Saturday, November 9, 2013

who killed cock robin?

holy moly! who killed cock robin is one edgy picture book. spoiler alert: it was the sparrow, with his arrow! here's one of many fantastic illustrations:

who saw him die? i, said the fly. on the next page they ask who caught his blood. children were apparently made of sterner stuff in 1865.

My House: Where Projects Go to Die

This morning whilst perusing the blogs, I saw this house tour on apartment therapy (really nice, btw!). I noticed their industrial-looking dining table and it made me think about my dining table project. Whatever happened to that, you ask? Here's the sad state of affairs on that one:

See how it's mocking me? Just sitting there, gigantic and unfinished. (On the plus side, the cats really love its current location because it's great for monitoring us when we're in the living room.)

We hired a welder to make the base, and I bought some reclaimed lumber that I was going to use to "simply" make the top, using Daniel's DIY countertop method. However, I have come to realize that it's going to be a huge pain in the ass, and realistically, beyond my abilities and access to tools. The joists are not de-nailed as Rebuilding Exchange claimed, and a few of them are warped, which would make it nearly impossible to form them into a flat table top without planing them (and honestly I don't even know if a planar can fix that—I just don't have whole lot of knowledge about woodworking.) Not to mention, my time and ability to do projects right now is pretty limited. So, we've decided to hire a carpenter to make the tabletop for us. Know any good carpenters in Chicago?

Monday, October 14, 2013

teaching vocabulary

Hi readers. Just a forewarning: this is a bit of a brain dump about vocabulary instruction. I have been thinking a bit about vocabulary instruction, explicit and otherwise. The curriculum we have at school, while it has a decent word list, has really cheesy stories that are inauthentic, don't have a very familiar context for the kids we teach, and the vocabulary words are isolated within the context of vocabulary instruction. We have been puzzling over a more authentic way to teach vocabulary, mainly thinking about better read-alouds, and teaching fewer words that we (and students) can use throughout the day and can be incorporated into a variety of activities and disciplines.

Here's what I currently know about vocabulary and vocabulary instruction:

There's a huge gap in vocabulary before kids enter school based on their socio-economic status.

Most vocabulary (approximately 80%) is learned through someone providing an explanation of what a word means. So, merely reading a wide variety of texts will not automatically increase a child's vocabulary. They need someone (a parent, a teacher, a text) to provide an explanation of what a word means.

Schools aren't doing a very good job of teaching vocabulary, especially in primary grades.

In thinking about teaching vocabulary, it's helpful to think about three tiers of vocabulary. The first tier is everyday verbal vocabulary. The second tier is academic vocabulary, which is basically just words that appear more often in print than in speech but are fairly common words. (These two categories are obviously relative to the speaker.) The third tier is domain-specific language. This is specialized language used to describe very specific ideas in a particular discipline, such as addition, chrysalis, or viscosity.

One really important aspect of understanding word meanings is understanding word relationships. Synonyms, antonyms, shades of meaning such as the degree of strength a word indicates, are all really important aspects of understanding a word. Understanding how words are related through a root helps children be flexible with how they use and understand words.

Categorizing and grouping words by different commonalities is also really important in developing semantic maps of words. Some words describe parts of whole. Some words are related by a common theme, setting, or idea. Thinking about these relationships and organizing words helps build the semantic maps that are a part of truly understanding words. I haven't used concept maps much in my teaching, and when I have it's been mostly in science and math, but it seems like a really powerful (and in hindsight, obvious) tool for teaching vocabulary.

Here are a few resources I found for teaching vocabulary:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Maxwell Street Market

I recently watched a couple documentaries on the Maxwell Street Market—Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street, and then And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street. Both were very interesting. (This is a topic of fascination for me, and going to the new Maxwell Street Market on Des Plaines is probably my favorite thing to do in Chicago).

Cheat You Fair is mostly about the market getting shut down, which is a pretty disheartening story. Another reminder that Chicago is really corrupt, and that poor people's interests are rarely considered in the face of government or business development. There were a lot of interesting discussions about gentrification, UIC's location as a buffer between the loop and black communities on the west side, and corruption in city hall. There was also an attempt to piece together the larger history of UIC's development, but I think that's probably its own (fascinating and sordid) topic. In general, it seems like this location was chosen for the university because it was occupied by poor people with very little political capital. That area has basically been rebuilt from scratch over the last 20-30 years, accompanied by rapid gentrification.

And This Is Free is two films put together. One was made in 1965, and is almost completely without narration and all the footage was shot in that year. It's awesome. The other is a history going back a bit further, focusing more on the Jewish community and their experience and their role in shaping what the market eventually became. There's a lot of great footage in there: it looks like it's from as early as the thirties. There were a lot of anecdotes from people who grew up selling things as children on Maxwell Street, and the overwhelming lesson they all got from that experience was how to work with people. Makes sense I guess. There was also this great anecdote about a guy whose family had a butcher shop on 14th and Halsted, and the way he got meat to the store was he took the Halsted streetcar to the stockyards on 43rd and Halsted, and then he got a half a cow. Then he put some wax paper on his back and put the cow on the wax paper, and then boarded the streetcar north back to 14th street. (How many lawsuits can you count in that anecdote?) On the whole it was a really interesting documentary. Less informative perhaps than Cheat You Fair, but lots more interesting interviews and footage.

It's a damn shame they shut down the market. Glad it's been revived, but the new development in the University Village area could easily have accommodated some preservation of that community and cultural history.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Technology in Schools

I just watched a TED talk, shared on the 1 to1 schools blog, which was not earth-shattering news but nonetheless succinctly encapsulated my thoughts about technology in schools, which is that what's going on right now is woefully inadequate. I feel particularly passionate about underserved students using technology: I have visited schools with middle-class and wealthy students and seen the way they are able to use technology not only to gather information but also share what they know and express themselves. It doesn't seem like this savvy comes from their schools or teachers, but from outside of school. In my experience, there is a huge gap in technology use between poor and middle-class kids (the so-called digital divide). My first year of teaching (most of my students were low income, living on the west side of Chicago), I sent home a survey about how kids accessed the internet, and discovered that for most of the students who had internet access, they accessed it on a mobile phone. Most did not have a computer at home. This is an incredible gap in opportunity: being technologically illiterate is quickly becoming a very real form of illiteracy. Teachers need to stop being so afraid of technology.

The thing is, educators are generally aware that we need to incorporate technology in the classroom. The Common Core State Standards address technology (albeit in a vague and superficial way). And more and more classrooms are being equipped with interactive white boards and student computers (though usually just a few per classroom). The problem is, most educators (myself included) don't how to use the technology in a way that maximizes its benefit for students.

Technology should be a tool in students' hands. But in most cases it's simply window-dressing on old-school teaching. Interactive white boards are a great example. There are a lot of cool things you can do with them, but at the end of the day, they're not really a tool that students are using to create with. It's a specially-designed teaching tool that's essentially a really fancy white board. And most classroom computers are used for playing educational games, or accessing digital versions of textbooks. Again, this is simply a fancier version of something already happening in classrooms, and the technology is not being used by students to create something new, gather information, or express themselves.

Digital technologies are tools—tools that happen to be wildly powerful. They are rapidly reshaping our world. When we talk about using technology in schools, we shouldn't be thinking about how to make our teaching electronic. We should be thinking about enabling kids to use powerful tools to do things in ways they would not otherwise be able to.

Teachers need more training around authentic and purposeful use of technology in classrooms. People who understand philosophically how technology is changing and shaping our world need to help create vision of what technology use can look like in schools. I think this is where we have a disconnect. I am a woeful luddite (like many teachers I know). My awareness of this problem and the sense of urgency are largely shaped by the fact that I'm married to a computer scientist. Sean reflects often on the ways that technology allows him to be orders of magnitude more productive and creative; to have a voice and a larger audience than would ever be possible without it. We need to be thinking about how we can help our students do this in school and make it a part of their learning.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


sometime this past march, i was talking with sean about being stressed out at my job, and sean suggested that i focus on the future and what i wanted do after the school year was over. my reply was that i couldn't—i could only face one day at a time: thinking about anything beyond that was overwhelming. my only comfort was knowing that every day i went to work, there was one less day left.

i didn't realize it until now, but i think i was depressed. i feel so much different now. i like music again. i laugh a lot. i feel like myself.

i am getting more exercise. i'm drinking less. and i'm loving my job. i sleep soundly and i get up without snoozing my alarm (earlier than last year, no less). i feel so awake and driven and excited. and happy.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Summer Reading

Summer is winding down: one more week before I start setting up my (brand new!) classroom. This summer really flew. I didn't get as much done as I'd hoped (build a dining room table? read hundreds of picture books? not so much!) but I did do a lot of professional reading that has been really helpful. I really wish I'd read Small Group Reading Instruction, by Beverly Tyner, last year: I definitely could've used some of that insight into beginning and struggling readers with my third graders. She identifies five distinct stages of reading development and outlines in detail what readers at each stage need. I also really appreciate her clear-cut advice for guided reading instruction: she offers a very specific lesson format and scope and sequence for each stage of early reading. I'm sure I'll adapt it and make changes as needed, but I find it helpful to start from a framework rather than making it up from scratch (like I more or less have been to this point).

Right now I'm reading Growing Readers, by Kathy Collins. It's gotten me really excited about this year! Kathy Collins is part of the Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project, and I have used Lucy Calkins' units of study for reading both years I've taught and loved it. Kathy Collins definitely uses Calkins' approach to teaching reading, but Growing Readers is geared toward primary grades, which is so helpful to me in terms of building my knowledge of this grade band. It also has a lot more detail for how to make reading workshop work and lots of anecdotes about trouble-shooting typical difficulties. Something that surprised me is that guided reading is not the focus of reading workshop for her: conferring is. I have read about the importance of conferring, and I definitely confer with my students (I actually did it more than guided reading in my first year due to management issues and a dearth of guided reading resources) but it's never been the priority and the focus of my reading instruction. But I think if you understand what readers need and where they're at, it makes a lot of sense to prioritize conferring. Even when you have a guided reading group of students at a similar level, they are going to progress at different speeds and need different supports. I am excited to implement a reading workshop like she describes this year. Co-teaching will be a great opportunity to do a lot of conferring to be able to really differentiate on an individual level.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Google Art Project

I was browsing the teacher blogs I read today and came across a post about Google Teacher Academy (sounds like an amazing PD opportunity!). Among the cool stuff this teacher shared was Google Art Project. This is an amazing resource of tens of thousands of gigapixel images. And what's even more awesome is that you can search by just about any parameter you can think of: not only by collection, artist, and medium, but also by event, place, time, and person (artist or subject). This would be awesome for social studies and who knows what else!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Figure Drawing

In my 8 Weeks of School Left post, I mentioned doing some figure drawing, and now, just a mere ten weeks later (ugh) I actually got around to going to a figure-drawing drop in session. And it made me realize I should have done it sooner! I have not felt that level of focus in a while. When you are doing something fun yet relaxing that also requires intense concentration, it sort of makes your brain buzz, and drawing totally does that for me. It was great. I will definitely be doing more figure drawing, especially when school starts back up. It's nice to have something that takes up so much brain power that you can't think about anything else: that's definitely the sort of hobby I need during the school year.


I have embarked on a reading project this summer. I want to read as many great picture books as I can so that I have a working knowledge of books that would be good for read-alouds. In the past I've either used chapter books or been frantically looking for books that would fit a particular strategy as I lesson-planned. I think that having a go-to list of books will be enormously helpful in planning more efficiently this year.

I found this great list of books by reading comprehension strategy over here at The Reading Lady. I am going to try and read most of these by the end of summer. I don't know all the books on the list but the ones I do know are high-quality so I am assuming the rest are as well. There are also great book lists at The Reading and Writing Project, broken down into different categories such as genre, multicultural literature, and good mentor texts. If you know of other sources for good read-aloud books let me know!

I am also reading Guided Math, by Laney Simmons. I have no idea where I picked this up or who (if anyone) recommended it, but it's been really interesting. Basically the author is taking the principles of balanced literacy and reading workshop and showing how you can apply them to math. It's also helpful that the examples she gives mostly come from primary classrooms, which is nice for me since I'm making a move to first grade in the fall.

I can't believe I start PD in one week! (Still have a dining room table to build—yes, it will happen. I am determined! The lighting fixture I also planned to build: probably not so much.)

Thursday, June 27, 2013


This summer is off to a great start! Turns out the key to getting a lot done is staying off the freaking computer. Yesterday I read You Can't Say You Can't Play, by Chicago Lab School teacher Vivian Paley. It's a pretty good (and fast) read. Basically it explores how kids exclude certain kids from play, and it's usually the same kids, and she creates a rule saying you can't say no. She also notices that kids very quickly create "bosses" for themselves, (either one kid makes him/herself the boss, or the other kids appoint someone the boss), and this boss is "in charge" of the excluding. Her rule (the title of the book) was effective in getting kids to include everyone in play but I found myself still wondering about the "boss" concept. Is this wired into our DNA somehow? One of the kids she talked to about this suggested it was a way of absolving the group of responsibility for decisions: if the "boss" said someone couldn't play, then it was only one kid not liking you, not all the kids. So interesting. Maybe I should do my own action research on this concept.

Once I finished the book (it's a quick read), I embarked on a deep-clean of the kitchen, which I am continuing today. After that I'll be starting on some web design I'm going to be working on this summer with Sean. Hopefully there will also be time somewhere for building a dining room table. I bought some old-growth 2x8s at Rebuilding Exchange, and I want to hire the guy who did some welding for our kitchen to build a base that looks something like this. I think the reclaimed wood and the dark steel base would look pretty cool. And then at some point, Sean and I want to take off to go to Estes Park for a couple weeks: busy busy!

Happy summer everyone!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


One of the biggest challenges for me this year was the (extremely!) high mobility rate at my school. A couple people asked me for specific numbers and at the time I hadn't sat down and counted. Having just finished assembling our third grade yearbook, I had the chance to actually see how many students have come and gone from my class. Here's what a 39.5% mobility rate looks like:

Roster prior to the start of school: 30
First day attendance: 24 from roster
4 students transferred in within the first two weeks of school.
2 students left by the end of September.
1 more left in October.
2 students arrived in December.
3 students arrived in January.
1 student ARRIVED AND LEFT in April.
1 student LEFT THEN REENROLLED in April.
1 additional student left in April.
1 student left in May.
2 students left in June.

4 students neither started nor ended the year with us. In general, the students who transferred in mid-year had much poorer attendance than the rest of the class. They were sometimes absent whole weeks, or even multiple weeks at a time.

Total number of students transferring in (after the first two weeks of school, and not counting the same student transferring in twice): 6
Total number of students transferring out: 10

Next year I'm at a charter school. While I feel strongly about public education, as a teacher, I have to say I am looking forward to some stability in my classroom again. (My first year at Hope I had just one student transfer out: no other mobility).

Update: according to this page regarding how to calculate mobility rate, the actual mobility rate in my classroom was 47% (higher if you count the 4 students transferring in the first two weeks, which I haven't.)

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

8 Weeks of School Left

There are eight weeks of school left. This year was harder than my first year of teaching. That was definitely not something I was anticipating, but I was at a new school, with new students and new challenges. I feel like I learned a lot, and the experience has both helped me shape my priorities and also given me a lot to think about in terms of educational inequity and education reform. It's also been a crazy year outside of the classroom, what with the strike at the beginning of the year, and my school closing. This is definitely a time I will not forget.

As the year winds down (and/or gets crazier, but I won't depress you with the details), I've started reflecting on my teaching practice and progress, and my goals both personally and professionally. 

I have realized this year, more dramatically than last year, how important building relationships with students is. I am learning that through successes, failures, and tumult in this area, as well as the immortal spirit of my students' second grade teacher, who I feel like I know through my students. It's clear to me from the way my students reminisce and talk about her that she developed close, deep relationships with many, if not all of them. I have been hearing a lot about this since we heard about the school closing: every morning our principal begins announcements by saying, "Good Morning Fermi Family!" My kids take this assertion to heart. I can tell that it's important to them to feel like a part of a family at our school. And they definitely felt that with their second grade teacher. I have had multiple students tell me they felt like she treated them like one of her own kids. (I've had students tell me this as well. I've also had kids tell me they think I don't care at all.) The fact that they say these things shows just how important it is to my students that they feel loved and valued and cared for by their teacher. This reflection is why I'm realizing that I need to make time to talk to kids one on one, in a non-academic setting. Just to talk to them and listen to them. That's a big goal I have for the next eight weeks: make one on one time for all of my students.

I've also learned that there are goals outside of academics that need to be prioritized. And if I'm not at a level of expertise where I can accomplish multiple priorities, then I have to decide what's a top priority. This year I realized how important it is to maintain a calm environment. I realized this because of the reality that I can't always provide this to my students. But usually I can, and I strive to do that by any means necessary. It doesn't always involve the most student-centric teaching methods. But my students deserve a classroom that is a calm, safe place, and I will do everything in my power to give that to them.

I am also excited about finally having enough of a baseline of competence to be able to effectively use my summer to plan and prepare for next year. To some extent I was able to do that last year, but there was still a lot of pie-in-the-sky style planning that happened, and I was also just too consumed with renovating the house to be able to really dig in. This year I have a much better idea of what I'm going to do to be a better teacher next fall. I'm going to read every book listed in Fountas and Pinnell's Guiding Readers and Writers so that I've got a ready list of excellent books that can be used to teach various skills and strategies. I'm going to dig in to the Everyday Math curriculum, and also talk to other first grade teachers about what kids at that grade need to know, are ready to learn, and how they understand math. I want to read some books on teaching literacy that colleagues have recommended that I just haven't had time for.

On the personal side, I have learned that I need a hobby. I am still working on weekends, and I usually work between 60-70 hours a week. That's fine for now (provided I can lower my stress levels during the time I am in front of students) but I need to cultivate non-work interests. This year I still feel like I just work. I have started doing yoga twice a week which I imagine has had a positive impact on my stress levels. But there are so many things that I love and miss that I need to be doing. When you don't have a hobby, you end up thinking about work even when you're not actively working. That's not a break! I would like to join a choir again, or join a figure-drawing studio. Get back in touch with things that are both challenging and relaxing to me and also have nothing to do with my job. 

I am looking forward to ending this year on a high note and making year three the best year yet!

Thursday, March 28, 2013


I am currently watching a documentary called Makers, (it's great! watch it!) about women who have shaped women's rights in our country. So interesting. What it immediately brings to mind is the current "debate" over women calling themselves feminists, or not. Or if staying at home with kids is feminist or not. And what I am struck by is how silly that dialogue is. First of all, feminism, from what I gather, is about having agency to live your own life, make your own choices, and be your own person. Yes, I am a feminist! Related to that, being self-determined and free has nothing to do with what particular choices you make, but who gets to make them. Yes, there are traditional gender roles to be considered, or thwarted, or renegotiated, but it's neither here nor there for me in terms of the essential fact that I am a human being and I am in charge of my own life. I say that makes me a feminist. We all need to stop worrying about whether that sounds good or bad or old-fashioned or militant or like we have hairy armpits, and just focus on living our lives as well and fully as we can and let others do the same.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The House: Before and After

So, as I promised you all maybe three hundred years ago or so, I want to share some before and after pictures (as well as some mid-renovation pictures) of the work we've done on our house. Enjoy!

Living Room: note the salmon color. Also: the room is about 11 feet wide. The first picture was in the listing, and it looks like you can go ballroom dancing in there. Not the case: that's why we took out the cute little fireplace.

Here's a little detail shot of the living room. Yes, it's very yellow in there. But it's a cooler gold tone than it looks here.

Dining Room: we took out the arch mainly because the arch was not really well-crafted and we wanted to open the space up a bit. We plan to put in some wood molding and possibly also wooden shelves (along these lines). Note the children's furniture in the dining room.  :-)

Kitchen: this is where most of the time and energy went...

This before picture doesn't have a window in the corner with the fridge because the window was in the then-pantry.

The second picture below is right after the contractors tore out the pantry wall. You can see where it was, as well as where the kitchen cabinets on the other side of the wall were. It made the kitchen really small, and because of the location of the hallway, you couldn't put any cabinets on the west wall (where you see a table in the before shots.)

I'm really proud of how much we were able to do ourselves, and how things have turned out. We are so happy to finally be able to just enjoy our home. There's still a list a mile long of course, but we're not living out of boxes or cooking on plywood countertops. Win!