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

Archive for June, 2016

One-To-One Time

I don’t think there is a soul alive who thinks that children don’t benefit from one-to-one time with the adults they know and trust. Whether it is the child who looks forward to a weekly outing with mum or dad, a student who knows her mentor is coming to visit during lunch every Thursday, or the teenager who is working on a project and knows that a leader is going to help with every step of the project, that personal time is so important in establishing relationships of trust and respect.

And yet, even knowing this, teachers are rarely given the opportunity to develop such relationships. During the regular school day, I am in the classroom with my two dozen or more students and, even with small groups, don’t have time to get to know each of them on the personal level that comes from one-on-one time. Yes, I try to find ways, through conferencing, through conversations during recesses or when I am supervising students before school, but really, I don’t get as much time as I would really like.

I really found myself thinking about this last week when my wife and I were babysitting for some friends. Their daughter happens to go to my school and, even though she won’t be in fourth grade any time soon, I consider her one of “my” students because I believe that every student in my building is a student that I have some responsibility for. During the eight hours or so that my wife and I spent with this student, I got to learn a lot more about her than I would have known through random snippets of conversation here and there during the school day. We played several tabletop games, we went for a long walk, she met some children of neighbours and they played in the creek and got dirty and laughed and had fun, we went to the library, and we even ran to the store. All of these activities were things that she wanted to do with us and many were ones she suggested.

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This got me wondering: when it comes to some of my more challenging students, how many of them are just trying to get my attention? How many of them crave that personal time with an adult who will listen, who will be there, who will be a constant in a world that is often far too uncertain? How many would open up if I took a few minutes after a long day of work to join them on the basketball court, even though I have no depth perception and, let’s be honest, no game. How many would feel they could trust me if I let them take the lead in an activity? How many of them would be excited to invite me to their homes, to see their Lego collections, their Xbox games, their books, their American Girl dolls? And how many are heartbroken when another soccer game, another basketball game, another volleyball game, another piano recital, another violin recital, another dance production passes and their teacher, who they know would like to be there, isn’t?

I don’t have the answers. I’m not sure if I can manufacture the time needed to build those personal relationships with my students. But I do know this: I am going to take time to pause from my rush from one thing to another to put down my bag and pick up the basketball. Because even if I miss every single shot I take, making a basket isn’t the target.


Inconceivable!

One of my all-time favourite movies is The Princess Bride, an adaptation by William Goldman of his book of the same title. This is one of those movies that I know by heart but delight in watching again and again. Fans of the film will know that one of the characters, the Sicilian known as Vizzini, frequently describes things he finds shocking as “inconceivable!” Eventually, one of his fellow kidnappers, Inigo Montoya, makes this astute observation:

This, of course, does not stop Vizzini from saying it. These scenes and this quote have been weighing on my mind over the past week as I have been contemplating a couple of buzzwords educators tend to use when describing their students. I will openly admit that I have been guilty of using them, but I am making a commitment to weed them out of my vocabulary, at least, when it comes to using them to describe students.

The two words are “struggling” and “bright.” And the problem is that, as Inigo Montoya says, they don’t mean what we think they mean, at least not to others.

If I were to poll my colleagues, I imagine they were define these terms as such:
bright adjective – of unusual intelligence; able to quickly understand topics
strug·gling’ adjective – having difficulties, especially in learning

However, if I were to poll others, I imagine they would define these terms in much simpler ways:
bright adjective –  smart
strug·gling’ adjective – dumb

And that is the crux of the problem right there.

Students all learn at different rates and in different ways. Some students have identified learning disabilities and require specialized supports to help them, as we are prone to say in the Urbana School District, achieve personal greatness. Other students are quick to understand concepts in class, either because of a natural predilection toward the topic or because they have had parents or older siblings who already taught them or, quite often, a combination of the two. The former group is often described as being the struggling students while the latter are the bright students.

But my students who take longer to grasp a concept are not dumb. They aren’t stupid. They aren’t feeble. And my students who learn a concept quickly are not necessarily smarter than everyone else. They have just learned in different ways and in different rates. We do a great disservice to all of our students when we label them, box them up, and set expectations based on our preconceived notions about them. Here’s a clip from another favourite movie, Stand and Deliver:

Do we believe it? Do we really? Are we holding all of our students to a high level of expectations? Do we have the ganas, the strength or will power, to hold ourselves to a high level of expectations? Are we willing to take the extra time to help that student who is giving his all as he perseveres in understanding how to masterfully use the standard vertical algorithm for multi-digit multiplication, or are we giving him a pass because he is a “struggling” student and we are happy that he can add basic facts when counting on his fingers? Are we we willing to take the extra time to find truly challenging work for that student who already knew the standard algorithm for dividing a multi-digit number by a single digit divisor, or are we giving her a pass because she is one of the “bright” students who will teach herself anyway? Are we telling parents about the wonderful successes of their children and encouraging them to encourage their children to push themselves, to stretch themselves, to challenge themselves, not to the point of a nervous breakdown but enough that their students are constantly seeking to learn more and do more than they did the day before?

Here’s my commitment: my students who get it quickly, they are going to be challenged. My students who need more time, they are going to be challenged. I am not going to use adjectives like “bright” and “struggling” to describe them. If someone asks about my “bright math kids” or my “struggling reader,” I will ask if they mean my students. No adjectives, no labels. Because when it gets down to it, my job is to teach all of my students, all day, every day. Nobody gets a free pass, least of all me.


Book Review: The Ten-Minute Inservice

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Dr. Todd Whitaker. I currently own five of his books:

  • What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most
  • What Great Principals Do Differently: 18 Things That Matter Most
  • The Ball
  • Shifting the Monkey: The Art of Protecting Good People from Liars, Criers, and Other Slackers
  • The Ten-Minute Inservice: 40 Quick Training Sessions That Build Teacher Effectiveness

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I  still have several more of his books that I would like to acquire, all of which are on my Amazon wish list just so I can keep track of them. In addition to loving his books, I have come to greatly admire him as an agent of change, as a school leader, and as an individual. While we have yet to meet in person, I have been able to interact with him on several occasions via Twitter and he has even helped me find resources and ideas by tapping into his own wide network.

The crazy thing about this is that I didn’t even know who he was until my mother-in-law (I believe) got me one of his books for Christmas (the first on my list). Then we read the second one in the list in my graduate program and I was hooked. I got the third book for Christmas a year or so later and then I used some Amazon gift cards to purchase the last two. (I thought I wrote a review of “Shifting the Monkey” but I guess not. Oops. If you are my friend on Facebook, you can find a smattering of quotes by searching #shiftingthemonkey.) I didn’t really know what I would be getting into when I purchased “The Ten-Minute Inservice” but once I started reading, I had two thoughts:

  1. Holy cow, this would be so awesome to do in my building!
  2. Hey, I can use these right now with my student teachers!

Regarding the first, I mentioned it to my principal and she thought it was a good idea, but other things got in the way and we were never able to develop the idea further. Regarding the second, I loaned the book to the two other teachers I was working with to mentor our team of five student teachers, but they never got around to actually reading it and then the school year was over before we had a chance to revisit the thought. That being said, I will have two student teachers working with me during the first semester of next year and I am absolutely planning on using these inservice ideas with them!

Dr. Whitaker and his co-author, Annette Breaux, as a way for school leaders to make sure that every staff meeting has a purpose that will help every teacher in the room be more effective at their primary job: teaching. Keeping each training session to just ten minutes will allow the other business and busy-ness of faculty meetings to take place, as well. Each inservice idea is divided into three components:

  1. Purpose – why should administrators want to help teachers improve in this area?
  2. Inservice – how should the idea be presented to staff?
  3. Implementation – what should the principal do in order to monitor and check for implementation?

Additionally, the training sessions are divided into five basic categories: classroom management (eight sessions), teaching practices (eight sessions), improving school climate (nine sessions), learning from others (five sessions), and what makes a good teacher (ten sessions). As I read through the book, I was struck by how easy to implement and easy to monitor each idea was. I was even able to apply many of them in my own classroom as the year progressed! (However, because I did not have anyone actively monitoring me, I admit that I was not as faithful in my implementation as I should have been!)

From the newest principal to the most veteran administrator, The Ten-Minute Inservice will absolutely be effective in improving teaching and, therefore, learning in any school, whether it is one that is on an academic watchlist or one that is held up as a standard of excellence for all others. As the authors repeatedly point out throughout the book, every teacher in every school has room for improvement (although some certainly have more room than others). The purpose of the suggestions in this book is not to make every teacher a great teacher; it is to make every teacher a better one.


Book Review: Data, Data Everywhere

I have had the opportunity to receive and review books for MiddleWeb, an online database for educators. I read Data, Data Everywhere (Second Edition) by Victoria L. Bernhardt, Ph.D. way back in January and somehow completely managed to forget about submitting a review. (And for reasons beyond me, nobody ever followed up to remind me that I still owed them a review.) The book has been traveling in my bag and sitting by my computer for months. I would look at it and think, “Hm, did I write a review?” but then I would get busy and forget about it again. Which is why I find myself sitting on my couch now, avoiding the heat and humidity outside, listening to Bob Ross talk about happy trees named Clyde and happy little clouds, and finally writing up my review of this excellent book.

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Data, Data Everywhere is, at its heart, a guide to making sense of all of the information that schools collect on a daily basis and using them to determine specific actionable goals for school improvement. To put that another way, teachers and administrators collect a lot of data: test scores, attendance records, office referrals, benchmarking, formative, and summative assessment results, family involvement, professional development participation, and much more. It is far too easy to allow all of the data and (the collection thereof) to be just another cog in a machine without making any real difference in what the school is doing. Dr. Bernhardt, through her Education for the Future Initiative, developed the Continuous Improvement Framework to make sense of all the data and use them to guide school leaders in their day to day operations.

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After explaining the CSI Framework, each chapter of the book is broken down into four basic components: an overview of a specific element of the framework, an explanation of how to collect and analyse data, reflection questions, and application opportunities. Additionally, each chapter has a suggestion for the amount of time it should take to fully consider each component.

An important recommendation by Dr. Bernhardt is to involve as many voices as possible in the school improvement process. This is radically different than the traditional method of pulling together a team of teacher leaders and administrators with one or two parents to make the decisions for the school’s improvement plan. However, by involving every voice, it is more likely to have increased ownership, collaboration, and consensus within the building. As Dr. Bernhardt says,

“When school staff agree and commit to a shared vision, they are collaborating on what they know and believe will make a difference for student learning. They create common understandings about what to teach, how to teach, how to assess, and how each person will treat each other. They also have common understandings of what they are going to do when students know the information and what they are going to do when students do not know the information. These agreements make data use so much more effective.”

Perhaps more importantly than explaining the Continuous School Improvement Framework, Data, Data Everywhere is a guide for actually using data when implementing the plan.  Far too often, improvement plans, often required by state boards of education, are drafted, submitted, and promptly forgotten. However, it is possible, by regularly reviewing data and having open, honest discussions about them, to use the information to bring about positive change within the building. The building principal, as instructional leader, is responsible for making sure that such conversations are happening. He or she must also be sure to clearly communicate with stakeholders (teachers, parents, and community members) what the information means, Otherwise, as Dr. Bernhardt warns, “faced with an absence of reliable and transparent information, people will fill the void with disparate events and facts. This could lead to biased perceptions.”

Whether your school is using the Continuous School Improvement Framework or a different tool, the suggestions in Data, Data Everywhere, when implemented with fidelity, will help leaders organise information, guide discussions, and, ultimately, lead to an improvement in student learning. And, as another education researcher, Dr. Todd Whitaker, has asked, if we aren’t focusing on student learning, what are we doing?

[NOTE: My review on MiddleWeb was published on August 3, 2016, and can be found here.]