The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

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Book Review: Teaching with Love and Logic

Several months ago I read a professional text on the recommendation of our music teacher. She really liked the book and thought I would, too. But, just teachers sometimes recommend a book to a student and it fall flat, this happened with this book. I really, really, really didn’t like it, even though I really, really, really wanted to. (And because I try to focus on the positive side of things on my blog, I don’t think I ever even wrote a review of it.) So then a little while after, our music teacher and I were talking about classroom management practices and ideas we could try out with my class and she recommended another book to me. I was actually very glad she did; it can be tempting to give up on suggesting books when the first attempt fails.

The book she suggested was one that she read in college. It was Teaching with Love and Logic by Jim Fay and David Funk.

The first thing I noticed about this book was that it was 20 years old. I wasn’t going to discount it just because of that, of course, but it was something I felt worth noting as I read. The second thing I noticed was that the authors referred to their education consulting firm, the Love and Logic Institute and their trademarked strategy, Love and Logic a lot, to the point that it was rather irritating. That being said, I wasn’t going to set aside the book just because it was old and the authors talked about their company a lot. After all, if the music teacher felt that there were useful ideas in this book, I wanted to read to find out why!

The majority of Teaching with Love and Logic focuses on the focus of control in classroom management. Is the teacher in control, are the students in control, or is the control shared by both parties? The authors present the argument that many teachers, in an effort to maintain absolute control, actually turn control over to the students, primarily by taking the bait to engage in power struggles. This is something I have found myself observing many times: whenever an adult enters into a power struggle with a child, the adult has already lost. It is that simple. If you try to wrest control of the power, then you are letting the student focus all of your time and energy on them, telling them that they are the ones in control. However, if you stay calm, state simple, clear expectations, and then walk away, the student is unable to argue.

An important caveat: many of the of the strategies suggested in this book are for dealing with the 80%. The typical disruption in the classroom that can and should be quickly and easily handled within the classroom. They are not talking about the student who had a severe emotionally traumatic experience who throws desks across the room while screaming profanities when something triggers an emotional outburst. They aren’t talking about the students who have a diagnosed emotional/behavioural disorder that requires specific strategies to help them deescalate the situation. However, I would suggest that some of the Love and Logic strategies would help even these students, especially the need to stay calm, be clear and direct, and allow the student to make a decision based on limited, appropriate options.

Reading Teaching with Love and Logic didn’t actually give me any specific new ideas or strategies to try using in my own classroom. However, I appreciated the ideas in the book and I am grateful to our music teacher for suggesting it to me. Why? Because it was a good reminder of good practices in education. The biggest focus of Love and Logic is just that: making sure your students know that they are loved for the young people they are and using logic when setting outcomes. So often, when we talk about consequences we discuss them in terms of the negative outcome of poor choices. But the positive outcome of good choices us just as much a part of consequences.

A favourite classroom management book of mine is Setting Limits in the Classroom by Robert J. Mackenzie, Ed.D. Just like Jim Fay and David Funk, Dr. Mackenzie emphasises the need of teachers to set realistic limits in the classroom. Know what your own limits are and know what the limits for your students should be. Don’t pick fights over things that are inconsequential. Don’t make rules just for the sake of having rules. Include students in the decision-making process in a way that is age-appropriate. For example, my fourth graders have all been in school long enough to know that some of the basic expectations in a classroom setting include being safe, being responsible, and being respectful. So at the start of the year, I have them tell me what those things should look like, sound like, and feel like in our classroom. By letting them express the expectations, I know what they expect each other to do and what they expect me to expect of them. (And yes, I am of course a part of this conversation!) This practice is supported by the authors of both of these books.

One great take-away from Teaching with Love and Logic was this short vignette about rules:

There was a school that had a lot of rules for their students. In fact, the school handbook had 324 rules that students, teachers, and families were expected to know and follow. One day, a book in a teacher’s class threw a dead fish at a girl in his class. The teacher began to chastise him and he said, “But teacher, there’s no rule against it!” He was right: there was no rule that said, “Students may not throw fish at each other.”

The author suggested having just one simple rule for any classroom: “You can do anything you want in this class, provided it doesn’t cause a problem for anyone else.” I like this rule. It seems vague, but really, it encompasses everything we expect students and teachers to do when they are in a classroom. In fact, it is really just another way of saying the Gold Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I am going to try it out with my class this coming year. We will still have our classroom expectations and we will still do all of the other things we have done in the past to ensure ours is a safe, positive learning environment, but I want to see what happens if we use this one rule as the foundation for our classroom culture, instead of having it be one of teacher-directed behaviour.

Book Review: Empowering Families

Way back in the early 1980s, social workers recognised the need for family engagement in the treatment process. By the 1990s, this focus on family engagement had expanded to the field of education. Teachers and administrators have worked tirelessly to find ways to cross cultural barriers and bring families into the schools and into the work of educating children. Of course, there have always been parents who have understood their role in teaching their children at home, but the idea of connecting home and schools in a partnership has been relatively recent in the grand scheme of things. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has been active in advocating for increased family engagement. And just a few days ago, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education for the United States of America, announced an initiative to promote family engagement with the development of a Family and Community Engagement website that builds on last year’s Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships. At 1:30 pm ET today (July 1), Secretary Duncan will be hosting a Twitter chat about parent involvement using #PTChat. Clearly, involving families in student learning is becoming an increasingly important component of public education.

With this in mind, it should not be surprising that I was really excited to get a chance to read and review Empowering Families: Practical Ways to Involve Parents in Boosting Literacy, Grades Pre-K-5 by Judy Bradbury and Susan E. Busch. Written from the experiences of two veteran teachers, this book is the most useful guide in promoting student literacy at home that I have ever come across. It starts with an overview of why schools should be seeking to empower families, followed by a step-by-step guide to leading staff development sessions to help teachers learn how best to work with students’ families to establish a strong home-school connection. At the end of the staff development section, there is a checklist for home engagement activities for school leaders to consider when planning activities.

The bulk of this book, however, is the Parent/Caregiver Literacy Booster series. Many schools, especially those that receive federal Title I grant money, are expected to host a series of family nights each year. As a teacher who has served on family night planning committees for several years, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to coordinate these events and come up with ideas that will engage families in partnering with our school. The Literacy Booster series outlined by Bradbury and Busch have taken care of the lion’s share of this work. With sessions focused on the theme of “Why should I read to my child (and how, when, and where)?, the authors provide detailed plans for leading three 90-minute sessions for getting started, reading with older children, and having everyday literacy discussions (with a special focus on poetry).

For those who feel like they have the fundamentals of family engagement down, there are a series of additional ideas, including boosting executive functioning skills and avoiding the homework hassle, finding gifts that both entertain and support learning, celebrating cultural heritages, and, a personal favourite for me, ways to specifically break traditional gender stereotypes by involving male role models in the learning process.

Empowering Families ends with suggestions for end-of-the-year celebrations with ideas for reducing the “summer slide.” The entire book is full of reproducible handouts and resource packets that can be copied from the book or downloaded for free from the authors’ website. And, of course, there are pages and pages of age-appropriate book recommendations for all students! I am looking forward to implementing the suggestions in this book as my school engagement team plans family nights in the coming year and encourage parents and teachers alike to use this guide as they find ways to work together to improve students’ literacy skills.

[NOTE: This review was written for MiddleWeb.com. When my review goes live on their site, I will update with a link. Other reviews I have written for them can be found here and here.]

Book Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things

Several years ago I encountered a book by Patrick Rothfuss that was highly recommended by a webcomic artist I had been following online. I don’t remember all of the details of Greg Dean’s reasons for suggesting the books, but I decided to give them a shot. All I knew from the start was that the stories were set in a fantasy world involving magic, mystery, and murder. The first book was the first in a series, the Kingkiller Chronicle, entitled The Name of the Wind. I loved it and immediately tracked down the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear. The third book in the series, The Doors of Stone, has not yet been completed or published. (This has caused a great deal of angst among some of Pat’s more ardent fans, many of whom seem incapable of waiting patiently for good things to come to pass.)

While working on this series, Mr. Rothfuss has also taken on some other literary projects, including writing two picture books that are not for children. And he was invited to contribute to an anthology of rogue tales. This last project was the reason why Volume 2.5 of the Kingkiller Chronicle was written.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is not your “typical” book. There is a beginning, middle, and end, there is a character, a setting, and a plot, and there is conflict. But there is only one character (unless you consider the unnamed “him” who never appears in the story), and the conflict is between the only character and herself and her environment. Even the author recognised that this was not the kind of book that most people would want to read. In both his foreword and his endnote, he explains how he didn’t actually plan on publishing it. This was a story that he started to write with one end in mind, it turned into something completely different, and so he thought he would set it aside as a “trunk manuscript.”

What is a trunk manuscript? It is a story that you write and discard because it isn’t worth the time to publish, it isn’t going to have a wide enough audience, it isn’t finished but you don’t know what to do with it, or any number of other reasons. (I like this blog post from YA author Jennifer R. Hubbard as an explanation of trunk manuscripts and what to do with them.) This is a concept that I will be sharing with my students next year when we do our writers workshops.

A couple of important notes about this book: If you haven’t read the first two installments of the Kingkiller Chronicle, you probably won’t like this story, even though it isn’t a part of that narrative at all. If you are looking for an action-packed adventure story, you definitely won’t like this. As Pat himself points out, the biggest action scene in the book is the main character making soap. If you are looking for witty dialogue, or any dialogue at all, you’ll be disappointed. There is not a single line of dialogue in the whole story.

On the other hand, if you have read The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear and you want to know more about this enigmatic character Auri, this is a great book to read. It is all about her and what she does with her time. It is odd, it is quirky, it is “none of the things a book is supposed to be” and yet I loved it anyway. I felt a connection to the character and her constant desire to set everything aright. Auri is a little broken, not quite all there, and yet she manages to find a niche in her world that lets her survive and even thrive. There is something beautiful in that idea. So even though a lot of people out there in the Internet are hating on this book and hating on this author, I am not one of them. I really enjoyed this book and I am really glad that Patrick Rothfuss took The Slow Regard of Silent Things out of the trunk and put it into the hands of his publisher.

Another Year Gone

And we are done.

I have to say, this has been a draining year, physically, mentally, and emotionally. There have been a lot of challenges. I’d like to say we overcame all of them, but I don’t know if that is quite true. We overcame a lot of them, though. From the first day to the the end, we have grown.

Sure, our progress has been “two steps forward, one step back” but it has still been progress. My students and I learned together. We explored together. We experimented with changes to classroom routines, classroom procedures, and classroom policies. We used technology in ways we had never used it before. We learned what worked and we learned what didn’t. We set lofty goals and we made progress toward them.

Was it a home run? No, not really. Was it the best year I’ve ever had? No. Was it the worst? Well, no, it wasn’t that, either. It had its high points and its low points and its mid points and through it all, we persevered.

Maybe that is the best thing to have come out of this year. I and my 21 students learned that we could keep on plugging away, keep on moving, and keep on learning, no matter how long and hard the road.

And speaking of goals, the students at Wiley this year were challenged to do 1,000,000 math problems in the second semester. Just like two years ago, I offered to sacrifice my curly locks of hair if they did it.

Well, we didn’t quite reach the goal. In fact, we were just over the half-way mark. 502,413, to be specific.

So, what did we do yesterday afternoon?

We rewarded the students for reaching half of their goal.

Photo on 5-28-15 at 4.14 PM

The rest of the hair is going away this afternoon.

Have a wonderful, safe, fun summer! I’ll be posting from time to time, so feel free to check back, or just follow me on Twitter to catch when I post.

Cheers!

Collaborative Discussions

Today is Tuesday. My district has asked that I submit student progress reports by 11:59 pm tonight. My students are still expected to be at school tomorrow and on Thursday, both full days. At this point of the year, there are some teachers who would surely be ready to throw in the towel and fill the day with fun, non-essential activities; things that I would tend to refer to as “fluff” or, to use a word that sits in my categories/tags list and is rarely used, floccinaucinihilipilification.

I am not one of those teachers.

I realise that any formative or summative assessments I do at this point will not count toward students’ final progress reports, but that doesn’t mean I am not going to be assessing. Assessing is something that I do all day, every day. If I don’t know what my students know, if I don’t know what they are capable of doing, if I don’t know what they have learned, if I don’t know how well I have taught then, quite frankly, I have failed to do my job. Knowing these things is what assessment is all about. Assessment isn’t just giving a paper-and-pencil test or a computer-based test. Assessment is “the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.” And that happens in a lot of ways every day.

So even though today was the last Tuesday of my students’ fourth grade career, even though it was the last Tuesday of this academic year, and even though we are now 13 hours and 30 minutes of school time (actually just 12 hours of instructional time) away from the end of the year, I am still teaching and I am still assessing.

Today I decided to teach my students about participating in “grand conversations.” A grand conversation is a collaborative discussion among all the members of the classroom in which students ask each other questions, respond to each other’s questions, and listen closely to one another so that they can respond to what others have said. Some of the phrases I want my students to be used to using are among the following:

  • I think . . . because . . .
  • I (also) agree with . . . because . . .
  • I (also) disagree with . . . because . . .
  • . . . ‘s comment reminds me of  . . .
  • . . . , can you explain what you meant when you said . . . ?

These are simple statements, but they are so helpful in guiding these conversations. To practice participating in a grand conversation, I read Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen to the class, displaying it on my Promethean ActivPanel as I did so. This allowed the students to see the text and the pictures and refer to them as we discussed the question of whether or not lions should be permitted to be in the library.

One student started the conversation by sharing her opinion. Another student began to say that he agreed with her, but instead of explaining why, he went off on a tangent that indicated that he was more interested in sharing his own thinking than in responding to her initial comment. I had to stop him and explain how the sentence starters are used. Then I called on another student. (Yes, we are still early enough in the process that I still need to facilitate the conversation.) I later came back to the second student who stated that the first student’s comment made him think about something else.

The entire conversation went fairly well, with many students participating. We ran out of time, however, so not all had a chance to give input. What shocked me, however, was how many students were upset that they didn’t get to share, including students who normally refrain from participating!

We will do a couple more grand conversations tomorrow and Thursday before students head home for the summer. It is my hope that many will remember doing this so when they start fifth grade they will be able to access the memory and jump into the process.

Like I said, we are still working and still learning. We have have just two days of school left, but they are going to be busy ones, with lots of learning and applying!

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, my class reached a consensus on the question and decided that tame lions should be allowed in libraries as long as they don’t hurt anybody or ruin the books or furniture.)

Adapting an Ingenious Strategy to Encourage Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is an important social/emotional learning skill that is increasing in its popularity as far as things to be discussed and taught in our schools. Self-regulation is the idea that students can and should learn how to make good decisions for themselves, rather than have those decisions made for them. In my classroom, it is manifest in my belief that my students should be able to recognise their own feelings and emotions and use appropriate strategies to respond to them in a safe, positive, healthy way. Self-regulation also means that my students are able to make choices that will help them grow academically.

There was a time when it was believed that teachers and caregivers needed to direct everything a child did. It was believed that children were incapable or regulating themselves and therefore needed someone older and wiser to make all of the decisions for them. When these decisions were made and the children inevitably pushed back, demanding to know why, the default response was “because I’m the adult and I said so.”

But the times, they are a-changin’.

It is now understood that children are quite capable of self-regulation, but they need to be taught how to do that. That is a big part of my job. Instead of just dumping data into their heads and believing that they will magically absorb and apply information, it is my responsibility to guide them toward understand and empower them to make choices that will help them learn how to learn on their own.

As I once told my very first class of fourth graders four years ago, my job is to help them learn how they learn so that they can learn without me telling them what to learn.

Which leads me to something I tried out today.

There have been far too many afternoons when my class has rushed out of the room in a whirlwind of papers and chairs and backpacks and binders and our evening custodian has had to bear the brunt of the responsibility of cleaning up after them. I have been trying to get this changed throughout the year, using different strategies and different approaches. (After all, regardless of who said it, I do agree that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.) While browsing Pinterest for completely unrelated reasons, I came across this post some time ago.

Now, my students were getting “grounded” but I did need them to decided the best way to get our classroom ready for learning. So I took this idea and adapted it to my own needs:

The objective is simple: in order to use his or her Chromebook during our independent work time in the morning, the student must earn 100 points. There are activities ranging from picking up five objects on the floor (worth ten points) to writing an opinion essay on a topic of their choosing (50 points). Once the student has done enough activities to earn at least 100 points, he or she brings their sheet to me, we both sign it, and they get to use their Chromebook.

My plan was to launch this today. There were a few hiccups along the way, though.

First, I discovered that our wireless network was down, so I wasn’t able to share the score sheet electronically. Second, I wasn’t able to send the sheet to the copy machine, so I had to save it to a flash drive and try to print it that way. Then I remembered that the copy machine won’t print .doc files, only .pdf files and by this time I had to get to my morning supervision assignment.

So I put the document up on the Promethean ActivPanel and watched as the students came in, read the assignment, and responded. Some were shocked that they had to pick what to do. Others got to work right away. Quite a few came to me wanting to know what they were supposed to do.

But all of them earned their 100 points or more. Some organized the bookshelves and game cabinet. Most cleaned their desks. A few chose to read independently for 15 minutes, do a cursive handwriting practice sheet, and a math worksheet. Many picked up trash and pencils found on the floor.

And then we hit the other snag:

The district wireless network was still out of commission.

Oops.

As students came to me to excitedly share that they had earned 100 points, I had to reveal that the network was done. Then something wonderfully unexpected happened: instead of whining or complaining or getting upset, they simply found other things to do, whether it was helping a classmate clean her desk or doing another math worksheet or just reading silently for another 15 minutes.

I must say, the whole process went remarkably well. And as long as the network is working tomorrow morning, they will get to do it all over again!

Book Review: Out Of My Mind

I acquire a lot of new books each year. I try to keep up with them. I want to read all of those books, but I don’t always get around to it. As I acquire more books, my “To Be Read” list grows longer and longer. Like many bibliophile teachers who are lifelong members of the Nerdy Book Club (even if they don’t know they are members), I have tumbling stacks of books in my classroom, in my office at home, and by my nightstand that are all waiting for me to read them.

 

One of the books that I have had in my classroom for three years now is Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Students in my class read this book for the Battle of the Books one year, but I didn’t read it. I had a reading group read it last year, but I didn’t actually read it. (I trusted the advice of several former students to have a group read the book together.) So I realised that the best way to force me to read the book would be to select it as a read aloud for this year.

 

This is the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Melody Brooks, with cerebral palsy that has rendered her unable to talk, walk, or even move much more than her thumbs. She is also brilliant. She has nearly perfect recall, but has no way to communicate it with others. Because of her medical condition, she is diagnosed by a developmental psychologist as being severely retarded (his words). Melody’s mother, fortunately, knows better and refuses to accept the doctor’s diagnosis. Instead, she enrolls her daughter in the local elementary school.

For the next several years, Melody spends her days at school in a self-contained special education room, being bored to tears with the same lessons day after day, year after year. Then Spaulding Street Elementary School starts an inclusion program, bringing students in the special education room into general education classroom settings. Then a miracle happens: Melody learns about augmentative alternative communication devices, such as those used by Dr. Stephen Hawking. She is able to work with her teachers, her parents, and her doctors to put in an application to get a device that would let her talk to others for the first time in her life.

Then she waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And then the day arrives. And everything changes.

I love this book. It is nearly 300 pages long, yet I was able to read the entire book to my class in just a few weeks. My students begged for me to read more. Several borrowed copies from my classroom and from the library. At least one bought it at a book fair. We didn’t have many deep conversations as we read. I didn’t pause to have discussions. I just wanted them to experience the story with me. And they did.

The best thing about Out Of My Mind is that the main character is never someone you feel pity for. She is smart. She is determined. She is amazing. And even when she kicks and screams when she can’t communicate in any other way, you still just want to cheer for her and yell at those who treat her poorly because of her physical disability. This book also makes you think deeply about the assumptions you make about those who are different. I am going to have my students write letters to their pen pals tomorrow to tell them about this book and what they thought and whether or not they would recommend it to others. I know I certainly will!

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