Monday, September 30, 2013

Book Fair Blues

Today, my book fair gets picked up. (It ran from September 23-27, 2013.) I coordinate a book fair every year around this time, to coincide with Curriculum Night.  I'm fortunate because I have a full-time volunteer with over 35 years of experience running book fairs to handle the sales, so that it doesn't interrupt my teaching. The students are always excited and delighted to see the book fair arrive in the library. I think we may have broken our sales record - we definitely improved over last year's total.

I'm so glad it's over.

I sound like an ingrate - there are many schools that hold two or even three book fairs per year and they don't have access to the quality assistance I have at my fingertips in the form of my super-volunteer, who happens to be my mother. Despite the fact that she deals with all the sales, there are still many tasks that remain for me to do, including setting-up, closing-down, (I left after 6:00 pm on Friday) confirming totals, completing paperwork, and my "favourite" task: conducting security. I have a wonderful school community but every year we catch at least one person trying to steal objects from the book fair. (I don't kid myself - I'm sure that there's also a few book fair visitors who are successful with their shoplifting, in spite of the measures we have in place to reduce this crime.) I realize that I am lucky that I can still continue to teach classes, and I actually tie my media lessons in with talks about how the book fair is designed to manipulate students into buying things and to be media aware. However, these teachable moments seem to fall on deaf ears when confronted with all the goodies. Even though I stress that students are not obligated to buy anything at the book fair, I see kids begging their parents for items that they aren't necessarily going to use or read after they buy it and bring it home. The book fair is confined to one corner of my large library in a way so that we can still conduct book exchange, but all I hear during this particular week is "When can we go to the book fair?" The popular items to purchase are the ultra-violet pens. (I've had the internal debate about whether or not to choose a book fair company that only sells books, or to refuse to sell the novelty items, but in the end, I decided to continue with the pens, erasers, and book marks because the kids enjoy them, they indirectly encourage writing, and there's no great harm in providing them, as the proceeds go to getting books in the end.) Even the most attentive students are distracted by the books-that-are-not-library-books.

Fundraising is helpful to providing schools and school libraries with resources that our tight budgets may not allow, but I'm grateful that my own school library budget is sufficient enough so that I do not have to rely on book fairs as the only means for obtaining new reading materials. People for Education have articles and forums dedicated to the inequities that fundraising causes. I'd rather teach than sell. This is why, when the students sadly comment that the book fair is no longer here, I'm sure a smile will slip out as I reassure them that the book fair will be back - next year.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Dot Day Festivities

Last week I celebrated Dot Day. This was a new event for me. It began with "the Mighty Little Librarian", Tiffany Whitehead, sending a call out on Twitter for middle school classes to Skype with her in honour of Dot Day. My initial response was something like: "Yes, count me in! Oh, and ummm, what's Dot Day exactly?"

Dot Day is inspired by the picture book The Dot by Peter Reynolds. As the website linked at the beginning of this paragraph shows, Dot Day celebrates creativity, courage, and collaboration and began with teacher Terry Shay in 2009.

To celebrate International Dot Day, two of my Grade 7-8 classes had a Mystery Skype call with two of the classes in Tiffany's school. Neither of us had conducted a Mystery Skype call before, so it was pretty courageous of us to try this type of collaboration. Based on questions each group asked the other, we had to guess in what city we lived. Our plans were that if we had extra time during the call after each group had successfully determined the location of the other, we could ask questions about what life was like in that community.

Tiffany wrote about her experience with Dot Day 2013 on her blog and this blog post is my opportunity to share. My students were really curious and excited about this exchange. They even willingly gave up five minutes of their recess to come in early to be set up in front of the web cam for the encounter. My Tuesday group watched the screen carefully and listened attentively to Tiffany and her students as they spoke. I should have recorded the inter-student dialogue, because I was impressed with their thought processes. For this encounter, Tiffany and I agreed to allow open-ended questions. When one of my students instructed us to ask "Do you live in America?", another student noted the Stars & Stripes hanging in the corner of the library and declared that we should have already known the country from this clue. Another student immediately detected a strong common accent when the students were speaking and inferred that the group might live in Texas. Once we learned that Tiffany's school was in a location near Texas, a small group of students hustled away to locate an atlas (and when they had problems finding it in on the shelves, they searched online). Tiffany's group, to our great surprise, guessed our city correctly in very little time. When we asked how they were so quick, they confessed that Toronto is the only city they know in Canada. Since the "mystery" portion of our call was resolved early, we asked each other questions, like their favourite books, student readers choice programs, weather, and school mascots. We challenged Tiffany's group to guess our school name; we offered the clue that our school was named for a famous Canadian. Their first guess? Terry Fox. Their second? Justin Bieber! The call ended a bit abruptly as my computer decided to shut down without warning; however, we had an enjoyable conversation between the classes.

Thursday's group was equally as enthusiastic, and attempted to create a strategy before the call. (I had to remind them that they had to answer questions honestly.) Tiffany and I had reflected together via email after Tuesday's session and decided to try yes-no questions instead of the open-ended variety. The questions my students asked were well-formulated: Do you live in America? / Do you live in a southern state? / Do you live in a state that is swampy? / Do you live in Florida? / Do you live in Louisiana? The only unfortunate aspect of this call was that we had technical difficulties. The visuals from the Tuesday Skype call were a bit fuzzy so we thought we'd try a Google Hangout. My computer was missing a plug-in and I couldn't load it quickly enough. Then, when we tried to return to Skype, Central Middle School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana could hear and see us, but we could neither see nor hear them. It was a bit frustrating to have to rely on just a text response, but it did lend an added air of mystery. Once the Toronto students discovered that we were talking with people from Louisiana, their most burning question was their main personal connection to the state:  Do you have Popeye's there? (Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen is a fast food chain for fried chicken.) They answered that they do but that they enjoy authentic Cajun food like jambalaya and blackened alligator.  That blew my students' minds - I think they were sad to learn that it would probably be impossible for their new contacts to send them cooked alligator in the mail. Our next steps will be to create some "gifts" to send to them; this coincides nicely with our intermediate inquiry unit on value.

Here's an amazing, unexpected twist to our first-ever Dot Day celebrations at my school, and it has a lot to do with a dynamic new teacher to our staff. Francis Ngo teaches drama-dance to our primary classes as well as kindergarten technology. During his prep time, he often comes to the school library to use the computers in there. My prep time coincides with his and I happened to ask him during one shared prep period if he had ever had experience with either Mystery Skype or Dot Day. He hadn't, but was intrigued. We examined the International Dot Day website together and were really impressed by some of the neat activities suggested there. There's nothing quite as professionally satisfying as finding a colleague who gets just as excited as you do about teaching possibilities. We were both squealing like kids on a roller coaster at the ideas bouncing back and forth. In the end, it wasn't just the intermediate students that celebrated Dot Day: our youngest learners participated as well! Francis used a collaborative art site (FlockDraw) to have students make dots together. This helped with part of his mandate to have the students demonstrate their proficiency with clicking and operating the mouse, but, as he described it to me later, it was almost magical to see the looks of wonder on their faces as they saw other dots appear on their screen. It was creative and collaborative (and courageous on Francis' part to attempt this with 4- and 5-year-olds in just their third week of school). Our first forays into International Dot Day were a success and we can continue to channel the virtues related to this celebration throughout the year.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Driving on Empty

I peeked at my odometer while driving on the Don Valley Parkway Sunday evening and saw that the gas light was on. This was a pretty symbolic state of affairs.

I was on the highway at that time because I was returning from another day of conducting a Tribes TLC training at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. This course was offered on two consecutive weekends. On the previous weekend, I didn't return home until nearly midnight on Saturday and after a crazy set of circumstances, close to 10:00 pm on Sunday. This most recent week, I was sick with a sore throat, but Tribes supply teachers don't really exist, so I still ran the training - and I felt run down. It didn't help my energy level when I had some participants who were less-than-appreciative of my efforts. We learned about "I" statements during this training and mine for these couple of issues would have been: I feel disappointed when my efforts at open communication are ignored and I feel irritated when events reported to others are misrepresented.

As I reflected on the voyage back home, I connected with my car. It's hard for the car to run well when it's low on fuel. (Don't tell my parents, but a number of years ago, I ran out of gas while on the road and had to be towed to the nearest gas station. It's not a good feeling.) For the automobile that is the 1972 Diana, fuel isn't just food, but emotional and mental energy. Going without rest sapped my strength. So did dealing with negative people. I was saved from crashing and burning by brief breaks (such as the wonderful late lunch I had with my fellow trainers at a great breakfast-lunch place on Bloor Street) and the kind words and gestures by some of the other participants in the training - the teacher candidates who hugged me goodbye, and offered to help me tidy the classroom on the final day.

Could my "low gas tank" have impacted the effectiveness or tone of the training? Quite probably. Then again, it's possible to give 100% to a lesson or class and have it tank, because of other factors beyond your control (like the energy levels or attitudes of your students, or illness, or the timing of the class itself). I want to thank the participants who were open to the Tribes process, and I apologize if my exhaustion affected their training experience.

I pulled into a gas station and filled my car with what it needed. I'm going to work on filling my own tank this week, by going to bed early, carving out some "me" time, and surrounding myself with positive people. (I think cuddling with my new skinny pig Owen, whom my school children have been suggesting that I bring to school, might help a lot as well.)

Monday, September 9, 2013

"Babies" are capable of a lot!

Today marks five days of school into the 2013-14 school year. We stagger the entry of our JKs and now all of our littlest learners are with us. September is a time where routines become established and - supposedly - it is best not to set your expectations too high, because teachers will be fortunate enough just to have people sitting for a five minute consecutive stretch and a room full of dry pants before lunch. Well, the "babies" at our school have turned that notion topsy-turvy this past week!

I decided to review my definition of media with the kindergarten classes. ("Media is made by people, for people. You can see it; you can hear it; you can feel it; you can wear it; you can experience it. All media has a message.") I was delighted and surprised to see some of the 4-year-olds trying to mimic the actions and repeat the words of their older peers.

Our initial inquiry will be about choice, so I allowed them to vote and choose which book they wanted me to read this week. They lined up behind the book of their choice without dithering and made their opinions known.

As I read the book(s) out loud, I was amazed by the students' insights and comments.

"I have a connection!" proclaimed one newly-minted SK. "The crocodile in the story is you, Mrs. Mali!" (This was a story about a young giraffe who was a little scared of the local librarian, a crocodile, but became comfortable with her as they shared books.) The children then proceeded to identify each character with a real-life equivalent.

"Spiders don't fly. They spin webs." This came from a brand-new JK. (This comment popped out in the middle of the reading of Little Miss Spider at Sunny Patch School.) There were many other observations shared about this story, such as the bee with teeth ("bees don't have teeth; they have stingers") and Little Miss Spider's school experiences.

I've also been impressed with the baby in my house. The baby in question is Owen, our brand new skinny pig. You may recall my post in June when I reported the loss of my beloved pet skinny pig Max. It's been several months and I finally felt ready to add another pet to the household. I drove all the way up to Owen Sound after my Tribes TLC training at the University of Toronto this past weekend to pick him up, and for a little guy who is just a month old, Owen handled the long drive well and has adapted comfortably to his new living quarters. I think Owen will be a home pet rather than a school pet like Max was, but having such a tiny sweetheart in our midst is a breath of fresh air. Like my newest students, I look forward to seeing him develop, creating a safe and happy environment for him to thrive, and making memories together.

This is Max' gravesite - the memorial stone was created by last year's Grade 1-2s in Room 115.

Here is Owen just before moving into his new abode! He fits in my hand.

It looks like I'm getting kisses from Owen - affectionate just like the JKs!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Layout Illustrating Intent

Happy Labour Day everyone! Last week was dominated by my son's 11th birthday celebrations and going into school to set up the physical space. I can do many of my preparations at home, such as long range planning, but refreshing bulletin boards cannot be done at home. I didn't originally consider changing the layout of the rooms much. I'm not a visual-spatial sort of person and there aren't that many options when dealing with large shelves and/or banks of desktop computers. However, after visiting with my colleagues and admiring how they had refurbished their teaching space, I was inspired to try to make some improvements. It wasn't until after I took some snapshots that I realized that my new layout illustrated my teaching philosophy.

Last year, I couldn't use my blackboard much because the CD player, wide tables, and writing supplies were in front of it. My SMART Board also sat in the corner, obscuring the portrait of Agnes Macphail (the first female MP in Canada and our school's namesake). The bulletin board was also blocked. I moved the SMART Board to the other side of the library and placed the tables underneath the bulletin board. My clever mother-in-law, who is a Grade 1 teacher in Baltimore County, uses fabric for her bulletin boards because it is less likely to fade. She gave me some cute "reading frogs" material for me to use. The supply bin storage unit is right next to the "assessment boxes", where I keep assignments done by each class. (These boxes used to be on top of a non-fiction shelf.)

By moving the interactive whiteboard, I've created more space for the book exchange area. I also moved the dual language book shelf (actually a transformed podium) right next to the circulation desk, close to the main door.

I'm always toying with the table set-up and right now it's a long, upside-down U. It provides enough space to sit on both sides, decent travel lanes from the front of the library to the back, and enough room to work.

My office is renowned as a garbage pit. I don't spend a lot of time in there, but it is my personal space. I may have won the war against gravity by pinning my posters to the ceiling trim with those black and silver paper clips. You can even see the top of my desk, and it's brown! I moved one of my filing cabinets to the back of my room, beside my desk.

The play area has been expanded. I wrote about my initial play area here and there aren't significant changes but enough alterations that I notice. I moved the mini-blackboard and whiteboard easel to the play area and linked the circular tables together for more play space. I permanently added a bin of dress-up costumes and accessories. The basketball net used to fall down all the time, but by placing it in that corner, I can see the players using it and it won't fall down as often.

So, how do these changes give you a glimpse into my educational priorities? My SMART Board is not the pivotal part of my library anymore - it's not the first thing you see when you enter. Technology is important to me but not necessarily the direct teaching / lecture method of technology integration. (I know that IWBs aren't meant primarily for teacher use and whole-class instruction, but I find it takes concentrated effort to avoid falling into the "teacher touches it the most" trap.) Space is important. I like having wide-open spaces which are open to all sorts of possibilities. Clearing space between teaching areas and book exchange areas means that both can go on simultaneously without disrupting the other. Giving students time to play in school is something I believe in that is reflected in the amount of room I allot for designated spots. (Truly, play can happen almost anywhere.) You can see my brand new graphic novel shelves in the last photo - this was desperately needed, as my graphic novel collection was spread messily over a mish-mash of tables. Granting the funds for shelves for this collection shows how much comics matter to me and to my students. Items have been moved so that students can access them easier. From the blackboard to boxes to books, this school library is supposed to be for the students and I think these small changes demonstrate this. I hope everyone has a great first week of school and I pray that these deliberate changes will be felt by my students in a positive way.