Wrapping Up the Year

Somehow, it’s really coming — the end of the school year, that once seemed so far away, is now approaching at a blistering speed. We have only seven days left at my school — but one of them is our field day and another is just a half day. So, we’re really down to the wire. I’ve been trying to think about how I can bring closure to what has been an up-and-down year — but I’m already recognizing that things probably won’t tie together with the neat bow that I would choose if I had it my way.

Here’s what I’ve got planned for wrapping things up:

  • Books You Can’t Leave Second Grade Without Knowing About!: I started this activity this past Monday, and my students are loving it. I am a children’s literature enthusiast, and I found myself getting very frustrated that I couldn’t make certain outstanding books “fit” with what we were studying throughout the year. So, I’ve started a countdown of the best 10 books that we haven’t read this year. Each day, I read a new one to my students — their attention and conversations following the stories have been impressive and quite sophisticated. They especially enjoyed “Wilma Unlimited,” which I read earlier this week.
  • Portfolio Browsing: Next week, my students will review all of the work that they’ve put into their portfolios this year. They will choose three pieces that reflect “best effort work” and will justify their selections. I am eager to see what they choose and how they will reflect upon and describe their hard work.
  • Letters to Next Year’s Students: I don’t know where I first came across this idea, but I think it’s a nice way to recognize successful completion of the year and to “pass the torch” of their acquired expertise to the students who will follow them. I am very excited to see what my students choose to include as advice for next year’s students!
  • Choosing Adjectives: To make sure that all feedback on their performance this year isn’t coming from me, I am going to have my students work together as a class to choose a positive adjective that describes each of their peers. I expect that seeing all the ways in which their peers see them will have a big impact on my students. Too often, kids, like adults, often focus on the negative, so it is my hope that this activity will leave them thinking positive thoughts about each other.
  • Blog Review and Slideshow: I am so happy that I had my students keep a blog this year. It was a great opportunity for them to have authentic writing experiences and to engage with a real-world audience. Additionally, it will serve as a kind of scrapbook of our year. We’ll be able to look through all of our old entries, look at our photos, and watch the videos to relive the school year. I think it will be wonderful!
  • Curious Questioner Certificates: On our last half day, each student will receive a certificate. I have worked very hard to choose accolades that aren’t specifically tied to academics, but rather to positive qualities that each student exhibited during the year. This way, hopefully students will really take home the message that character is just as — if not more — important than academic ability.
  • Special Books: As their sendoff into summer and end-of-year gifts, each student will get a book from me — carefully chosen to reflect his or her interests. I hope that these will be “special books” that my students will keep on their shelves long after second grade.

It is so odd to think about wrapping up the year. I know that no matter how much more time we had together, I would still have this feeling on seeing them leave that “there is so much more that I want to say to you.” I can already tell that I do not like the end of the school year!

What do you do to make the end of the year special for your students? Do you have any year-end traditions?

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Place-Based Education

Despite the busy-ness that comes with the end of the school year, I have still been working my way through my reading list. I haven’t given much though to the order in which I read the books, but the pairing of the last two that I read was just perfect.

I had read Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch earlier in the year and recently read her very famous and influential work — The Death and of the American School System. This book details the many problematic components of school reform in the United States, including standardized testing, an increased emphasis on accountability, vouchers and school choice, and the influence of wealthy private sector managers into schools. As we discussed in my teacher leadership course last year, Ravitch also bravely details how she was seduced by some of the components of school reform — which do sound promising in theory — and what caused her to change her mind. I really appreciated reading a book on education written by someone who could admit to being human and to having opinions that change over time in response to evidence and contemporary situations.

I sometimes find that reading about the current state of school reform in the United States makes it feel like resisting and fighting back is becoming more challenging by the day, as policies become more entrenched and accepted as “the way things have to be.” So, it was wonderfully refreshing that I followed up Life and Death with Place-Based Education by David Sobel. This brief book got me so excited because I could feel the lightbulbs going off in my head on each page. I had heard a little about place-based education before, but reading more about the approach whetted my appetite to learn much more and to think about how I could apply place-based education in my own classroom. Essentially, place-based education is about providing students with meaningful, authentic activities that help them actively practice being citizens. The projects usually have an environmental emphasis that helps students consider how the place where they live shapes them and to cultivate a sense of responsibility for caring about the place in which they live.

It was really the emphasis on citizenship that made so much sense to me — I have been trying so hard to cultivate a sense of good citizenship in my students this year, but it really can’t be something that they just passively absorb from a few read-alouds and discussions. Just like any other subject, if we want students to acquire a skill, we need to teach it and give them authentic opportunities to practice that skill.

The book discusses a “pedagogy of place” where there is a “necessary interpenetration of school, community, and environment.” I find this concept so beautiful and so directly in contrast to the school-reform approaches currently proliferating in the US. Those who read my blog regularly know that I am also deeply interested in community engagement, which is an essential component of the place-based approach.

Needless to say, I will be learning more (and probably writing more) about this approach in the future. It gave me hope after reading about the failure of many school reform tactics. As I was reading about place-based education, I kept thinking, “This is how education ought to be.”

Dr. Seuss Unit!

This week has been … heavy. Things have seemed chaotic in my classroom, as many of my students have some pretty serious out-of-school stuff going on that is almost completely out of my control. I am spent emotionally and physically. Luckily, because I live in Maine, somehow the first day of spring has brought me a much needed mental-health-snow-day.

With all of my frustration and sadness for my kiddos, I am so grateful that I am teaching a topic that I love right now and not having to trudge along through some required learning about which I’m not completely stoked.

Two weekends ago, I had an army of helpers who brought a Seussian makeover to my classroom.

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So far in our unit, we’ve been learning about poetry and imagination. My students and I did an activity around the book “Not a Box” and they also dreamed up some crazy inventions to help them address a problem in their house for homework. Tomorrow, my school is having an all-school read-a-thon event and in my classroom, we are having a marathon Seuss read aloud. I have friends and parents coming in to share their favorite Seuss books from 10-5. I am really excited about this and my students cannot wait!

Next week we are jumping into exploring Civil Rights with The Sneetches and then we’ll be studying the environment with The Lorax. Stay tuned for future posts — this is the unit that I’ve been planning for and excited about all year long!

Open Minds to Equality

I’ve always loved Rethinking Schools, so I figured that one of their two publications on my reading list would be a good place to start my education reading this year. After devouring Open Minds to Equality this week, I think that I may have already found the most useful book that I will read from my list.

If you are remotely interested in social justice education in the elementary grades, I advise you to go buy this book right away. I cannot believe that it has been sitting on my bookshelf for two years and I’d never so much as opened it. If there was one book that I regret not reading before I started my first year teaching, this is it.

I became passionate about and did a lot of research and reading around social justice education while I was in college and in graduate school. The trouble with many of the excellent publications around social justice education (some of which I will also be reading this year) is that they are often very theoretical or focus on implementing these ideas at a secondary or college level. Open Minds to Equality opens with two quick chapters summarizing why social justice education is worthy of pursuit and then follows with 9 chapters full of brilliant activities for having elementary students explore many different dimensions of discrimination. The chapters build upon one another in complexity and I could imagine my second graders being able to complete many of the lessons with some minor modifications. (The ideal grade range for these lessons is probably 4-6).

I’ve already begun a list of activities from this book that I hope to incorporate this year, but I think that the foundational activities for building trust and classroom community will really set the tone for my classroom next year. (Again, that sense of regret that I didn’t read this book sooner!) Many of the lessons would map well onto any curriculum already in place in an elementary classroom — I know that I found many lessons that will help to amplify the critical lenses that my students bring to my advertising unit and there are several activities about calendars that I plan to use during my holidays unit next year. I also appreciated that many of these ideas could be applied to any content that a teacher might have to cover.

Another excellent feature is the extensive resource section in this book. I have been quite frustrated with my efforts to find non-biased books for my classroom and have worked hard to piece together many of the brief lists that seem to be out there for specific topics. Open Minds to Equality has a lengthy bibliography of fiction, nonfiction, and media resources for supplementing these lessons but which I will also use to continue to build a diverse classroom library.

I feel as though all this praise makes it sound like I’m trying to sell the book to you all — I only wish that I had some affiliation with Rethinking Schools. In the midst of a rough January in my classroom, this book has left me feeling inspired not only about the things that I will put into place next year, but about the lessons that I can use right now to rejuvenate my students and to deepen the sense of trust and community in my classroom.

I think that I’ll end this review here. Next up on my book list — the classic Real Boys by William Pollack, which will likely only inspire me to use the countering-sexism lessons I found and flagged in Open Minds to Equality!

I Haven’t Been “Scared” Away!

I am not sure who is more excited about Halloween — me or my students! Unfortunately, planning for Halloween (and a Red Sox World Series) has eaten up so much of my time that I have to postpone a quality blog entry until the weekend. I have devised a day-long logic puzzle for Thursday that will begin when the students find a bowl of candy that was supposed to be for our party has mysteriously vanished. I will also disclose something here that is top-secret information in my classroom — I am dressing up as Jane Goodall for Halloween! Hopefully, my students will remember who she is from our gender and science lesson.

So, be on the lookout this weekend for a post about my Halloween festivities and about my second country “field trip” to Mexico.