Differentiating Homes

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Nicole’s Blog & Melissa’s Blog

The following blog was written for a Parent EDU project that Nicole Biscotti (@BiscottiNicole) & Melissa Sidebotham (@MelSideB) are putting together. 


Good educators understand the need to personalize lessons, assignments, and assessments to meet the needs of a diverse population in their classrooms. The educational term for this is differentiation. How many times do educators treat every home as though it were the same as all of the rest? How is it that we see every student as a unique individual, but try to pigeon-hole the homelives into an assumed formula?

Several years ago I began using more technology in the classroom. My district was employing an online teaching component that included lessons and quizzes. With limited classroom time on shaky tech tools, I thought I’d assign some work to be done at home. The day after the very first assignment, I received an email from a single mom who traveled very far for work. My initial thought was defensive. Luckily, although new to teaching, I knew enough not to type what I was feeling. The practice of assigning online HW discontinued, and all was well. 

Last year, I tried sending “Reading Logs” home. I had done this in the past with moderate success. Some parents told me that they liked having their children write a sentence or two about what they had read each day! Of course there was never 100% participation, and as you can imagine, the quality varied greatly. I was floored, however, when I witnessed the vast gap in equity last year. There were some students whose writing was the best I had ever seen. Third graders were composing beautifully written paragraphs every night, after reading impressive texts. Others, however, weren’t even touching a text or scratching out one line on the log. What was I to do? 

Right around this time I was becoming more active on Twitter. Luckily for everyone, I came across many tweets suggesting negative effects of these kinds of blanket assignments. As I reflected on what I was seeing return to school, I realized that these reading logs were really assessing students’ home life more than their ability to read and write. Also, within only a few short weeks, I could see that this continued practice would simply widen the gap between the homes that provided a lot of support and environments that didn’t. What to do? Should I punish the “No-Log-Students”? Instead, I ditched the reading log. I am thankful to my Personal Learning Network (PLN) from Twitter for helping process all of these ideas. 

One thought has continued to burn on my brain, though: How different all of these homes are. During parent-teacher conference season I have some parents who visit my room as couples, arriving early, entering with notes, prepared questions, and goal-setting agendas. There are also parents who never sign up or contact me. We might speak on the phone, but I’m not surprised to learn that there are homes that feel like learning should be done strictly at school. 

Earlier in my teaching career I idealized some home situations and thought that everyone should strive to be like them. Then my daughter Scarlet was born. Scarlet is entering second grade this year. With each new teacher there are new communication styles, formats, and platforms being used. There have been times when I wished my daughter’s teachers communicated the way I did on the same social media platforms that I used. As an educator, though, I know that they have a bunch of students’ families to communicate with, and they should use the vehicle that works best for them. How could a teacher differentiate communication to parents while using the same platform for all? Content; Quantity; and even Quality could be ways to meet parents’ needs. 

Do you type up a newsletter for all families, and then wipe your hands of home communication responsibilities? What if the parents of a youth can’t read, can’t read English, or never receives the letter? Here’s an idea: Find out what families want to know. At the beginning of the year, learn what content would be helpful to each home. The newsletter could still be posted on your website, but you could tailor your communication with the homes of your students to meet the specific needs of each one. It could be a short note, a text, a quick email with a screenshot of scores, etc. You have data on your students. Collect some for your families.

How often do your families want to hear from you? Do you know? How much do they want to read? A parent told me last year that they liked bullet-point-emails. That opened my eyes. I knew my emails were too long. From then on, I had a list at the beginning of what was in each email.

Some parents like getting lots of detail, while others are more interested in simply knowing their kid is doing okay. Which style of parenting is better? Not only is there no good answer to that question, but it is a horrible question to begin with! They are simply different. One thing that has helped me communicate with parents in a tailored way is through providing specific feedback for each student’s writing in Google Classroom. The families that want to know a lot get a lot of text to read. The families that would rather a short blurb get just that.

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The sky smiled on parents leaving Willow Lane Meet The Teacher Night

Right now I am beginning a new school year. Last night was “Meet the Teacher Night.” Not every student’s parents visited my room, but of the ones that did, one thing that they all had in common was their uniqueness! Everyone was so different! Not just the way they looked; The attitudes shown in facial expressions, the ways they sat or stood to listen to me, their interest in speaking with me before and after my short presentation; These and many more characteristics spoke to me a very valuable lesson: Not only do I need to differentiate instruction in my classroom when teaching my class, but I should be differentiating communication with families. 

Is it my job to get parents who are okay being completely hands-off to change and become more involved? No, but I’m not going to ignore any families, either. My aim is to work at respecting the expectations of homes. Differentiating Homes means the same thing as differentiating instruction: Meeting parents where they are philosophically, psychologically, and physically. If a family thinks education should be confined to school, then I better make it happen in school, while I have their kid! If parents wish weekly reports, I will make sure there is information available about weekly progress. If parents need to feel involved in their child’s education, I will provide opportunities for them to be plugged into classroom activities. If parents don’t have time to read lengthy reports and emails, I will make short videos that can be listened to. My goal for this year is to work at breaking old habits of one-size-fits-all approach to parent-teacher communication. How will you differentiate communication between school and home this year?

Chapter 1: “The Island”

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Students wrote comments, connecting to the text, via Google Docs

One of the most important things to establish at the beginning of a school year is comradery among pupils. Several years ago I came up with a story idea that focused on this concept. It introduces my classroom theme of #ThePolitePirates as well as giving us a shared purpose.

The story has grown over the years, as I come up with more themes and invest more time into it. I usually share it with my students in a Google Doc through Google Classroom, so each kid has his/her own copy to practice connecting with the text via leaving comments. This year, for the first time, I plan to publish the chapters in this blog, so anyone can read the story and leave comments.

Feel free to “pirate” my tale. Change and tailor the idea to fit your classroom. I usually read it out loud to the students before having them access it in Google. I try to do a chapter a day for the first week of school. There is a bit of vocab and figurative language to explain, but it is a good tool for introducing all kinds of classroom expectations and future academic tasks.

Without further adieu, are you ready to be shipwrecked?

Chapter 1: “The Island”

Once upon a time there was an island; not any old island; but a special, helpful, resourceful, maybe magical island. This island was home to many plants and animals. However, humans had never set foot upon its shores, until, one day…

There was a massive storm.  It was not a big storm, or a strong storm, or a severe storm, but all three of these adjectives rolled up into one humongous, scary, powerful, and seriously damaging storm. It began so suddenly that several ships were caught off guard.  Some sailing vessels survived the storm, but many were shipwrecked.

The storm may have started suddenly, but it did not end for days.  Wind and rain pounded the water, while sailors, passengers, and pirates bounced like buoys on the sea surface.  

That’s right.  You read that correctly: pirates!  If passengers and sailors were scared of sharks, they were petrified of pirates.

Being shipwrecked at the same time, in the same storm and sea, though, found sailors, passengers, and pirates alike thrown together into the same boat… 

…or… 

…island. 

Did the island sit there while sailors, passengers, and pirates washed up onto its shores? Or, did it, as so many of the survivors came to believe, reach out its long shallow sandbars to save the poor sailors from certain peril?  Either way, about thirty people found themselves safely sunning on silky sand when the wind and rain finally ceased. Of their ships, nothing but memories survived.

Two or three persons from each ship made it to the island, so everyone knew at least that many survivors.  At first the people who knew each other formed small, tight groups that did not talk with, help, or share with the other survivors.  But, that did not last long. 

Some will tell you that the island brought them together.  Some say the storm purposefully plucked each person from his or her ship to make up the population of the island.  Others think the beauty and elegance of the island forged a bond between the survivors. But, everyone would agree that the savory smells from the campfire of Captain Iron Knee and his small crew of pirates was the most memorable element of that first night.

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Captain Iron Knee

Perhaps it is just human nature to want to join together and work as a team. Any way you slice it, though, each small band of two to four survivors of six or seven different ships eventually came to live, eat, work, play, practice, build, and therefore survive together as a team, unit, band, group… 

And eventually

crew.

I hope you enjoyed chapter one. Tune in for chapter two, where we explore some character traits of Captain Iron Knee.

What do you think the message or theme from chapter one might have been? What was the author trying to get across? Why was it written?

Proof is Classy: A Back to School Idea

Worms make better pets
Worms are AWESOME! Fact or Opinion?

Most people have heard of the ice-breaking game, “Two Truths/One Lie.” I enjoy this little game so much that I have incorporated it in my first week of school for several years. I changed the name to “Fact vs. Falsehood” because I am a fiend for alliteration and I don’t like the idea of teaching kids to lie. Additionally, it affords me a teaching opportunity on day one: I break out the vocabulary word, EVIDENCE.

In the past, I would teach the difference between fact and false, and inevitably get things muddled with the concept of opinions. I recently saw a tweet by @tomascmurray, who will be keynoting the East Penn Back to School Assembly for teachers on Aug. 22, that gave me an awesome idea for changing my game. He suggested having interactive, thinking-oriented items on desks when students arrive on the first day of school, rather than a pile of books and papers. I loved this idea!

This year I plan to marry two games, and let kids work on figuring out the rules on their own. In addition to “Fact vs. Falsehood”, the second game is “Classmate Scavenger Hunt”. Traditionally, kids would have a piece of paper with a list on it. They would work on finding other kids who share the same experiences, opinions, and criteria from the list. They write the names of peers next to statements as they find students who fit the descriptions.

This year, however, I plan to break up the Classmate Scavenger Hunt paper list. I will make cards that contain one statement each. They will be placed in a bowl that I’ll put in the middle of each group of desks. Some example statements include:

  • I don’t have any pets.
  • I have more than one favorite color.
  • I have written a book. (Some kids love writing stories into mini booklets.)
  • I took the bus to school today.
  • I have never been to Disney World.Previous Evidence Lesson (1st day)
  • I love to swim.
  • My birthday is in the spring.
  • Summer is my favorite season.

Because there won’t be anything else on the desks, and kids can’t help but touch stuff, I expect that they will begin digging into the bowls and looking at the cards. I hope that they communicate with each other about the statements, finding out which ones they have in common. (Later on we can use the cards to make Venn diagrams, displaying similarities and differences between students.)

In the past, I taught the students in a whole group setting the difference between “facts” and “opinions”. This year, I am going to see if kids can figure out the difference by separating their cards into two different groups. I won’t tell them what the criteria is. They may decide to make a pile of things the classmates all share in common, leaving the rejected statements to their own pile. That would make sense. I’ll simply have them try to find another difference or criteria to categorize the two piles, until they realize that some statements contain phrases that make them opinions.

Eventually, I’ll bring the thinking around to noticing that some of the statements can be proven, while some are impossible to prove, even though you might feel like they are true. The ones that are “prove-able” — able to be proven — are facts. And, how can you prove their accuracy? With… drum-role… EVIDENCE.

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This is a roach.
Roaches make cool pets
Roaches make the best classroom pets.

My birthday is in the summer. This is a fact. What proof do I have to support this? The evidence can be found in a few places: Driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card, passport, etc.

“Summer is the best season” is an opinion. No matter how much you love it, or how many people agree with you, this is NOT a fact. You simply cannot prove that summer is better than other seasons. It might seem that way, but there isn’t any evidence to back up the statement.

Opinions are not bad or wrong to use. In “5 Classy Elements of ‘The Story of Mankind’ (1921)” I praised the author, Hendrik Van Loon, for providing his personal opinion within a history book. I enjoyed reading some of the ideas that he gleaned from his study of world history. It is helpful to let people know your likes and dislikes. Those are opinions.

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Baby chicks are soooooo cute!
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Baby chicks are noisy and distracting.

Trouble arises when opinions are made to seem like facts. “I have a lot of homework” might seem like a fact, but in actuality, this is an opinion. When the phrase “a lot” is used, a statement that might otherwise be a fact turns into an opinion. “A lot,” compared to what? Comparing your amount of homework to what a kindergartener brings home would make it seem like a ton. But, compare your homework to what an eleventh grader might receive, and your task is minuscule! You DO have homework. That is a fact. You can prove that. Your evidence is written on your assignment book page, and you may even have physical papers that are not yet complete. So, saying “I feel like my homework will take a long time to complete” may be a more accurate statement than the one above, but until you actually complete it, there isn’t any evidence to prove just how much homework there really is.

“My homework took twenty minutes to complete, last night.” This is a fact, as long as it is true. There are parts of this statement that can be proven. Did you do it last night? Did it take twenty minutes?

Falsehood (untruth) Opinion (feelings) Fact (prove-able) Classy Fact (dressed up)
“My homework took me two hours to do!” “It felt like I would never finish my homework last night.” “It took me twenty minutes to complete my homework last night.” “I was surprised to find out that it only took me twenty minutes to do my homework last night, because it felt like it was taking forever.”

Facts can be dry and boring. That’s why we season them with opinions. “My birthday is in the best season, summer.” Your birthday may very well fall within the calendar days that land it in the season of summer, but who is to say that summer is the “best season”? That is your opinion.

Also, opinions are increasingly useful, the more they are explained. While you can’t actually prove an opinion, you CAN support it. A classy person may say, “I love summer because you can swim, there isn’t any homework, and my birthday is in August.” Now, we understand several reasons that cause you to like summer more than other seasons.

For “Fact vs. Falsehood” to work, students should write down two facts that can be proven with evidence, along with one untruth that also can be proven inaccurate with evidence (i.e. “I have three sisters” could be a falsehood if a student only has one.) After students compose their sentences, we go around the room sharing and guessing which of the three statements is false. In this way we learn a little about one another, hear each other speak, practice good listening habits, and appreciate some classroom rules.

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That 24″ diameter hat is rather large.

To close the entire lesson, I might display the following table, reiterating the differences.

Falsehood (hyperbole) Opinion (feelings) Fact (prove-able) Opinion/Fact (classy compound sentence)
“There were one hundred people at my house last night.” “There were too many people visiting last night.” “I had five extra people in my house last night.” “Five people probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but that more than doubled the normal number of people using the bathroom, showering, and making messes.”

Every year, just before school begins, family visits my house. It is the end of the summer for them, which is a perfect way to wrap it all up. But, it is the beginning of my preparing to start the school year! I’m happy to host, but it is not the best timing. Is that an opinion or fact?

Getting to Class; Turn Day One Jitters into Day Won Class

It’s August. Back to school sales are raging. Letters are arriving that tell students who their teachers will be this fall. Nervous energy is buzzing through bodies… Not just students’. Teachers worry about the first day of school, also.

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August First, 2018 — This is what I saw when I pulled up to my building.

 

Here is a couple classy ways that I deal with the start of school jitters:

  1. I have a goalONE goal for the first day. I’ll accomplish more than the one thing, but I measure my success based on this one thing. It isn’t the same every year. Sometimes it is learning everyone’s name. Other years, all I wanted was to get everyone back home safely. Nowadays, my goal usually centers on classroom management. I like  the momentum to begin in my favor, so I establish myself as captain. The class is my crew. “Any questions? That was rhetorical. Put your hand IMG_5681.PNGdown.” I don’t just withhold my smile until Thanksgiving; I’m not even pleasant for several weeks into the year! Of course, I am kidding. The pleasantries are paired with the smile, and it is more like Christmas when they appear. It’s my Christmas present to the crew class. Oh kay, seriously… don’t make it impossible or too vague, like “I want everyone to like me,” “Everyone should have fun,” “The class should love school…” They sound good, but are disastrously defeating. Simple is always best. “Everyone will leave the first day knowing the rules of the classroom; If nothing else, they will understand my expectations, period” 
  2. Meet that first goal and your golden! There isn’t a number two. I lied when I said, “Here’s a couple things…” The whole point of the one goal is for there to only be one thing that you are concentrating on. Okay, but if you are interested, there is one other thing that I do before the school year begins that has seemed to help: I make up some sort of slogan for the year. This is something that I have never shared with anyone, so it is rather ironic that I am blogging it to the world! It began this practice when I was long-term subbing. Before the year began, I came up with a little mantra that I used to keep me pumped up. It didn’t make any pedagogical sense, but it seemed to get my blood moving. I would tell myself, “We (yes, I use the royal pronoun when referring to myself; I am not multi-personality; at least, one of my personalities does not think so;) are going to kill it this year.” (I almost typed an exclamation mark at the end of my personal rallying cry, but it was really just a small whisper that I told myself.) Last year it was something like, “Everything before now has just been practice. This year I’m going to make it happen.” Notice how the motto is generic. In this way, it is difficult to fail. If I just do something different or better, I am successful. I don’t attempt to define “It”*.

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    My classroom on Aug. 1, 2018 gives me the jitters:) The castle has been “stormed”!

Remember this one last tidbit of advice: The person that you are warring against, when it comes to overcoming nervous energy is YOURSELF. Everyone experiences his/her own battles, and therefore each will need his/her own battle strategy. Win Day One, and you are on your way to a year won in more ways than… You get the idea.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

*This is the same “It” that defeated the Knights Who Say Ni from Monty Python’s “Search for the Holy Grail.” Or, is it the “It” described by Dean Moriarty, when he is listening to jazz in a night club in San Fransisco in “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac? I think it lies somewhere between the two.