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

Archive for July, 2012

Summer Reading V: The Power of Our Words

One of the first books that my principal suggested I read after getting hired was The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn by Dr. Paula Denton, EdD. She knew that I would probably not have time to read through the entire thing while working throughout the school-year, but I was encouraged to skim through it and think about it as I taught.

I did skim parts and I did giving passing thought, but I also had so much going on at once that I didn’t have as much time to reflect, apply, and reflect some more as I would have preferred. So I made sure that this book was near the top of my list of books to read this summer. And it has been. But I’ve also read other books while contemplating this one, primarily because I had been using Post-It Notes to jot down my ideas as I read, which limited the times I could read. For example, I usually read before I go to sleep at night. Trying to jot down notes and reflect on the greater impact of what I am reading when I am trying to fall asleep is not the best combination. Also difficult is reading in the car or when visiting family.

So while this was the first professional book I started reading this summer, it has been the fifth to be blogged about. I actually finished about a week ago, but I have not been as active in blogging as I could be. I’ve been enjoying my summer break and spending time with my wife. Anyway, I am done reading it now, and I definitely have thoughts to share.

First and foremost, I found that The Power of Our Words goes hand-in-hand with Setting Limits in the Classroom by Dr. Robert J. Mackenzie, EdD.  Both authors emphasise how important it is to be simple, clear, and direct when speaking to students. The thing that makes this hard is that we have a lot of conventions in our spoken language that, for adults, indicate respect and politeness. For example, if you need a colleague to do something, you may say, “Would you mind running off a few copies of this document for me? Thanks!” While a colleague may say no, most of the time he or she will not mind and will do it since you will probably do a favour in return later. But if you say to a child, “Will you please sit down?” you are actually telling him/her that they have a choice to sit down or not. And since you are giving a choice, it would be wrong to punish the student for not making the choice you wanted him/her to make! Rather, you need to say, in a clear, neutral tone, “Sit down.” It is even better to use the student’s name: “John, sit down.” Best of all, is to be specific: “John, sit down in your seat now.”

Of course, Dr. Denton has much more to say on the matter of teacher language and how it can be used to help students learn, but I think that that is the root of it. Some other ideas that I noted are as follows:

  • It is good to ask open-ended questions, but it is better to ask open-ended questions that have articulated boundaries. (I once had a college instructor who would ask us, “What do you think?” all the time. To which we always responded, “What do we think about what? Please be more specific!” If you ask students what they think about a specific topic, really be interested in what they think and not what you think they should think. (I use the example of J.D. from Scrubs: if I want to know what I think, I’ll look off into space and think on my own. If I ask them, then I really want to know their ideas!)
  • Model, practice, reflect, model, practice, reflect, model, practice, reflect! Don’t assume that having a pretty poster and a single conversation at the beginning of the year will be sufficient for students to remember all of the expectations, routines, and procedures. (This is the one area that I know I can improve in the most!)
  • When giving praise, make sure it is specific, it is meaningful, and it is sincere. There is a practice among teachers that several books I’ve read all discourage. It is this idea that if John is out of his seat, you should acknowledge Sam, Sally, and Jill for being in their seats and this will somehow encourage John to join them in doing what is right. I have seen teachers in four different school districts do this, and I’ve talked with many others teachers. It is something that we all do. But the research says it is a bad idea. All it does is trains Sam, Sally, and Jill to need that constant positive reinforcement; it does nothing to help John.

I am glad that I took the time to read through this book. It reminded me of the need to be consistent in my language, clear in my expectations, and specific in my praise as well as my redirections. There are times when the language may feel unnatural, but that is because we are not naturally clear and direct in our daily language. However, when we use such clear, direct, specific language, we see children respond in more positive ways. Not because they have been manipulated, tricked, or bribed but because we have let them know the who, what, where, when, why, and how of our expectations. I have been using these principles when I work with my Webelos scouts, and my Sunday School class (ages 9-11) and I have already seen some pretty awesome results! I am looking forward to seeing how my improved teacher language will impact my classroom environment this coming year!

Summer Reading IV: Classroom Management in Photographs

Classroom teachers, especially in the primary grades, will tell you that there are three ways to read a book: read the pictures, read the words, and retell the story. Most of the books I read are text-heavy and picture-light. I’ve been reading books like this for a very long time now. But I happen to enjoy picture books, too, and I especially enjoy wordless picture books because they force me to think about what the story could be.

One of the books I selected for my summer reading this year is another one that, I believe, I acquired during a new teacher mentoring workshop I attended. The book is called Classroom Management in Photographs and is published by Scholastic. Unlike most of the books that I am reading this summer, I did not have to measure the amount of time it took me to read this in months, weeks, or even days. In fact, I was able to read it in just a few moments. That is probably one of the great advantages of reading a book that is mostly pictures. Scholastic, in addition to being one of the principal mass-merchandisers for children’s literature, publishes a variety of resources for teachers. This is one of those resources, which they helpfully categorised under Teaching Strategies for grades K-5.

I think most of the ideas in this book are more appropriate for younger grades, but I found some helpful strategies nonetheless. It focuses on classroom management but does so in terms of the learning environment rather than systems of expectations, rules, and/or consequences. The principal idea is that the physical arrangement of a room can and does have a huge impact on student behaviour. I agree. One of my great challenges this past year, and almost certainly this coming year, was that I have a smaller classroom. I have been in rooms much larger, but I have also been in rooms much smaller. But just like my students hear all the time, you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. My challenge is figuring out how best to use the space I have.

One thing that struck me as I read was that every single one of the 20 classrooms featured used table groupings instead of individual desks. I like the idea of groupings in general, but I learned last year that sometimes the traditional array of rows and columns of desks may be what is best for a specific class. What I really want to do with my class this coming year is teach them how to effectively transition from one desk arrangement to another. Of course, I need to keep in mind accommodations for students who do not deal well with transitions, but I think there is a way it can be done. And if it doesn’t work, well, that just provides for another opportunity to live and learn. However, I continue to believe that students really will rise to the level of expectations we have for them!

One of the really simple ideas I saw in this book was something that several of the primary teachers in my building already do. It is to make a simple “where are we?” sign to hang outside the classroom. With so many students who leave for a variety of reasons, and with so many visitors who come to the room, it would be good to have a visual indicator for where we’ve gone. The idea in Classroom Mangement in Photographs is to make a circle with an arrow that can point to where the class has gone, such as to music, lunch, recess, assembly, gym, field trips, etc. I will make my with two arrows, one for the class and one for me. That way if my class is in music and I am in another teacher’s room, I can indicate both.

The other section I tagged in this book was for classroom jobs. I had fully intended on having classroom jobs last year, and somehow they just never happened. There were just so many other things that were of higher priority! There were a variety of ideas presented. Some teachers create enough jobs for everyone in the class to have something to do. Other teachers have a handful of jobs and then rotate students through them. One of my favourite ideas was the Job Application. Students actually apply for a job by filling out an application and sharing previous experience, related experiences, why they are interested, why they should be selected, and any other jobs they may be interested in. I love the real-life application of the, well, application!

This was a quick read and will be an easy reference for me to use in the future. I would definitely recommend it to anyone and will gladly lend it out to any teachers or parents who would like to check it out!

Summer Reading III: The New Teacher Book

It has been a while since I did a summer reading post. That isn’t because I haven’t been reading (I have). It is because I am reading too many books at once and am therefore taking longer to finish them. Exhibits A and B are two of the books that my principal asked me to read this summer, The Power of Words and Teacher Effectiveness Training. I am using Post-It Notes to jot down my ideas as I read them and am working through them. But I also have books I read just before I go to bed, which is not a good time to be jotting down ideas, and books I read while traveling (also not a good time to jot down ideas that I will be able to read again). I am expecting to finish both of these books by the end of the week, though, which means I should have a flurry of summer reading posts over the next week or so.

Anyway, I did just finish reading another one of the books from my large pile that has actually grown larger since summer started. The New Teacher Book, published by Rethinking Schools, is a collection of essays, interviews, and reflections written by new teachers, veteran teachers, and even a couple of parents. I acquired this book at one of my new teacher mentoring workshops this past year and was looking forward to seeing what kind of advice it had to offer for new teachers.

Before getting into the book itself, I feel like I should take some time to explain what Rethinking Schools is. Rethinking Schools started as a small group of teachers in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the mid-1980s who decided it was time for teachers to take a greater role in affecting education policy. They are grounded in a desire to teach for social justice (yeah, I know, that is becoming a very weighted word that brings up a lot of different ideas to a lot of different people) and an effort to see schools become laboratories for providing students with real access to the tools they need to reshape the world into a place that promotes equity, peace, and fairness. A big emphasis of their work goes toward urban schools and battling the injustices related to race and ethnicity.

While I agree with their basic goals, I don’t always agree with their methodology. I think that there are some times that the way we try to correct a problem actually makes it a bigger problem than before. We sometimes swing the pendulum from one side to the other and forget that our goal was to move it toward the middle. So while I have disagreements with some of their activities, I applaud their desire to do something, to make a change, to try to improve. And I applaud the risks that they are willing to take. As I was just telling a student I am tutoring the other day, the only way we learn is by making mistakes and trying to not make them again.

So what of The New Teacher Book? While I found it useful at points, I was actually disappointed by it. I felt like the entire book was telling me that my first years of teaching would be filled with uncooperative colleagues, unkind administrators, unhelpful parents, and that I would feel myself all alone with no support from anyone around me. My first year of teaching was nothing like that. I have a great group of colleagues in my building, my principal and my district administrators are incredibly supportive of me and of my professional growth, the parents I worked with this past year were incredibly helpful and encouraging, and I generally felt that I was surrounded by people who take the educational profession seriously. Now, I realise that not all schools are the same, nor are all districts, and I have no doubt that there are places where the support system is lacking. This was actually a fairly big topic of conversation during the INTC conference I attended a couple of weeks ago. Still, I kept reading The New Teacher Book hoping that I would find some good advice on being a new teacher in a district that does support new teachers.

Alas, it was not to be.

That isn’t to say that I found the book without its uses. There were some pretty cool ideas shared on ways to better collaborate with colleagues, including one that was so simple I could hardly believe I had not thought of it: use document sharing software, such as Google Docs, to keep track of students who are working with support staff. For example, if I know I am going to be teaching a unit on animal habitats, I can jot that down and my Title I reading teacher can refer to it as she makes plans for what to do with my students. This is a much more efficient way to record information than trying to catch each other before school or during lunch and then trying to remember what was said. Or if I am going to collaborate with a younger grade level for reading buddies, my co-teacher and I can make a document with the pairings and then jot down notes on what we see going on which we can compare later. (I am definitely going to use Google Docs for collaboration this coming year!)

There was also a somewhat useful section on classroom management that has given me some ideas to try out this coming year as I work on improving in this area of my responsibilities. While I feel that some of the suggestions were still too much on the side of assertive discipline which, along with my principal, I tend to shy away from, I think that there are ways I can modify them to make them more student-focused.

I would probably not recommend this book to a teacher in my building, but I would recommend it to someone who is struggling to find the necessary supports in order to be successful during their first years of teaching. And The New Teacher Book will continue to stay on my bookshelf with my other professional texts, if for no other reason than to remind me that teaching does have its struggles and sometimes I will need to look elsewhere for a support system as I learn and grow.