, which is our current curricular focus- I couldn't quite let go of all of my control yet...), my students literally dove with excitement into the book bins.  I had told them that they could read any non-fiction books that caught their interest, but they were required to read at least four informational books and two biographies.
What wonderful mayhem!  Some of my students grabbed 10, 12, even 18 books to add to their own book bags.  The room was buzzing with excitement, and I was grinning from ear to ear.  They asked, "What do we do now?" and I replied, "Read."  With a looks of amazement and surprise, they found a spot to sit, and the hum of real reading began.

Except for two.

They picked exactly 4 books.  They looked at me.  They sat.  They looked at me.  They looked at their books.  I smiled.  They opened their books.  They looked at me.  I whispered, "Read."  They looked at their books.

As the week progressed and we came into our habit of reading (real reading) every day, it has gotten better.  We are in a good rhythm now, with mini-lessons, conferences, and we even began writing letters to each other in response journals.

As I read my students' letters after our first week,  I was happy to see that they dutifully wrote reflections related non-fiction reading.  I responded with compelling, probing questions, with the intent to delve deeper into their thinking.  What a great written conversation we would have about books!

Two weeks have passed since I have begun my Whispering.

The first student response letter that I read this weekend began nicely enough, with thoughtful responses to my questions and reflections on her current book.  The conclusion went like this, however:  "My favorite part of the book was the jokes, but I don't like to read."  Sigh.  I know it is unrealistic to change student perceptions about reading in two weeks, but I am still a bit sad.  I know in my heart that she has just not found the right book for her, though, and I am determined to find "the One" that will change her mind.

I will persevere, despite feeling a bit deflated.  My new mantra (adapted from Dory in "Finding Nemo") is, "Just keep whispering, just keep whispering..."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Starting again...

I think I should re-name this blog.  Starting Over?  Starting Again?  Starting and Stopping and Starting? 

I love to reflect on my instructional practice, and I love to write, but often for me the reflection takes place in my head without the writing; hence, my last blog post was over two years ago.  I could blame the lag on many things: moving to a new house, accepting a new position at a new school in my district (I am now a real, live, Reading Specialist!), or on our new puppy...she is the cutest, naughtiest Corgi ever...

BUT, wouldn't it have been better for me to chronicle all of these new changes along the way?  In retrospect at the time of all of these changes, I think it may have helped my stress-induced eye twitch to sort things out in writing.  :)

Reflecting back to my previous posts, I can see that on the surface my world hasn't changed as much as I had thought.  My laundry continues to be a mountain with unreachable peaks, my job still entails implementing reading assessments and RtII interventions, but I still have this feeling as though I have more to learn as an educator and more to share.  

So, here I go again...  Starting.  I tell my students that when good readers get stuck, they can hop over the word, keep reading, and then go back and figure it out by reading the sentence again.  I have been stuck on my blog for quite a while, but here I go, hopping over and Starting Again.