Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Hope for the future of schools

Our sons' school is an International Baccalaureate (IB) candidate school. I've written about that previously here.

Last night I went to the PTO meeting at school. Rather than dry business meetings, the PTO changed format this year to discussions about topics of interest to parents. We've had a panel on technology use in the classroom, an update on plans and fundraising for the new playground equipment, and a conversation with the literacy coach. This month's meeting was a panel on IB at the school.

There are three schools in our school corporation applying for IB status. They are in the 2nd year of what is generally a 3 year process. An article appeared in our local newspaper a few days ago about one of the cool things at our school: fifth grade students were learning about endangered languages. They were specifically learning about vanishing Native American languages since that is the experience of the Lakota/Anishinabe gentleman who spoke with the students.

Of course someone had to comment on the article online, complaining about the cost of these three schools applying for IB status and the money the school board is asking for in an upcoming referendum (to reauthorize the referendum that was passed several years ago). My philosophy is to support money for schools not because I have kids in those schools but because I want a well-educated populous. So the sour grapes made me cringe in that regard, but also because it is so short-sighted!

There is so much pressure on schools, on teachers and students, to pass tests. So many schools, including some in our school corporation, that teach to the test. They spend all their time on math and literacy at the expense of everything else, just so their students will pass the mandated tests so the school will not lose funding. It's a terrible downward spiral.

I could write a lot about the testing and the loss of everything else in schools, but so much has already been written on that topic. What I want to talk about is what the librarian, who is also the IB coordinator for the school, and the two teachers who spoke had to say. Because this is what we all want for our kids. What IB brings to a school is what schools should be. And I truly hope that after these three schools successfully become IB schools other schools in the corporation will apply as well, including the middle and high schools.

So, IB. To start, the librarian explained that teachers are used to thinking about standards: what state standards do we need to teach? With IB, they are linking those standards (content) to concepts, which can be applied more broadly.

There are 6 IB transdisciplinary themes that are explored throughout the year: Who We Are, Where We Are In Place and Time, How We Express Ourselves, How the World Works, How We Organize Ourselves, Sharing the Planet. Unit ideas within those need to open the door to inquiry. The topics can't use proper nouns, so they looked at state standards and then broadened the themes to apply anywhere in the world.

For example, the American Revolution is one of the state standards and a unit every school in the district does in 5th grade. The teachers thought this would be a good unit for the theme of How We Express Ourselves. So, what is the American Revolution about? What connections does it have? Revolution--> change--> "throughout time, people have expressed differing beliefs, values, and ideas which have caused change". Hmm... That really gets me thinking--Arab Spring, Russian Revolution, Tiananmen Square, dozens of other uprisings and revolutions.

In Kindergarten, there is a fall unit, Harvest Time, where they learn about where foods come from, how foods are produced and distributed, and seasonal harvests, local and global. In Kindergarten. They are touching on science, social studies, art, math, literacy... a lot of different subjects are being informed by the theme.

Steps to building the units include introducing the central idea, developing possible engagements (all teachers don't have to teach exactly the same way, so they can follow the lead of what their students are most engaged in; the teachers come up with different ways to teach the same material and can 'switch it up'), and then assessing the unit. And, part of assessing the unit afterward, the teachers look at how the students engaged in inquiry. Did students ask questions that led to new knowledge? Did they share their knowledge (maybe mom emailed the teacher to comment that their child was telling them all about where pizza ingredients came from)?

With IB, the teachers work as a grade-level team to create these units of inquiry, but they also work vertically within the school so what students learn at one grade level might get built on in the next.

In sixth grade, students learn about Ancient Greece. They've always learned about the Greeks. With IB, the unit has become "What's Old is New Again", under the transdisciplinary theme of "Where We Are in Place and Time". Greeks--> broad scope of politics, art, commerce, culture, philosophy, education, etc. Ancient civilizations--> how do they connect to today?

The students learn about a topic with the Greeks, then they apply that same idea to another ancient civilization and to modern American society. The 6th grade teacher talking about the unit shared a lot of the neat activities the students have been doing; I didn't write them all down. One in particular was types of government: monarchies, oligarchies, tyrannies, republics, democracies. They were astounded to learn that we have a representative democracy and really thought about why a true democracy would not work in a nation of several hundred million people. The point was that instead of just learning about the Ancient Greeks, they look at why the kids need to learn about them.

A second grade teacher shared a few of the units they have developed. They used to learn about the life cycle of an insect. Now, that has been expanded to all sorts of cycles: life cycles of bats, chickens, trees, phases of the moon. The kids are seeing cycles in everything!

They also did a unit on elections. Voting, issues, solutions, platforms: these are all concepts 2nd graders were talking about. They did a voting train, where they learned about the history of the right to vote in our country. The students were given a card describing a type of voter. At the start, only certain voters (white, male, landowners) could get on the voting train. Then different amendments were passed to the Constitution, so more and more people could vote. Each time an amendment was passed, as they went around the room (representing time), new voters could get on the train. At the end, there were a couple students who still couldn't vote. Think about the power of that lesson.

Second graders are already learning a little about the Constitution. And voting and elections. Think about when they get to sixth grade and learn about different political systems! That is part of the vertical synthesis of IB.

Something else that the teachers brought up is that they model as a teacher that they don't always have the answers and how to find them. When students ask questions, they can say they don't know and work with the students to discover the answer. They are teaching kids as young as preschool (because even the preschools have IB units) how to be learners. The kids are learning that it isn't just that some kids are smart and some aren't. They are learning what a good learner looks like. The learner profile and attitudes that encourage learning are always present in the classrooms.

The teachers are engaged in curriculum design. Yes, they still have to teach the state standards and take state tests, but there is real learning going on. The kids are not just learning enough to pass a test; they are being educated. This, the emphasis on learning to think, on social studies and science, on integrating curriculum across subjects, this is what I think all parents want for their kids. From what I have seen, IB is incredibly powerful for students and for teachers. And I truly, truly hope that more and more schools, here and elsewhere, can go on this same journey.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dealing with disappointment

"He could have stayed at the party. I'm sure they wouldn't mind."

Sam was invited to a schoolmate's birthday party on Sunday. At BUGS Gym. And of course Wil was disappointed that he had to stay home and miss the fun.

When we went to pick Sam up, another parent, seeing that Wil was upset, mentioned that other siblings had stayed at the party and Wil probably could have. While I appreciate that the hosts didn't mind siblings coming to the party, that isn't a lesson I want my boys to learn.

When Sam brought the invitation home, addressed to him, he said that someone else in the class had asked if their big brother could come so maybe we could ask if Wil could come to the party too. I explained that it is rude to invite your own guests to someone else's party. And then that was undermined by a well-meaning parent.

We reminded both boys that Wil went to some birthday parties last year while Sam had to stay home. And that they both have different friends and will do things with their friends. They have different interests. They won't always do everything together. And that's okay.

There aren't consolation prizes in life. Learning to deal with disappointment now is important. Now is when they will learn how to handle their emotions. Was Wil disappointed that he didn't get to play at BUGS Gym? Yes. Was he scarred for life by the experience? Nope. He has already moved on.

And next time one of them gets invited to a party and the other doesn't, we'll have this conversation again. Until they don't need the conversation because they know that they each get to do things the other doesn't.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A fitting nightmare

I welcomed the alarm clock this morning, even though it was an hour earlier than normal, on a dark Saturday when I could sleep in. I welcomed the alarm because it woke me from a nightmare.

And what a sad, sad nightmare. Was anyone in danger? No. Were there scary monsters? Nope. Spiders? Sorry, this wasn't one of my recurring spider nightmares. What was so scary?

Bad UX.

I know. I have pathetic nightmares, but I suppose this might be a sign I'm headed in the right direction.

Because my nightmare involved trying to fill in a web form. The worst web form imaginable. Where it randomly bumped me to a new field in the middle of filling out another. And pop-up video ads would play when I tried to return to the field to finish filling it out. Where the form required information that was totally unnecessary for the purpose.

My dream-self was in tears trying to complete this form.

And then the radio turned on, waking Chris for a busy day of piping. And relieving me from my dreamland torment.

And as a reward for reading about my nightmare, here is a picture of a sleeping cat.

Photo of black cat sleeping.
Ciaran sleeping

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Re-watching and rereading

Re-watching. Rereading. Enjoying all over again.

I feel like that has been a theme for me the last week or two. And it's reminding me how much I love certain shows, movies, and books. I remember why I loved them in the first place.

Several years ago I borrowed The Absolute Sandman from our local library. I was captivated by the story. The bound volumes are expensive. And there are four. So we never picked them up. But then, on one of our regular trips to our friendly local comic shop, we picked up the trade paperback of The Sandman #1, Preludes and Nocturnes.

I reread Preludes and Nocturnes (the first Absolute Sandman volume contains the first three trade paperbacks) over the weekend. While not the strongest storyline in Neil Gaiman's version of The Sandman, I really enjoyed reading it again. I want to reread the rest of the series and the new storyline, The Sandman: Overture.

Saturday I sat down and watched Return of the Jedi with the boys. I've seen it many times, but the last few times they've watched it I have been busy doing other things. I think this is the first time in a couple of years that I just watched the movie. And I remembered how much I love the original Star Wars trilogy. I think a viewing of the complete saga will happen this summer. Yes, probably including episodes 1-3, because the boys will insist. (If only I could convince them to skip the podrace....)

Also over the weekend (what was up with this weekend?) I caught a couple of episodes of the Battlestar Galactica reimagining. Up late, waiting for Chris to get home, flipping channels.... and BBC America was airing Kobol's Last Gleaming parts 1 & 2. I've been wanting to re-watch the series and even picked it up on Blu-ray a while back (gotta love those Amazon deals of the day!), but it's not something we can watch while the boys are around. Now I really want to immerse myself in that series again.

There are other series I want to watch again: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are other books I really want to read again, although my to-read pile is now three shelves and some of the books are so long: Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series (I so love the Starz tv adaptation, another Ron Moore gem, along with the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica), the Harry Potter series (maybe I'll reread those when the boys are ready to read them), A Wrinkle in Time (actually, I just read the graphic novel adaptation, which, yes, reminded me of how much I loved that book), the Anne of Green Gables series.

What is it about certain books or shows that makes us want to read or watch them repeatedly? Is it like comfort food? I'm not sure that's right, at least not for me. Certain stories speak to me. They are like old friends that I know well, but they continue to surprise me. They tell me truths about myself or the world. I'm not sure I've found exactly the right words for why some stories keep hold of me or return to me while others can just float by, entertaining me, but not needing a return visit.

What books/movies/shows do you continually revisit?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Walking for the homeless

Today was the 13th Annual Homeward Bound 5K Walk. We haven't walked every year, but we try to do it when we can.

This year, we walked with the boys. They've been on the walk before, in the stroller or the wagon, but this is the first year they've walked with us.

Chris and the boys following the other walk participants in the rain.
A rainy walk.

Today is a yucky, rainy day. A lot of people seem to have stayed home, skipping the walk, this year. There really weren't nearly as many people as in years past.

When I saw the weather, I admit the thought did cross my mind that we could just stay home, where we'd be dry. Getting soaked and dealing with whiny kids isn't the most appealing thing to do on a Sunday afternoon.

Before heading out, I sent this tweet:

screenshot of tweet: Kind of fitting weather for the Homeward Bound walk. Not everyone has a comfortable place to be inside on a day like today. #teachingmoment

Several other people at the walk made the same observation.

But people without homes don't have that luxury. People living in their cars or on the street don't always have a nice, warm, dry place to go when it rains.

Walking with the boys is a teaching moment. Walking with them in the rain was an even bigger one. Yes, they whined. We only walked about 2 miles (out of approximately 3ish) of the walk. But we committed to doing the walk so we did it.

We created a team for the walk and were hoping to raise $100. We only reached $40. Donations will be accepted for a few more days. If you would like to help some organizations in the Bloomington area that assist those experiencing homelessness, there is still time.

Our team page is Grandview Hills and Friends.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Learning about IB

Our kids' school is an International Baccalaureate (IB) Candidate school, one of three in the district. We have received a few updates in the school newsletter, but I still didn't really understand what it all meant, so I was pleased to be one of the parents invited to lunch with the IB consultant last week.

First off, a few initializations are thrown around in these conversations, so here's what they mean:

A word that was repeated often in the conversation is "inquiry" (and "inquirers"). My understanding is that IB is about teaching thinking skills: getting the children to ask questions and then help them discover the answers. Rather than a teacher lecturing and giving a single correct answer, the students explore and find answers. 

Image of IB Learner Profile. Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Principled, Open-minded, Caring, Risk-takers, Balanced, Reflective.
IB Learner Profile image, copyright Clint Hamada, CC license, some rights reserved.

There were lots of details about PYP: the 6 transdisciplinary themes explored through the year, the emphasis on local and global issues, the learner profile, language learning. I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable to explain all that (the PYP section of the IB website has lots of information).

Here are a few of the things that stood out to me:
  • IB and PYP is about thinking skills. 
  • At least at our school, this isn't a radical change. The teachers won't really have to learn a new way of teaching since many of these practices are already used in the school; instead, becoming an IB school means changing how the curriculum is organized.
  • Teachers were already coordinating within grade-level; with IB, they are now coordinating vertically, across all grade levels.
  • Our school has already had a global emphasis, partly due to the large international population. IB will enhance that.
One question that came up is how all this fits in with the current climate of standardized testing. The short answer is that the school has to comply with state laws and will continue to do required standardized tests. Since IB is about the how of teaching rather than the what, students will still learn the required standards. 

Do I think this is a good program for the school? Yes. 
Do I think it's a good fit for this school? Yes.

Earlier today a friend shared this article on Facebook. There have been many studies and articles in the past few years addressing this topic. Despite all the research, legislators keep pushing for more and more standardized testing, which emphasizes the academic goals mentioned in the article. Rote memorization. Facts. 

As I read the article, though, I immediately connected it to the conversation on IB. Because the intellectual goals mentioned? Those are the goals that IB has. Reasoning? Check. Hypothesizing? Check. Posing questions and predicting answers? Check and check. Quest for understanding? You bet.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Bagpiping and Drumming Medals

2014 pre-season trophy
I started competing with piping and drumming in the Midwest Pipe Band Association in 2014. I have drumming mixed in there as it was a way to get into playing with the band while I was still working toward getting on the full bagpipes (you start on the practice chanter and don't move to the full pipes until you're ready and that can take many months).

For the 2014 MWPBA season I competed on novice bass drum and practice chanter. I won first place on novice bass drum in the pre-season solo competition. I also won first place at the Alma Highland Festival on novice bass drum and practice chanter. At the end of the season I had enough points to win the MWPBA Champion Supreme trophy for novice bass drum.

2014 medals
For 2015 I'm concentrating on the bagpipes and just qualified to play at the pre-season solo finals as a Senior Novice piper. The regional qualifier I played at was this past weekend in Lexington, KY and despite the weather it was a good weekend. I received some great feedback from the judge and played very well for my skill level.

I've been taking lessons with Angus Martin here in town, he's a Grade 2 piper and a great instructor. I've been progressing with him at a very satisfactory rate and I may graduate up to Grade 4 next season.

Pipes and drums has been a wonderful experience and it's something that the whole family can participate in as we grow up. Meg doesn't mind attending events chock full of lads in kilts and the boys have small practice chanters that they sometimes play with me when they are in the mood.

I'm looking forward to the 2015 season and I'm already off to a good start.

The Murphy bed

For the past 6 1/2 years, we have not had a guest room, a consequence of a small, 3 bedroom house and 2 kids. We've had a very comfy couch that would sleep 2, and a single hide-a-bed, but an actual guest room is something we've missed having.

The boys happily share a bedroom, but the small 3rd bedroom has been their playroom. And since it's function as a playroom is more useful than just returning it to a bedroom, with little floor space, we decided to install a Murphy bed.

A Murphy bed, for those who may not be familiar, is a bed that is stored vertically in a cabinet when not in use. This was an ideal solution to our space and function problem: most of the time the room will still be the boys' playroom, but we also have a full size bed available for guests (mostly grandparents).

Chris did a bit of research and decided it would be more affordable plus a good project to build the Murphy bed rather than buy a pre-made model. We purchased the deluxe full-sized kit by Rockler on Amazon. The kit includes plans for building the cabinet to hold the bed.

Chris standing next to the Murphy bed and frame while assembling it in the playroom guest room.
Chris building the bed and frame, in situ.
We purchased the lumber and plywood panels from Lowes and had it delivered since moving 4x8 sheets of 3/4" plywood is not a walk in the park. The cabinet is finished, other than staining the wood. It looks great and the playroom actually has more floor space since its footprint is smaller than the hide-a-bed it replaced.
Photo of the finished Murphy bed cabinet installed against the wall.
The Murphy bed cabinet.
The mattress had to fit certain specifications for weight and size. If too light, it wouldn't hold the bed down in the open position. If too heavy, it might not stay in the upright position. It also had to fit within the dimensions of the cabinet.

Finding a mattress that fit those criteria was a matter of shopping on The mattress was vacuum packed and rolled for shipping. It is amazing how small the mattress gets when vacuum packed! We got an 8" deep mattress that weighs just under 60 pounds.

Photo of the mattress vacuum packed and rolled.
Amazing how small that mattress looks!
Once the vacuum seal was opened, the mattress puffed up to normal size very quickly. Below is a picture of the Murphy bed open with the new mattress installed. (It was my first attempt at a panoramic photo, hence the weird line down the middle.)

Photo of the Murphy bed open, with mattress installed.
The Murphy bed with mattress installed.