My mother-in-law is a fourth grade teacher in Champaign. While I was a substitute teacher, I subbed for her many times. (If you are interested in what that was like, you can browse any of these posts.) She is also the one who came to my class a couple of weeks ago to share some self-defense lessons to my students.
She taught fifth grade last year, and we came up with the idea of having our students write to one another as penpals. We started during the second half of the year and it went pretty well, so we decided to to it again this year. (She is teaching fourth grade now.)
Her class wrote to my students first. I didn’t tell anyone about this until today. Before even telling them they were going to have penpals, I taught a brief lesson on how to write a friendly letter. I asked the students to raise their hands if they had ever written a friendly letter to another person. Almost everyone in the class said that they had, so I asked them to walk me through the steps of writing one.
Many students said that the first thing you do is start with your greeting (Dear…). A couple said that you actually start by writing the date. We discussed writing a heading and how the person sending the friendly letter includes his or her address as the first thing to make sure that the person receiving it will be able to write back. (I explained that envelopes often get damaged when they are opened, so having the address on the outside doesn’t guarantee they’ll know it.)
Then we reviewed appropriate salutations, the body of the letter, and the way to close a letter. After doing all that, I began to hand out penpal letters. I am amazed that, despite all the changes in our world and our society over the past several decades, the way students write to their penpals never seems to change.
I gave my students time to read their letters, talk about them, and then write their own responses to their new penpals. Several asked if they could send pictures or meet their penpals. I told them that we were going to focus on just writing letters for now. My mother-in-law and I will have plenty of time to think up ways we can further this project beyond letter-writing. At present, my top goal is to give my class as many authentic writing experiences as possible!
Today was another half-day, but only for me. I had surgery about a month ago, and while recovery was quick and uncomplicated, I’ve had a series of early afternoon doctor’s appointments that have led to a number of half-days. I still have more to come but, fortunately, my class is moving along quite well and learning how to work on assigned tasks, regardless of the teacher in the room.
Not that I am implying I am not important to our classroom community! Far from it! I am just as much a part of my class as any one of my twenty-seven students. But it is nice to know that if I have to be gone due to a professional conference, a workshop, an inquiry group, a meeting in the building, or an appointment with my doctor, I can trust my students to keep working and moving forward in their learning. I tell my students my one-line summary of my philosophy of education on a regular basis: My job is to help my students learn how they learn so that they can learn without me telling them what to learn. I could add to this that I also want them to learn without my telling the how, when, or where to learn. Learning is a life-long objective, which means the boys and girls in my classroom will be constantly working on improving in this area of their lives.
All of this ties into the research reports that my students have been working on during the past couple of weeks. The reports are due on Friday. I have been monitoring the students’ progress while they are working, but these are independent research projects, so they are expected to work on their own. Many students have told me that they are done with their reports already. Others are still working. A few admitted today that they are have barely begun. It is because of this last group that I have made sure the class has had time to work in the computer lab to do more research.
While researching today, one student cried out in frustration, “I hate computers! I can’t find anything on here! Computers are so stupid! They don’t have anything on them! When I look on Google, all I get is a long list that doesn’t actually answer my question! Why did they even invent computers, anyway?!”
I admit I found the outburst amusing. I didn’t laugh openly at the student, but I found the complaint rather silly. For one thing, computers are stupid; they don’t contain any information that isn’t programmed into them by an intelligent person. For another, I clearly need to spend more time teaching my students how to use search engines. Most of the class understands that Google provides a list of links to websites that will lead you to a page with information that relates to your original search query, but there are some who think that the answers should be on the Google search results page. I’m hoping to do some interesting projects using the computers in the lab, so I need to make sure that everyone understands what they are doing when they are using different research tools, such as Google, World Book Online, and Ask.com.
Outbursts notwithstanding, I am really looking forward to seeing the results of the independent research projects! This has been a pretty heavy first project for the year, but it will give me a solid baseline for what the students understand about conducting independent research projects and will help them as they undertake similar projects in the future. And eventually they will do research on their own just because they are interested in something and want to know. Once they start doing that, I’ll know that I’ve done my job right: my students will know how they learn so that they can learn without me telling them what, where, how, or when to learn. Even if I have a doctor’s appointment and have to leave for a few hours, a day, or even a few days.
Whoops, I forgot to post yesterday! Yes, I am alive! My surgery went well, and I have been spending the past few days lying on the couch watching Doctor Who or in bed reading Fablehaven Book 2: Rise of the Evening Star while letting my body take it easy and recover from the surgery. I have three lovely scars across my belly now. And no, students in my class, I am not going to lift up my shirt to show them to you, so don’t even ask. Oh, and I didn’t get any pictures, so I won’t get to show anyone what my insides look like!
I’ve heard that my class is doing well with the substitute teacher. (I finally broke down and begged my colleagues on Facebook to let me know!) Someone told me that I need to just relax and not worry. I responded that I wouldn’t be a very good teacher if I didn’t worry about my students!
Keep safe this weekend! I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again on Tuesday!
Yesterday I wrote about how I was planning on making some changes in my classroom. Today I wanted to give a quick follow-up on how those changes were received.
In addition to changing the book I had selected for our final read aloud, I decided to make some changes to the daily schedule, based largely on some very productive conversations that went on during a PBIS team meeting yesterday evening.
For most of the year, my class has had an afternoon recess at the very end of the day. This has been done partly as an incentive for students to work hard throughout the afternoon and then also an incentive to help them quickly get through their work routines. Unfortunately, there have always been slight issues with this schedule. For one, several students leave the room before the end of the day for reasons like Safety Patrol duty, FitKids (a local program run by the University of Illinois and directed by a good friend of mine, incidentally), and checking in with younger students they’ve been asked to assist or with mentors and other teachers. For another, the end of the day has always been hectic, with students trying to get their belongings and get to buses, rides, the After School Child Care Program, etc.
So with just two and a half weeks of school left, I figured, what the heck, let’s try something new that I’ll probably be doing more consistently next year anyway. Instead of having our afternoon recess at the end of the day as an incentive, we are going to have our afternoon recess after math and before fine arts as a break. At the end of the day, students will pack up and then have the last fifteen minutes or so of the day to work independently on silent reading, writing, or have extra help on math or other academic areas.
I told my class about this, and they all seemed very supportive of the idea, especially those who have missed most or all of recess as a result of the above mentioned reasons. Of course, today was also the day that I had a meeting at 1:15, so I had a sub come in at that time, and there was no time for her to go over what I had asked her to teach if she was going to be taking them outside for recess fifteen minutes after she arrived. So today didn’t actually work out as planned, but hey, that’s life, right? If we don’t get to the new schedule changes this week, we’ll definitely be able to start next Monday!
Oh, and everyone seemed happy that I decided to put aside Abe Lincoln Grows Up and read a new book (It’s Like This, Cat by Emily Neville–the Newberry Award winner from 1964). We talked a bit this morning about how we sometimes just don’t “feel” a book at the time we start to read it, and how that is okay because we may “feel” it at another date. So yeah, the changes appear to be ones that will be well-received.
I keep thinking that I have written about this topic already, but I can’t find any recent posts about it, so it is possible that I meant to write about it, but then didn’t.
Anyway, the intermediate grade teachers were encouraged to learn about a balanced literacy program that has been implemented all over the country, known as the Daily Five. It is a way for students to take ownership of their literacy experiences by selecting from a variety of five activities that, ideally, they will do each day. These activities are: read to self, read to someone, listen to reading, writing, and word work. After giving it some thought, I’ve decided to pare it down to the Daily Five as Three. Students listen to reading every day during our read aloud after lunch and, while word work and vocabulary development is important, I am still working on developing something that is meaningful, as well. So my students select from these choices: read to self, read with something (I changed the pronoun to emphasise the joint effort), and writing.
We have spent a lot of time in my room working on reading to self; the students are now able to successfully read independently for 45 minutes on any given day. We’ve done work on writing throughout the year. I started having them practice reading with others last week, to build on the buddy reading they’ve been doing with second graders.
This week, I rolled out the initial approach to the Daily Five as Three (which I am generally just going to call the Daily Three). Because of a variety of scheduling variations, we haven’t had the full amount of time needed for these three literacy activities, so I have let the students choose one. The key is that they choose it, not me. About half the class chose to read independently and the other half chose to write. One student wanted to read with someone but, since he couldn’t find anyone to read with him, he chose to read independently.
Yesterday they had 30 minutes, and did a great job. So today I decided to give them a full forty-five and see what they’d do with it. During this time, I had a meeting, so I had a floating sub in my room, who happened to be the teacher who was with my class on Monday. She walked in and, upon seeing everyone in the class quietly engaged in reading or writing, complimented everyone on how amazed she was! (This definitely earned the class an extra pebble in our vase!) When I returned from my meeting, she said that everyone had continued to stay on task and she was able to work with a pull-out group on math.
It was a fantastic success, and we will build on it tomorrow. I need to remember to play music in the background and, stealing an idea from a colleague at another school, I will tell the class that they way they can tell if they are too loud is if they are louder than the music. Some days are full of frustration; others are days of great successes. Today was definitely in the latter category!
On Friday night, my wife had some troubles starting our car. We thought it was because the gas tank was practically empty, so a friend helped us get gas and we were fine. We didn’t have any problems with the car again until Sunday evening, when I was unable to get the car to start. After determining that the electrical system was fine and we had plenty of gas and oil, I called one of my older brothers, who is a genius when it comes to fixing cars. I described the problem and he quickly diagnosed the problem as either the battery or the starter. Since the battery is fairly new, we figured it was most likely the starter.
And so it was that I had to take an unplanned Personal Day to try to take care of my car. I called on Sunday evening, set up a sub, and wrote up the plans for today.
I was able to get the car to start this morning and after dropping it off at my mechanic’s shop, I walked home (about four miles), and then spent the day reading education blogs, developing lesson plans for the week, and finally watching Waiting for “Superman” on Netflix. So while I wasn’t able to work with my students today, I did spend the day on education-related work.
I have not, as of this writing, heard any feedback on how the day went. I am hoping that this is a good thing. The sub I had is a retired teacher who actually taught fourth grade in the classroom I have now! She has worked with my kids for short snippets of the day before, but this was the first time she’s had them for a full day.
Incidentally, my car will be getting repaired tomorrow, so I will be back at work and ready to dive into the last seven weeks of school!
At the beginning of a math lesson this afternoon, I had a student start complaining when I told the group that we were going to review the math lesson they had done last Thursday. I wanted to review for two reasons:
1. I was not there for two days, and I wanted to know what they had learned, and
2. The substitute had left a note suggesting that I review the lesson.
This particular’s student response to my stated intention to review the lesson was that she had already turned in the work to demonstrate mastery of the topic (although not with those exact words). I pointed out that I had not seen her do the work; I had only seen a pile of papers with her name on it and someone’s work done on it.
She grudgingly began to do the work, but she didn’t want to show any of her work. I found myself repeating something I have said many times this year: I don’t care about just the answers; I want to know how my students are getting those answers. Then I decided to shorten the mantra to just five words:
Don’t tell me; show me!
Of course, this immediately brought to mind a wonderful song from a wonderful musical:
I mentioned this song, but none of my student’s knew of it, which made me sad. Nevertheless, the mantra is a true one, which is why I think I’m going to make a poster of it for the room.
As long as you’ve been reading my blog for some time longer than, oh, a week, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I love professional development. (If you haven’t been reading for longer than a week, then welcome!)
There are some teachers who do not love professional development. There are some who complain whenever professional development rolls around. These are usually the teachers who sit in the back of the room, drinking coffee, grading papers, and generally acting as if they are not in a workshop or seminar intended to help them improve their teaching craft.
These teachers are men and women that I would hesitate to refer to as professionals. I also use the title “teacher” loosely when referring to them. It isn’t that they treat their jobs as something of little value. It is that they treat their jobs as just that: a job.
Teaching is not a job for me. It is a profession and a vocation. It is an extension of who I am and what I do. I have had jobs in my life. I was a paper carrier, a salad maker, a low-level food services employee, a lawn mower (not even a lawncare provider–I only mowed the lawn), a dish washer, a package handler, an eggs-to-order cook (a job that I took seriously but still knew it was a job and not a vocation for me), and a retail store day labourer. (These jobs have not been listed in chronological order, and some of them have overlapped one another.)
But being a professional educator is not a job. Not for me. So whenever an opportunity to develop professionally arises, I am there to jump on it if at all possible. Which is why I find myself in a hotel room on a Wednesday evening, reflecting on the events of my first day at the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative Conference in Springfield, Illinois. I first learned about the INTC Conference a couple of months ago, when our district new teacher mentor coordinator sent out an email asking if anyone was interested in going. I did what my students do when I ask if anyone is willing to volunteer to do something: I immediately responded and said, “Yes, I want to go!”
Then I looked over the website to see what I had just volunteered for and immediately sent a follow-up email saying that I didn’t think I could go because the site said it is for mentors, administrators, and coordinators, but nothing about new teachers. I was assured that I could, indeed, go, so go I have gone. (Wow, that’s a weird sentence!)
The day has followed a very similar pattern to the PBIS Conference I attended in January. Keynote speakers, breakout session, meals, and time to network and talk about what we have been learning. Some of the information has been excellent. Some has been really lackluster. Most has been useful, but not quite what I had hoped for. The best part, though, has been discussing our district’s new teacher mentoring program with those who came with me: three other new teachers, a mentor, and the four teachers who train and run the program. The nine of us have been discussing, planning, sharing, and discussing some more. It has been great!
Tomorrow will be the conclusion of the conference, and I’ve already been given a preview of one of the breakout sessions I’ll be attending, so I’m pretty excited! I hope my students had a great day with their substitute today; they have her tomorrow, too!
One day. That’s all the time I’ve been given to be with my class this week. No school on Monday because of Presidents’ Day, no school on Friday because of Staff Development, and no school for me on Wednesday or Thursday because of a professional conference I am attending.
I’ll admit, the timing could be better. ISAT testing starts in less than two weeks, but I’ve only got working days remaining to help them prepare. However, I am excited to attend this conference. It is sponsored by the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative. The purpose is to examine the success of new teacher induction programs, find ways to continue to promote such programs, and, of course, have opportunities to network with other professionals.
So, what did I do with the one day I had this week? I followed our regular schedule. We went to the computer lab in the morning, followed by our weekly library time and then literacy. The morning was wrapped up with math groups. After lunch, we had our daily review of the morning and I read a few chapters from Holes while the students listened and/or read along. More math and then we went to our buddy reading partners’ classroom to share reading with each other.
The day quickly wrapped up with our afternoon review, recess, and dismissal. I spent the remainder of the afternoon/evening making my plans for tomorrow and Thursday. I hope the plans I’ve left are sufficient, intelligible, and useful. I hope the students have a great rest of the week. And I hope that they will continue to learn, whether I am there or not!
Yesterday I wrote about how I introduced my class to Storybird. I was surprised at the positive response, but I didn’t even begin to think the students would be as excited about it as they have been.
After writing my post last night, I started reading the storybirds that my students had been writing. I noticed that several students had written more stories throughout the evening and others were reading and commenting on them. It was really fun to see them participating in a literacy project outside of school, especially when I realised that some of them were students who are reluctant to participate in class.
When the boys and girls arrived this morning, several asked if they would have the opportunity to go into the computer lab to write more storybirds. I checked the schedule and found an opening. They were very excited to write more. I had to attend a meeting during that time, so I had a substitute teacher come and supervise them as they worked. I told each student that I expected them to write at least one story and comment on at least one classmate’s story. When I came in forty-five minutes later, I witnessed something I have never seen before: every member of my class was sitting at a computer, quietly writing.
To add to my elation, several students talked about writing more at home or going to the library to write. I have shared this with some of my colleagues and they have expressed a great deal of interest in using this in their rooms. I am definitely going to put this in the category of “Stuff That Works!”
I guess it really is true what they say: absence makes the heart grow fonder.
At least, that is my only explanation for why my class was so wonderful today. It would seem that the past two days were fairly difficult days, although I didn’t have much information from my sub to verify this. Most of the details I got came from fellow teachers before the day started.
I wanted my class to know how important it is to start each day fresh. So I began the day by telling my class that today was a wonderful, fabulous, phenomenal day. I then asked why they thought I was saying that. Some suggested that it was because today was Friday, so it was the end of the week. Others said it was because it was my birthday. (I explained that my birthday is actually next week.) After a few more guesses, I explained that the reason I was so excited about today was because today was not Wednesday or Thursday. Even though I had an amazing two days at the PBIS Conference, I knew that there had been some rough spots while I was away, but I didn’t want to worry about that. I wanted to worry about today.
I think the class understood what I was saying. They all seemed relieved to see me in the halls again even before the day started. Then they were relieved to see me start the day the way we usually do. I was impressed with how well they entered the classroom and got started to work right away on their independent assignments.
As the day went on, I could see that the boys and girls were anxious to show that they could do what was expected. It wasn’t a perfect day, but it was a good day. My class worked hard, accomplished much, and showed that they were glad to have me back.
And, you know, I was glad to be back, too. I’m looking forward to looking through all of their work over the weekend and then getting back to work on Monday with a full week ahead of us to implement more of the strategies I learned at the conference.
The Beatles, or maybe it was just John Lennon, once wrote/said/sang that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I could just as easily argue that this is a description of education. I have plans for each day, set out at the beginning of each week, to give me a guide for what I will be teaching.
But, honestly, my day rarely follows those plans.
As a substitute teacher for three years, I was constantly given detailed plans by teachers, some of whom would outline the day down to the minute. I think one of the reasons I was so successful as a sub, though, was that I didn’t allow my teaching to be dictated by the plans. If something came up and it provided me an opportunity to teach a concept or skill that was important, but it wasn’t part of the plans, I taught it anyway. That isn’t to say that I completely disregarded the plans I was given. In fact, I worked very hard at following the plans. But I also recognised the value of flexibility and of recognising teachable moments as moments that needed, well, teaching.
Now that I have my own classroom, I am the one leaving detailed lesson plans for when I have a substitute teacher coming in. And I have been very lucky to have a go-to sub who will look at my plans, know what it is that needs to be taught, and then use the plans as a guide rather than a dictum set in stone and meant to be followed to the letter. I will admit that I don’t write detailed lesson plans for when I am teaching. I know what I am going to teach, how I am going to teach it, and I know that my students are going to cause me to change half those plans, anyway. I remember thinking how ridiculous the lesson plan rubrics were that I had to follow when I was still in my teacher preparation program at the University of Illinois. We had to write out the specific Illinois Learning Standards, lesson objectives, essential questions, enduring understandings, and step-by-step plans, including not only questions to be asked but answers to be given. (As if students ever say what the teacher expects them to say!) I am sure there was value to the process of lesson planning. If nothing else, it got me in the habit of reflecting on the teaching process.
But who has time to write out all of those things when you are teaching in the classroom all day, every day? I know I don’t! So, instead, I write myself a guideline, I come up with a schedule–I used to label it specifically as being tentative; I think I may return to doing that–I post it on the board, and then I teach what needs to be taught. If we are having a class discussion that is leading to some awesome learning, I am not going to stop just because the schedule says that we need move on; we will move on when we are ready to do so!
After all, teaching and learning are life, and life really is what happens while you’re busy making other plans!
My students have had substitute teachers a few times this year, but today marked a new milestone: having two different subs in the same day!
Once a month, the teachers in the building have a substitute come in with their class for about half an hour or so while they (the teachers) have special team meetings to discuss individual students progress in the two core content areas of math and reading. This is very much an example of work teachers do outside the classroom that is incredibly important to what they do. However, since these meetings are always on Wednesdays, and because my GLP and I both have our meetings in the mornings, I don’t even know how much my students noticed I was gone. Wednesdays, of course, are one of our Thinks You Think days, so the entire fourth grade is in one big group. The sub I had for the morning used to teach fourth grade in my building, and I am actually teaching in her old room, using many of her supplies!
After our special team meetings, our classes split up and I returned with my class to the room where they silent read for the short period of time before going to lunch. When the students returned to the room, I was preparing to leave and making sure the afternoon sub was all settled in. I am taking part in an inquiry group within our district that is being sponsored by the Center for Education in Small Urban Communities. The inquiry group focuses on integrating literacy across content areas. Some of our meetings are done after school hours, while others are during released-time. Today was the first of our released-time meetings. While my students were learning and practicing math, I was learning about new ways to use literacy in meaningful, organic methods. And yes, I realise I just threw out a bunch of education buzzwords; they do have real meaning!
I was very, very, very pleased to learn how well my class had worked throughout the afternoon! I don’t think I’ll ever overcome the sense of worry and anxiety when I have to leave my class in the hands of a substitute teacher, no matter how capable those hands may be. It is odd to say that, especially coming from so many years of personal experience as a sub. Now I know what the teachers I had subbed for felt like whenever they left, and I appreciate even more how well I was able to do my job!
On a completely different note, we are now on day eleven of How Long Will It Take for Mr. Valencic to Wear the Same Tie Twice?