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

Fourth Grade

One Adventure Ends, A New Adventure Begins

Way back in August 2011, I was hired to teach fourth grade at Wiley Elementary School in Urbana. This job, which came after three years of working as a substitute teacher in Champaign, Mahomet, and Urbana, was the fulfillment of a dream I had had since I was in fourth grade. For the past seven years, I have worked with hundreds of students, teaching, learning, leading, and guiding. Some days were full of joy and amazement, other days made me go home wondering where it had all gone wrong. There have been relationships formed that will stay with me forever; relationships with students, with coworkers, with families.

But there was another dream I had, too. As the result of some strong urging from friends and educators I greatly admired, I decided to pursue a path of school leadership. I received my Master of Education in Educational Administration degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2016. For over two years, I applied for over 150 jobs with over 100 school districts, almost all of which were in Illinois. From February 17, 2016, to June 12, 2018, I was interviewed for over 35 leadership positions, including assistant principal, principal, technology integration specialist, and curriculum coordinator.

I recently read that the average school leader applies for 25 jobs, is interviewed for 5 of them, and gets offered 1. Apparently, I am above average.

Last week, I was offered the position of Curriculum Coordinator for 21st Century Learning with Freeport School District #145. After some discussion with my wife, I decided to accept, and the school board approved my appointment last night.

The stated goal of this position is to “provide leadership and coordination to produce an aligned and articulated instructional program in all core subject areas; to improve teaching and learning by providing leadership in curriculum development, curriculum design, professional development, instruction, and evaluation in all subject areas as it relates to the infusion of 21st Century Learning practices across the instructional system; provide staff with research-based best practices related to 21st century learning to sustain continuous improvements in curriculum, assessments, and teaching activities to ensure that every student has access to high quality instruction to meet or exceed the standards for college and career readiness.”

It was roughly eight years ago that I began blogging about my adventures in substituting. After a year, the adventures were in teaching fourth. What will my adventures in the 21st century hold? Only time will tell!


Culturally-Relevant Teaching

Every time I think I am going to get back into the swing of updating this blog daily (or at least weekly) something happens to stop it from happening. After months of not being able to update it at work, my district network specialist was finally able to bypass whatever filter was blocking WordPress, but some configuration has changed and, once again, I am unable to update, despite my best intentions. (Even now, I am only able to write an update because I am waiting to help with childcare during a women’s event at my church; my wife was one of the planners and so I was “voluntold” to assist.)

Interestingly enough, though, this frustration of not being able to do something despite my best intentions ties directly into a topic I have been mulling over in my mind for several weeks and then had an epiphany about the other day: culturally-relevant teaching. (more…)


Field Trip: Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra

I’ve written about field trips to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts many times over the past seven years that I have been teaching at Wiley. They are some of my favourite trips to take with students, most likely because they are short bus rides and they expose students to an amazing world-class performance space that is right in their own neighbourhood. Today the two fourth grade classes at Wiley got to go to the Krannert Center for the second time this school year, this time to attend the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra‘s youth concert. When we arrived, a student noticed a bus from Effingham and wondered aloud why someone would come so far. I explained that not every community has a place like the Krannert Center and reminded the students who were listening how fortunate we are to have a space so close and so accessible. (I said this then and write this now while still acknowledging that ticket prices for general admission are often well beyond what my students’ families can afford, especially if they want to take the whole family. This is something that I wish the Krannert Center Board of Directors would consider changing.)

During today’s performance, the students not only got to listen to movements from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, movements from Georges Brizet’s Carmen Overture, and a complete piece by CUSO’s current Composer-in-Residence Stacy Garrop, but they also got to learn about music composition and orchestration as Music Director Stephen Alltop explained concepts such as melody, colour (or timbre), and harmony.

Later in the afternoon, I had my students write letters to the C-U Symphony Orchestra, thanking them for the performance and sharing their favourite parts. I was impressed with the number of students who recognised some of the melodies, the knowledge of different musical instruments, and the personal connections many made. (One student shared that she loved the Peer Gynt Suite because that is the music her mom uses to wake her up each morning.)

I was so proud of all of our fourth graders! They were a model audience, listening intently at the right times, clapping at the end of pieces, responding when asked to, and ignoring the distractions of classes around them that were not quite so well behaved. A huge shout-out to our music teacher, Mrs. V, who arranged this, and the parents who were able to come and help us out!

[NOTE: Neither video is of the C-U Symphony Orchestra, but I wanted videos with the music in case students’ parents saw this and wanted to talk to the children about the music they heard today.]


Lessons from a Children’s Basketball Game

Those who know me well know that athleticism is not my strong suit. Sure, I like riding my bike and, when the weather cooperates, cheerfully bike the 5-6 miles from my house to work and back. And yes, I love camping and hiking through the woods. But beyond that? Nope. I don’t play basketball, soccer, rugby, football, volleyball, hockey, baseball, tennis, lacrosse. Nor do I compete in track and field events, figure skating, swimming, running, or competitive cycling. Now, this can be chalked up to several reasons: I am blind in one eye, so I don’t have any depth perception; I likely have exercise-induced asthma, so running is generally a bad idea; no one in my family participated in athletics when I was growing up; very few of my friends cared much about participating in sports; I enjoy being a spectator.

This last bit is an important point, though! Even though I myself do not participate in sports, I actually really enjoy watching others play, compete, perform, etc. This was true in high school, when I was in the pep band and performed for nearly every football and basketball game. This was true when my baby sister was on a soccer team and I went to her games. And this has been true for the seven years I have been teaching fourth grade and asking my students to let me know about any games or performances so I can go and cheer them on.

A few weeks ago, two of my students invited me to come to their basketball games on Saturday mornings. I gladly accepted the invitation. While watching them play, I was reminded of a few lessons you can learn from being on a competitive team and wanted to write them down, both for myself and for those who may be reading:

Cooperation: Watching my students play on a team, I saw many examples of cooperation. Particularly as they were playing basketball, I watched as they got the ball, passed it to others, and worked together to achieve their objectives. What was especially interesting to witness was when those on the other team did not cooperate and took wild shots instead of passing the ball to another. Cooperation is that constant trait of working together for the glory of all, not the glory of one.

Compassion: My students won both of the games I watched. In fact, they dominated. But they showed compassion and kindness to the other teams. There was no gloating or mockery. When someone fell down, one of my boys was the first to run over and help him up and help him across the court.

Focus: There are so many voices yelling at the boys playing on the court. I was impressed as I watched my students focus on listening to their coaches and ignoring all of the other noise bombarding them. I noticed another boy who listened to what everyone was saying and, as a result, he was frequently confused and made poor decisions.

Joy: This may be the one thing that I saw most exuberantly. I am fully aware of the reality that not everything I have my students do in the classroom brings joy to them. As much as I love all of the subjects I teach (and I really do!), I know that my students do not always share that love, that joy. But I have burned in my memory the image of my students’ smiles of pure joy when they saw me walk into the gymnasium to watch them play. That joy lasted throughout the game.

As Spring Break wraps up and we return to the classroom on Monday, I hope to bring these lessons from the court to the classroom. I plan on using the examples I saw as I teach my students to cooperate, to show compassion, to focus on what’s important, and to find joy in the things they do. Many teachers throughout the country have adopted the Hour of Code; maybe it is time to institute the Hour of Joy, where students are given the freedom to explore whatever it is that brings them the most joy and to share that joy with others.


March Madness Celebration

I feel very fortunate to work in a school that has classroom parties because I know that it is a tradition that has been vanishing in many parts of the state and in the country. Our awesome Wiley PTA assists us in planning and organising these parties, which are usually done three times each year: once in the fall, when we have a Halloween party; once in December, when we have our Winter holiday parties (recognising that we have students of many faith traditions, we don’t have just a Christmas party), and a Valentine’s Day party. Now, I love parties and I love holidays. But there is one party that I dread each year: the Valentine’s Day party. It usually ends up being lots of cupcakes, lots of sugar, and lots of drama. And so when my fourth grade partner this year, Mrs. B, suggested we abandon the Valentine’s Day party and have a March Madness celebration right before Spring Break instead, I was fully committed to making it happen.

When February came around, even though we had told students and families that we were not going to have a party, there was still some disappointment that we weren’t having a party when everyone else was. (Never mind that my class got to watch a movie that afternoon, instead.) But by the end of the day yesterday, when we had our celebration, I don’t think anyone was wishing we had had a party in February instead!

The March Madness celebration had four components that we turned into stations that the students rotated through: party food in Mrs. B’s room, where students had pizza, chicken wings, egg rolls, macaroni and cheese, chips, salsa, cookies, soda, ice cream, and more; filling out brackets in my room, where students learned about the NCAA tournament brackets and then filled out their own; NCAA tournament history in the Library, where students read a short passage about the tournament and watched highlights videos; and basketball outside with the P.E. teacher.

I can honestly say that this was the most successful party I have had in my seven years at Wiley. The students had fun, the teachers had fun, the parents had fun, and every learned something while doing it!

Huge shout-out to Mrs. B for the idea, the planning, and the implementation of something that I hope will become a new tradition for the intermediate students in my building! So many people were asking if we were going to do this again next year; my answer was the same every time: That’s the plan!


Cooperation, Collaboration, and Assessment

For many years now, schools have been making a concerted effort to increase the levels of cooperation and collaboration, both within the classroom among students and within the schools themselves among students. It seems strange to me, then, that we still assess students individually.

Think about it. Students spend most of the day working in groups, talking to one another, helping one another, supporting one another. They are taught to share knowledge and resources to find solutions to complex problems, to find creative paths to those solutions. The school day is literally filled with co-laboring, which is the root of the word collaborate.

Then, after they have spent all this time learning and designing and producing together, we sit them at individual desks with individual copies of an assessment and we tell them to show us what they know on their own. Is it any wonder that so many of our students who flourish working in groups (and I mean actually working together, not just copying the work of someone else) struggle when we give them an assessment and tell them it has be completed without any help from others?

There are so many other ways we could assess our students. Portfolio reviews, group assignments with individual contributions recorded, and whole-class discussions are some that I have used after seeing the research that goes into them. There are surely a multitude of other tools that we could use to determine whether or not our students know the material they have been taught and understand how to use the tools they have been given.

And yet we still default to the independent assessment. It is built into our DNA as educators, it has been enshrined in our practice, and it has been encoded in our laws.

A few nights ago I rewatched a favourite film of mine: Australia. There is a line shared a few times that I often come back to when I reflect on what we do in our classrooms and in our schools: It is this simple but profound statement: “Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.”

I often think about what schools would look like, sound like, feel like, be like if I could start from scratch with a team of highly-skilled teachers, staff, and leaders and recreate the education system from the ground up. We did it in our nation over a hundred years ago, back in 1893 when the Committee of Ten designed the system as we know it today. What would happen if a new Committee of Ten were commissioned and charged with redesigning the system with 21st century learning as the focus? What would we change? What would I change? Why?

These are some of the things that I think about. I don’t really have any answers yet. What do you think?


Recalibration

Sometimes you get into a pattern of doing things and it seems to be working well so you keep doing it. Other times you get into a pattern of doing things and it starts off all right but then goes astray little by little until you look around and realise that you aren’t anywhere close to where you want to be.

I once heard a story about an airline pilot who set a course for a lengthy flight that was off by just one degree. For some flights, such a minute error wouldn’t make a significant difference, but for long flights, an error of just one degree can result in the plane being hundreds of miles off course. In this particular story, by the time the error was recognised, it was too late, ending in a tragedy.

Now, I’m saying that the minor errors in an elementary classroom are going to lead to tragedies if left alone, but I am thinking about how easy it is to get in a rut and not recognise the minor errors until it may feel like it is too late to go back and fix them. For example, teachers often set a voice level expectation in the classroom as we help our students learn how to modulate their volume based on different settings. If everyone is meant to be reading independently, we may tell the students that they should be at a voice level zero, which is silent. This isn’t because we don’t want talking, but simply because talking while others are reading is distracting. On the other hand, a student who is giving a presentation to the entire class may be told to use a level four voice, which is a presenting voice that can be heard by everyone.

If I tell students that they should be at a level zero and then ignore the quiet talking, what I am actually communicating to them is that a level zero is actually a whisper or quiet conversation. If this goes on for too long, then eventually we don’t even have a baseline for what a level zero actually is. Fortunately, we can recalibrate. We can pause whatever academic instructional topic we are on and adjust voice levels to where they need to be.

We have been doing some recalibrating in my classroom over the past few weeks to fix some errors with how we do our reading workshop time. Tomorrow morning we will do some recalibrating with voice levels, too, so that students can more effectively work while respecting the rights of others to work without distractions. After all, the classroom is a community and a community is a group of people who help one another!


A Wonder-ful Afternoon

Today is Valentine’s Day but, breaking with tradition in order to make room for a new tradition, the fourth grade classes in my building decided against having Valentine’s Day parties this afternoon. Instead, our classes are going to have an end-of-the-third-semester celebration in March planned around the NCAA basketball tournament that starts right about the same time as our Spring Break. (For those who are wondering, we will have more details about it sent home either tomorrow or on Tuesday when we get back from the long weekend.)

Now, just because we weren’t doing a party, I still wanted to do something wonder-ful for my class today. You see, it just so happens that the movie adaptation of the book “Wonder” came out on video yesterday and I was able to secure a copy of it last night! So we spent the afternoon watching the movie.

The students moved desks out of the way, laid blankets on the floor, and watched the movie. About halfway through we had some light snacks. At the end of the movie, we talked about how it compared to the book. There were some parts that were very similar and other parts that deviated in weird ways. For example, they referred to Auggie’s Halloween costume as “Ghost Face” instead of “Bleeding Scream” and the students watched “The Wizard of Oz” at the nature retreat instead of “The Sound of Music.” I don’t know if those changes were due to copyright issues or something else. Of course, there were also parts of the book that were omitted completely, likely just for the sake of time. (The movie is just shy of two hours.)

Now, I know that movies and books are different media for telling a story and therefore we should expect them to be identical, even if they are based on the same story. In fact, I am a very vocal advocate of recongnising this distinction! However, it is hard when you have read a book several times and you have some favourite parts that get changed in the movie, like Mr. Tushman’s speech at the very end.

All of that being said, I really liked this movie. It tells a fantastic story, the acting is great, and my students were completely engaged in it for the entire time! It was definitely a wonder-ful way to spend our afternoon!


Book Review: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

Several years ago, one of my students purchased a book for me to keep in my classroom library. It was a popular new release and I was happy to have it in my room. Many of my students read it that year but, for whatever reason, it never made it to my To Be Read pile.

Sometime in the past year, this book adapted to a made-for-TV movie featured on Nickelodeon. Around the same time, Time for Kids had a special supplement all about this book and movie. As a result, my students were very excited to realise it was sitting right there on one of my bookshelves in my classroom. That meant, of course, that I would finally read this book that had spent so much time waiting to be read by me.

The book was Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein.

As an avid bibliophile, tabletop gamer, and former library loiterer, this book seemed to have all of the pieces to make perfect story for me and, I hoped, for my class. We were not disappointed! Wacky adventures, clever clues, visual puzzles, book trivia, appealing characters, and great pacing made this a fantastic story to read aloud and share with one another!

I will admit that there were some plot elements that I wish had been developed a little bit deeper, such as all of the characters’ back stories, all in all, I found this book to be well worth the read and would absolutely recommend it to others! I’ve also since realised that this is the first in a series so now I am going to have to track down copies of those, too!

Of course, I also find myself wondering if the author would have time to do a Skype chat with my class. Hm… maybe I will look into that. I think my students would love talking to him about what he wrote, why he wrote it, and how he did it!

In the meantime, we are off to another reading adventure, going from present-day libraries in Alexandriaville, Ohio, to the midst of the Great Depression in Gary, Indiana.

What are you reading right now?


Limits with Limitless Possibilities

I am a big fan of setting limits, of establishing boundaries, or making parameters known. These are things that make like slightly more predictable, comfortable, and safe. I’ve blogged before about the benefits of setting limits in the classroom and how that relates to classroom management. What I am writing about today, though, is something different. I am writing about the limitations that actually lead to limitless possibilities.

It has been a long-standing tradition in my classroom that students get 30-45 minutes each week on Friday to engage in an activity that I call “Read, Write, Think!” While I have blogged about this before, too, the gist of it is that, during this time, students have several options: the can read independently, with a partner, or in a group; they can write independently, with a partner, or in a group; or they can think by  drawing, playing cognitive games with others, solving puzzles, or doing math. This is a time when Chromebooks are closed and students are selecting what they will do.

There are definite limits to this activity. It is not free choice, which is something that they may have done in the primary grades. It is not indoor recess, which they have had lots of during the cold months of winter. It is a time for students to select from a menu of options a task that they want to engage in. Some may wish to do something from each category. Others pick on option and stay with it.

What is interesting about these limits is how limitless the possibilities are. There are three categories with ten sub-categories. But I have hundreds, if not thousands, of books in my classroom. Student writing can be anything at all. I have dozens of cognitive games and puzzles. There are likely an infinite number of math problems or challenges that students could tackle. And so the limitations still have limitless possibilties.

It is easy to look at the limits and bemoan what cannot be done. Far too often, I hear students say, “But I don’t want to do that!” My goal is to help them see the limits and as a way of focusing on what they can do, though. I definitely have limitations on what I can do in my life, but within those limitations? The possibilities are endless!


Learning Through Play

I am a big fan of learning through play. It is one of the main reasons I started my after-school tabletop gaming club. But I try to incorporate meaningful play into the classroom, as well. Sometimes I am more successful than others, but I keep trying. I think students learn more effectively and retain concepts and skills longer when they developed them through a play-based structure.

Maybe this is why websites like Prodigy are so popular among students. They are practicing and developing math skills in order to level up wizards and fight off monsters. I have some students who would play Prodigy all day long if they could.

Of course, while students play Prodigy using their Chromebooks, they don’t actually play anything on their Chromebooks. I have made very clear from the start that the Chromebooks are a learning tool, not a toy, and that while there are games that can be played using them, we don’t play on them. Fortunately, most of my students readily grasped this nuanced idea and know better than to ask if they can “play” on their devices. (This is also why they know they aren’t permitted to use Chromebooks during indoor recesses, which are very much a time for them to actually play.)

But there are other ways for students to learn through playing. Today while preparing for my math lesson on determining factors of whole numbers, I realised the lesson itself was pretty dry and I needed something more engaging, more fun. So I grabbed my giant bag of base 10 cubes and a box of Ziploc sandwich baggies and got to work. I made a dozen sets of bags that just had handfuls of cubes of differing amounts tossed in them. I told the students that they were going to work with partners help me make a math game. Included with each bag was a blank half-sheet of paper folded in half. On the outside, students were to record the number of cubes. On the top half of the inside, they were to draw and label as many arrays as they could using their cubes. On the bottom half of the inside, they had to list all of the factors and determine if the number was prime or composite.

Did the room get noisy? Yes. Did some students need some extra help? Of course. Did some students mess up their first half-sheets and need new ones? You bet! Did they show an understanding of factors and how to identify prime or composite numbers by playing with small cubes? They sure did!

Tomorrow we will move on to identifying multiples of whole numbers and then we will use Kahoot! (a game-based quiz platform) to review factors and multiples before wrapping up this topic and having a formal quiz on it early next week.

How have you used gaming in your teaching?


Empowering Students

I was out of the classroom all day last Wednesday. I had a great substitute, a former Wiley teacher that many of my students know because they had her in first grade: Miss C, who has been mentioned in this blog more than once. While things were generally okay, there were still struggles and challenges while I was gone that I wished had not happened.

I was out of the classroom again this afternoon, and I had Miss C, who is now married but is known by the same name (at least for the time being), but I wanted to see if I could help the students have more success. One thing I had thought about was empowering them to make choices on their own.

I had one student who likes to work in another teacher’s room when he is feeling overwhelmed by peers around him. I gave him two passes that he could use, one during reading workshop and one during writing workshop. I reminded him who the substitute would be and encouraged him to stay in the room to help as needed but made sure he knew he could use his passes if he needed to.

Another student often gets bored in class and needs something to do to feel like he is contributing in a helpful way. So I gave him the task of putting mail in the mailboxes and in helping Miss C with technology issues if they happened again.

A third student had a math assessment he needed to complete. He knew that he would be able to use his Chromebook once the assessment was completed, and so he had an incentive to complete his work.

And so it went. Students were given specific tasks and were encouraged to do their best while I was gone. I left the room right before lunch, with students excited to help their former teacher and show their current teacher what they could do.

The report I got at the end of the day was that the students were awesome. They worked on reading, vocabulary, and writing. They helped the substitute, they cleaned the room at the end of the day, and they generally followed directions, met expectations, and showed that they knew what they were expected to do.

I have often been asked about my approach to student discipline. I am not shy about stating that my approach is one of encouraging actual discipline: self-control, self-regulation, and pro-social skills. Discipline is helping student treat others with respect and dignity and to advocate for themselves when they feel that they are not being treated with respect and dignity. Too often, teachers use “discipline” to mean “punishment.” What I heard from my friend and substitute today was that my students showed that they have the discipline to do what is expected when they are empowered to do it. They didn’t need threats of punishment or retribution; they only needed to know what to do, how to do it, and why it should be done. Knowing they can do it in the classroom, I hope they realise that they can do it anywhere!

Does it work every day? No, of course not. My students are children who are still learning. I am still learning and I am 35 years old as of last Friday. I don’t ask for perfection; I ask only for effort. I am pleased that my students responded by rising to the occasion!


The Wonder Wall

I was participating in a Twitter chat over the weekend when someone made a point I had never thought about before: the walls and halls of our school buildings are just as much a part of the learning environment as everything else; what are we doing with them?

I thought about my own classroom walls. One wall is a giant bank of windows, another has bulletin boards where I post reading strategies for comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and expression, another is taken up by my Promethean Board, and the fourth is a giant mirror with a bookcase underneath it. Not much I can do with those spaces.

But I also have a bulletin board outside my classroom that has not been updated as frequently as it should be. For the past couple of months, it has had some posters the students made explaining different plane figures and geometric concepts. Bo-ring.

So today I finally took it all down, including the faded border with illustrations of apples and pencils. I told the students that this was going to become our new wonder wall. I laid out a large pile of Post-It notes and asked students to write down something they had learned or something they still wondered and then they stuck them on our classroom door. As they walked out, they would read them. There were notes about math, about listening to others, about the importance of reading, as well as questions about college and careers and driving cars. At the end of the day, I transferred the Post-It notes to the bulletin board so that passers-by can read them, too.

I may not have the students write notes every day, but we are going to do this often enough, and with lots of different sizes and colours of Post-Its, that the bulletin board will eventually be filled with the things we have learned and the things we have wondered. Once we get some more content, I will take a picture so you can check it out, too!


Network Issues and a Broken Toe

So, I haven’t updated my blog in a while. And there is a really simple, but kind of silly, reason why: my district’s network won’t let me access my blog’s admin panel. I can visit my blog, but I can’t post any updates while at work. So I haven’t been posting any updates at all.

“But wait!” You ask, “Why don’t you just update at home?”

I used to do that. But then I realised I was taking time away from my family. So I tried to write my blog posts during the time I had after school while waiting for my wife to come pick me up. I suppose I could write them in Google Docs and then just copy and paste from home, but for some reason that I can’t identify, I haven’t been doing that. Maybe I ought to start. Or maybe I ought to just start blogging from home again.

What’s ironic is that I am writing this from home right now. Mostly because I managed to break my little toe yesterday and didn’t do anything about it last night. I spent most of today hobbling around the building, trying to keep up with my students who didn’t fully realise what a teacher’s broken toe would mean. But I am writing from home because my wife is downstairs painting and I am upstairs, trying to keep my foot elevated and wondering how such a tiny thing can cause such a great deal of pain.

Which brings me back to the network issues. You see, my computer also stopped connecting to any of our district’s networks this afternoon, so I wasn’t able to pull up notes for reading groups, I wasn’t able to get to my plans for writing groups, and I couldn’t print off the parent newsletter I was hoping to send home this week. I still met with reading groups, but I wasn’t able to do as much as I wanted. And I ended up moving some parts of my day around so that the students had some free choice time at the end of the day. (I guess this was kind of my birthday present to them. Oh, right, today was also my birthday. 35 years old. I have almost spent more of my life living and working in this area than not. Not quite, but almost.)

Anyway, I digress, which, come to think of it, is something I do more often than not when I am blogging.

Having network issues at work when you are an instructional technology specialist and you use 21st century digital technology in the classroom more than anyone else is as painfully inconvenient as having a broken toe. Sure, I can still hobble around and work, but it is still annoying.

I am hoping I can get this issue resolved soon. I would like to get back to blogging about my adventures as a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois. I would like to have more time to reflect on the positives in my classroom. Because here’s the other thing I’ve noticed: I am becoming more negative about little things that happen. Much like having a broken toe has made me painfully aware of every step I take as I have pain shoot through my foot, so, too, does being unable to post about the great things happening each day make me painfully aware of all the not-so-great things that happen every day.

I don’t want to be that teacher. You know, the one who is grumbling about everything and doesn’t seem to enjoy teaching but can’t get out. The truth of the matter is that I do enjoy teaching and I love my students. Each and every single one of them. Not just the 22 assigned to my classroom, but all 284 or so in my building. They make me laugh, they make me learn, they challenge my thinking, they push me to do better, and they expand my horizons as they share their experiences with me.

I hope that they all know that. I hope that they know that they are the reason I come to work each day. They are the reason I keep trying to do better. They are the reason I keep trying to help them to do better, too. I need to have the time to reflect on that and share that every day. Otherwise, I become another grouchy old man hobbling through the building, complaining about how much my foot hurts.


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!


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.


A River Runs Through It

There is a movie I have seen more times that I count that was one of my dad’s favourites, probably because it was about fishing and about a father’s relationships with his sons. (It didn’t seem to matter that the type of fishing was fly fishing, which is something my dad never, to my knowledge, did.) The movie is A River Runs Through It and it is a favourite of mine because it was a favourite of my dad’s.

There is one scene that has always stuck with me. It is when Paul is working on writing an essay for his father. Here is a clip with that scene:

What I love about these scene with the writing is that the father doesn’t care about the actual final product. What he cares about is his son taking time to write well, which involves writing, revising, editing, and rewriting until the piece is clean and polished. Paul gets frustrated at times but he perseveres in making corrections until the work is satisfactory. (And, of course, once it is, he is able to go off to do something he considers much more fun, namely, fishing with his brother!)

I was thinking about this movie this afternoon as my students were doing a math review assignment. I gave them five addition problems, five subtraction problems, and five problems that required rounding to the nearest hundred or thousand. Students were given the option of working on their own or working with a partner. As they completed the assignment, they would bring it to me check. If there were errors, I would mark which ones and then send them back to make corrections.

Some students completed the entire assignment the first time without errors. They voluntarily sought out those who were experiencing challenges and helped by explaining (not doing for them). Others needed to make corrections several times. All students were given as much time as they needed to successfully complete the assignment. Once they completed, they were permitted to either help others or use their Chromebooks to do more math on Front Row, Zearn, or Prodigy.

What I found amazing was that not a single student complained if sent back to make corrections. Nobody complained that it wasn’t fair that some got to use Chromebooks for longer than others. All students focused on doing the work they needed to do without worrying about what others were doing.

I’ve mentioned before that my goal for this year is to have a peaceful classroom that is a community of learners helping one another. Some days are better than others. But I can honestly say that this afternoon during Mathing Workshop was a time when I felt so proud of my students because they were working together, helping each other, and contributing to a peaceful classroom.

As we go on a five-day break for Thanksgiving, I am grateful today for the opportunity to work with these wonderful fourth graders who constantly challenge me to be a better teacher!


Take Time to Breathe and Refocus

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the 85th Annual Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials (aka the Joint Annual Conference). While there, I attended sessions on school culture, restorative practices, arts integration, and leadership. I also got to spend time talking to school vendors about products and services that might be beneficial to my building. My wife and I attended the conference as a guest of the school district I attended growing up because my mother in on the school board. (This was our fifth time attending in as many years.)

I will be writing up some blog posts to share over the break with notes and reflections on some of the specific workshops I attended. Today I wanted to share one common theme I heard through the conference, not just from presenters and vendors but also from the school leaders I was able to chat with. It is the idea of taking time to breathe and refocus.

This year has been a great year. It really has. It isn’t because I have fewer students than in the previous six years (although that is true). And it isn’t because I have written far fewer office referrals than in the past (although also true). It is because I have been able to really engage my students in restorative practices that have shifted the mindset of misbehaviour –> punishment to misbhaviour –> opportunity to learn from mistakes and fix the problem.

It hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t worked all the time, but it has been different and it has had positive results. This afternoon during some math review, it became apparent that many students were getting off task. Instead of the traditional, often default, response of calling the office and sending students out of the room, I called a class meeting, gathered the students to the carpet, and we had a class discussion using the principles of a restorative circle. The responses from students were illuminating. Many acknowledged that members of the class was talking, off-task, and being disrespectful to others. But they also identified changes that would lead to a more focused, more peaceful classroom. They shared insights that I wasn’t aware of and made suggestions that I would not have thought of.

We took time to breathe and refocus and it changed the direction things were going in the classroom for the rest of the day. Instead of chaos and frustration, we had peace and calm but, more important, learning and engagement. It wasn’t 100% perfect. I don’t expect it to be. But it was better.

I am glad I was able to go to this conference and be reminded of the need to use this simple strategy in my life and in my classroom. Tomorrow is the last day of school before our five-day Thanksgiving Break, and then we have three weeks and two days before the Winter Break. During this time, I fully intend on integrating more times to take time to breathe and refocus.

After all, as one presenter asked, “If nobody is listening, is anyone actually learning?” I’d rather have the next eighteen days of school be days of learning instead of days of just talking. It starts with breathing and refocusing.


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.