Monday, April 28, 2014

Math Thinking Walls (in the Library too!)

Warning: many educational jargon terms ahead!
One of the "look fors" that the team of administrators conducting our school's recent "walk through" sought out was evidence of "math thinking walls". I hadn't heard of math thinking walls prior to this year. As the chairperson, I checked in with the teachers in my division to make sure they knew what a math thinking wall was and encouraged them to create one. Here are just a few examples of the math thinking walls on display in my school. (There are many more but I didn't take photographs of all of them.)

Grade 6

Grade 3-4

Grade 4-5

Grade 2-3

Grade 1

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander", so I thought the school library should create some math thinking walls as well. The students and I made two, although once again, I can only find photos of one of them.

It's easy for the library to be connected with literacy initiatives. It takes a bit more thought but the school library should also be involved with numeracy efforts in the school. In addition to our thinking walls, I offered an authentic whole-school math congress question for students to help me solve about how much to charge for the Ontario Library Association Festival of Trees trip. The Grade 6s accepted the challenge and worked on the problem passionately for an entire week! They did a phenomenal job, discovering additional questions that needed to be clarified before a final solution could be declared. They were highly invested in the end results, as it would determine how much they'd pay! (An upcoming math congress question will center on the Forest of Reading votes - our school's voting day is today, Monday, April 28, 2014 - and it will provide lots of great fodder for data management investigations.)

I'm not as eloquent or descriptive as I'd like to be on this topic (and I blame my work on the upcoming Spring Concert, Library Learning Commons Showcase, and Yearbook for my brain freeze) but at the risk of repeating myself, let me reiterate how important it is for the library to participate in many curriculum areas, from language to math to STEM to the arts and more. Be many things to many groups, so there's always a place for a school library.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Swim Meets and Sacrificial Love

Last weekend, my son competed in his first swim meet.
This past weekend, we celebrated Easter.
I can connect the two, and not in a heretical way.

As part of the swim meet, every school was required to offer some volunteers to help manage the event. Since there was a grand total of one participant from my son's school, that meant that I was the de facto volunteer representative. I was awake and at the pool at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. This is not my typical Saturday morning routine. I like to sleep in until late in the morning. Yet, here I was, distributing deck passes and checking names at the volunteer registration desk for pool-side jobs I had no clue about what they actually entailed.

When driving back home to pick up my son for his event, I had a sudden and sobering realization. I was suffering from a wee bit of sleep deprivation for this single competition, but when I was a child, my own parents did this often, for many competitions, without complaint. I used to be a baton twirler and my mom and dad would get up at 4:00 a.m. on a Saturday, pack the car with all our costumes, batons, and equipment, and drive all the way to Kitchener or Guelph or Buffalo for a baton competition. They would sit in cold, hard seats in gymnasiums and watch us march in squares or perform our solo / duet / group routines, for hours and hours.

My sister (right) and I (left) with trophies earned from twirling.
Posing in the driveway in our costumes.

Back then, I never realized the amount of time, money, and effort they devoted to giving us these opportunities to compete. This doesn't even include the times they drove us to participate in the annual Easter Parade down by the Beach, or walking us to (and paying for) our lessons, or sewing our costumes, or any of the dozens of tasks my parents undertook. It was quite the sacrifice, and it was done out of love.

In our parade uniforms.
Don't forget the cost of photographs, like this duet shot.

At church this past week, we hear the story about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In one of the homilies given (I can't remember if it was Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Sunday - I have to confess I skipped Easter Vigil), the connection between sacrifice and love was made clear. I've also been reading the Lenten reflections of Father Robert Barron sent to me daily via email and he had this to say about Suffering Love (on April 12, 2014, in his email "Lent Day 39"):

When a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, the Nazi soldiers imposed their penalty. They took all of the prisoners from the escapee's barracks and lined them up, and then at random chose a man to be put to death in retaliation. When the man broke down in tears, protesting that he was the father of young children, a quiet bespectacled man stepped forward and said, "I am a Catholic priest; I have no family. I would like to die in this man's place."
Pope John Paul II later canonized that priest, Saint Maximilian Kolbe. With brutal clarity, Kolbe allows us to see the relationship between suffering willingly accepted and salvation. He was consciously participating in the act of his Master, making up, in Paul's language, what is still lacking in the suffering of Christ.
... When a mother stays up all night, depriving herself of sleep, in order to care for a sick child, she is following this same example, suffering so that some of his suffering might be alleviated. When a person willingly bears an insult, and refuses to fight back or return insult for insult, he is suffering for the sake of love.
I am so grateful for Jesus' suffering love, and I want to thank my parents this Easter weekend for their own example of sacrificial love. They are great role models for me. My son participated in his first race - he didn't finish it (long story) but his two minutes in the competition pool were worth the three hours of volunteer time I donated that day.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Little Pig, Little Pig, Let Me In

 On March 30, I obtained a marvelous gift for my school - a pair of skinny pigs, complete with their spacious cage, plenty of hay, bags of food, and treats. Chocolate and Vanilla are two boys, skittish but friendly, and their owners felt that they could not give them the attention they deserved. They were happy to see them going to a school and that I have some experience caring for skinny pigs.

It's been a few weeks since I brought them to my school and it's absolutely wonderful to see how their presence has excited the entire student body and the staff as well. The questions erupted in such a torrent that I had to video tape some of the conversations. Pets are fantastic for inquiry, because the queries are all authentic and genuine. The students and I created a bulletin board called "100 Questions We Had About Our Pets" and I didn't even include all the questions that were asked.

 Even more exciting than the curiosity is the empathy and compassion I see in our students because of the animals. Chocolate and Vanilla needed their nails clipped badly and a Grade 6 student who has rabbits at home volunteered to clip their nails, since he does it with his own pets. I held Vanilla and Chocolate and he used another teacher's special clippers to get the length of their nails reduced. Chocolate's nails are dark, so it's difficult to see the blood vessel, and while snipping, the student accidentally nicked the vein and Chocolate bled. The poor Grade 6 student was so worried and upset. I reassured him that even professional groomers make them bleed, and we had special clotting powder for just such a situation. This same student has come every day after school to check on them and get them used to human contact. A Grade 3 girl watched the Grade 6 boy talk and approach the pigs and asked if she could have permission to go into the cage and gently pet them. She's demonstrated her calm demeanor and responsibility so I agreed that, with supervision, she could also get them used to human handling. In just a short period of time, the students have the pigs contentedly accepting strokes on their noses and necks.

There are a lot of rules and regulations surrounding animals in schools (and rightfully so), but the benefits outweigh the challenges. These pigs get children to open up their hearts and minds in a concrete, immediate way. It'll be interesting when I have four skinny pigs under one roof for the Easter long weekend, but I'll cross that piggy bridge when I come to it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Want Great PD? Enter Another Teacher's Classroom!

I am in the thick of yearbook preparation, and to ensure that this publication  is an accurate reflection of what this school year has been like from a variety of perspectives, I've been visiting classrooms for short consultations with teachers and students. I have been constantly amazed with the creative ideas for pages that the students develop. Every time I warn myself that they might be too young to contribute significantly, the students blow me away with their clever ideas. Take a look at this planning sheet from a Grade 2 class.

When I entered another classroom today, I was blown away, but this time for some additional reasons. I spoke to the teacher after school to obtain permission to mention her by name, and she granted it.

I hope this photo, taken during Ball Hockey, also gets permission!

Kerri Commisso says she has a great class, but let me testify that what I witnessed had little to do with the luck of certain names on a class list and more to do with how she has laid the foundation for her students to be respectful, collaborative and curious. I began my little spiel to the group of Grade 2-3 students by explaining that we would be selling a school yearbook and the purpose of our short chat was to plan what important events or class traditions we wanted to include on the class page. Mrs. Commisso mentioned that one of the old school yearbooks is a popular item for silent reading time in her class. Several of the students gave reasons why they enjoyed reading the old yearbook when a new girl declared that she didn't understand what a yearbook actually was. I admired what Mrs. Commisso did next. Rather than jump in with a definition, as I might have done, she surveyed the class for their ideas and documented the girl's clarification question as well as the responses from her peers on the interactive whiteboard. Kerri gave control of the flow of answers to the girl with the original uncertainty about yearbooks, reminding her that she could continue to accept explanations from her classmates until she had a grasp of the idea. After a couple of answers, she indicated that she understood, and we now had an authentic definition of a yearbook to which others could refer.

The students were full of fantastic ideas for content and, once again, Kerri arranged the class so that they themselves monitored the pace of the class contributions. She reviewed the rules of brainstorming and reminded the students that, after providing an idea, they were to select another student so he or she could add a new suggestion. I wondered how this method would work differently from a community circle (where everyone would speak in a particular order based on their location in the circle), and the students self-regulated well, not merely choosing their friends but scanning the circle for raised hands and for individuals who had not yet had a turn to talk.

Soon it became time to decide on a theme for their page. The ideas were exciting and innovative. I was a little disappointed to see a certain idea begin to emerge as a front-runner because I didn't consider it to be reflective of the class as a whole and was more indicative of the personal interests of just a few vocal students. If our purpose was to allow the students to democratically decide on their yearbook page design, how could we in good conscience thwart what was appearing to be an option that was gaining a lot of supporters? I didn't need to worry, because Kerri had a fantastic way of dealing with the situation. After reminding the class about selecting inclusive topics that could work with our content brainstormed earlier, she asked a poignant question: would anyone be disturbed, upset or bothered if a particular theme was used to represent their class in the yearbook? She mentally tallied results, taking particular note of the students who claimed to be upset by every single topic except their favourite one. By surveying the group for dislikes, she was able to whittle the selection down to three choices that were satisfactory to everyone. Individually, the students took a private vote and a final decision was made.

The wonderful thing about this experience was that Kerri was not just a master maestro conducting her orchestra solo; she included me in the symphony. I didn't just watch her class in action; I contributed to the discussion.

In our school board, we have "Exploration Classrooms", where educators can visit other teachers and see them working with students. We shouldn't forget that we've got wonderful educators that can teach us a lot right in our very own buildings. Some of them may not even realize what an exemplary job they are doing. (I think Kerri was a bit surprised when I asked her if I could write about her today.) If you want great professional development (for little to no cost), then just enter another teacher's classroom.