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

Archive for January, 2014

Being a Role Model

Due to recent events in the news, I have been thinking a lot over the past several days about what it means to be a role model. As I have followed different discussions through news networks, blogs, and social media, I’ve come to realise that most people have an idea that a role model is someone that others look up to and respect and, for that reason, seek to emulate. But as I have thought about it more, I’ve come to understand that that is just one type a role model. Specifically, a positive role model.

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes around me has probably learned that I have spent a great deal of my life working in positive leadership programs with teenagers. I started as a participant in these programs as a middle school student when I attended an evening event called Snowflake in 1996. Then in high school I joined the Operation Snowball club and became a teen staff member, facilitating discussions among peers about leadership and positive examples. I also started participating with the Illinois Teen Institute in 1999, which also promotes positive leadership as a way of teaching teens healthy alternatives to risky behaviours, such as drug and alcohol abuse. The Illinois Teen Institute is now known as the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute, but the program is essentially the same. There have been a few scattered years that I have not been able to attend either my high school’s Snowball weekend event or the Teen Institute, but I have still been very actively involved in promoting the cause and it greatly affects how I teach and communicate with students, parents, and even colleagues.

There are a lot of different kinds of role models in our society. Some are famous, others are not. Some choose to be positive role models and others choose to make poor decisions and then claim that they never asked to be role models. They do not understand that one does not choose whether or not one is a role model; they can only choose what kind of role model they will be.

This is also so very true for my fourth grade students. They are not the biggest or oldest in the school, but they are close. They set an example everywhere they go! The younger students look up to them, both figuratively and literally. When they are walking down the hall and they see their first grade reading buddies going to the library, when they go down the hall to lunch and pass the students in the primary grades, when they are on the playground, and even when they are just in their own neighbourhoods, they are always setting an example. I am constantly reminding my students that they must decide whether they will set a good example or a bad example. All of them want to set a good example, even if they do make mistakes every now and then.

But what about parents and teachers? Are we thinking about the kind of examples we are setting for our students, our children? When we say something negative about school, about curriculum, about  policy, about each other, do we think about the impact our words have on them? Do we realise that they are always listening and always modeling us? Even when we disagree about an issue, do we think about ways to express our disagreement in ways that are respectful of others, or do we confuse people with policies? This is certainly something worth thinking about over the weekend!

Great Mysteries of Mysterious Mystery

We continued our study of early American colonial life today. As I met with each of my reading groups, we read short passages about difference attempts to colonise the “New World” by the English, French, Dutch, and Spanish. Some of the passages we read seemed to indicate that there are some grand mysteries in our nation’s early history that no one can every figure out. The texts even referred to these as such. But as my students read them and picked up some very obvious clues, they looked at me as if I were crazy and asked how on earth it could be a mystery.

Case in point: the famously “lost” English colony of Roanoke Island. For those who may have a hazy memory of this colony, it was an early attempt by the English to establish a permanent settlement in North America. A group of about 115 colonists, including Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America, were dropped off and then never heard from again. A man by the name of John White had been tasked with returning to England and bringing back more supplies, but it took him three years and when he came back he found the buildings dismantled and the people missing, with no clues as to their whereabouts.

Or so the story goes.

Except it turns out that there was a really big clue that is fairly obvious. The settlers were gone but there was a simple message carved into a tree: CROATOAN. As in, Croatoan Island, where the Croatan Indian tribe lived. The passage we read also said that John White saw footprints leading toward the beach. However, due to poor weather conditions, he was never able to make it to the island to investigate and so he simply returned to England and reported them lost.

When my four different reading groups read this, all of them had similar conversations that went something like this:

Student: Wait. They left a sign saying where they going, right?
Me: Well, there was a word carved in a tree that would certainly seem to indicate that.
Student: So they left the settlement and joined the Indians?
Me: Probably. Why do you think they would have done that?
Student: Um, because the English didn’t know much about living here but the Indians did. Why wouldn’t they want to go to the people who knew the land better? That’s what I would do.
Me: I agree. But all the historians say that it is a great mystery of mysterious mystery! Ooooooh…..
Students: *blank stare*
*long pause*
Student: That’s dumb. It isn’t a mystery at all!

And thus it would seem that my class of twenty-four fourth graders, ranging from nine to ten years of age, have solved the mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island!

This entire conversation was then used as a springboard for why it is so important to think critically about what we read and, especially when reading nonfiction, to find multiple sources to confirm information. But even multiple sources can have wrong information and we need to be on the watch for that.

Learning About War

I love history. Really, I do. I find it absolutely fascinating to think about what has happened in the past and to try to figure out why it happened. I recognise that we can never know for sure exactly what happened because we have to rely on the very human, very imperfect versions of what happened as recorded by those who saw just a small slice of it, but I believe that we can still know a lot about what happened and why it happened and learn from it. There are some who will say that all of human existence is just one constant cycle of making the same mistakes over and over again. While  I acknowledge that we certainly have a habit, as a human race, to repeat some mistakes, I also believe wholeheartedly that it is possible for us to learn from these mistakes and avoid repeating them.

When teaching about history, especially early American history, there is one series of events that we cannot avoid. War. In many ways, our nation’s history, our story, our very identity, has been shaped by the many wars that we have fought in. Whether domestic wars, such as those that dominated our early years, or foreign wars, such as those that have been typically of the 20th and now 21st Centuries, these events are always the distinguishing factors of what has happened. This is especially true for our current social studies unit on the American colonial period. For better or worse, our nation was born out of armed conflict. There is absolutely no way to teach about our early history without also learning about the wars that shaped it. Yes, we will be learning about life in colonial times. Yes, we will learn about the people and the places. Yes, we will learn about the philosophies and beliefs that shaped our founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. But we are also going learn about the conflicts, such as the French and Indian War and, of course, the Revolutionary War (or the War for Independence).

I do not want this entire unit of study to be a study of war, though. I very much want us to spend more time thinking about why the colonists felt a desire to separate themselves from British rule. Why did they want their independence? Why did they choose to set up a system of government that was drastically different from those that were known in Europe? Why did they do what they did and what were the results? How have them impacted our lives? As I so very often ask my class, why are we sitting in the room we are right now, in this city, in this county, in this state, in this country? Yes, we are going to learn about war. But, more importantly, we are going learn from war.

Relationships, Trust, and Community

I love my job. Really, I do. And I love my class. I loved my class last year, and I loved my class the year before. I loved all of my classes that I had during the three years that I worked as a substitute teacher in Champaign, Mahomet, and Urbana. I can honestly say that I love all of the students I have had. They are amazing, wonderful, talented, insightful, funny, enthusiastic, independent youth who are going to take over the world before we know it.

There are days that they drive me crazy, of course. Just as there are days that I drive them crazy. There are days that I don’t like what they are doing, but I still love them. I look forward to coming to work each day, to seeing what they will unveil, to watching them learn, and to observe their interactions with one another. And when I am gone, whether for a meeting with an inquiry group I am part of or the district focus group that is trying to make sense of the learning standards we have adopted or I have a doctor’s appointment or am just sick, I worry about them. I worry about whether or not these children, who trust me to be here each day and to help them learn, will be able to put that same trust in a relative stranger.

I have a core group of substitute teachers that I usually request for my classroom. It isn’t because I don’t trust other substitutes. It isn’t that I don’t like them. I know well the struggle of finding assignments as a new substitute. The reason I usually request the same substitutes is simply that I know them, they know me, and, more importantly, my class knows them and they know my class. They have built relationships of trust with each other, and so I can feel just a little bit less worried about my class when they are in the capable hands of one of these substitute teachers.

But every now and then the substitutes I have requested are not available, or messages get crossed, and someone new comes into the room. It happens. And those are the days I worry the most. I know that I have established trusting relationships with each of my students. I know that we have a sense of community in this small classroom. But does that sense of community transfer to when I am gone and there is someone different, someone unfamiliar?

You may recall from a couple of weeks ago that I have given a lot of time and thought to my students’ ability to work independently. I shared one of my favourite quotes, that states that the entire object of my job is to essentially put myself out of a job (at least with any given class). Now, in reality, there will always be a need for me to do what I do. No matter how independent my students are, they are still children, most of them around 9 or 10 years old. They need guidance and direction from adults, not because the adults are bigger or smarter, but because we’ve gone the way before and can show them the paths to take. The question then, isn’t, “Can my students get by without a teacher?” so much as it is, “Can my students get by without me?”

Today I was gone in the morning for a doctor’s appointment. My regular substitutes were not available, so I took a chance and asked for someone who had only been in my room once before this year. I worried the whole morning and hoped that all was well. I came back just before lunch and came into the room to see my students working independently or in small groups, practicing multiplication, helping each other, and asking the substitute for help when they needed it. The substitute told me that they had had a wonderful morning, that everyone had been working, and that there were no problems!

I was greatly relieved. Not only can my class work independently when they are with me, and not only can they follow the directions of the teachers they know, but they can also do it when I am gone! They are well on their way to becoming independent learners, independent thinkers, and, perhaps most importantly, independent doers!

Perfect Square Project, Day One

A few months ago, my wife and I were babysitting for some friends of ours and I happened to notice a book from the library sitting on the floor. It was a fairly simple children’s picture book but, being the teacher and bibliophile that I am, I picked it up and read it. It didn’t take long, but I was very impressed by the wonderful message taught within its pages and asked if I could borrow it to share with some colleagues. I especially wanted to share it with the first grade teacher that I have partnered with for three years now to do buddy reading. She read it and was similarly impressed. And thus a project began to grow.

The book was Perfect Square, written by Michael Hall. It is the story of a simple perfect square of paper that gets cut up, poked full of holes, torn, crumpled, shattered, and seemingly ruined but then transforms into different beautiful works of art, like a water fountain, a mountain, a garden, and a valley. The lesson, for me, is that while we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control how we respond to it. (I am sure there are a myriad of other lessons, too!)

I had initially thought of doing a project that focused on the social and emotional learning aspects of this story, but then one of our art teachers asked if anyone was interested in an arts infusion project. Since I have already done a couple of these, I was excited to see what we could do. The three of us sat down and discussed what we could do. Fortunately, with the advent of the Common Core State Standards, it is really easy to find a learning target that applies to different grade levels. We decided to focus on writing narratives with a beginning, middle, and end, and using technology to tell a story.

Students will work with the reading buddies to manipulate squares of paper to tell a story. Then they will design an animation sequence that will be recorded with our iPads and turned into videos that we can share with others. It is going to be an exciting project that will tie together so many different learning targets. I hope that the students will enjoy our Perfect Square Project as much as their teachers will!

Saying Goodbye

There are some friends that we meet in our lives that become a part of who we are, even if they are only with us for a short time. These are the friends that we meet, form bonds, and then sometimes have to say goodbye to. Of course, it isn’t really goodbye, because we know they will always be a part of us and we know, deep down, that somehow, some way, we are going to see them again. So maybe instead of saying goodbye we need to just say see you later.

My class recently had to say goodbye to a new friend. When they first met her, I don’t know if they thought she would be a friend. She wore different clothes, she talked about weird things, she was a few years older than them (sixteen, going on seventeen), and her experiences seemed to very different from their own. But as they got to know her better, as they got to understand what she was talking about, they came to realise that she really did have a lot in common with them.

Then it seemed that everything she did was important; they couldn’t wait to learn about her experiences and talk about the similarities to their own! We laughed with her when she got into mischief; we wrung our hands with worry as she got into financial troubles; we wondered aloud at her relationship with her neighbours; we cried when she and her friends experienced death and loss first-hand; we cheered when she overcame great odds. But then she had to leave us after just a couple of months.

Everyone wanted her to stay. Some students begged me to find a way to keep her here. Alas, all good things must come to an end, and this was no exception. As much as we loved getting to know our Hattie, it was time to say goodbye. And so it was last Thursday that we said farewell and wished Hattie Inez Brooks all the best as she left to work as a chambermaid at a boarding house in Great Falls, Montana. We also heard that Hattie might be moving to Seattle, Washington, soon, maybe to pursue a career as a newspaper journalist. There are other questions we all have about Hattie, especially about her friends Charlie, Karl, and Perilee.

Yes, Hattie Inez Brooks, a fictional character from Kirby Larson’s Newbery Honor Book Hattie Big Sky, truly came to mean something to my class. We learned from her and we learned from each other as we read her story, which was inspired by the real experiences of Montana homesteaders (also called honyockers) during the early 20th century. We learned about the trials and victories of “proving up,” we learned about prejudice and fear during the years of the first World War, and we learned how devastating a flu epidemic and a hail storm can be to people’s lives. The story was fictional, yes, but the emotions and the feelings were very real. - “That moment when you finish a book, look around, and realize that everyone is just carrying on with their lives as though you didn't just experience emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback.”

I am glad that my class welcomed Hattie to our room. I am also so very glad that Kirby Larson wrote this wonderful story! I am looking forward to bringing Hattie back as we get the next installment of her story, Hattie Ever After, and learn what happens next. I have never read a sequel to my class for a read aloud before, but I just may make an exception here. I will leave it up to the class to decide.

Under Pressure

My wife and I went to my high school’s Operation Snowball event this weekend. It is something I have done nearly every single year since 1998 (excepting only the two years that I was serving a mission in California), so this was my fifteenth such event at Washington Community High School. Gretch started going in 2008, shortly after we’d started dating, and has been six times now. (She didn’t go last year due to medical circumstances.)

The theme for Washington’s Snowball this year was “Under Pressure” and thus it has been on my thoughts a lot the past few days. It seemed particularly appropriate for these students whose lives have been under immense pressure over the past couple of months. You may be aware that there was a massive tornado that blew through a few communities in central Illinois this past November. What you may not realise is that the community that was hit the hardest was Washington. The town is still struggling to recover and rebuild, but they are doing it!

There are many times that I hear others describe social/emotional pressure as a bad thing: peer pressure is often associated with negative choices, such as consuming alcohol, experimenting with drugs, and participating in risky behaviours. But there is positive peer pressure: pressure to do well in school, to have good friends who lift you up, to follow rules. Too much pressure, whether positive or negative, can break you. Not enough pressure, though, can leave you weak. The challenge is to find the right balance of positive pressure.

The t-shirts printed for this weekend’s event had a statement printed on the back:

“When we long for life without difficulties, remember that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.”

This quotation is properly attributed to the Rev. Peter Marshall, former pastor of New York Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and two-time Chaplain of the United States Senate. However, what I know him for best is this other quotation of his:

“Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but give us the determination to make the right thing happen.”

Interestingly enough, this quotation from Rev. Marshall’s US Senate prayer on 10 March 1948 is sometimes misattributed to Horace Mann. Although spoken at different times, both statements have related themes. We should not, we cannot, run away from difficulties, from choices, from living! Life is hard; life is messy. It is full of opportunities to make choices, and it is up to each of us to make the right choices so that we will be strong, emotionally, mentally, intellectually.

Earlier today a friend of mine shared a brief conversation she recently had with a college athlete on Twitter. She made a comment about athletes being role models, to which he responded that he does not think of himself as such, nor do most athletes. (And, by extension, it is true that many athletes and celebrities feel the same way.) Here’s the thing: You don’t get to choose whether or not you are a role model. Once people know who you are, once they know what you do, there are going to be others who use you as their example. Whether you are an international celebrity or just an older brother or sister, you are a role model to someone. That isn’t the choice you get to make. The choice you get to make is what kind of role model you are going to be. Are you going to be a positive role model who lifts others up or are you going to be the kind that becomes the butt of late-night television jokes and social media derision? We all live under pressure; we all have choices to make. You can’t always change what happens to you; you can change how you respond to it.

This year’s Snowball event was a good one. I learned a lot and I have a lot that I will take with me as a move forward and contemplate how I will respond to pressure and choices, as a husband, as a brother, as a son, as an uncle, as a teacher, as a leader, as a friend, as a role model.

[NOTE: This has been cross-posted on my blog.]