Rejoice. 4/4

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They shone. They exuded confidence. They were primed to learn in this manner.

By the time I made it to the observation, my students had already demonstrated success and were charged to replicate the process of learning. I was confident in their capability to collaborate and thrive using the structure. This also meant, I didn’t mull the content in the same manner that I used to. By placing emphasis on how they would learn, I was able to enjoy the flavors and the perspectives they brought to the information.

Round three: reptiles and amphibians. I deliberately chose this pairing because I remember thinking (and perhaps even arguing) as a child, that turtles were amphibians. I also remember my shock when I learned that snakes are delightfully smooth and not slimy, as I had imagined. I wanted the challenge of clarifying this to my own students. I had still over-prepared and I knew going in that 30 minutes would not be enough to learn, create, present and do the individual assessment, but I was eager about what we could get done. Eager, excited and surprisingly calm. My guard wasn’t completely down. Of course, I wanted to excel, but my focus had shifted to what was most important and I was able to enjoy my own observation because I took the time to do the same thing—observe the myriad ways in which my students learn, share their perspectives and prior knowledge and synthesize, demonstrate and share their learning.

We did change one thing. This round, we gave each group a specific question to focus their listening on. My words to them: “View the whole video, but really listen for the habitat of the reptile/amphibian; describe reptile skin and explain how amphibians spend part of their time in water and part on land.” Out of this charge came a spot-on explanation of metamorphosis!

Subsequently, the individual assessment did reveal some of the same confusion I remembered, slimy vs. slick skin and chameleon as amphibian are a few that came up. Settled with a gentle reminder and explanation—feedback that was welcome each time.

And now, we journey on. More animals learned and the pinnacle of this experience, fresh, new, and incubated eggs that in three weeks time will hatch. Attributes of birds: wings, two feet, beaks, feathers. Attributes of Kindergarten chick masters: eager, patient, protective, learners ready to nurture and care, all the while…learners, learning how to learn!

Tea leaves, indeed. Primed for brewing.

Regroup. 3/4

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Did learning happen? Yes. Was it optimal? No.

I had fascinating content, eager learners and an obligation to empower my students in a way that would encourage them to synthesize and present their learning.

The next group of animals: insects and spiders. I collaborated with my co-lead, and used many of her observations and suggestions to approach the lesson differently. Her first observation: don’t be discouraged, our kiddos thrive with repetition. I held fast to the cooperative learning structure and emphasized my expectations for how they would work in groups. I gave examples of desirable comments and ones that should be left unsaid. I also spent time deliberately placing students in optimal learning groups. I did this by considering personality, and work and learning style.

Finally, I asked groups to discuss what each of them would contribute to the poster before one of them made a mark.

Then, I repeated the most important step of the learning process, observe and reflect. The buzz (what a nice pun) of their learning was a low hum. Students hovered forward, head to head watching and listening to iPads, they shared their ideas and complimented each other on their illustrations and sentences. Then, the beauty blossomed: the leaders emerged! Students normally soft-spoken and tentative we heard making comments to their groups like: “put that right here” “okay, I think we have enough.” Watching them as they learn, what joy!

The tea was steeping. Immersed in the curriculum, the posters and opportunity to share gave each presentation its own flavor and style. Take two: insects and spiders is also the lesson where we tweaked the sharing style. The group came before the class, but only the group member speaking stood and held the poster, while other members sat.

The lesson was much more tidy and there was a calm assurance that covered the class. They were able to listen and engage with their peers because they were not distracted by what they still wanted to add to their own posters. The sharing was smooth and the cooperation during the work time improved. The two students who struggled, did so because they were not at the first lesson. The struggle was over having no room to add to the poster and we remedied that with a small square of paper they could use and then add.

The sharing highlighted deep understanding of body structure, habitat, and subgroups. Some of our students who may have struggled to write what they learned soared when they were able to speak and illustrate it. Everyone was given the platform to conduct and demonstrate their learning.

They shone. They exuded confidence. They were primed to learn in this manner.

Relinquish. 2/4

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I was compelled.


It was time for my formal observation.

In the past, I approached formal observations with the intensity and planning of a military training mission. I over-planned. Spent days scripting conversation, flow of delivery, drafting responses to the information I’m sharing as well as potential shenanigans. I know from experience that the unexpected moments are the most delightful ones, but I wouldn’t meet any unprepared. Over and over I mulled and turned the information until I had mentally taught the information thousands of times prior to the observation.

This year, with cooperative learning brimming at the shores of my creativity, I was open to uncertainty. I should clarify that the lesson planning is actually more intense in cooperative learning, because you are relinquishing the control of the information flow and turning it over to the students to embrace and synthesize.

I know, I get palpitations, too.

But, it’s scientifically proven to be a more effective learning method and, you get to teach the most important curricular element which should thread through every lesson. You get to teach the one thing that should be taught so much and so well that the very walls whisper it…you get to teach students how to learn.

With cooperative learning, you structure the ways in which children absorb and share their learning and…you make them accountable for this process.

The new unit is animals, kingdoms, classifications, what all living things need. There is always an animal expert. In every class I’ve taught, 5th, 2nd, Kindergarten, there is always an expert. My jaw dropped this year when my darling properly used the term symbiotic relationship. Oh, I love my work!

In the past, I’ve prepared ActivInspire flip-charts, meticulously reading animal articles, searching for proper images and videos to convey and reveal the awesome animal kingdom we are a part of.

This year, I built the lessons so that groups of students would work together to learn about one of two animal kingdoms, synthesize their learning in a poster and present it to the whole class. The first group of animals were birds and fish. The assessment was an attribute sort.

Cooperative learning has structures, all of which must be in play in order to have an authentic cooperative learning lesson. Otherwise you just have group work, and we all know how that can go awry.

The structures of cooperative learning as identified by David and Roger Johnson and Edythe Holubec in their book Cooperation in the Classroom are: Positive Interdependence-team members perceive that they need each other in order to complete the group’s task. Individual Accountability-accessing the quality and quantity of each member’s contributions and giving the results to the group Group Processing-groups need time to discuss how well they are achieving their goals and maintaining effective working relationships among members. Social Skills (Interpersonal and Small Group Skills)-groups must utilize collaborative skills such as instructorship, decision-making, trust-building, communication & conflict management Face to Face Promotive Interaction-team members promote each other’s productivity by helping, sharing, and encouraging efforts to produce.

Our approach to cooperative learning in the lower elementary classroom is to build the foundation for the full model by focusing on one or two of these structures at a time. For this lesson, I focused on social skills and face to face promotive interaction. The fish/bird activity veered off course a bit. I had hooked the students’ interest but failed to give them the structure they needed to be successful in groups. Four groups later, two were successful, one lacked consensus and the fourth was struggling with control issues that ranged from who would hold the iPad to who would illustrate the poster first.

Did learning happen? Yes. Was it optimal? No.

Infuse. 1/4

tea infuser

The Cooperative Learning course had just ended with several invigorating lessons taped by new practitioners. Several rounds of self-reflection and peer feedback later and we stood toe-to-toe listening to the pros and cons of the method in a rapid-fire activity called Face-Off. Here we stood, adult learners at the end of the lesson presentation, poised to make cooperative learning a practice. I co-led the group, and I stood inspired both by colleagues and their students.

Tea infusers come in a myriad of shapes

All kinds for all personalities, functional to decorative.

Either way, the infuser is the vessel that contains the power

The power is the leaves.

If the hot water is our curriculum

Cooperative learning is the full immersion technique

What I like most about cooperative learning is the respect and reverence we give to the tea leaves.

Our children, empowered and accountable for their learning and teaching

We don’t suppose them empty vessels to be filled, but fragrant contributions to their surroundings.

The information is already here. But their feet have yet to tread this path, and when they walk this path of discovery, what will they retain from the experience?

How will their individual experience flavor and impact their learning?

I was compelled.

A New Way.

Nina.RestsSaturday, March 5, 2016 (walk & identification 3:27pm)


I walked with my dad yesterday

Searching for a place to bury my sweet dog

She was given to me as a gift 15 years ago

A gift because I was so lonely and had so much love to give.

Leaves loud under our feet

We walked into space familiar, a sprawling back yard, both clean and clear and natural—reminded me of my father’s face. Skin that beams, hair curly and peppered, landscaped perfection, stopping their revolution at all the right boundaries.


We looked in the leaves. Loud and crunching. He walked with me. In these moments my steps weighted with grief, my heart held by his strength.




This year I’ve had many challenges.

New though, is my attitude toward them.

I view them as treasures to be discovered.

I remember how strong other challenges have made me and anticipate heroic strength to come from my learning and from answering this one question: Why is this lesson on my life curriculum?

How will this struggle grow me?


Monday, 3.21.16 (tod: 11:23am)


I buried my dog today.


Shovel and 8×8 Tamper in hand.


Yesterday, I was a pet-owner, a pet-mommy

And my Nina was my first baby.

And while I’m real clear about the delineation between a child and a dog, she was my first pet as a grown-up. The first pet I was solely and financially responsible for. She let me dress her though I came to know that hair-bows and bandanas were enough.


Today, I was still a pet-mommy

But I was faced with her looming death.

Her decline was rapid, her moaning piercing


I ran to her night after night scooping her up and comforting her—attempting to bring her back to reality.

She stood in corners reaching for orientation.

I stood in agony reaching for her with my love.

It was like having a newborn with no milk to give…

Her decline was beyond my ability to help

So I held on…

(Grasping for calm when she was out of my arms)

She held on…

(Grappling to rest between fits of confusion)

And today, we both let go.












Her death

Our loss


15 years

4 moves

2 pregnancies and births

1 other dog

countless memories

countless comforts she offered me!


My dad prepared her grave this morning.

A spot he walked with me to choose in a backyard she loved

The sun shines on it, like she shined on us.


She was just for me

A gift from my boyfriend, turned fiancé, turned husband, turned father.

All of us cried.



And so…



Lord knows I’ve seen death these three years

But never start to finish…

Never vigor to exhaustion

Never wonder to agony

Never ran and held—hopelessly held night after night, hour after sleepless hour.

Tortured and compelled by her cries.


It was this though, that made her peace easy.

A dignified canine, who my mom called “siditty” because she wouldn’t sit in dirt.

I saw mom’s point—but then again, I wouldn’t sit in dirt, either.


She pranced when she was groomed.

She was clear about her cuteness and never met a human who didn’t fall immediately fall in love. Least of all, me.


She taught me what it is to give care

To worry and wonder

Years went by that I secretly asked God to let her talk—just for a day

Her eyes told stories of amusement

Her warm nuzzles held every indication of wisdom

Her message was consistent and true—everything is gonna be all right. And if it doesn’t seem so, I’ll lick you and lie here until it does. Then it will be.


Her lessons linger like curled smoke

Fascinatingly sinuous, fading, ephemeral, yet always there…


She teaches

That love isn’t all grand emotion.

Not always exhilarating highs

And melodramatic departures and longing.

It isn’t always made of syrup and soft, melty-marshmallows.

That love is hard sometimes and bittersweet

That inasmuch as you are desperate to catch and grasp it.

It becomes all the more real

When you simply



Trust and let go.

And when you let go—that truth washes over you

Love envelopes and lifts and carries

And the journey of letting go is far more freeing and exhilarating than clinging simply and helplessly to love as we know it.


And so in this release

She and I open our arms to new embraces

And new ways

To love each other!