Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On Misconceptions and the Common Core

"Those who know, do. Those who understand, teach." -unknown

In education, the Common Core is a term that is constantly thrown about, by a myriad of people, though sometimes I wonder if most of these people have any idea what they're talking about. The Common Core is often vilified as something that is horrible for education, mostly because of testing. I have my own reservations--however it is not the Common Core itself, from whence my reservations stem, but rather the implementation of the standards. While I have thought a lot about it, and will probably write about it again, I was inspired to write this post because I have seen this post pop up on facebook multiple times, and I finally clicked on the link and became rather infuriated with the ignorance of a ridiculous amount of people out in our world. Like anyone who commented on the post. Reader beware, this post may be a little snarkier than perhaps warranted.

I strongly question the validity of this woman's bachelors degree if she couldn't figure out the answer to the question. I would hope that any college worth its salt would teach problem solving, critical thinking, and acceptance of there being more than one right way to solve a problem. Second, this woman clearly has no idea what goes into effective teaching. So while you can't "destroy the common core"  with one sentence on a kid's assignment when you obviously have no idea what the common core actually is, I am going to completely destroy her "argument".

If you're too lazy to click the link, the article is ridiculously titled: "Angry Mother Destroys Common Core by Writing This on Her Son's Test", and the image that goes along with it is this:
First, let me solve the problem that was oh so difficult for this alleged Electronics Engineer who has done extensive training in "higher math applications" and differential equations (neither of which is relevant because your elementary school kid is obviously not being taught either of those things). Side note: I have plenty of brilliant friends with bachelors degrees and more who have commented that they have completely forgotten how to do long division. So the fact that you may or may not be able to solve differential equations has literally no bearing on why you can't solve an elementary-level math problem. 

Let me break it down for you:
That line with tick marks is a student created number line. Jack wanted to visualize this subtraction problem, and used one of many strategies he was likely taught to do so. Because he was working with hundreds, it is much easier to skip count when possible, than count back 316 by ones. He recognized that 316 has 3 hundreds, 1 ten, and 6 ones. So he started by counting back by hundreds. Starting at 427, he jumped back to 327, 227, then 127. Now he's taken care of the hundreds, so he moves on. But oh no! Jack you silly boy, you forgot about the tens and went straight to ones! Jack merely counted back 6 from 127: 126, 125, 124, 123, 122, 121. Had he counted back by 10s, he would have jumped from 127 to 117, and then the ones, to end up with 111.

It is true that you can use the simple method of lining up the numbers to do 427-316. But this is not what Jack did. Because Jack, like many students, is still developing some of his number sense, especially number sense with large numbers. The traditional method is abstract, and if you learn those quick tricks, you may completely miss the important parts: why the trick works, when you can and cannot use said trick, and what subtraction even is. So, yes, maybe once you graduate into the work force, simplicity is valued over "complication" (even though what Jack was doing was not that complicated.) 

But your child is in SCHOOL. Not the work force. We don't want kids taking the easy way out. We want kids to understand what they are doing, and be able to apply these concepts to new problems in creative ways. If they just know the quick tricks, and have no concept of what is actually going on with numbers, they won't amount to much in a work force that increasingly values problem solving and creativity. This process might result in termination if you are an Electric Engineer and using it daily on the job, because you should no longer need scaffolds such as using a number line to visualize a problem. You will not, however, be terminated from a school for solving a problem a different way from the kid sitting next to you, in order to fully understand a concept. How fast your kid can solve something is NOT the point. The point is understanding, and persevering to solve problems. Not every problem can be solved in 5 seconds, and if you teach your kid that he should be able to solve math fast to be successful, I'm afraid you are setting your kid up for failure.

Okay, so now that I've done your son's homework for him, you may be saying, hey, you didn't address the issue with the Common Core! Don't worry, I shall now. This is not "common core math". The Common Core is a set of standards that covers what a student should understand by the end of each year in school. It does not tell teachers HOW to teach. This strategy may be addressing a standard, but I'm pretty sure this strategy has been taught for longer than the Common Core has been around. The issue you are having is more with the math curriculum that is being used, not the Common Core. And that's the main issue. Many curriculums slap on a sticker that says "Common Core Aligned", and that sticker is the most Common Core thing about it. Slowly, we are seeing more effective curriculums pop up to provide teachers with resources to teach to the new standards. But again, the standards are much more about problem solving and justifying reasoning than about specific strategies teachers must teach. The Common Core is NOT a curriculum. There is no such thing as "Common Core Math" in the context that this frustrated, and frustratingly ignorant, mother uses it. So before you have a little fit about the common core, please educate yourself. Let me make it easy for you: HERE is the website for the common core standards. You can go read the standards themselves, or read the page that's about what parents should know

Maybe you'll realize that your son's teacher actually knows what he or she is doing, and is effectively teaching your son math at a level that is developmentally appropriate for him. But hey, I'm just a teacher with a bachelors degree in psychology, a teaching credential, and a masters degree in education. What do I know?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Evolution of a New Classroom

My next teaching adventure has begun, nice and early in August. August 13th was my first day of 4th grade. I think it's going to be a fun year, once I figure out and settle into a routine with all this new curriculum.

My year started 9 days before the first day, when I got the key to my near empty classroom.

My first day was a lot of pushing furniture around. And teacher desks are quite heavy and unwieldy. 
The next day I started getting some of the boxes that have been commandeering my living room of all the classroom stuff I accumulated the past couple years. I have lots of cupboard space, which is pretty nice. Also mostly empty, save for a bunch of curriculum for Reading/Language Arts, social studies, and science. It's a good think I hadn't already filled all my nooks and crannies, because we got a new math curriculum, which came with two GIANT tubs of manipulatives. One is 99% a bazillion base 10 blocks. But I digress. My classroom started filling with things, and I felt better having groups instead of rows of desks.
My next task was the walls. They were so empty! My last classroom already had some bulletin boards up that were in good condition, so I never had to put any up. I got paper, and my wonderful boyfriend gave up most of his weekend and hung out in my classroom both Saturday and Sunday. He helped with the bulletin boards, and that's when it really started to feel like a classroom.

 Day 1 came much quicker than I would have wished. And not just because I could have used another week of sleeping in. As a teacher, there is always more you want to do. There is always something else you would add, if you only had the time. It is never, never enough. Perks of the job, I suppose.

 That being said, kids show up the first day, whether you are ready or not. So I had to be ready.
One thing I was never brave enough to play with at my old school was the die-cutter. (di-cutter? dycutter? who knows?) But with kids who may actually use and read and appreciate words on the wall, I created a couple of posters about behavior expectations. Walking quietly through the hall is still a challenge for 4th graders, but they respond pretty well to SLANT, and having a specific term for active listening.
As a teacher, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The internet is a wondrous place, and I found tons of ideas for starting off the year. One idea I found was to use cards--I have 6 groups--Ace through 6 cards on every desk in every suit. They picked a card and matched it to a desk to find a seat the first day. After that, I can pick a card to elicit answers, or ask all hearts/clubs/spades/diamonds to collect  papers or whatever. It's a nice way to have groups!

 Here's another idea I found from a variety of sources: Pinterest gave me the idea for a magnet chart--a way to streamline attendance and lunch count for me, and keep track of where kids are. I set that up, but then needed to figure out the magnet situation. I was looking at magnet tape options at target, and the image for one was of bottle cap magnets. So I looked on Amazon, and not only found bottle caps, but a 1" hole punch (perfect size to fit a picture/number into a bottle cap!) and a plastic blob (I forget what they're called) that fit in each bottle cap to make it look more professionally done. Less professional is my daily re-gluing at least one number back into its bottle cap, as the kiddos are not gentle and the magnets smack against the shelves below and dismantle. But they'll get better.

  Growing up, each year, my mom would take a picture of me and my sister every first day of school. She would continue to request a picture throughout college, and since I haven't not had a first day of school any year since kindergarten, I continue to endeavor to send a First Day of School picture to my mom. They now take the form of selfies instead of portraits. Here is this year's:

As the days progress, I continue to add more to my walls. I ordered a dinosaur welcome sign (I have a little bit of a dinosaur theme going on--our classroom economy has "Dino Dollars"--each denomination has a different dinosaur on it). It naturally wasn't there the 1st day of school, and it was also much longer than expected (10 feet long!) but now hanging up on the wall above my head in the dark space in the picture above. Posters continue to go up--an empathy poster from our Second Step curriculum, and a "Kindness Contract" we wrote and signed as a class the second day of school.

As the year begins, and goals are being set by both me and the kids, I hope to keep you, dear reader, updated a little more often on my adventures as I discover 4th grade and a new school. So stay tuned for posts about my classroom economy, how 4th grade is similar and different from kinder, and in the winter, Dinovember: 4th grade edition. You didn't think I would give that up teaching an older grade, did you? 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Goodbyes and Hellos

Anyone with a heart, with a family, has experienced loss. No one escapes unscathed. Every story of separation is different, but I think we all understand that basic, wrenching emotion that comes from saying goodbye, not knowing if we'll see that person again - or perhaps knowing that we won't. -Luanne Rice

“Why can't we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn't work. Someone would leave. Someone always leaves. Then we would have to say good-bye. I hate good-byes. I know what I need. I need more hellos.” -Charles M. Schulz

My sad empty classroom

Big news, dear reader, I am no longer a kindergarten teacher! Life doesn't always go the way you plan, but while I had to say goodbye to a school where I loved working, I am very excited for both cutting my commute down by 30-40 minutes, and teaching 4th grade!

No matter how much I think that kindergarten wasn't the best fit for me--I didn't think that was the grade I wanted when I accepted the job, but I am still glad that I did. People have told me that if you can teach kindergarten, you can teach anything, so I'll let you know if there is a shred of truth in that statement next year. I love working with that age group, but I have realized that what I am more excited to teach are things more fitted to upper grades.

As tough as this year has been though, moving to full day and having some darling little behavior challenges that no one had answers for, kinder graduation made me almost forget that I don't want to teach kindergarten again. We start practicing for graduation at the beginning of May, and it sounds early to practice sitting, singing some songs, and shaking some hands, but boy did we need to, and boy did the kids do wonderful.

One student's mom told me her kid kept asking if she could take me and all of her friends to 1st grade. Another student came up to me after everything was over to tell me she didn't want to go to another classroom, she wanted to stay with me. Another mom thanked me for working with her student, even though she knew he was a tough kid. She went on to say that she told her sister when her sister's son is in kindergarten, I'm the teacher she wants. And I didn't have the heart to tell her that I wasn't going to be back next year. It was such a positive end of the year, that despite all of my insecurities of teaching, I left feeling successful. I left knowing that all of my ups and downs were worth it--that I CAN teach, and I CAN teach kindergarten. It was a good way to end the year, even though goodbyes suck, and it makes me sad that I won't get to watch my little kinders grow into little people who can function in society.

For now, it's enough. I'll try to visit next year, just as I've visited my student teaching school (and saw my second graders as big 4th graders), and my AmeriCorps school in Minnesota. I have the summer to figure out what to expect in 4th grade, and to visit another school--it's my 5 year college reunion in a week and it will be nice to let myself have a vacation away from my boxed up classroom that has invaded my living room, and the pressures to research school stuff. Happy Summer!

Thursday, April 2, 2015


"Dinosaurs may be extinct from the face of the planet, but they are alive and well in our imaginations." -Steve Miller

Each day may take its time, but the weeks sure fly by. This post is embarrassingly late, but better late than never, right?

This year, Dinocember extended into Dinouary. And instead of 10 days, I got to do 13! Some may look similar to last years, but I had a few new tricks up my sleeve. Or rather, my dinosaurs did.


It actually began in Dinovember, when I had to clean all the paint and glitter off from the last day of Dinocember last year.
Bath time!

Dinocember Day 1: My sister, the geologist, helped me set up this one.
Dinosaur paleontologists!
 Dinocember Day 2: The dinos get to play doctor.
Dr. Dinosaur, at your service
Dinocember Day 3: My kiddos love this new addition to my classroom--a hand-me-down from another teacher.
"Honey, did you walk the t-rex yet?"
 Dinocember Day 4: Who doesn't love to write on white boards?
The dinos were better at capping the markers than my students are.
 Dinocember Day 5: A new addition to my classroom, that hid away in a cabinet, nearly forgotten about, when my dinosaurs reminded me.
I see somedino channeling Edward Scissorhands over in the corner.
 Dinocember Day 6: Couldn't help show off some of my sweet dinosaur books. Of which I have many more.
Hi, my name is Amy, and I have a children's literature problem.
 Dinocember Day 7: Lincoln Logs were a toy I remember loving as a kid.
Look! Another log cabin!
 Dinocember Day 8: This was a last minute Target trip the day before winter break.
Deck the halls with boughs of dinos.
 Dinouary Day 1: This was actually really fun to set up. I should play with blocks more often.
Unclear if any of my students noticed that it said "dinosaurs".
 Dinouary Day 2: Recycling last year's drawings.
I opened a brand new box of crayons for this. The dinosaurs also take better care of their crayons than my kinders.
 Dinouary Day 3: Making a mess, as usual, but also doing some ten frames math!
om nom nom
 Dinouary Day 4: These were in my classroom when I moved in, and never got to use them last year. This year, I've had time to pull them out because we're full-day instead of half-day.
 Dinouary Day 5: My students LOVE legos, but hate cleaning them up. They have lost lego privileges for a while, but the dinosaurs haven't.
Shout out to my friend Bridget, who helped me out for a day, and set up the legos.
My dinosaur collection just keeps growing...My sister got me these sweet fossil cookie cutters for Christmas, which meant I just had to bring some in for my kids.
It's amazing how well kinders can behave, when they want something...
My students loved it, and I continued to deny any participation in their movements. Even the kids who claimed they didn't believe me, never seemed quite so sure...

Probably the best moment was during our Daily Message on the rug, we were talking about the dinosaurs being extinct, and I asked, well, are there any dinosaurs alive today? And one of my students said yes! So I ask, where? And he points....to my Dinocember display.

Torn between accurate scientific knowledge, and maintaining the magical illusion of toys having their own lives, I fumbled through a "well, they're different, small, not dangerous" blah blah blah that he definitely bought. But it made me glad that my students, who have already overcome a lot for their young lives, and for some who are exposed to things (music, movies, language) beyond what's appropriate, still have an openness to imagination and wonder.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Science, or An Unfortunate Lack Thereof

"Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler." -Albert Einstein

"Science never solves a problem without creating ten more." -George Bernard Shaw

Recently (Okay, way back at the beginning of December) I got the opportunity to go to the National Science Teacher's Association regional conference in Long Beach. I got to go on a business trip! Had my flight and hotel booked and paid for! We got more per diem than expected (and took advantage of that)! Of course, I was a little nervous. One, because I'm not a science teacher in the traditional sense. I'm a science teacher in that I teach science--but I teach everything as a kindergarten teacher. I was also nervous because I'd have to be social with some other teachers at my school, with whom I had previously barely exchanged pleasantries. And I'm not very good at being talkative and social at work. There's a reason I work with kids: I can get along well with them. Adults are a challenge.

The second fear was unfounded-- my fellow teachers are pretty cool people. The first fear was actually well founded, but not quite in the way I expected. There were sessions aimed at lower elementary teachers, and there were other lower elementary teachers there. I wonder what some of them thought of the sessions I went to, because I was unimpressed. The best sessions I went to were not applicable to me, but way more interesting. A couple of sessions I felt like I could have presented myself, and I -by no means- consider myself an expert in anything education related. Or in anything, really.

So much of the k-2 sessions were very general, and discussing either how the Next Generation Science Standards mesh with the Common Core, or about what an effective science lesson looks like. They could have been useful sessions as a student teacher, because I, as any teacher worth their salt, already know students are more engaged when things are hands on (duh), and I already know a lot of strategies for ELs, and about incorporating read alouds into science.

There's also this assumption that science teachers are terrified of the NGSS. I didn't go all the way to Long Beach to be reassured about new standards. Same with the Common Core. One, because I'm a new teacher, I'm starting with the new standards--I don't have to get used to some new change. But two, because I don't feel threatened by the standards. I think that it's really more the application of the standards, and not the standards themselves that are so frustrating. But I digress.

I think there are some other assumptions about lower elementary teachers that may actually be rooted in reality, and that may explain the lack of resources for kindergarten teachers who want to teach science. I think there isn't as much quality science being taught in kindergarten because a lot of elementary teachers don't have a strong science background. Because there is a lack of comprehensive knowledge, teachers avoid teaching it where possible, and with such an emphasis on math and reading in lower grades, it's pretty easy to get away with.

What's more, many adults, teachers included, have a wealth of misconceptions about science, that were ingrained at a young age, so when science is taught, it's not always taught well. Even teachers who don't have these misconceptions run the risk of perpetuating them with their students. Many misconceptions start out of truth, simplified into kid-friendly language. Trying to "dumb down" concepts, as it were, can be a dumb thing to do. What would have been great at this conference was a session (or twenty) on how to prevent misconceptions, how to teach complex topics to kindergarteners without creating these misconceptions, and some solid science content for teachers who don't have a comprehensive science background.

It wasn't all a loss though. I came away with some interesting resources, even if it was just a geological poster of California, some rock samples, and some sweet space pictures from NASA. I also came away with more enthusiasm and motivation to teach science, even though it's hard to fit in new things into an already packed day. Even if I don't manage to get organized enough this year, science will be a bit stronger from the beginning of the year next year.

I have to admit, though, that the best thing about Long Beach was wholly unrelated to the conference, but still teaching related. There was this GIANT used bookstore where every book was a dollar. I bought around 30 kids books for my classroom (and some were science books!). I really do have a children's book problem. I could have stayed there much much longer, and bought many more books, but I managed some self restraint.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How to Teach Resilience to Kindergarteners (Spoiler Alert: the answer isn't here)

"Here’s the thing: I lose sleep because of you.  Every week.

[...] For some, you quit by throwing the day away and not even trying to write a sentence or a fraction because you think it doesn’t matter or you can’t or there’s no point. But it does. What you write is not the main event. The fact that you do take charge of our own fear and doubt in order to write when you are challenged — THAT is the main event.

The main event is not getting a number to tell you you are worthy. The main event is pulling your crap together and making hard choices and sacrifices when things seem impossible.  It is finding hope in the hopeless, courage in the chasm, guts in the grave. [...] What you need to see is that every time you take the easy way out, you are building a habit of quitting. 

[...] You can whine.  You can throw a tantrum.  You can shout and swear and stomp and cry.  And the next day, guess what?  I will be here waiting — smiling and patient — to give you a fresh start. 

Because you are worth it." -This Guy

Before you read any further, click the link and read the blog. It's not a long post and I couldn't agree with it more. I should probably just leave the link and call it a day, but alas, dear reader, you are not so lucky. So buckle up.

First, it's true. I lose sleep over my kiddos. Whether it's thanks to my long commute, too slowly becoming less inefficient prepping for each day, or the constant thoughts running through my mind of what I can do better, what more I can do for my students, what I'm doing wrong....and on and on and on forever, it's safe to say I don't often get enough sleep. Thank goodness for coffee.

So, despite how much of a roller coaster teaching kindergarten is, how terrible I occasionally feel days go, and how frustrated I get with my students, how sub par I feel I am doing,  I will always always always greet them with a smile in the morning. I will always always always ask for a hug or a high five at the end of the day. Because I care about them. I believe in them, and the power of an education. I am optimistic, and hopeful. I became a teacher because I believe that every student can learn. I became a teacher because I wanted a meaningful, rewarding job. Because working with kids is never boring. Because they constantly amaze me...because despite my shortcomings, and despite the challenges piled up against my students, they do learn, and they do grow, and I have to believe that I am somehow a part of that. And because I really do love them, and care for them, no matter how they drive me crazy.

So yes, my students make amazing academic strides throughout the year. But I think back to during my credential year, when one of my professors asked us what we wanted our students to get out of school. And not one of us wrote down academic content. Our goals were aligned not with the common core standards, but with different values--critical thinking, curiosity, perseverance, kindness and so on. At the end of the day, it's resilience and love of learning I want my students to learn. So how do you make this kid-friendly? How can you instill this resilience in a kindergartener?

It's amazing how quickly students give up when things get hard. And then they tell you "it's hard!" as if they'll get a "that's okay you can stop". It's almost funny how surprised and aghast kids can be when they sweat--as if that's a bad thing, as if that means something's wrong with them.

How do you teach students the importance of an education at 5? In an ideal world, this support would come from home. But how can a parent, who doesn't speak English, may not have completed high school, and is working hard just to pay the rent, know how to prepare their child for school? How do you teach a kid resilience in a system where they're already a step behind, whether it be poverty,  language, race, difficult home life or any and all combinations of those? School is hard for an English language learner, as many of my students are, and it is hard from Day 1 of Kindergarten. How do you help a student who may not understand you that it is important to persevere, to not give up, when it is challenging enough just getting them to sit and listen quietly to a story?

I don't have the answers yet. I may never have good answers. All I can do is keep learning, and keep trying. I am the first to admit I am not always a successful teacher. And yet I persevere--I have had the importance of education and hard work instilled in me from a young age, with parents who read to me, provided me with experiences, and made time to talk to me. I was lucky to attend school in my home language, where the barriers between me and learning were very thin.

I'll leave with this video. Every time someone posts a video of slam poetry online I end up watching like 15 more because slam poetry is pretty sweet. This one is a little heartbreaking though, because it touches upon some of the challenges from school districts that make teachers' jobs that much harder beyond the challenges the students walk in the door with. Luckily my school isn't as strict as the one this poet's sister is in, but there is some truth in the pressures I feel to follow pacing, use curriculum materials, and getting them to perform on various assessments when I don't believe it's what my students really need or benefit from.
As I become more confident of a teacher, I think I'll get better at balancing what's required of me and fitting in what my students need without wasting so much time on management. It may never be perfect, but at least I can keep learning, and keep improving. And until then, I'll do my best. At least on my difficult days, I still get some hugs, and even some "I love you Ms. Elson"s. So I'm reaching them somehow.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

May Your Days Be Merry & Bright!

“You live and learn. At any rate, you live.” -Douglas Adams

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror." -Oscar Wilde

I wish I could say that now that I have a year under my belt, I am having a significantly better year than last year. That classroom management is coming more easily, or that I am not spending as late of nights at school. If I did, I'd be lying. Yes, somethings are easier, more familiar, more comfortable, and I am ever so slightly more confident. That being said, this year (and, I anticipate, each year to come) is quite different from the last. 

This year I have all my kiddos all day, instead of an awkward 2 smaller half day groups that overlapped. There are pros and cons. Overall, I'd say it's a good move. But man, 8-3 is a LONG day for a kindergartener. Every day is a new adventure. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.

What hasn't changed is knowing that I am in the right career--My first week of break found me visiting a friend who teaches 6th grade, and spending a day in her classroom. Even on vacation, I often find myself voluntarily---happily--ending up back in a school. I love my job (even when it sounds like I don't).

Even though the days are long, the year has gone by so fast! I was working in my classroom last week, and changed my calendar for when we go back to school (January 5). I switched out 2014 for 2015. I wish I could capitalize numbers. 2015! A lot happened last year--I got my masters! I survived a year of teaching kindergarten! Friends got married! I went to Minnesota a bunch! I ran and biked a lot! I got to go on a "business trip" (ie science teachers conference)! I hit 30,000 miles on my car! I did a lot more stuff that's not coming to mind!  

I'm excited for what 2015 has to bring--like my 5 year Carleton reunion in June! I cannot believe it's been 5 years since graduating. I can't believe It's been 3 years since living in the Twin Cities. I'm a little nervous too--I'm going to need to make a big decision about my job/city/house in the spring if I don't want to continue my long Davis-Napa commute. But for now, I'll relax, because it's winter break, it's almost Christmas, and I'm heading to Bodega Bay for some good family time!

I have not forgotten about you, dear reader, 2015 will also bring you my reflections on the science conference I got to go to, some thoughts on teaching perseverance, and, best of all, a summary of my favorite part of the year: Dinocember/Janusaury (Dinouary?).

Until then, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!