Epic/Fail

That got your attention, didn’t it?

Friends and followers know that I am usually a Pollyanna-ish, half-full kind of gal. A blog post entitled Epic/Fail (which, according to the Urban Dictionary, is a “full-blown, game-over fail”) doesn’t seem to be my style. I celebrate successes and don’t dwell on failures (at least in public).

Astute readers noticed, hopefully, the placement of the “/” however. This post, in fact, will not be about an epic fail, but rather about an event that was truly EPIC and the repeated refrain at said event that FAILURE can actually be a good thing.

EPIC

I have just returned from the American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) biennial national conference in Hartford, CT. Its theme was “Rising to the Challenge”. And rise we did, thanks to the organizers who planned an event “extending beyond the usual or ordinary, especially in size or scope” (Merriam-Webster).  Hundreds of concurrent sessions vied for our attention. Dozens of vendors plied us with swag, about which, I am happy to report, books vastly outnumbered totebags and t-shirts.

New friends were made and ideas shared (shout out to Angenine G, Gwyneth J, Heather Lo, Joquetta J, Linda D and Tiffany W). Old friends surfaced (hey, Maria M!). Current colleagues connected (tip of the hat to Jennifer R, Heather Le, Audrey A). The keynote and closing speeches were, as expected, both inspirational and motivational.

Perhaps most inspiring was the late night Unconference organized by Library Rock Star Joyce Valenza and friends. Chockfull of friendly debate, informal exchange of information, a “Smackdown” of one minute helpful tips and even singing (yes, singing!), it left my head abuzz and my feet a’tappin’.

At the risk of pushing the “EPIC” portion of this post into the tl;dr (look it up) category, what follows is a random brain dump of “stuff” (thank you, Christopher Harris) swirling around in a very disorderly fashion in my head at the moment. I hope to write about many of these ideas in the future, but for now, listing them is about all I can handle. I would love feedback regarding which ideas resonate the most with you. Please feel free to comment below.

• Dewey is dead (figuratively as well as literally); genrefication is the rage
• Picture book biographies can be springboard to teach research process
• Libraries can be Maker Spaces
• Matthew Holm rocks
• Much like ESL students acquiring vocabulary, I am a Digital Language Learner when it comes to technology
• Children’s curiosity should drive instruction
• Andrea Davis Pinkney rocks
• Love the concept of librarian as curator
• Book trailers promote reading; provide authentic assessment…and they’re loads of fun to make!
• Matt Tavares rocks
• QR codes on books connect to more info about topic
• Mission-us.org, is a “revolutionary way to learn history”
• Doreen Rapapport rocks
• Use Twitter to create Professional Learning Network (PLN)
• Jennifer Bryant rocks
• Capitalize on Lego fascination by using them for poetry and story starters
• Best-book-lists wiki suggests scores of titles as mentor texts to teach comprehension strategies and literary devices
• So many ways to teach the inquiry process
• Connect first grade students across the country through a shared blog
• Melissa Sweet rocks
• Apps to explore: postermywall, tellagami, subtext, padlet, smore, clipping magic, awesome screenshot and so many more
• Membership in AASL is valuable; need to continue as active participant

FAIL

Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard was the keynote speaker on Thursday. An excerpt from his website expresses his view on failure.

“The most innovative companies celebrate failure. At IDEO, a design and consulting firm that is consistently recognized as one of the most innovative companies in the world, the motto is, “Fail early and often.” Most high school and college classes penalize failure and thus discourage students from taking intellectual risks. In contrast, schools with a culture of innovation teach students to view trial and error—and failure—as integral to the problem-solving process. One Olin college student told me, “We don’t talk about failure here. We talk about iteration.”

This philosophy of celebrating failure (or at least learning from it) echoed throughout the conference. Award-winning author Andrea Davis Pinkney spoke about having to rework her acclaimed book Sit In at the eleventh hour because she had the wrong information for what the four friends ordered at the Woolworth counter. Maureen Milton and Shelly Buchanan explained how independent student inquiry projects provide students the opportunity to fail in a safe environment. Several workshops offered a view of the library beyond Dewey.  Reinventing a library’s organization system can be hit-or-miss. Learn from the misses to create a truly child-centered arrangement. Matt Tavares spoke of debunking a myth about Hank Aaron by diligent research and consultation of primary sources. He didn’t let failure to find the truth at first stop him.

Far from being a game-over fail, AASL 2013, Rising to the Challenge, was a resounding success. I came home with new energy, new ideas, new “stuff”, an epic sense of the library world and a willingness to fail as I take new risks in my professional life. As the closing music suggested “Up, up and away!”

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Fun with Folktales

Once upon a time there were two sweet and kind, smart and loving educators. (If I were true to the elements of folktales, there would be three, but I am getting ahead of myself.) They worked in the village of Peaslee–home to laughter, latitude in instructional design and love of learning. And then, one day, the Common Core came to town. The Common Core, with its rigid evil standards and foolishly high expectations.  (Work with me, here. I don’t really mean this, but you can probably see where I am going.)

The educators had to act fast. In their hearts of hearts they knew that the Common Core wasn’t really evil or foolish. It was just lonely. If only they could come up with a plan to welcome it to the village of Peaslee, make it feel at home. A clever, good deed, like a new and exciting unit might do the trick. So, they got together and created one. Both teachers had taught folktales before. But there would be no laurel-resting for them. Their re-engineered unit would incorporate the Common Core as well as their shared love of literature and learning. It would be fresh, new and participatory. It would include authentic assessments. It would engage and excite the students. And indeed it worked! The Common Core was accepted into the community. Our smart and kind educators loved teaching it, the warm and willing students loved participating in it and (wait for it…) they all lived happily ever after.

Our tale’s message? Good teaching is so much more than the Core. It is being well-versed in the standards, understanding your students, knowing your resources, and modeling collaboration for the students–proving two heads are always better than one.

Third-grade teacher Ariella Greenspan and I had been talking about collaboration since the beginning of the school year. The time was right when she started to think about teaching this standard:

Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.2)

Common Core Standard RL 3.2

We began by looking at the standard and determining what else we wanted students to know, and how we wanted to enhance the teaching. It was important to us that students understand and recognize the elements of folktales. With a little Internet-searching and tweaking, we came up with the following elements:

•    Foolish or unsuccessful character
•    Successful, smart or loving character
•    Animals or plants with human characteristics
•    Evil character
•    Trickery or good deeds defeat evil
•    3’s or 7’s
•    Moral, lesson or message

We then decided upon a framework. Knowing that I would be working with her for the first five days of the unit and upon reviewing my collection of folktales (and focusing on the emphasis on “diverse cultures” in the standard), I suggested that we use five folktales from five continents (sorry Australia and Antarctica!) as mentor texts to teach the elements, most especially the final one—finding the moral, lesson or message.  This proved to be a huge success. It gave us a structure, it demonstrated the universality of folktales and it allowed for a bit of a geography lesson as well.

The stories we shared were:

•    Seven Blind Mice retold by Ed Young (from Asia)
•    Raven retold by Gerald McDermott (from North America)
•    Grandma Chickenlegs retold by Geraldine McCaughrean (Europe)
•    Master Man retold by Aaron Shepard (Africa)
•    How Music Came to the World retold by Hal Ober (we chose this to represent South America, although technically this version came from Mexico)

We also choose one story with two versions to be used for a compare and contrast activity. The well-known Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobokina was paired with The Hatseller and the Monkeys retold by Baba Wague Diakite. Although I wasn’t in the classroom for this lesson, I was told that the students “made connections all over the place.”

Ariella created a grid and hung it on the wall so that the children could record their observations about the elements in each tale. She also posted the learning standard in terms the children could understand (as she always does) and (with my help) collected dozens of other folktales for her classroom library. This allowed for immersion in folktales, beyond what was specifically accomplished using the five original tales. The students read stories individually, in pairs and in small groups, completing a graphic organizer identical to the classroom grid for each one. The books were also available for voluntary free reading, the key to reading success, as any good librarian (or teacher) will tell you.

The graphic organizers provided formative assessments as the unit progressed. The summative assessment at the culmination of the unit was a writing assignment. The students wrote one paragraph about what they learned and one analyzing a specific folktale.

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I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work with Ariella on this project. Grateful for the fixed/flex schedule that allows me the time. Grateful for a supportive principal who encourages this kind of teamwork. Grateful for a veteran teacher who welcomed me into her classroom and gave me the chance to spend five hours that week with her students, above and beyond the thirty minutes of instructional time I usually have with them. This kind of in-depth teaching cannot be done working within the traditional fixed library schedule.

And they all lived happily ever after.