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

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Authentic Choices

“Authentic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in education, much like “meaningful,” “reflective,” and “engaging.” Some educators, unfortunately, use these words as a way of playing a game. As a result, I try very hard to make sure that I don’t throw “eduspeak” around just to say it; I think often about the counsel to say what you mean and mean what you say. So when I talk about “authentic choices,” I mean giving students options that are both real and acceptable. (This is likely a topic I have written about before, but my computer’s battery is about to die so I don’t have time to search for it.)

I used to give students many different choices at once, but I discovered rather quickly that there were too many options and students were easily overloaded. So, instead, I usually limit the choices to just two. I make sure that they are options that both the students will find want to select and I am okay with them selecting because they all result in students learning. Sometimes these options relate to selecting a book for a guided reading group. Sometimes it is whether we are going to work on writing first and then math, or math first and then writing. Sometimes the choice is whether to do read to self with lights on or off, or music playing or not.

The point isn’t to have life-changing or mind-blowing choices. It is simply to give the students choice and to make sure they know that they are the ones deciding. I always tell them how many choices they have and that either option is completely acceptable to me. What I don’t do is give them false choices, such as choosing between reading at their desks or having a detention after school. Using language like that does nothing more than lead to student distrust and resentment.

Authentic choices definitely improve the culture of the classroom as students recognise that they have a say in what they do. (Obviously, there are times when I cannot give them choices, such as if they have to do a state-mandated assessment or we have to be at one of our special classes at a specific time.) But whenever possible, I try to give students choices so that they can experience making decisions and observing what happens as a result of those choices.

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The Peaceful Classroom

As it may be apparent from the majority of my blog posts this academic year, I have been focusing a lot on positive social skills that promote restorative practices and changes to my classroom management approach that will help students be more successful members of a community of learners. One phrase that has often come to mind has been that of the peaceful classroom. (If you have the time and are interested in going down a rabbit hole of articles and suggested books, just Google that phrase and check out any one of the 30,500,000 results that appear in 0.54 seconds! Two I found particularly relevant were this blog post and this PDF. )

What is the peaceful classroom? While there are many different ideas about the nuts and bolts of it, I think all can agree that the peaceful classroom is both one where others feel peace and also promote peace. I will be honest and admit that this is still a lofty goal for me; Room 31 is not the epitome of the peaceful classroom yet.

That “yet” is an important caveat, though. We have had moments of peace throughout each day; today I saw a particularly astounding example, which is what I am going to focus on for the rest of this particular post.

During Reading Workshop, many of my students seemed to momentarily forgot our mutually designed expectations for literacy rotations (stay in assigned spot, use appropriate voice levels, respect others by letting them work without distraction, and work the entire time). When our reading workshop block ended, I realised that we didn’t have enough time to start a new task, but, at the same time, there was still a large enough chunk of time remaining before lunch that we needed to do something worthwhile.

I led a brief discussion with students about how well the class had done at meeting the expectations they had established for literacy and they concluded that only about half of the students were fully focused and attentive on their tasks as expected. I observed that I knew that my students could successfully do this, and I knew that they knew this, but they had forgotten. I then suggested that everyone in the classroom read independently for fifteen minutes. I emphasised that “everyone” included both myself and my student teacher.

I turned off half of the lights in the classroom and allowed the natural light streaming through the windows do its job of providing illumination. As soon as every student was reading, I started the timer and sat down and began reading, as well. What happened next has not happened since my second year of teaching. For fifteen minutes, every single person in the room was reading to him- or herself. When the timer went off, nearly every student quietly sighed and asked if we could continue; I gratefully obliged.

When we finished, and just before going to lunch, I asked the students to think about how they felt right then. Words I heard included calm, relaxed, happy, and peaceful. I observed that much of the tension in the room had gone away and that it seemed like everyone felt comfortable and at peace and asked the students to think about how they could keep that going through the rest of the day.

That didn’t happen.

After lunch, some students were agitated about a disagreement during recess, others were agitated about wanting drinks or needing to use the restroom, and others were just not ready to stay fully on task for the afternoon. But we are still working on it and I am confident that my students can indeed learn the skills necessary to be peacemakers and positive contributors to a community of learners. It starts with the desire to do so and builds from there.

I am grateful that today we saw a brief glimpse of this truth and I hope that we can indeed build from here to becoming a truly peaceful classroom.


SMART Teaching

Many people are familiar with the concept of SMART goals. This is an acronym to help goal-setters remember that an effective goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant (or Realistic), and Timely (or Time-Constrained). I have worked with SMART goals for more than half of my life, starting when I was sixteen years old and first attended the Illinois Teen Institute (now called the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute; same program, just a different name). I would not consider it an overstatement to claim that all goals I set are made with these ideas in mind. (That being said, the time constraints of my goals are the things most likely to change.)

Here’s an example of a SMART goal: I will graduate from the University of Illinois with a Master of Education degree in Educational Administration by May 2016. This goal, which is what I set when I first applied to my graduate program in 2013, was Specific (it stated exactly what I wanted to do), Measurable (specific courses had to be taken and passed), Attainable (it was very possible for me to do this), Relevant (it was a goal related to my desire to continue my education with a degree that would help me be a better teacher and school leader), and Timely (the goal was set for me to complete a two-year program in two years).

What I haven’t been so cognizant of is how SMART goals relate to SMART teaching. When I give my students a task, I should ask myself the same questions: Am I being Specific in what I want them to accomplish? Is the final product something that can be Measured (not necessarily through a standardised test, but is there a rubric for what is expected in the product?)? Is the objective Attainable in that students can actually demonstrate mastery of the concept or skill? Is it Relevant to what they are learn and what they need to know to be successful as lifelong learners? Is there a specific Time Constraint on when the final product should be finished?

I don’t mean to say that I don’t think of these things when I am planning lessons and units; I do. What I mean is that I have not thought of them as “SMART teaching” until today. (Curiously enough, when I Google this phrase, I found not a single reference to this acronym being applied to teaching!) What brought this about was the realisation that, although my students have been working on an ongoing short research project for several weeks, there was a definite increase of focused activity when I explained that projects were going to be presented to the class on Wednesday morning. It made me realise that it isn’t enough to say, “Your project is due in two weeks” or “You will have about two weeks to work on this.” I needed to be much clearer: “Your final project will be a presentation to your classmates on Wednesday, November 8.”

Another example is the way I have changed my instructions regarding math exit tickets. Instead of saying, “Take all the time you need to complete the exit ticket” I now say, “You will have five minutes to complete these two problems that are similar to the problems we did together and that you did for your individual practice. The exit ticket is worth four points. You will get one point for each correct answer and one point for showing your work on each problem.” This approach has helped students focus on what they are doing and complete all of the components of the assignment.

As I move forward, I am going to be more aware of using SMART teaching as the foundation of my class activities. My hunch is that student focus and engagement will increase as they know what they are doing, how it will be graded, my confidence that they can accomplish it, why they are doing it, and when I want it done.


Halloween 2017

Monday was Halloween. It is absolutely my favourite real holiday of the year, even if I do greatly enjoy celebrating Australia Day (because it is my birthday) and Talk Like a Pirate Day (because it is silly and fun). We had our regular school-wide Halloween costume parade in the afternoon and classroom parties immediately following, but my students also had a pretty awesome experience in the morning that I have never been able to do with a class before.

We went with the two third grade classes and the other fourth grade class to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts for a half-day workshop with the Lyric Theatre at Illinois to learn about their production of the opera Hansel and Gretel. Many of the students knew the basic story, but this experience was unique in that we weren’t watching the show or an abbreviated version of it. Instead, the students got to work with cast members to learn about some of the dances, songs, and costume design.

It was really neat learning with my students about these aspects of opera, some of which I didn’t know before. (For example, Hansel and Gretel is written so that the parts can be played by anyone, regardless of gender. So the witch can be played by a male singer and Hansel can be played by a female singer.)

It was also fun to spend time with students I don’t normally get to see. Although we had four classes going, the Krannert Center folks asked us to divide the classes into three groups. Instead of trying to mix and match all four classes, the teacher coordinating the field trip suggested that my class divide evenly among the other three classes. As a result, I was with the other fourth grade class and a third of my own students. Even though we were only together for a few hours, I noticed today that many of the other fourth graders seem much more comfortable talking to me and approaching me with concerns.

Oh, and our Halloween party was pretty great, too: lots of goodies, lots of fun costumes, lots of chances to chat with my students in a more informal setting, and a few chances to talk with parents who weren’t able to make it to parent/teacher conferences last week.

All in all, Halloween 2017 was a great success! Now to convince Congress to declare November 1 a national holiday so that students don’t have to come to school the next day when they have likely eaten too much sugar and gotten too little sleep…


2017 Reading Challenge Update

Today was an elementary inservice day in my district, which means that while students did not have school, teachers and other staff still came to work. Rather than write a post about this day, I decided to do an update on my personal 2017 Reading Challenge, which I blogged about here about 10 or 11 months ago. (And if you really want to read about elementary inservice days, you can check out this post from way back when. While not every inservice day is the same, this is a pretty good summary of what the days are like. Just exchange “Common Core State Standards” with “Illinois Social Studies Standards” and “Safety Net Skills” with “Restorative Practices” and you’ll be good to go.)

My reading goal for this year was 62 books. So far, I have read 45 books. Here is how they align to my unique challenge to read:

  • a book published this year: The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools
  • a book read in one day: Conscience of a Conservative
  • a book on my To Be Read pile for more than a year: A Snicker of Magic
  • a book recommended by a librarian or bookseller: CSS for Babies
  • a book I should have read in school: A Nation at Risk
  • a book chosen by my wife: n/a
  • a book published before I was born: The Conscience of a Conservative
  • a “banned” book: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • a book I had previously abandoned: Lost at School
  • a book I owned but had never read: Meet the Beagle
    a book that intimidated me: n/a
  • a book I’ve read at least once before: The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • 5 autobiographies/biographies: The Secret Soldier, Phoebe the Spy (2/5)
  • 5 selections of classic literature: (0/5)
  • 5 fantasy novels: Castle of Wizardry, Enchanter’s End Game, Frogkisser! (3/5)
  • 5 graphic novels: The Tenth Circle (1/5)
  • 5 selections of historical fiction: The Cay, Timothy of the Cay (2/5)
  • 5 mysteries: (0/5)
  • 5 nonfiction books (not related to education): The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Compassionate Conservatism, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (3/5)
  • 5 picture books: Rocket Science for Babies, General Relativity for Babies, I Love You Stink Face, Love Is, I Wish You More (5/5)
  • 5 selections of realistic fiction: Picture Perfect, Class Dismissed, The Pact (3/5)
  • 5 selections of science fiction: There Will Be Time, The Host (2/5)

So, I am actually doing pretty well with the first half of my challenge, but I am a not doing so well with my genre challenge. Here’s what I need to accomplish before the end of the calendar year:

  • a book chosen by my wife:
  • a book that intimidates me:
  • 3 autobiographies/biographies
  • 5 selections of classic literature
  • 2 works of fantasy
  • 4 graphic novels
  • 3 selections of historical fiction
  • 5 mysteries
  • 2 nonfiction selections not related to education
  • 2 selections of realistic fiction
  • 3 selections of science fiction

So it looks like I have 31 books to go, even though I’ve actually read 45 books this year! (I guess that’s what I get for reading a lot of work-related books.) If you have any recommendations, I will gladly accept them. As should be apparent, I read a wide variety of books!


Book Review: The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools

[NOTE: This post has also been published on MiddleWeb, a site dedicated to teaching and learning in the middle grades. This is my fifth book review for them. I had requested to review this book as part of my new role as a new teacher mentor. From my previous post about mentoring, you may recall that new teacher mentors are encouraged to use a coaching approach.]

 

It was not many years ago that I was first introduced to the concept of instructional coaching. My school district had created several coaching positions at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, with initial funding connected to our participation in the Race to the Top competitive grant program run by the Obama administration. I had vague recollections of other districts that used coaches, but I wasn’t really sure what they did. Even when my district moved several amazing teachers into instructional coaching positions, this new role was somewhat still nebulous. (Ironically, coaching as an instructional practice actually pre-dates athletic coaching, with the term first being used at Oxford University in the early 1800s to describe tutors who helped a pupil move from a place of not-knowing to a place of knowing in much the same way a horse-drawn carriage, or coach, moved passengers from point A to point B. It wasn’t until about three decades later that the term began being used in an athletic sense and the instructional sense faded away until the late 1900s.)

I recently asked some of the instructional coaches I knew how they would define their jobs and most struggled to come up with a concrete answer. The most definite response was that “instructional coaching in classroom-embedded professional development for teachers.” Other teachers chimed in with comments on what instructional coaches had done for them, but being able to identify some of the things that these coaches do is different from having a clear definition of what makes one an instructional coach.

Around the same time as I was trying to understand the role of my district’s instructional coaches, I was asked to take on a new role as a formal mentor to new teachers in my district. During the new teacher mentor training I attended, we were encouraged to use a coaching approach when working with our protégés. This definitely got me thinking: what is an instructional coach and what is a coaching approach?

Fortunately, I am not the only person to ask that question. In fact, it is a hotly debated topic in many educational circles, and so John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh, two educators on opposite sides of the world who happened to meet and discovered a shared interest, set out to define coaching and describe how it can be used in school settings, both in a formal way through instructional coaching and through a more informal coaching approach.

One of the first things i realised while reading their book is that, even when trying to give a concise definition of coaching, there are still dozens of ways to define it depending on the context of the role. At its heart, the authors define coaching as “a one-to-one conversation that focuses on the enhancement of learning and development through increasing self-awareness and a sense of personal responsibility, where the coach facilitates the self-directed learning of the coachee through questioning, active listening, and appropriate challenge in a supportive and encouraging climate.”

With that definition in mind, Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh layout their view of coaching and how it can be used in different school settings. Starting with the Global Framework for Coaching in Education, they identify four broad areas of interest for coaching: student success and well-being, educational leadership, professional practice, and community engagement. They argue that all of these areas can benefit from coaching skills, the GROWTH model, and establishing a coaching way of being. The GROWTH model is an eight-step process that can be used to guide coaching sessions: after establish trusting relationships, the coach and coachee discuss Goals of the coaching process, Realities of the current situation, Options for change, what Will be done first, the Tactics for accomplishing tasks, and the sustainable Habits needed to ensure success, with a celebration of positive results at the end.

In addition to formal coaching, the authors acknowledge that a coaching approach can be used by school leaders to establish more meaningful discussions among teachers or other staff and for teachers to communicate with families in a way that establishes and reinforces a shared responsibility for student success. Finally, they demonstrate how a school leader can adapt a formal performance evaluation by using a coaching approach so that the employee can work on agreed-upon areas of growth without fear of judgment or negative consequences.

As I read this book, I realised that one common pitfall of school leadership is the urge to present solutions to others instead of guiding them to coming up with their own solutions. This is a key element of instructional coaching: the coach does not identify what needs to be done; that is the role of the coachee. The coach provides resources and guidance once the change has been identified. This is the heart and soul of the coaching approach and the coaching way of being and a mindset that will benefit teachers, students, families, and school leaders.

Throughout the book, the authors provide tips for coaches, QR codes that link to videos to see coaching in action, and questions for reflection. With just ten chapters and approximately 125 pages, this quick read is a great resource for new leaders, new coaches, teacher mentors, and those who have been in any of these roles but are looking for a fresh take on an old idea.

 


Competitive Inquiry

Over the past couple of years, I have been blitzing my way through the over 130 episodes of a podcast called Educators Lead. It consists of interview with school leaders and teacher leaders across the United States and, occasionally, from Canada. I am currently on episode 102, so I still have a way to go before I am actually caught up.

From time to time, I hear of something on the podcast series that gets me thinking a lot more about how I do what I do. One such thing I recently learned about is a strategy that Dr. Ryan B. Jackson calls “the competitive teaching model.” You can learn more about how he developed this strategy by watching his TED talk below:

While I am nowhere close to being an expert on this strategy, the idea of having students compete against one another for a mutually positive goal caught my attention and I thought about how I could try that in my classroom. As a book by Eric Jensen I read a year ago pointed out, “”if the potential gain is good and the potential loss is acceptable, try out new ideas.” With that in mind, I decided to try something new with an inquiry project my students were starting.

Illinois is in the process of implementing new social studies standards. As is typical with my district, we are using the standards now. These standards, aligned to the C3 Framework, represent a massive shift in how we teach about social studies. Instead of historical events and people and places presented in a chronological order, we are looking at broad topics related to Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. One of the standards for fourth graders is to understand how where we live shapes their lives. Relying heavily on a unit designed by a wonderful colleague of mine in another building, I started this unit by explaining the two key components of research the students will be doing:

  1.  a large group project comparing Urbana to Gibson City so that students can identify how the two communities are similar and how they are different, based on a series of six questions we came up with as a class and
  2. an individual project learning about another state in our country and comparing it to Illinois.

We started the first part today. I used ClassDojo to randomly divide the class into two groups after we came up with our six questions. One group was tasked with researching Urbana and the other group is researching Gibson City. The groups were told that they would be sharing their findings with the other class in two weeks.

So, where does the competitive piece come in? Well, I overheard one of the students in the group researching Urbana ask, “Hey, what is Big Grove? What does that have to do with Urbana?” I responded, “That’s a great question that I expect you to be able to answer as part of your project!” At the same time, the other group had someone ask, “What’s important about Gibson City?” I responded, “Well, Gibson City has a world famous landmark and I expect you to identify it in your project!” Then I told both groups, “Oh, by the way, you have each been given a specific task. If you aren’t able to complete it, your group will fail this assignment! Have fun!”

Now, I didn’t actually think that was a competitive challenge, but when the groups realised that they both had a challenge, they took to it with a vigour I have rarely seen in my classroom! Without even telling them they were competing, they decided to take it as a competition anyway! (Now, before I get any angry phone calls or emails, I should assure all parents and others reading that I will not give any group a failing grade simply because they miss one part of the project. My statement was meant to be partially hyperbolic–I say partially because I fully expect the groups to find the information I required as a part of their project.)

While  I don’t know if Dr. Jackson will totally agree with my tiny step toward using a competitive teaching model in my classroom, I would say that I am at least trying! In the meantime, my students are fully engaged in learning as much as they can about these two communities.