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

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Mid-Year Reflection

Many teachers are familiar with the concept of a mid-year reflection. For those who aren’t, it is exactly what it sounds like: an opportunity for the teacher, roughly half-way through the school year, to look back and what has been working, what hasn’t, and what changes need to be made before the second half of the year starts. For some teachers, this is a requirement of their professional evaluation. For others, this is something that they do on their own. I am a part of the latter group, which, honestly, is likely not a suprise to anyone.

I am writing this sitting in the lobby/breakfast area of an economy hotel about an hour south of Cleveland, Ohio. My wife and I traveled with her dad to visit family in Chagrin Falls and are now heading back home. It is snowy and cold, although not as snowy as it is in Erie, Pennsylvania, where I have extended family buried under more than five feet of snow (yes, friends outside the United States, that is over 1.5 m!), nor is it as cold as it is in Washington, Illinois, where my mother and two of my siblings live. Still, it is cold and it is snowy.

Why do I mention the weather conditions as they compare to other places? Well, I feel like it is an apt metaphor for my mid-year reflection. Far too often, we compare ourselves and our surroundings to others, either to point out how it could be worse or better. But, really, does it matter? What we are going through right now is still what we are going through right now. My challenges are still challenges, even if they aren’t as great as someone else’s challenges, or even my own challenges from a year ago. So as I look back at the first half of the school year, I am going to make an effort to not worry about whether things are better or worse than last year, nor whether or not they are better or worse than the things my coworkers may be experiencing. Instead, I want to focus on what has been happening in my classroom now.

I am using a tool, briefly mentioned above, as I do this reflection. I learned about it years ago from Michael Brandwein, a leadership training speaker who came to the Illinois Teen Institute (now known as the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute). The tool is called Awareness of Process and it consists of three simple yet important questions: What’s working? What’s not? What will I do differently? As I answer these questions, I use a three-two-one approach in answering. Three things that are working, two things that are not, and one thing I will do differently. This helps me stay focused on the positives while realistically setting goals for how to improve.

What’s working in my classroom this year?

My students are working, that’s for sure! Mathematics, reading, writing, inquiring, engaging, growing, thinking. All of these things are going on. And I am working, too! Planning and leading lessons, guiding students, reading, writing, mathematics, inquiring, engaging, growing, thinking. Yes, my students and I are doing many things together and we are working as we do it.

Restorative practices are working… for most. The majority of my blog posts this year have been connected to the restorative practices we are using. I have written far fewer office referrals this year than I have in the past because I am finding different ways to respond to students’ undesirable behaviours and to coach them in peacefully resolving conflicts so that they can stay in the classroom and stay with their peers.

Tabletop gaming has been working well. This seems like a strange thing, but, seriously, the more I watch how my students interact with one another as they play games, the more I am glad that I was able to acquire these games in the first place. (Thank you, once again, amazing contributors to my Donors Choose project!) Through tabletop gaming, my students are developing cooperative problem solving skills, using peaceful conflict resolution, and learning to take turns, to listen to others, to be encouraging, and to be responsible in using materials in a way that others can enjoy later.

What’s not working for us this year?

Technology management. This has been a huge stumbling block for us. In the past, teachers have had access to web-based software that would let us monitor students’ use of Chromebooks while we were doing other things. This meant that I could have group of students in one corner of the room reading articles online, another group of students in a different corner doing math practice, another group in a different corner writing narratives or essays, another group in a fourth corner expanding their vocabulary, all while I am meeting with a small group or an individual student, but I could monitor what everyone was doing in real time and put into place controls as needed. Due to a host of decisions made by others, we have not had access to this software this year, nor were we given a replacement. As a result, my students have not always been diligent in doing what they were supposed to be doing when using Chromebooks and I have not been as effective as I could be in monitoring them because I needed to do more important things, such as work with a small group or an individual student.

Another thing not working has been how my students have interacted with other teachers in our building, especially our fine arts teachers and our librarian. Somehow the positive behaviours we have been trying so hard to hold one another accountable to are not transferring to working with other teachers. Far too often, the reports I get from these specialists are full of concerns about disrespect, irresponsibility, and unsafe actions. It is frustrating for me because while my students are not 100% perfect, I know they can do better and I haven’t figured out why it is that they aren’t. (This is, of course, speaking of my class broadly and not of individual students, some of whom do an amazing job working with every teacher they have everywhere. The issue is that they are a much smaller percentage of my class than I would like.)

What will I do differently?

I can’t change the decisions made by the district technology team regarding device management, so I will have to keep on trying to solve that problem in a different way, but that isn’t going to be my focus going into the second half of the school year. No, my focus is definitely going to be on how my students interact with other teachers. Specifically, I am going to find ways to bring those teachers into our classroom so that they can develop better, healthier, relationships with the students. Our librarian is an amazing researcher. I will invite her to our classroom to help our students work on research projects and engage in the grand work of inquiry. I will invite our fine arts teachers to our room to help bring the arts to our classroom activities. The goal is for students to get to know these teachers better so that they can build stronger relationships of trust and respect. Hopefully this will result in fewer problems when they are with other teachers. If it doesn’t, well, we will try something else. But if there is one thing I have learned over the years of my teaching, it is that doing something is better than doing nothing!

With just a few days of our winter break remaining, I am going to spend most of my time with family and friends, playing games, watching movies, reading books, taking naps, and trying my hardest to not think about all of the undone work in my classroom, such as my messy desk or my unorganised bookshelves!

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Book Review: Words Kids Need to Hear

Several months ago, a coworker was weeding her library collection at home and emailed all of her coworkers asking if anyone would be interested in them. These books included many genres: special education, general education, classroom management, parenting, general fiction, general nonfiction, and others that I am not recalling. As an avowed bibliophile, I jumped at the chance to expand my personal library and requested a few of her selections. One of the books I claimed was called Words Kids Need to Hear. While published under the category of Religion/Christian Life, I quickly found that there was very little, with the exception of a Christian scriptural reference here or there, that was specifically religious. In fact, I would argue that this book is very much just about parenting in general and how parents (and other adults responsible for children, such as teachers) speak to the children in their care.

I grabbed this book off my shelf before heading out of town for a trip to visit family in Ohio. I had another book I was about to finish so I thought this book would be a something to read as time permitted as we traveled. As it turned out, I was able to finish my other book fairly early into the trip and then read all of Mr. Staal’s book in the time it took to travel from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Chagrin Falls, Ohio. So, while I have been left without a book to read (the horrors for an avid such as myself are real), I am glad I read this book as it gave me several important reminders about what I say to my students (and my nephews and nieces and Cub Scouts) and how I say it.

The seven specific phrases or words that Mr. Staal suggests kids need to hear are not a secret (they are listed on the back cover of the book) nor are they earth-shattering (they are words that we have hopefully all used from time to time). They are still very important, which is why we ought to be more diligent in saying them more often.  What are these words? They are as follows:

  • I believe in you
  • You can count on me
  • I treasure (or value/appreciate) you
  • I’m sorry, please forgive me
  • Because
  • No
  • I love you

Each phrase is deservedly given its own chapter, which is broken down into chunk of what the words are, why they matter, and what can happen if they are overused. This last part I found particularly useful as I know I am guilty of overzealously using words and phrases. (Even if my blogging, I have to remind myself to limit my use of the words “however,” “unfortunately,” and “fortunately.”) For the purposes of this review, I am going to touch briefly on each phrase.

“I believe in you.” How often do the children in our lives hear this from the adults they trust? Do we encourage them without doing it for them? Do we mean it when we say it? I hope that all of my students know that I believe in them and believe that they can achieve the goals they set. I hope that they will let me into the worlds enough to let me help them in their efforts. This connects directly to the next phrase: you can count on me. I value my integrity above any other character trait. If I say I am going to do something, I will make every effort to do it. I don’t want anyone to ever brush off a commitment I make.

I am reminded of an experience I had several years ago when I first took over the leadership of my Cub Scout pack. Each year, Boy Scout units have to recharter their unit (pack or troop). The recharter is usually due the 15th of January. When I took on the responsibilities of leading my pack, I was new to everything and, as a result, our recharter packet didn’t get turned in until March. When I went to the Scout Office to turn everything in and apologise for the tardiness, I was told, “Oh, that’s okay; we are used to your unit being late.” Ouch! I promised right there and then that we would never turn in our recharter packet late again. Four years later, and that promise has been kept. (We are working on our current recharter and are on track to having it turned in shortly after the start of the year.)

I am going to jump out of order because I think the fourth phrase fits better right after the second: I’m sorry, please forgive me. We are all imperfect; we all make mistakes. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I am unable to fulfill a commitment. It is easy to come up with excuses for why this happened. It is easy to justify failing to follow through. It is a lot harder to own up to the mistake and ask for forgiveness without any qualifiers or justifications. As Mr. Staal observes, “Oh, how strong the temptation feels to continue speaking after the word ‘me’ in ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me.’ But be warned: the potency of an apology diminishes with every syllable that follows.” If I want my students to be sincere in their apologies, they need to hear models of sincere apologies from their teachers just as much as they need to hear them from their peers.

I know many adults whose justifications for why they want children to do something is “I’m the adult; I said so.” As a child, this was terribly unsatisfying. Knowing why helped me accept things I didn’t want to do. “Clean your room!” “Why?” “Because a clean room allows you to be safe and healthy and it is easier to work or play in.” “Oh, that makes sense.” Or how about an example from a school setting? “We need to be quiet as we walk down the halls because there are 250 other students in this building who are also learning and we don’t want to distract them as we go past their classrooms.” “I need you to sit down at your desk because we are doing a restroom and drink break and I can’t tell who has come back already if you are not where you are supposed to be.” Yes, it takes longer to explain why. Yes, there are instances when we don’t have time to explain everything, but if we have the time, we ought to do it!

Explaining why often helps children understand why we say no, which is another word kids need to hear. Sometimes we are afraid that the children in our lives will stop liking or loving us if we tell them no. I don’t think we could be any further from the truth. We all need to hear the word “no” from time to time. Whether that is “No, you can’t drive through this intersection right now, there are people walking in it” or “No, you can’t go into the theatre yet, there are still people in there from the last show,” being told no is a part of life. If that “no” is coupled with an explanation, even better! When children know that they can count on you to do what is best and they are used to you giving them explanations, they will likely be more willing to accept a no.

The third and seventh phrases, to me, go hand-in-hand. Do the children in our lives know that they are loved and valued? Do they know that your love for them is not predicated on their obedience or compliance? How often do we tell them, not just in our deeds but also with our words, that they are loved and that they are treasured?

One thing I plan on doing before school resumes on January 3 is write a card for each of my students to express my appreciation for them. Each card will be individualised and will speak of specific things I have seen from them that help them know that they are valuable and beloved members of our classroom community. Will it make a difference? I don’t know; that isn’t the point. The point is only to tell them that there teacher loves and values them. Also, that I believe in them, that they can count on me, that I have a reason for the things I want them to do, that sometimes I am going to have to say no, and that when I make a mistake, I will ask for forgiveness.

These are definitely words my kids need to hear from me.


Book Review: Better Than Carrots or Sticks

Any regular reader of my blog should know that restorative justice practices have become a big focus for me in terms of my professional practices and goals as an educator. I have made a very concerted effort to use more restorative practices in my classroom this year, although I would say that the results have been somewhat mixed. That being said, I am constantly looking for ways to improve in my use of these non-exclusionary practices and so was excited to see if one of my professional journals a blurb about a new book called “Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management.”

I was even more excited when I realised that two of the authors, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, were the authors of Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom, a book we read as an entire staff a few years ago.

There is a lot of good in Better Than Carrots or Sticks, especially if you are new to the ideas of restorative practices. The authors share practical suggestions based on actual implementation in the schools they work in and with. They present a clear case for why such practices are more effectice than the traditional practices of rewarding desired behaviours and punishing undesired ones. They provide a lot of resources for how teachers and school leaders can examine their practices, especially when it comes to office referrals, and how to improve conversations with and about students to help them learn how to be more successful in their classrooms and in their lives.

And yet this book wasn’t grand slam for me. While it had a lot of great ideas, I felt like they were the basics of restorative practices. I was hoping for more depth. Maybe it is because I do a lot more professional reading than many teachers I know, but I am growing weary of the books that lay out the basics and then end. I’ve had enough of the basics; now I am ready for the next steps. (My wife keeps suggesting I ought to write my own book to do just that, but that seems to miss the point that I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough of the depth to be able to do that!) This is, incidentally, the same issue I have had with many professional workshops and conferences I have attended on this incredibly important topic: everyone seems to present with a belief that the audience knows nothing about the topic. I need the presenters who assume that the audience knows the basics and now wants more.

Over all, I was reminded of a lot of great ideas in Better Than Carrots or Sticks and discovered some new ones that I will be implementing in my classroom this coming semester. And I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about restorative practices and how they look across the K-12 spectrum. In fact, I may suggest it as a book study selection in my district as we continue to embark on this journey toward better practices that seek to restore and heal relationships among students and staff. In the meantime, though, I will work on using these ideas with my students and see if we can have more positive results by the end of the year.


Book Review: Most Likely to Succeed

Many years ago, when I attended my first Joint Annual Conference in Chicago, I heard a keynote address by Dr. Tony Wagner and was immediately captivated by his work. It took a while, but I acquired three of his books: The Global Achievement Gap, Creating Innovators, and Most Likely to Succeed. I read The Global Achievement Gap about a year and a half ago and wrote a review, which you can read here. While I haven’t read Creating Innovators yet, but I recently read Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era, which Dr. Wagner co-wrote with business expert Ted Dintersmith.

The Global Achievement Gap focused on seven “survival skills” students need to be taught to be successful in our 21st century society:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analyzing information
  • Curiosity and imagination

Creating Innovators focuses on the three aspects of education that will, well, create innovators:

  • Play
  • Passion
  • Purpose

I will be reading this book soon, but I have made a commitment to myself to put new books on the bottom of my To Be Read pile so that I don’t let books languish for months or even years before being read.

Most Likely to Succeed is, in many ways, a synthesis of these two books, with relevant anecdotes to show practical application. Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith put together a compelling thesis that what we have been doing in public education, especially in grades 9-12, need to be radically changed in order to meet the needs of today’s students and today’s society. More specifically, our education system was designed by a Committee of Ten in 1893 and hasn’t, at its core, changed much. Students still take classes on biology, chemistry, and physics not because these are the most fundamental or important scientific fields but because they were essentially the only scientific fields in the late 1800s. Students still take math courses that lead them toward calculus instead of statistics because, in 1893, statistics weren’t very important. And so on and so forth.

After decades of this structure, the United States came to a cross-roads in the 1950s when the Russians launched Sputnik 1 and our nation developed a national interest in “beating the Russians.” This came to a head in the 1980s when President Reagan commissioned the report on public education that we know as A Nation at Risk. This provided an opportunity for the nation to move from the assembly line model of education to a new framework. Instead, policymakers doubled down on a century-old model. The authors suggest this was one of the greatest disservices to students and society in generation.

So what is the solution? How do we change? It will take a massive effort of students, teachers, parents, policymakers, researchers, and school leaders. They need to take a good long look at what students are doing and what we want them to do and make the changes necessary to get us where we need to be.

That’s scary. Really, really scary. But I am ready to jump into the dark with my flashlight. Who’s going to join me?


Teaching Students to THINK

Students in fourth grade talk. A lot. And because they talk a lot, they say a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have read a few books by Dr. Tony Wagner, an educator who has focused his research on the skills or competencies students need to survive and thrive in the 21st century, and the seven he has identified are: problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication, analysing information, and curiosity. (This is very much a simplification of his findings, but if you are interested in knowing more, I recommend his books The Global Achievement GapCreating Innovators, and Most Likely to Succeed.) All of these survival skills connect to communicating with others, though, so it would make sense that, as students enter the middle grades (4-8) and really start developing these skills, that they are going to spend a lot of time talking to and with each other.

But because they are in the early stages of learning how to do these things, it also means that they spend much more time saying things that they ought not to say than I, their other teachers, or the classmates, would prefer. Today was one of those days where the opportunity to teach students to THINK before they speak presented itself and I took full advantage of the moment.

Many teachers, and others, I would hope, are familiar with this concept. Before saying something, you should ask yourself five simple questions:

 

Now, I certainly did not come up with this acronym, nor did I make the image. (I tried to find an original source for it, but failed in my efforts.) And there are some variations on it, but this is the one I prefer.

Far too often, my students justify a comment they make by arguing that what they said is true. I don’t disagree with them. However, I do ask them to consider further if the comment is helpful to our learning community and, if so, how. I then ask if it is important to say it right then and there. This is slightly different from being necessary, which may need to be said, but not at that moment. And I end by asking if it is kind. When presented with these questions, students will  often recognise that while what they said was true, it usually wasn’t helpful, important, necessary, or kind.

Now, to be honest, there are still some students who say things that are hurtful or unimportant or unnecessary or unkind anyway and will try to justify it to themselves and others but, most of the time, they will acknowledge that the comments were not appropriate for that setting and will apologise to their classmates and/or teachers.

That is part of learning how to do something. We try, we make mistakes, we change, and we try something new. Sometimes we try the same thing several times before finally admitting that it isn’t working. But we never give up on ourselves or others; that’s what being a community of learners is all about, and that’s why learning how to THINK before we speak is so very important.


Resisting the Status Quo

The status quo is such an interesting concept. On the one hand, innovation that results in changes for the better is key to successful teaching. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got. On the other hand, there are certain things that are done because they are tried, tested, and effective. The goal, for me, is to find the balance between doing what has been known to work and making changes that will result in improved outcomes.

For those who have been reading my blog, it should be no surprise that this year has been a year for me to resist the status quo when it comes to responding to student behaviour, whether desired or not. I have been reading and researching effective systems of classroom management, especially when it comes to restorative practices, and it has become increasingly apparent to me that doing what teachers have always done is resulting in the same outcomes that we have always seen, despite sincere efforts to change.

I expected some push-back as I began to make changes in my classroom management approach. I knew that there would be people who would prefer I use the traditional approaches because they are familiar. But I’ll be honest: I expected the most push-back to come from colleagues who might have felt like I was implying that what they have been doing is wrong and from parents who very often don’t like big changes in how teachers do things. I was wrong on both assumptions. While many of my colleagues are not yet ready to jump into restorative practices, many are testing them out and seeing how things work for me. Most parents have been very supportive, especially as I have been open and honest about why I am doing what I am doing.

Instead, the push-back has been coming from my students, who still don’t understand why I don’t just call their parents in the middle of class, send students to the principal’s office, take away recesses or other privileges, or suspend them for acting out. Even though they can articulate my reasoning (these practices don’t result in changed behaviour and often result in increased challenges), they don’t really understand that we have to be willing to do something else.

Often what I hear from students is accusations that I don’t do anything. This isn’t true; it is just that what I do isn’t always obvious to everyone. But that is kind of the point. The traditional approaches often incorporate very public punishments: things that are, at their root, intended to shame students into correct behaviour. However, there are very few instances when such an approach actually has the desired outcome. And so I am using approaches that, in many ways, are similar to the Boy Scouts of America’s EDGE method of teaching: I explain, I demonstrate, I guide, and I enable. My goal is always to teach my students the self-discipline to be active agents in making better choices.

This is a lofty goal, I know. But I also know that my students are very capable of rising to the challenge. It may take a long time to unlearn the expectations of the past, but it will happen. I know it. Some of them know it. Eventually I hope that all of them will know it.

In the meantime, I will continue to resist the status quo. I will resist the urge to give in to the pressure and resort to old methods that haven’t worked for me and, more importantly, haven’t worked for them.


Multiplication Mondays

I suppose I should start by pointing out that I meant to write this yesterday, but the day got busier than anticipated, which is why you get it today, instead. Of course, I suppose I should also acknowledge that I still, even after all this time, have no idea how many people actually read my blog, nor how many read my posts as they go up. (To those reading this in the future, I am writing this on a Tuesday.)

My students are about to start module 3 in the Eureka Math program (their fourth module because I started the year with module 4 and then jumped back to 1). This unit is all about the multiplication and division of multi-digit whole numbers. We could have started the unit yesterday, but I wanted to take some time to establish a firm foundation of basic multiplication facts before moving into the actual arithmetic.

To accomplish this, I introduced a new (to them) part of our weekly schedule: Multiplication Mondays. Every Monday, before we get into our regular math lessons, each student will complete an online 20-question multiplication quiz that I found during my first year of teaching here at Wiley. Each quiz is randomly generated, which means that no two students will have the same questions in the same place. For the first quiz, I gave the students as much time as they needed. For the second quiz (this coming Monday), they will have three minutes. Every Monday after that, the students will have just one minute to answer the 20 questions.

Why just one minute? Several of my students still rely on alternative strategies to figure out single-digit multiplication facts, whether it is using a times table chart, counting on fingers, or drawing a picture. None of these strategies are bad or wrong; they are just time consuming! I want my students to be able to quickly recall these basic facts so that they can more successfully solve complex problems.

The goal, of course, is not to focus on rote memorisation. The goal is for students to have a solid foundation of basic facts that they can apply in multiple settings. For example, if a student has a problem that requires multiple steps and mixed operations (a real-to-life scenario that we as adults regularly encounter when shopping and trying to determine how many items to buy, how much they will cost in all, and whether or not we have enough money to purchase them), I do not want him or her to get bogged down in the basic fact computation and forget the actual problem! Automaticity of basic math facts, then, is one of the few instances for which memorisation is key.

For the rest of this week, the students will continue to practice their multiplication facts, working on improving both speed and fluency. We will dive into the actual math module next Monday. Then we will have about ten days to work before we have a two-week winter break and then back to it in January. Module 3 is one of the longest we have this year, so we will be working on it until probably February.