October 29, 2012

The Differences That Matter

Magic is happening in the Ninja Writer's classroom this year.

It's week 10, and we're about halfway through our read aloud of The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. I fell in love with this book over the summer, so I was thrilled when I found out it was the Global Read Aloud choice for 2012. Both my classes are simply eating it up -- daily as I read, my students are scribbling notes and drawing sketches while they think about what is happening in the text.

This morning as I read, a hand shot up and before I could even respond, a small voice piped up from a boy sitting in the back of the group gathered around me, "I just noticed that word has more than one meaning!"

He was talking about the word "trunk." The story had just referenced Ruby, the baby elephant, using her trunk. We paused for a minute to discuss the many variations of the word, and everyone seemed excited -- both because of what happened in the story (I won't ruin it for you!) and because someone had noticed something significant. We've been talking a lot about multiple word meanings, and the importance of understanding which meaning is right in the context of the reading.

After we finished our reading for today, I showed my students how to use the "Someone...Wanted...But...So...Then" method for summarizing a piece of text. More hands shot up.

"I noticed a preposition!"
"I noticed you used a FANBOY (conjunction) to join those two ideas together!"
"I just used a metaphor from the story to explain the problem in this chapter!"

And on and on it went.

Needless to say, this teacher was beaming from ear to ear.

This year has been difficult for me. Most of the ideas and teaching methods I've brought along with me to my new school aren't generally accepted here. I spent the first several weeks hiding in my room behind a closed door hoping nobody would notice my rebel teaching style. When it was noticed, it was questioned, and even scoffed at as "too much work." Eventually, I realized I was causing more stress by holding to my vow of silence.

So I spoke up. First, in a timid, shaky voice. But each time I spoke up, I grew a little less timid and lot more bold. Eventually, I put my foot down. I will not follow nonsense instruction (thank you, Nancy Atwell). More recently, questions are being asked, but in a different way. Teachers are curious about the blogging, the brain research, the books I've been reading. It made me realize that there is a lot more than stress-reduction that happens when you stand up for what you believe.

I keep following my heart, listening to my wise friend and unknowing mentor, Jenny, and plowing hopefully forward. Surely, I tell myself, surely... this is the right way.

Last week my students took their first 9 week unit exams. Three stories, one selection of paired poems to compare, and one stand alone poem. 32 questions.

My students are (in my opinion) oddly grouped. My morning class consists of students that struggle to read anywhere near grade level. Reading is hard for them. But oh my goodness, they work hard; they are so eager to learn, to improve. Of the 19 students in that class, well over half receive some sort of modification or special services. Half of those need almost constant one on one attention to complete their work. Because of this, most of them haven't had much of an opportunity for peer work or small group collaboration before this year. We've spent much of our first weeks together just learning how to have conversations, how to make eye contact, and how to use what we know about how our brains work to help us learn. Due to cutbacks in the budget, none of them receive as much help as they really need. I stand in the gap as best I can.

My afternoon class has several students in the gifted and talented program. Those that aren't in that program are still typically high-achieving students. This is my squirrely class. High-kinesthetic need, low ability to attend to their behavior. We're working on metacognition and having an intrinsic locus of control. But they are also hard workers, and want to learn -- they soak up everything I throw at them, and surprise me daily with their insight.

The fact that these students are separated makes things more difficult for them. The students that really struggle don't have peers to learn from. The students that are excelling don't often have the opportunity to teach what they know. I feel we're missing out on some huge learning opportunities.

Today we received the data from last week's exam. Our guys have the highest reading scores in the district. When I arrived here, I was told to be prepared to "work my butt off" because of the high number of special needs students in our grade level this year. I was told to stick to the district  directives for instruction. I was told many things.

I did what many of us do. I chose what worked for me, for my students, and for our unique needs. I tossed out the rest. I gave (and will continue to give) my students ample time to read and write each day. I try to stay out of their way as they learn, and I guide them in the direction we need to go.

So far, I think we're doing just fine. And I'm glad to have some data to keep the naysayers at bay. I know that reading makes a difference. Choice makes a difference. A positive, happy influence makes a difference. Children that know how their brain works, how they learn best, and how to use that information -- that makes a difference. These are the differences that matter. As my friends with Human Systems Dynamics would say -- these are the differences that make a difference.


  1. OMG. I'm speechless!!! when you firsttold me about your Ninjas,your compassion for them and your deep respect for their potential made me weep. What a year I knee it would be for them...and for you. And you have set the conditions for some powerful learning--for all of us! Thanks!!!! Leslie

    1. Thank you. I don't know what else to say. Thank you for your courage and curiosity to engage in adaptive action. Thank you for setting the conditions for your Ninjas to do the same. Thank you for sharing this story and feeding into adaptive action for us and others. Thank you.

    2. Thank you both for your kind responses! This was a difficult post to share, but I'm slowly becoming stronger. It's amazing how willing I am to speak up when the lives of 37 children are involved. :)