Archive for the 'Learning' Category

Mail Call Update

LJBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

On January 9th, my blog featured the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Mail Call project. Shortly after, one of my colleagues received the following message:

“In my role in PR with Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, I sometimes have to sort through thank you letters for veterans that we receive (and later give to them on an Honor Flight), to make sure there isn’t anything upsetting in what is written.  I received a huge box of letters from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently, because they’re conducting a well-publicized campaign to raise money for us and collect these letters from schools and groups.

There are a large number of absolutely incredible letters from Arrowhead upperclassmen…Could you please pass on my sincere gratitude for all the extra effort that teacher took with the project, and ask them to thank their students for their incredible work. As I go through them and read them, I am struck over and over again by the sincerity, the creativity and the quality of the letters…and many of the students signed their names in hopes of receiving a response.

In a box of 1,500 mail call letters, the Arrowhead letters stood head and shoulders above all the others. Please thank everyone involved.”

Subsequent conversations included links to additional resources for students:

https://youtu.be/Wty1-U3ieak

https://youtu.be/ALGZzxS3dIc
“Thank you again for organizing such a beautiful letter writing campaign.  The veterans will be absolutely overwhelmed, and will read those letters over and over and over again.” I shared these comments with my students and all were thrilled to make a difference in the lives of our veterans.

The Stars and Stripes Honor Flights happened on April 8th and May 21.

 

The Milwaukee Brewers Seek Positive Message Commercials to Strike Out Bullying

By Elizabeth Jorgensen

Objective: Create a commercial with a positive message to Strike Out Bullying. (Your commercial should be a positive message to raise awareness of bullying prevention at school, online or in the community.)

Eligibility: Teachers of students in grades 6-12 (students must be 13 or older) at a public or private school in Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Washington or Waukesha County, WI are eligible to participate.

Entry: The entry period began on Monday, January 23, 2017, at 3:00 pm CT and ends Friday, April 21, 2017, at 11:59 pm CT. Teachers must submit a link to their submission. Submissions must be on a publicly accessible online platform (YouTube, Instagram, Vimeo or some other public video platform), be in the English language and not exceed 2 minutes in length.

Judging criteria: The winning video will be selected by a panel of judges assembled by the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club. The videos will be judged on the conciseness, positivity, creativity and originality of the message raising awareness of bullying prevention at school, online, and in the community.

Prize: One video will be selected as the winner. The winner will receive a visit to his/her school for his/her class from Brewers players, coaches and/or alumni on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. The students in winner’s class (grade) will also receive complimentary t-shirts and game tickets for the Brewers home game played at Miller Park on Friday, May 12, 2017, at 7:10 pm, and on-field recognition. One student from the winning video will throw out the ceremonial first pitch (if there is more than one student in the video, a name from the creative team will be drawn at the school visit the day before the game).

Rules:

  • The creative team appearing in the video can be one (1) to six (6) people, but no larger than a group of six (6). All students on the creative team must be in the same grade.
  • No one under the age of 13 may be in the video.
  • A teacher is allowed to submit more than one entry from the same grade at the same school. Each entry must have a different set of students in each video.
  • The video must not exceed 2 minutes in length.
  • Online entry only. No other method of entry will be accepted.

To find out more, check out this website.

 

Using an Exemplar to Develop Student Creativity and Voice

6342247835_688a9c2fcd_bBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

I frequently use professional exemplars in Creative Writing. One of my favorite authors is Sandra Cisneros. Her novel, House on Mango Street, is particularly effective in inspiring my students to write specifically, creatively and with a variety of stylistic devices.

In one assignment, students read the chapter “Hairs.” Then, I ask students to identify when Cisneros uses the following stylistic devices: metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, repetition and sensory details. In the 158 word chapter, students identify 32 stylistic devices.

After, students discuss the effect of each stylistic device and the chapter’s content. Students explain how Cisneros reveals information about the narrator’s family through a discussion of one physical trait: hair. Students note in her first paragraph, she describes the hair of the narrator’s father and the hair of her siblings, using descriptions to give the reader insight into each of their personalities. Students also recognize that Cisneros reveals the narrator’s feelings towards her mother in the passage, using a variety of stylistic devices to achieve this effect.

Then, I ask my students to think about the people in their lives—their family, friends, co-workers, teammates. I ask them to think about the characteristics they share with the people in their lives and those that make them distinctive. Although Cisneros chose to write about hair, I tell my students they could write about any physical or personality trait. I prompt students with suggestions: eye color, height, personality, sense of humor, cooking ability, athleticism, hands. I ask my students: Is the trait you want to write about one you share with your family/friends/teammates or yours alone? How might you present your piece like Cisneros did with metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, repetition and sensory details?

Using “Hairs” as a model, students then write a vignette about their own life, discussing an important trait and how it reveals something about the person who possesses it and their relationship to him/her. Although Cisneros used six stylistic devices for a total of 32 times, I require 12 in each student’s vignette. Students share the vignettes and then we submit them to Teen Ink, a national teen publication. Here are two students who had their vignettes published: 1 and 2.

What students tell me they enjoy about the exercise is that they practice skills in a creative way. Students also say they enjoy writing about their own lives. What I most appreciate is how specific, poetic and interesting the pieces turn out—and how students are able to effectively implement stylistic devices and creativity in a vignette about their own lives.

 Building A Better Bulletin Board

language_bulletin_board_ksuBy Peggy Wuenstel

In these days of Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, none of which I am very proficient in using, the old-fashioned bulletin board seems like a dated if not obsolete concept. Users today seem to feel a need to record every aspect of their life, meals, fun with friends, and exotic vacations, all carefully edited for public consumption. I would argue against the retirement of the traditional bulletin board. There are two distinct camps in the bulletin board debate. There are those who love to create, display and use them. There is a team in my building who create amazing art that makes students, teachers, and families feel valued and welcome. There are also those who hate them and think of them as a waste of time better used for direct instructional activities.

There is also the demarcation between the pre-fab vs. the personally created. Our favorite teacher resource books and websites offer lots of choices for those short on time, talent or inspiration. Some educators see the bulletin board as a chance to display student work, create a gallery, track progress, and provide cues for schedules, expectations or timing in their classrooms. Things posted on a board rather than delivered verbally can help build independence and responsibility in students.

This month I am celebrating a different type of corkboard, the kind that we use to attach new thinking, to record experiences, opinions, visual memories, graphic organizers, and memory aids. The larger the board we create for our children, the more new knowledge that they each can attach. With the right kind of encouragement we can help transform them into vision boards, those images that move us, inform us, inspire us to reflect and create.

Every teacher has at least one bulletin board. It might be cork, fabric, magnetic, or digital. It is also always mental. It’s that place where we keep all those things that we can’t afford to or don’t want to forget. You might have caught on to the fact that I am no longer talking about the classroom version that includes the lunch menu and tomorrow’s homework. I’m talking about the personal one.

I am appreciating my bulletin board before it is gone. I have begun the winnowing process, but there are a few things that will always remain pinned there until the very last days. My calendar, a paper version that allows me to smile at puppies every day sits at the center. Just like an analog clock, a paper calendar with its rows and columns is essential to teach kids about the systematic passing of time in ways that our digital tools cannot.

There are the assorted “love notes”, pictures, valentines, and other student created mementos tucked into the frame, expressions of affection that everyone needs to see now and then. There are pictures of my grandchildren, my niece in full combat gear, a vacation snapshot to remind me that not everything I love is here in this building. There are the magazine photos of sea otters that remind my students that I have favorite foods, colors, songs, and animals just like they do and the fact that we know that about each other makes us better at working together.

There are the utilitarian pieces, the contact lists, phone numbers, important dates, and meeting reminders. These change with the seasons, and the reasons for teaching. There are a few inspirational quotes, and always, my theme quote for the year front and center. This year’s version is “Live as if you will die tomorrow. Learn as if you will live forever” from Mahatma Gandhi.

There are the things I need help to remember, along with those that I know I will never forget. The handmade library card holder made of foam and duct tape, fashioned by a student who knows how often I go to the library, the photo of colleagues sharing a laugh, a cherished thank you note. There are also things that are not there, because they are private and would be hard to explain to students and parents. Things that make me laugh, and things that make me cry, including funeral cards for students who left us too soon. There are the cartoons meant for adult eyes, evidences of my political leanings, the talismans of the faith that guides my steps and my educational practice. And because I want no one to think I am anxious to leave here, there are no vision board pieces on this school board, no New England fall foliage or cherry blossoms in Washington D.C. No baby turtles struggling to get to the Atlantic Ocean or tombstones on the fields of Gettysburg because these are the things I hope to see in the first year of retirement. I have a vision board at home that includes these images as well as a tentative itinerary for a year of travel in an RV following the last days of school.

I have plans to send progress reports back to school, possibly labeled “Where in America are the Wuenstels?” but those reports will be on someone else’s bulletin board. I’ll likely post more often on Facebook, but not much more. There won’t be nearly as much that I need to remember, except maybe where we parked the RV.

 

 

Connecting With Parents of My Students

2959912279_8446aa1abdBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

Looking for a way to connect to the parents of my students, I relied on email. My junior and senior students just finished writing poems for the Milwaukee Public Museum’s poetry competition. At the end of the unit, I asked for student volunteers to read poems aloud. Then, I emailed those students’ parents. Here is what I wrote:

“I just wanted to drop you a quick note and let you know that Kami volunteered to present her poem in class today. Currently, students are working on a food-themed poem for the Milwaukee Public Museum’s annual poetry competition. After we read Kami’s poem, classmates provided valuable feedback and encouragement. If you are interested, I would suggest you ask her to share what she is working on. I think you’ll be impressed! Volunteering to read her poem to the class was a brave, vulnerable and commendable thing to do. Please encourage Kami to keep up up the great work in Creative Writing. I’m looking forward to a wonderful semester of writing, creativity, and growth.”

Here are some of the responses I received:

“Thank you for the kind message. She showed us her poem Tuesday night and we really enjoyed hearing it from her. She really enjoys your class. Have a great weekend!”

“Thank you SO very much for reaching out to us about Anna! What a wonderful wonderful email to receive. Anna is a great kid. She has had some emotional struggles over the past few years and it has been a big hurdle for her. I’ve noticed this year in particular she has really been making an effort with her school work. I very much appreciate hearing you validate how much her hard work is paying off. I will be sure to share this with Anna and tell her how very proud we are of her! Have a great day! :)”

“Thanks for the good news, Liz. It’s nice to hear about something positive; I appreciate it. I will ask them to share their work with me and will encourage them. Thanks again and have a great weekend.”

“She has been sharing her writings with us and I have been so impressed with her work! I am so glad to hear from you about this! Of course I think it’s good, but to hear it from you is awesome. She shared with me your comments this am about her recent poem, she was so excited! I have never seen her so pumped about a subject in school before so keep up the awesome work motivating her and we will do the same. Thanks again!”

Each parent gave me a boost and reminded me of the positive impact I’m having on his or her child. The students, too, appreciated my efforts: “Thanks for emailing my dad.”— “My mom was so excited to see your email.”—“My mom took me to Culver’s for custard because of what you wrote.”

I’ve now made it my goal to email a different group of parents for each assignment.

Wearing My Team Jersey: It’s the People, Not the Program

football-1206741_960_720By Peggy Wuenstel

There is a constant drive in education to find the magic bullet, the secret recipe, the cutting edge approach that will magically turn a failing school into a flourishing one. Just like the late night commercials that advertise miracle weight loss solutions, I believe that if there were a magic formula for either, we would all be using them. What I have also come to understand is that it is the people, not the programs that make schools work. I have been blessed to work in one of those places where the team truly comes together. The team jersey I wear as a Washington Golden Eagle is the next of those things that I know I’ve got before they’re gone. People often ask me: “What makes your school different?” After all these years it has become evident to me. It is the teaching team with which I suit up for the work of guiding children every day.

There are two other elementary schools in my district. One is much smaller, with a much more homogeneous student population and laudable student performance measures. The other is very similar to my place of employment, with similar enrollment, demographics, challenges, and surrounding community. Where we differ most is in the longevity of the “team” in place and in the consistency of the instructional approaches in play in the two schools. In an effort to raise student performance measures, the dedicated staff of that building has gone through many incarnations, including an inquiry-based charter, and a new foray into a reading program that is much more structured than the one in use in my school. I wish them well in their quest to improve student learning, but am grateful that our building focus has remained on the people vs. the implementation of programs. We’ve had little staff turnover in my 15 years here, and many of our new “draft choices” have been transfers from within the district. These are teachers with which we had already established working relationships.

I work with educators who have already made the mindset shift to the absolute necessity of individualizing instruction. What happens when a child fails to learn here is not seen as a lack within the child, but within the range of approaches that we have attempted thus far. Resource and child assistance teams are not just the doorway to referral services (guidance, tutoring, reading or math interventions, or special education) but a way to problem-solve and enhance universal classroom instruction. Lack of benchmark attainment does not mean NOT, it simply means NOT YET. Our building goals have consistently targeted our highest need populations through good instruction and appropriate small group interventions. When teachers are committed to assisting children with performance gaps, instruction improves for all students because it is systematic, purposeful, and directly tied to assessment.

The environment is highly inclusive at Washington Elementary. Students with challenges (English Language Learners, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders, children who have experienced childhood trauma) are fully integrated into classrooms. The techniques and supports in place to aid these students in meeting grade level expectations improve classroom climate and create access to learning for all. We have moved past the point of accommodating differences to valuing and celebrating the diversity that our students bring to their classes.

We have had the luxury of administration at the Board of Education, superintendent, and principal levels that understands that this willingness to take responsibility for enhanced classroom learning requires quality professional development along with the time and support to implement it effectively. It also necessitates the planning for assessment of its effectiveness, and the need for tweaks, additions, and deletions over time, and modifications when incorporated by different staff members. If we want custom-fit garments, we have to be willing to pay the tailor or the seamstress.

Another key piece is the continual improvement mindset we have adopted for ourselves and others. Getting better is what the process of education is all about, and we must be models of that for our students. Where we often differ is in how best to document that growth and forward movement. How delightful it is when it is evident in the accomplishments of our students and the pride of the community we serve!

My fellow teachers have also demonstrated their willingness to choose strategies for their efficacy for students and alignment with classroom practice, district vision and standards rather than for convenience or ease of implementation. The art of teaching still lies within our ability to make those good instructional decisions. The best way to know that a program is not for me is when the sales rep tells me, “It’s so easy to use that you don’t even have to think about it.” I always used to say that when I got to that point it would be time to retire. I’m delighted to say that I’m ready to retire and still actively thinking about what I present to students each day.

My principal is also our district’s head football coach, and sometimes he can overdo the sports references. We tend to prefer the family metaphor to the team moniker. It’s more like wearing the t-shirt at the family reunion than suiting up for the big game. It’s not as much about the competition and winning, or even about getting better, harder, faster or stronger. It’s about being a contributing member of the team, and knowing your role in the play we’ve called for the day. I’ve earned my team jersey. I wear it with pride, and I’m definitely packing it for the next leg of my journey.

 

 

Does Spelling Matter?

spelling-998350_960_720By Stephanie Nicoletti

Does spelling matter? Do children learn proper grammar? Do children learn cursive anymore? It seems lately there is this concern about how children are learning writing and spelling skills, which is valid, but the answers to these questions are YES, OF COURSE! It just probably looks different than it used to and these important questions deserve an answer.

Learning to spell is a very difficult task because children are trying to use many different skills at once. When children are so focused on spelling every word exactly correct, the writing process gets slowed down. Many teachers, especially in the early grades, and including myself, encourage inventive spelling: the child makes his or her best guess on the spelling of the word. When a student asks, “Miss Nicoletti, how do you spell ‘because’?” I simply respond, “stretch through each sound of the word.” This practice is research-driven and when children use this method, their writing becomes more fluent with richer vocabulary.

Of course, in the older grades spelling does count, but most teachers have their students engage in a writing process. Correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar come in the final stages of the writing process. Spelling in the older grades comes last in the writing process for the same reason as the primary grades: focusing on spelling too much early on will limit the student’s flow of ideas and quality of writing.

So, do schools still even teach spelling then? Something that our district has implemented that I am particularly proud of is the use of the Words Their Way spelling program. To sum up: students are placed in “spelling groups” based on actual spelling patterns students need help with. When they are “tested” each week, we only look at the spelling pattern that they are focusing on, not the spelling of the whole word. This is a new type of thinking for parents and even teachers, this individualized program supports the research stated above while fostering reading and writing skills.


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