Saturday, November 7, 2015

November already ?

I mentioned that this year started off rough for me, but I cannot believe we are approaching the end of the first marking period ! I have gotten into a nice routine with my grade 6 students and it is very heart warming to see some of the grade 7 and 8 students I have for extension periods getting excited about their social justice projects.

I designed a collaborative TV news segment project to start the year in grade 6 . We were all quite excited to hear about the discovery of Homo Naledi, a hominid and early ancestor to humans. The students had a lot of fun with art, acting, and collaboration. And I think they understand what scientists know about the development of early man... at least they now understand that humans and dinosaurs did not exist at the same time . "Damn you" Flintstones...

Parent conferences occurred earlier this month. That always solves so many mysteries. Apples don't usually fall too far from trees. And trust me, my district has plenty of very strong important established trees, with a lot of pressure for those apples to live up to. But, in the same classroom I have students who are hurting because they don't have all the same advantages. It always makes you realize that you do have to take each case completely separately.

Next up, I am trying to expand my differentiation options. We study ancient river valley civilizations in MP 2 ; Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China... To go along with all my normal teaching strategies I am going to have students choose a "lens" in which to view, compare and contrast these civilizations as we learn about them. They can choose from builder, performer and artist. We are going to have a showcase at the end. The builders are going to get to choose from Minecraft or 3d materials, Performers can show everyday life in these civilizations through skits, dance or song, and the artists can recreate sculpture, painting, drawing, computer presentation or any combination of these.

My hope is to make the classroom a place of excitement, discovery and joy. If I am going to spend all day with 11/12 year olds, I want them busy enough that they are not plotting how they are going to overthrow and torture me !

I did a college fair last week as an F&M alumni. I watched totally clueless juniors and seniors try to get information about this very big decision they face. I thought of my own college age kids and the angst I had as an 17 year old trying to make that decision. I then thought back to my college experience that ended in a totally different direction than it started (I had absolutely no intention of becoming a teacher) As it turns out I can't imagine investing my life in any other field . But I'm also very glad I formed that journey at F&M, which I most certainly would not have chosen had I known the ending. Some of my best lifelong friends came from my college experience.

So I hope everyone enjoys their journeys and all the wonderful, or sometimes bittersweet twists and turns life provides for us. Remember, if you try to keep joy around you, it is so much more bearable.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Sorry for the delay on this first post. My world was shaken by the loss of my mother, Linda, DeCinque, on September 3rd. She had been ill for a long time, but nothing really prepares you for the death of someone you have known every moment of your life. Both my parents have now passed away, and as the oldest of four siblings I am feeling mighty officially the role of an adult.

The best solution for this feeling, is of course to spend your days in a middle school, surrounded by adolescents. It keeps you young and gives you perspective of a whole life ahead. I am blessed with amazing friends and family to help me through these times. And I am starting to feel caught up and back in the swing of things. My mother was a wonderful role model of strength and patience which are the skills I need to survive for now.

This year I am teaching all of the grade 6 Social Studies (ancient civilizations) in our building. I used to teach grade 5 and 6 . I also have several different weekly sections of a social justice extension class with 7th and 8th graders, so it promises to be a very interesting and engaging year.

Conveniently, scientists in South Africa excitingly announced a new find indicating another species of early man. This happens to be my exact curriculum and it has been exciting to design a unit project around this news. Students are in groups being asked to construct a 5-7 minute news program that communicates the facts and questions revolving around this story.

I'll keep you posted and post a link to some sample products if possible, I am still exploring our new policies regarding technology in our district. I have also been exploring different programs that allow you to intersperse questions into a video for student viewing.

Along with that, I have launched, which I am hoping to use to improve communication to parents regarding assignments and announcements from school. As always, the administrative search continues for a good match of my skills and abilities in the next phase of my career ( all leads appreciated ) .

Welcome to a new year,
Holly Foley

Sunday, June 28, 2015

One Last Heart-Warming Story from 2014- 2015

One of the final activities of the school year is "Relay for Life" (walking to raise money and awareness for cancer patients) .

As you may have recalled from earlier posts, one of my classes got very passionate about the water situation in developing countries. We were in touch with which provided some fabulous educational resources, but with all of our fundraising initiatives already in place, we didn't fit raising money for them in.

But just to honor their awareness the grade 6 class developed an "extra credit challenge" to "Relay for Life." We labeled (five) 5 gallon buckets with this message ... "Kids in developing countries have to carry water for their families many miles each day . Can you do it ? "

We put the filled buckets out during the Relay.

I introduced the challenge by saying "We want to see if these buckets can make it around the field once . You can carry for a bit and put it down and hopefully someone else will come along and pick it up. "

Those buckets didn't touch the ground once during 90 minutes.

There was no incentive, or prize. Kids who normally wouldn't even think of drinking tap water out of their faucet without filtering it, were willing to carry big buckets of dirty water around a field on a 90 degree day  !

It was beautiful to see who rose to the challenge... it wasn't only the predictable "good students" or traditionally "do gooder" helpful kids. It was all different types of students; Ones that were normally quiet, ones that wrestle with behavior or learning problems . So many different combinations of pairs or triplets , different grade levels genders. A small grade 5 girl was trying to carry one and two bigger grade 6 boys came along to help. One student dressed in long sweatpants carried it by himself around the field twice !

I hope it will resonate with them as an empathetic experience. I know it showed me and everyone who witnessed it,  the amazing character of our middle school students, and made my heart sing before leaving for the summer.

I know it isn't anything compared to the real struggles that some students around the world have, but it is reassuring to know that kids can care and understand. I will try to get those (now) grade 7 students organized to set up a fundraiser and maybe all the students who participated will also help donate.

I hope each of us finds small ways this summer to try to understand how others live.

Holly Foley

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Closing doors- opening windows ?

The end of school year is always a precarious time. Everyone is exhausted from diving to the finish line. You feel that that you have created such a strong bond with the students you've spent every day with for months and months. You reflect back on the learning and growing and really are so impressed with the miraculous journeys.

On a personal level, I am at a hugely precarious juncture, as I am being considered for the job of my dreams right now. I will probably know the fate of that situation early next week. I know I'd have so much heart, soul, experience and learning to share with this new community of learners. I've provided the committee with every shred of evidence I can think of, to convince them to take a chance on someone who has not yet been a principal. All I can do is wait and pray at this point.

In the meantime, in class this week I have a few touching stories to remind myself that if this door closes:

 1. The room I am left in in,  is an incredible place and I am very lucky to even be there.
 2. The lessons I teach every day about grit and tenacity won't let me give up, and I know I will have a friend or colleague ( and probably several) who will always be there for me to help me through tough times and help me look for the next window.

Story number 1 - I do end of year reflections. I ask students about the topics they feel they have become the strongest experts on, the ways they've grown as a learner and person, the policies, projects and resources in my classroom that I should "keep" or "ditch" . Again this year I am overwhelmed by the variety of experts, the amazing learning, the honest and helpful feedback from my students. I love when I anonymously read aloud the "keep" and "ditches" and get powerful arguments from students who want to defend, what someone else wants to ditch . And the several responses of "don't  change a thing, this class is perfect and I've loved coming here every day" don't hurt either.

Story number 2 - One class of my six  (a grade 6 class),  due to scheduling conflicts, is ahead of the others and completed all the reflection activities, so I gave them a choice of free time or finishing up a movie they watched one day last week. Only one student voted to continue the movie. Students split themselves up into small groups to play card games, talk or draw; a few read or draw alone comfortably). I use these times to monitor and observe friendships and note what students do when they aren't programmed or scheduled or told what to do (like the other 99.9% of their lives) .

That one child who has been struggling on and off socially throughout the year was visibly unhappy when everyone split off and he didn't have anyone approach him about joining an activity. (He really would have preferred to finish the movie, he doesn't want to read or draw alone) After giving him a few minutes, I called him over and said

Me - "you know if you just ask "Can I join ?, any group would let you "
Him - " no I really can't do that"
Me-" Do you want me to go with you ?"
Him - "No,  can I just go to the nurse, my neck hurts"
Me - I realize that if I switch the activity to the movie and ask groups not to talk, it will be obvious and may reverberate in resentment from some students. I also can't assist putting him in a group against his will because that will embarrass him. Sometimes I can make eye contact with a student and get them to realize what is going on, but no one is really paying attention to us. So I say I have a few errands I needed him to run if he wasn't busy and his neck is ok . He is reluctant, but a little grateful for the exit strategy.

Then in swoops a superhero student (and not one I would have predicted) who is watching my interchange from with ### from across the room .  He says "Hey Mrs. Foley, you know I really really want to watch the movie too. Maybe we can put it on and sit close to the front of the room and the people talking softly won't bother us. " I want to hug this child . Great idea ! A few others joined him and ### was rescued and supported by these peers.

I know my peers will rescue and support me from any disappointments too.

I know we have all had a great year of learning and growing and we all have many adventures ahead. I will be fine continuing in the middle school classroom if that is the outcome and if I do get the position I am desiring any blog fans will be inundated with my new adventures and experiences.

Have a great summer !


Sunday, May 3, 2015

In the Home Stretch of 2014-2015

My intention was to use this blog to highlight the "AHA" moments of teaching. It was highjacked for a bit by PARCC ( like all of education seemed to be), but let's try to put the drama in perspective. It is over. The end of year PARCC was much less of an imposition and now we wait to see if the results are meaningful.

In the meantime lots of cool things are going on in room 304!

Grade 5 students are now firmly entrenched in our school culture. This time of year students raise money for Pennies for Patients program to fund Leukemia and Lymphoma research. The grade 5 kids have come up with so many new and original fundraising ideas while their homerooms compete to extract as much money as possible from each other;  a three on three soccer tournament, a dunk tank, sponsoring Elsa and Anna characters to come to the elementary school building, along with all the traditional raffles, bake sales etc. They raise a lot of money for a good cause, but also get to practice a lot of leadership, planning and collaboration skills.

In SS class we continue to pick units out of our textbook and then to supplement the reading with projects and activities to get deeper meaning and connections. Interestingly, this book splits Southwest  Asia (Middle East) into two different chapters ; Ch 18 : Arabian Peninsula and Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, which we studied earlier in the year,  and Ch17 ; Eastern Mediterranean (Turkey, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon).

We watch CNN student news. Many days they report on the activities of ISIS in the Middle East.

GREAT QUESTION posed by a student. " If ISIS thinks that Syria and Iraq should be one country (theirs) ... How come our textbook doesn't even say they are in the same region ? Umm.. book is 15 years old?, We westerners know less than we think we do about the real ethnic divides of the Middle East ? But that is clearly critical thinking and questioning at its best... And we are now in the process of doing comparing and contrasting work of Iraq and Syria.

And here is another ISIS connection gem from my grade 6 students :

We studied the Roman Empire for many weeks. Students did a project comparing the Roman Empire to the Modern World . They picked a thesis (it is the same, they are different) and supported their thesis with details from the cultures in topics of entertainment, military, government, religion, social structure, famous leaders, and art/architecture. They did a great job and we spent some time talking about how this great Roman Empire became so vast it was difficult to manage and that barbarians were able to topple it in the 5th century.

ANOTHER GREAT QUESTION : If we proved Roman Empire is so much like the USA, do you think that ISIS is like the barbarians and they plan to topple us ?

Sooooo.... more time spent with a very motivated question about ISIS and their goals. Rest easy, we found out that ISIS is very localized and organized and really only wants to control their own little corner of the Middle East.

I get my own little "world issue think tank" for a few more weeks with this extraordinary group of students. Then, as ever, I am optimistic that maybe this is the year I will become a full time school administrator... A few opportunities are in the mix right now. We shall see.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

PARCC phase one done

We have completed the March testing window. I am in a middle school of about 450 students grades 5-8. We took one grade level a week, mostly in computer lab settings. I was a proctor each session so I witnessed a total of about 120  general education students take the recent PARCC testing. Here are my first hand observations :

1. It was SIGNIFICANTLY easier to administer than NJ ASK  paper testing.  The accountability for students to log in and out of their own testing material removes the responsibility from school districts. Our technology person is a superhero so we did have a smooth technology set up with few bumps in the road.

2. The technology wasn't perfect but was easily fixable with no unsolvable problems.

3. The timing was extremely generous. The majority of the students finished in about half of the testing time they were allotted.

4. The content seemed manageable. As per PARCC security testing procedures I wasn't permitted to view actual test questions, but judging from the body language of the majority of students and the comments made in the hallways the material was appropriately challenging.

5. Most students did take it . There were 0 optouts in grade 5 , a couple in grade 6 , a few more in grade 7 and about 10 out of approx 100 in grade 8.

6. Most students did take it seriously. There were a few students who clearly rushed, put any answer and had no intention of this test measuring their actual skills. It was a pattern in a few families. Clearly conversations were had at home by parents that said... do not take the test seriously.

7. This is a mystery to me. Never as a parent would I advise my child to approach something new and /or potentially difficult with a rebellious or defeatest attitude.

YES, a good chunk of instructional time was used for this. YES our resources were disrupted for administration. YES we have to do it again in May and I do wonder about the value and validity.

BUT I am very hopeful that the results will be meaningful and useful to us ( when they finally get approved) for programming, placement and remediation purposes. As a content area teacher would I be eager to be judged on students performance ?... not exactly, but I can live with a small piece of my evaluation being my students GROWTH, not their achievement , because that really depends on the students you are dealt.

Online testing is here to stay for sure. Hopefully the data we gathered can be analyzed to be useful. I witnessed 0 children harmed during the testing process. Just wanted to share my observations.

As always, hoping for the best,

Monday, February 23, 2015

This is a test, this is ONLY a test

Dear PARCC Protestors and Panickers

I promise you, your 8-18 year old has spent many more hours on frustrating and pointless video games than they will on this test.

They will not be harmed in the taking of the test in any way. If you would have seen the NJASK intimidating booklets you would see this is merciful.

Will the results be valid and useful ?  We will never know if everyone REFUSES to take it RIGHT ?


The education world has known this was coming for 5 years (even though social media has only erupted within the last few weeks. ) Schools have planned and purchased technology that they probably would not have prioritized if they didn’t have this deadline. (chalk one up for a good thing)

It is the 21st Century almost everything is managed on computers. Student assessment should be also.

We were forced to re-examine the way we delivered and assessed education when colleges and workplaces complained that students were entering college unprepared and couldn’t problem solve and think for themselves.

We adopted the Common Core standards. It is NOT a subversive national curriculum.
Please explore them if you haven’t

I am sure as a parent it was much more comforting to have a familiar looking math worksheet with one answer and one way to approach the problem. But unfortunately mastering that, doesn’t help you when life doesn’t present its math problems on an organized sheet for you.

And while straight memorization was predictable and impressive,  computer data bases have made that skill obsolete and now you actually have to know how to justify with evidence of any answers you do provide.


Just like all results they will be a part of how schools make decisions on resources . And on the larger scale how the state decides to which schools they should give more attention ($) .  There is legislation pending right now that will postpone use of results. This is wise.

Teachers are assessed on a 4 point scale . 4 is excellent (perfect almost) and 1 is awful.  Just statistically everyone will receive a 2 or a 3 when you average student results. That is a small part of picture . Observations and other goal setting are other ways to factor in what will mostly be 2 and 3 . Just like a grade point average in high school and college… almost everyone will fall between a 2.0 and 3.5 …. If you have below a 2.0 for a few years in a row there are sanctions. There is no great prize in most districts for higher scores.

Sadly I see many of my perfection oriented peers, inciting parents on this issue.

I published a Keep Calm and Carry On post a few months ago. Just thought I would revisit the issue as the panic seems to be rising…. Really KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON…..

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Travel Projects and World Awareness

I wrestle a lot with how honest to be with 11 and 12 year olds about the world. I believe they should be aware of current events in a sensitive way that they can understand. I LOVE for providing that resource to my students in a fantastic 10 minute daily broadcast on the internet.

The travel projects I have designed talk about hotels, restaurants, plane flights, sights to see. But I haven't stressed hunger, literacy, crime in these cities with this project. I try not over politicize issues and I try to meet students where they are with their understanding.

An event that happened last week is very special . CNN featured a piece on a teenage girl from a rural part of Haiti that needs to walk half an hour each way twice a day to obtain fresh water for her family from a creek. She carries the water in a five gallon bucket on her head and complains of head and neck pain.

Students were so sympathetic and moved by her plight. We had a great discussion and they generated many possible helpful solutions. We discussed that clearly plumbing infrastructure would be ideal. Students wanted to buy and ship cases of water but we discussed short term and long term solutions.

They went home and each designed simple fixes that could at least help the teenager transport her water more easily. They are very excited about their inventions. (backpacks and various carts) I decided to compile the ideas into a short video and appeal to some corporations that might choose to sponsor our students with funds that could get them some materials to create and ship their ideas.

It is nice that the ideas organically sprung from the students and they are using critical thinking skills to solve a world problem. If you know of any organizations that may be interested in helping my students meet their goals of helping others, please let me know

Feeling Hopeful about the upcoming generation of kind souls ~

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Welcome 2015

I am very pleased, proud and busy because I have so many exciting projects happening in 2015.  First, for my classroom I am designing a travel project so students can get practice using the internet to gather information about foreign cities. I am spending this break creating instructional videos to model good searching skills and to provide a "flipped classroom" scenario, where students can access this information on their own, at their own pace, to get support and practice with these skills.

Also, The first week back in January I am teaching a course on 21st Century Assessment Skills, for NVCC. I have had a lot of fun trying to organize challenging and meaningful materials to support my fellow Northern Valley peers as we explore this popular topic. My materials for both the travel project and the assessment class should be posted on my school website by the end of break if anyone has any interest or use for these :) Click here for access to my webpage

Speaking of "popular topics", I am also presenting on a panel that F&M is sponsoring that will address the issue of "The Common Core State Standards". The other panelists are very distinguished professors and authors on the topic. I look forward to getting the opportunity for discourse with them and the audience (see F&M website New Jersey Alumni Events for details!)

As I get ready for these upcoming events , I am also in full court reflection and reassessment mode to update my resume, references and letters which I send out to schools in my never ending search for an administrative job. I did get close a few more times this fall. But alas, nothing yet. This January marks two full years of pursuing this. I am not used to this much rejection, as most of the goals of my life up until now were met with success pretty quickly. I do know other administrators who say it took them 5 years to break into administration. If I've not grown in any other way in 2014, I have definitely been mastering persistence.

But I have grown when I stop to think about it. I have an exciting new marriage, a new home, kids settled in college, good health and happiness in my extended family, students who are having high quality experiences, peers at work who I am realizing I will truly miss when I do actually leave, amazing lifelong friends who I keep track of on Facebook and my own health and gratitude for all these blessings.

I think a big secret to happiness is not to overlook what you have, even as you reach for the next steps of your goals. Here is to a happy and healthy 2015 for all.