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

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Parting Thoughts for the End of the Year

[NOTE: What follows is a modification of the letter that I sent home to parents and students on Thursday, May 25, which was our last day of school. The inspiration for my letter came from this blog post by Andy McCall.]

A classic British story begins with the line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I feel like that is the best summary of this year that I will ever be able to give you. We’ve spent almost 180 days together. It seems like only yesterday, I was introducing myself and trying to figure out which one spelled their name Jayden and the other Jaidyn. I sometimes call you by the wrong name, usually because I am constantly darting my eyes across the room, trying to keep track of everything that is going on.

During the course of this year, we have had some amazing successes. Every single one of you has improved as a reader, as a writer, as a mathematician, and as a researcher. You have found ways to show kindness to others when it wasn’t necessary.

We have also had some pretty serious challenges: fights (both verbal and physical), lost tempers, impulsive actions, property damage, theft, and disrespect. We had the uncertainty of having a student teacher take over full instruction in the classroom for a large chunk of the year.

But I would like to say, on this very last day as I look back over the 2016-2017 year, that our successes have been better than our challenges and that we have all grown, teacher students, since that first day of school way back in August. As we part ways for the summer, I just wanted to give you a few words of wisdom to consider:

  1. If you see me this summer it’s okay to wave from a distance and walk up to say hello. Don’t come running at me like a raging bull or scream my name from across the store; that’s just embarrassing for both of us.
  2. Read something for at least 15 minutes every day. I don’t care what it is: a book, a magazine, a billboard, a restaurant menu, an instruction manual, a guidebook. Just read; don’t lose everything we worked for. (If you find a great book, please tell me about it!)
  3. There is this game called “GO OUTSIDE AND PLAY.” It has always been one of my favourites. Ask your parents where to find it and how to play. I promise, you will love it even more than Prodigy.

Remember that I am proud of each and every single one of you. I might show some of you that with high fives, and others with that “What in the world were you thinking” look on my face that also says, “I care about you and want you to do what’s right and kind.” I’m proud of your work. I gave you the best that I had every day, and I hope one day you’ll appreciate that. You are special, unique, and have a lot to offer the world. Never lose that. (Instead, lose the fidget spinners.) You will always be my students and I will never forget that, for whatever reason that may be. Always remember the Golden Rule and make a point to be kinder than is necessary.


Competitions in the Classroom

I love watching movies, and I really love watching movies about inspiring teachers. Lean On Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Music of the Heart, Freedom Writers, Stand and DeliverSister Act 2, Akeelah and the Bee… the list goes on! I think what I love most about them is that they are movies that remind me that I am not the only teacher who has struggles in the classroom, but also that it can and does get better. These movies are also reminders to me that student engagement is such a huge component in contributing to a safe, positive learning environment. In fact, of the movies I listed above, each of them has a turning point in which the teacher finds a way to connect with their students’ interests and discover the joy of teaching students where they are at.

The reality of day-to-day teaching, however, is that I am not the final voice of what I do in my classroom. I have building, district, and state rules, policies, procedures, curricula, and standards that guide my instruction and inform what I teach. That being said, I am fortunate to be in a district that has leaders who encourage teachers to do what works best with their students.

So, even though I have spent this entire year teaching math with a curriculum that is much more rigid than I am used to, I have found ways to change things up to meet their needs, most often by utilising small groups and taking advantage of the abundance of student teachers and tutors and volunteers I had at my disposal throughout the year.

With just six school days remaining to the year, we are definitely in wind-down mode in many ways. My students are also working on culminating projects for writing, they are finishing books, and they are reviewing all of the concepts and skills they have learned during mathing workshop.

Yesterday and today I took a new approach to reviewing math skills. I have had a set of math and English/language arts “task cards” that I picked up from a school supply shop years ago but hadn’t really used much this year. In fact, they have mostly sat on a shelf collecting dust. I decided to brush off the dust, take out the cards, and set up a challenge:

Students self-selected teams of three or four and spread out in the room. Each team was given a random task card (face-down) that connected to a specific Common Core State Standard for Mathematics. I set a time for 30 minutes and set up a tally sheet on my Promethean Board. As soon as the timer started, students flipped the cards over and began solving the problems or completing the tasks given to them. As soon as a card was correctly completed, the team would earn one point and then receive a new card. The process repeated until the timer ran out.

Over the course of the two days that we did this, my students completed about 45 different math tasks. They were engaged, working together, encouraging their group members, checking work, explaining answers, and shouting with excitement when they completed a card and earned a point.

I don’t think I have ever seen a group so focused or engaged in mathematics as I did this afternoon. For the first time, my students were actually excited to do math. Was it because it was a competition? Because the winning team members got to select prizes from my prize box? Because they were able to work together? Most likely, it was a combination of all of the reasons and others that I haven’t even though about yet.

The entire process made me wonder: why haven’t I been doing this more often? Why have I been so reluctant to break out of the rut I found myself in, to give my students a lot more freedom than I had been giving them, the kind of freedom they have during reading, writing, and inquiry workshop times? I think a big part was that I was using a new math curriculum this year (along with everyone else in the district) and no matter how confident I was in the content and my delivery, I needed to see how the curriculum works “as written” before I start changing it up, in much the same way that I do when baking. I always follow the recipe exactly the first time to know what to expect, then I start tinkering with the ingredients to see what I can do to make it better or just different.

So I imagine that my mathematics instruction next year will be much more flexible and group-oriented than it was this year. I’m not saying that my math instruction this year was lacking, mind you. I am just saying that next year it will be better.

And it will certainly include more competitions.


Dioramas

My students recently completed a unit on Westward Expansion as part of our social studies curriculum. This unit is one of my favourite topics to teach each year because the students always amaze me with their creativity and effort as they prepare final reports.

I have changed the format of the project that accompanies this unit each year. Students have written reports, they have been given absolute freedom to do anything they wanted to share what they had learned, they have worked on their own or in groups. This year I allowed students to pick groups of three or four, select an important route related to Westward Expansion (the Oregon Trail, California Trail, Santa Fe Trail, Mormon Trail, Pony Express, or Transcontinental Railroad), and then assigned each group to make a diorama reflecting a scene from the history of their trail.

What made this an extra challenge is that the only materials I gave the students were boxes from our Chromebooks. The students repurposed materials in the boxes, found construction paper, and creatively used glue and tape to create their dioramas. They also had to answer several questions about their trail, explaining how, when, and why the trail was used and its impact on Westward Expansion.

It was a great unit and a wonderful way to wrap up our major social studies topics. Now we have just a handful of days to finish up science, math, and keep on reading and writing until they very last minute of the very last day!


Observe and Write

As the end of the year swiftly approaches, it can be tempting to cut out “extras” from the day to make room for the “essentials.” But, for me, the “extras” are essential. This is definitely true for the ongoing professional collaboration I do with Miss C, one of our kindergarten teachers–our Learning Buddies project. Next week will be our last time bringing our two classes together for the year, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped doing amazing projects and activities with them!

The project we started last week and completed today was all about observing and writing. The students got to go to the outdoor learning space we have behind the building and observe something they saw in nature, whether it was a plant, an insect, a bird, or even a rock. As they observed, they drew detailed pictures of what they saw and then they wrote a paragraph based on their observations.

The role of the fourth graders was to be support and encouragement. The role of the kindergarteners was to draw and write as much as they could on their own. Both groups were responsible for talking to each other, helping each other, and staying focused on the task at hand.

Not only did my students get to be mentors and teachers for a brief part of the day, but they also got to see the fruit of their labours. They well remember that many of their buddies did not even know all of the letters of the alphabet at the start of the year and needed help writing their own names. Now these same children were writing entire paragraphs!

Next week we will have a celebration to wrap up this project, but today? Today was just learning as usual: collaboratively and cooperatively.


17 1/2 Days

Urbana School District #116 adopted six character traits to “model, integrate, and cultivate” in all of our schools. These character traits have been an overarching focus for social-emotional learning for at least five years. The character traits we strive to instill in our students are:

  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Cooperation
  • Compassion
  • Perseverance

At Wiley, we have a character trait of the month throughout the school year. (August/September have the same trait, as do December/January). The last trait of the year is always perseverance, which I find so important at this time!

We are approaching the final stretch. There are 17 1/2 school days between now and the end of school.

17 1/2 days to teach my students as much as I can about appreciating literacy, inquiring into the whats, hows, and whys of our world, developing their voices as authors and speakers, and expanding their abilities to effectively solve problems, whether numeric or otherwise.

17 1/2 days to continue fostering a sense of shared responsibility and mutual respect, to build a classroom community centered on intellectual and emotional growth.

17 1/2 days to assess each student’s reading, writing, and mathing abilities, to allow them to show me what they can do and how well they can do it.

17 1/2 days. That’s not a lot. It reminds me of this song from the Broadway musical The Pajama Game:

17 1/2 days doesn’t seem to be a lot on its own, but when I break it down, well, then, that’s about 130 hours and I can do an awful lot with 130 hours. I can work with 7,875 minutes. I can definitely help my students accomplish quite a bit with 7,875 minutes! And when I break it down even further, 472,500 seconds gives me plenty of time.

It all gets down to perseverance. It is all about pushing on, pushing through, of trying no matter how challenging it may be, no matter how tired we may be, no matter how much we would rather be outside playing. We have a purpose, an aim, a goal: to each achieve personal greatness every second of every minute of every day.

17 1/2 days. We will make it!


And Then There Were Two

Approximately 16 weeks ago, I began hosting a student teacher from Eastern Illinois University, a man I will call Mr. G (it is what the students called him, too, since his last name was much longer than even mine). For 16 weeks, he was in my classroom every day, working with students, getting to know them, and, only a few short weeks into his placement, teaching them all day every day.

This made my job much different than what I had been used to doing for the previous five and a half years. More specifically, my job went from teaching my class directly, with all of the thousands of decisions involved in that process, to sitting back so that Mr. G could teach while I gave him feedback and support.

At about the same time, my classroom became even more crowded as I welcomed in a team of five pre-service teachers from the University of Illinois who were in a collaborative placement. I rarely had all five of them in my room at the same time, as I shared the placement with the other fourth grade teacher and our reading interventionist, but it meant that, on any given day, I could have had up to six extra adults in my room (including America Reads/America Counts tutors, Vis-a-Vis tutors, and other volunteers).

For the past four weeks, the U of I students were in a full-time placement, and we all got very used to have lots of adult support in my classroom. We were able to do a wide variety of group work, targeted instruction, and one-on-one work.

But, as with all good things, an end had to come, and that end was last Friday afternoon. After four weeks of an abundance of teachers, we are now looking at the final four weeks of school with just two of us: me and my amazing aide.

True, we still have the tutors and volunteers who come in at different times each day, and yes, the reading interventionist and special education teacher are both able to push in at times, but brief push-in is a huge difference from full support all day long.

Today was the first day with just the two of us. The day started strong. The students were introduced to our next short inquiry unit on Westward Expansion, they went to Music, and then we did our Reading Workshop. Reading Workshop was interrupted by a tornado safety workshop we attended, but then we got back to work and ended the morning reading more of The Lightning Thief.

After lunch, however, was a bit of a challenge. The combination of warm air, lots of sunshine, playground disagreements, and plain old fatigue resulted in a loss of focus for many of my students who are wondering if they are really going to be able to make it through the last month of school. (Spoiler alert: they will.)

I’m excited about the final month of school, though! My aide and I are going to be doing great things with my class, we are going to be doing great projects with Miss C’s kindergarteners, and this last month is just going to be fantastic!


Rewards, Punishment, Consequences, and Discipline

Classroom management is really important.

No, seriously. I am going to write that again because it is that important: Classroom management is really important.

Teachers do a lot of things throughout the course of their days. It is often claimed (based on work reported by Dr. Philip W. Jackson in his book Life in Classrooms) that teachers make approximately 1,500 decisions a day. I get to work at about 7:30 am and am making decisions directly related to my classroom until 3:30 pm every day. That’s eight hours. In those 4 hours, I guarantee that I am making some kind of decision at least every 15 seconds, probably closer to 10. But let’s go with 15, or 4 decisions a minute. That’s 240 decisions an hour, which is a total of 1,920 decisions a day. So, really, I think Dr. Jackson was actually lowballing the number of decisions a teacher makes.

Every single one of those decisions impacts how the class is managed, or run. Classroom management is so important that, when searching the term, Google came up with 19,100,000 results in 0.73 seconds. If even just one-tenth of those were unique hits, that still gives us nearly 2,000,000 websites, books, articles, and other resources about this concept. Search just books on classroom management on Goodreads and you find 790 results in 0.15 seconds.

All of which is to say there is no way I could possibly address all the nuances and ideas and theories that abound when it comes to what classroom management actually is, how it works, how to do it effectively, and how to adjust to different situations as they arise. As an educator leader I recently listened to once said, when it comes to students, one size fits one; there is no magic cure that will address every need every time.

So what am I writing about classroom management for? Mostly because I wanted to tease out my own thoughts on four foundational components of running an organisation such as a classroom: rewards, punishment, consequences, and discipline. For me, these terms all have very specific meaning and very specific uses that need to be clearly taught, not just to students, but also to parents, teachers, and other adults.

The first two are fairly straightforward and have had long-standing definitions that are generally understood by everyone: do the right thing and receive a reward, one that is either tangible and extrinsic or intangible and extrinsic. Do the wrong thing and something unpleasant or undesirable happens to you: a punishment.

The second two, on the other hand, seem to get a bit messier when we try to discuss them with others. What I have observed in my years teaching and in general is that “consequences” are often equated with “punishment.” Teachers often talk about “natural consequences” but what they usually refer to are the negative ones; the punishment. But consequences are simply what happens as a result of a decision. Rewards are consequences for desired behaviour. Punishment is the consequence for undesired behaviour. If you are working quietly on your exam and you are focused on the questions, the consequence, quite often, is that you will perform at your best. If you are trying to talk to others and are easily distracted, the consequence, quite often, is that you will perform poorly. The point is that consequences, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad; they simply are.

Discipline, likewise, is far too often equated with punishment. If a student receives an office discipline referral, it isn’t because the student has done something desirable. If you hear a parent talk about disciplining a child at home, it rarely means anything other than meting out punishment that, hopefully, matches the severity of the crime. But that’s not what discipline really is, even if that is the usage that has been around for over a thousand years. Discipline is, at it’s root, a word that refers to instruction given, teaching, learning, gaining knowledge. I find it incredible disheartening that we have, for centuries, taken the view that the only way to learn something is through punishment; that we do things out of fear of something unpleasant instead of a desire for something good. (A related word, disciple, incidentally, seems to have only positive connotations as it reflects the idea of being one who has taken hold of, grasped, or fully comprehended something.)

How does all of this relate to my classroom management approach? My practice is rooted in the belief that children are still learning how to be people, how to interact with other children, with adults, with peers, and with authority figures. They are learning, in short, how to be. Sometimes this learning results in punishment, yes. Sometimes it results in rewards. I hope that they always connect their actions to the consequences that follow and, in so doing, learn personal discipline, or self-mastery. Everything I do as a teacher, all of those thousands of decisions I make each day, all come back to one single question: what is best for the students? If I can honestly say that what I have done has been because I am putting the needs of my 23 individual students, and of my class, my school, my district, and/or my community first, then I am doing what I need to do: teaching my students to be masters of their own selves. But if I am focusing on just the first two and ignoring the second, then I am not teaching them how to be, I am simply teaching them how to do.

That’s not good enough for me, and, I hope, it isn’t good enough for them, either.