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

Archive for February, 2011

Making It Up As I Go

Today I was a 3rd grade teacher at Kenwood Elementary in Champaign. I was a bit hesitant to accept the assignment based on my last experience at Kenwood in 2009. The class I had worked with then was among one of the worst classes I have ever seen. It was bad enough that I requested not to be assigned there again. Those students were in first grade, which meant that my students today would, possibly, be products of that year. However, ISAT testing is going on this week, so I am planning on fewer assignments than usual, so I took the opportunity.

I am glad I did, because the students today were awesome! They were a lot of fun, they worked hard, and the followed all the directions that were given today. This was particularly impressive because the teacher for whom I was subbing had no plans for the day. She had left on Friday with the possible beginnings of strep throat, and apparently decided to not come in today around 4:30 am. I arrived in the classroom and saw nothing indicating any kind of plans for the day. So I went to one of my neighbouring teachers and sought out her assistance. She gave me a brief outline for the day, provided some ISAT practice work, and set me on my way.

Days like today remind me that I am, indeed, a fully qualified and certified educator. I was able to make things up as I went without giving any indication that I really had no clue what I was doing. (Well, okay, I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know what I would be doing from one moment to the next). I was pleased at how well everything went, I and I was pleased at how well the students were willing to do what was asked of them. I have no doubts that they will do quite well during the tests this week. And who knows, maybe I’ll be there again!

Book Review I: Setting Limits in the Classroom

Today I was a science technology teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I worked with students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. I had a wonderful day working with these students and was very impressed by how well-behaved and respectful they were. The most interesting thing about it was that the notes from the teacher, and comments from the other teachers in the building, indicated that there were many difficult students in the classes. However, I did not have any difficulties with any of them.

I am not trying to say that the teachers at the school are deficient in any way. In fact, I have been incredibly impressed by how well the teachers work with their students, manage their classrooms, and how amazingly they help each student do his very best. I have been delighted to work with these teachers and would be thrilled to be a part of their team. Of course, I don’t have middle grade endorsements, so I am not fully qualified to teach full-time at the middle school level, but if I was, and there was a job available, I would definitely take the opportunity.

So, why did I have such a great time working with these students when others have not? Well, for one, I do not believe that the so-called “difficult students” are always difficult. For another, I have been working very hard at developing a strong, positive relationship with the students at this school. While some substitutes have a reputation for being boring, others are known for being ineffective, and others are considered to be tyrannical, I am known for being none 0f those. Students, teachers, administrators, and other staff know me to be engaging, effective, and fair.

Having finished reading The Dreamkeepers, I decided that I actually enjoy reading the books I acquired during my college courses, so I started reading Setting Limits in the Classroom by Dr. Robert J. Mackenzie, Ed.D. I read a few chapters of this book during my class, but I never read the entire thing. I am not done yet, but I am close to the end, and I wanted to write up my first (of probably several) book review.

Setting Limits in the Classroom has a lot of good, should-be-common sense suggestions; for example: don’t be wishy-washy. He focuses on the need to set firm limits with students while being respectful and provide students opportunities to learn what is and is not acceptable. The most important lesson I have taken from the book is the idea of providing simple, clear directions for students. To draw from an application I used today, I had a young man who was horsing around in the computer lab. I approached him and said, “Jacob, you need to be respectful and responsible in the computer lab. If you can’t behave responsibly, I am going to have to send you back to your teacher.” He tried to test me by arguing, but I cut him off by simply restating the expectation: responsibility in the computer lab or no computer. He did not test me further, and was well-behaved the remainder of the period. Dr. Mackenzie uses many examples from his experiences as an educator, a therapist, and while presenting workshops.

Another excellent point he makes is that expectations need to be established on the first day of school, reviewed and rehearsed during the first week, reviewed regularly during the first month, and revisited throughout the year. Of course, this is not particularly useful advice for a substitute teacher, who typically has between 45 minutes and 7 hours to work with students before he or she leaves. He also discusses that expectations and limits allow freedom in the classroom. One of my favourite quotes is this: “Freedom without limits is not democracy. It’s anarchy…” That is so very true!

I do have a few quibbles with his methods. For one, Dr. Mackenzie seems to identify the classroom teacher as the absolute monarch of the classroom. The teacher sets the rules, expectations, and consequences. The teacher dispenses punishment or rewards. The teacher is in charge. The students are merely there to hear and obey. This rubs against my more democratic egalitarian approach to education that includes the students in the process of establishing expectations and consequences. Of course, there will be expectations that I will ensure are included because, as a member of the classroom community, I am also a part of the process. I also believe that I am as accountable for my actions as the students are for theirs. I am not above the law. My other quibble is that Dr. Mackenzie presents his methods as not just the best method, but the only effective method of classroom management. I have observed many different methods and have seen that different methods work for different teachers. Setting Limits in the Classroom would settle better if he pointed out that his is but one of many effective strategies.

I have already started applying the principles of this book with my students and have seen that it has improved my classroom management. Admittedly, I have also worked with a large number of incredibly compliant students, but I am excited to continue to apply these methods with the students in other schools. I’ll be sure to share whether or not it continues to be successful. At this point, I’ll gladly recommend Setting Limits in the Classroom to any teacher looking to find another strategy to improve classroom management.

Up, Down, Up, Down, Up, Down…

Today I was a 7th grade cross-categorical special education teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. As such, my job today consisted mostly of assisting other teachers work with students in need of special supports and/or services. It also consisted of walking up and down several flights of stairs repeatedly throughout the day. I have a pedometer that I occasionally remember to bring with me to work and learned that today I took about 1,600 steps in all. By comparison, yesterday I only took about 850 steps.

Despite the repetition of walking from the first floor to the third floor and back down again several times, I had another excellent day at Edison. The students I worked with were generally on task, focused, and fun. There was one student who refused to do any work with me, but I learned quickly that he is like that with everyone, so I didn’t think to take it personally. Also, the student body has been gradually getting used to seeing me in the hallways and in their classrooms. Instead of calling out, “Hey, you again?!” they greet me with, “Hey, Mr. V!” or “Hey, Mr. V, what’s up?” Others are brave enough to try my last name and I am glad to be able to give them the verbal reward of acknowledging that they said my last name correctly.

This last bit has brought to mind a wonderful secret of teaching: students can and should be rewarded for successes, but these rewards do not have to be tangible (although it is certainly not unappreciated). A boy today picked up a trash can that had been accidentally tipped over by another student. When he picked it up, I thanked him for assisting. He smiled and walked out of the room a bit taller, or so it seemed to me. It is a great tool to use as a teacher: compliment students and acknowledge their positive behaviour. In fact, this is a key element of the PBIS management system used by many schools. It works! It is a great joy to see how happy students are when I acknowledge that I remember them and that I recognise that they have been successful in remembering me and my name.

I’m going to be at Edison again tomorrow. I can’t wait to see what the day will bring!

Best. Day. Ever.

Today I was an 8th grade literacy teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I have had awesome experiences again and again at Edison, but they have apparently all been with the sixth and seventh graders. I base this comment on the fact that, apparently, very few of the eighth graders knew who I was. This changed quickly as I had opportunities to share about myself as the students got to know me. I have learned that, even in a middle school, it pays to share myself with the students before I start teaching. It lets them know who I am and what they can expect from me during the day. Usually I only have to tell the first class period about this and everyone in the grade level knows.

I am super happy to report that the 8th graders at Edison (and yes, I realise that I keep switching between writing 8th and eighth) are just as awesome as the other students in the building. I don’t know everyone yet, but I certainly know the majority of them. I had six class periods in all, putting me into contact with roughly 150 students. There were only two students who displayed inappropriate behaviour during the day. I kid you not when I say that I would be thrilled if my classes always had 98% of the students demonstrate responsibility, respect, engagement, focus, and maturity. Today was definitely the best day I have ever had with middle school students in Champaign and it ranks incredibly high among the best days I have ever had as a professional educator.

Oh, and about sharing about myself? It turns out that, just like everybody else, these students were all quite enamoured by my hair. I know I need a hair cut soon, but it isn’t the volume of my hair that surprises them and captivates their young minds. It is the curliness. Two items I was given today should illustrate this quite well. They were both made by the 8th grade students in the first period of the day. I promised I would keep both in my folder with other artwork I have been given by my students.

Notes and pictures from 8th grade students at Edison Middle School in Champaign, IL.

Picture from Maddy, an 8th grade student at Edison Middle School in Champaign, IL

(Click on each image to zoom in.)

So yes, today was definitely an excellent day to be teaching!

Making the Best of a Boring Situation

Today I was a math teacher at Mahomet-Seymour High School. This marked my first assignment in Mahomet since January 11 and the first at the high school since November 22 (which was the day I infamously taught about fossilised poop). Anyway, I was quite excited to finally return to Mahomet and find out how many of the students still remembered who I was. I knew in advance that I was going to be working in a classroom with both a student teacher and a co-teacher, which meant that I wouldn’t be doing much.

In reality, I did pretty much nothing all day. The student teacher had everything under control and was totally prepared to take charge of the classroom. She is sort of in the midst of a take-over, although it isn’t the “official” take-over that is required during the course of the student teaching experience. When the student teacher wasn’t teaching, the co-teacher was. So I had nothing to do all day. It was, in all honesty, an incredibly boring day.

However, I was able to make the best of the situation. For one, a few students in each period did remember me and they at least said hello. I was able to observe other teachers work their craft. I also finished reading The Dreamkeepers and will be writing up a review soon. (It will most likely be posted on Saturday, as I have assignments for tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday.) Also, I was able to give some serious thought to how I would answer the question as to what my philosophy of education is. The short answer is that my philosophy is summarised by three belief systems of thought: egalitarianism, transactionalism, and experientialism. I don’t know that these belief systems are truly accepted systems, but I will explain them later and explain how they work together.

So even though I had an incredibly boring day, I don’t regret taking the assignment. I made the best of the time and I enjoyed observing others.

Presidents' Day

Today is Presidents’ Day in the United States (and, possibly coincidentally, Family Day in many parts of Canada), so there was no work. While I have typically used my days off to work on my philosophy of education, I’ve decided to make this a real holiday. (I did spend a goodly portion of the day working on job applications for five positions in four counties.) Anyway, here’s a video to amuse you on this day when we theoretically honour the many men who have served as presumed leader of the free world:

Skip ahead to 3:45 to hear the actual tribute.

Happy Presidents’ Day!

I <3 Reading

Today was a 2nd grade (gifted/talented) teacher at Stratton Elementary in Champaign. It has been some time since I last worked with these students, but I have always had a great experience with them. Today was no different. The students in this class are bright, hard-working, fun, and engaging.

The greatest part of the day was, by far, the 45 minutes we spent on a readers workshop. This is a somewhat new practice started in the school district that incorporates a program known as the Daily Five, although the Daily Five doesn’t always actually include all five activities. The activities are: read to self, read with others, listen to reading, word work, and writing. During the workshop, were to engage in reading to themselves. They were given one minute to select a book, select a place in the room, and start reading. I have tried to do things like this in the past with other classes, but usually the results are somewhat mixed. Today was much different though.

It took the entire class only 30 seconds to get situated. They began reading and they continued reading. Instead of having to walk around the room reminding students to read quietly, I was able to actually sit down and read as well. It was awesome. I actually felt bad about making them stop reading at the end of 45 minutes, but we had to move on to other work. It was days like today that make me think that, just maybe, Stratton’s emphasis on reading is getting through to at least some of the students in the school.