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

Fourth Grade

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.

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Corneal Abrasion

Back in August, about two weeks before school started, I managed to get a corneal abrasion on my left eye when I smacked my face into the top of my car door and my sunglasses slipped and hit my eye. To make matters worse, it was over 24 hours before I was able to see an eye specialist who immediately identified the problem and had me begin a round of treatments that involved a corneal bandage (essentially a giant non-prescription contact lens), antibiotic eye drops, and moisturizing eye drops.

The next day, I went back in and was given a new bandage and a stronger antibiotic. The following day, a Saturday, I went in again, got yet another bandage for my cornea, and set an appointment for the coming Monday. That Sunday, I realised that the corneal bandage had fallen off over the night (a frighteningly easy thing to do when I have no vision in my left eye and it occasionally opens while I am asleep and darts around while in REM sleep), and I called the eye doctor’s personal number. He, being an outstanding individual, met me at the office about fifteen minutes after I called him and took care of me, even though I had interrupted dinner with his brother!

Eventually my eye healed and I thought all would be well.

And for about seven weeks, it was.

Until this morning.

I woke up to the sensation of sandpaper being scraped across my left eye. Not much fun, I can assure you! I applied some moisturising eye drops and continued preparing for my day. As I got to work, I realised that my eye was red, swollen, and burning: all signs of a corneal abrasion. I talked to my principal and we tried to arrange for a substitute for me, but no one was available.

So, what did I do?

I did what any teacher does: I made do. My students still needed to go to P.E. and Art. They still needed to read, write, and work on vocabulary. They still needed to learn about a social studies inquiry unit we are starting. They still needed to go to lunch. They still needed to review place value and how to represent numbers in base 10. They still needed an afternoon recess. They still needed to work on personal narratives. They still needed to listen to more of the book Wonder.

In short, they still needed to learn.

Which meant I still needed to teach.

Even though my eye was burning, my eyes were watering, and my head was in pain, I still taught. I pushed through the pain, relying almost entirely on adrenaline to keep me from collapsing.

And it worked. I taught, and my students learned.

Of course, as soon as school was over, I called my eye doctor, scheduled an immediate appointment, and he confirmed that my cornea was indeed scratched again. His sense is that my cornea never quite fully healed from August, so I may have to see a corneal specialist who will remove the entire cornea and work medical magic to make me all better.

At least the abrasion was on my blind left eye!


Meaning in the Numbers

I love data. I know, it is weird. But, seriously, looking at and interpreting data makes me happy. I can look at a spreadsheet full of numbers and make sense of it in a way that I know many don’t. I don’t know if that is because I am not a visualiser (a condition known as aphantasia) or just because I have been around enough data-minded people that it makes sense to me. Whatever the reason, I really, honestly, sincerely, deeply, passionately love data, especially when it comes to my profession.

Oddly enough, my love for data has also had a positive impact on my understanding of genealogy, or the study of one’s family history. While genealogy has long been a mild interest for me, it increased dramatically after my father passed away last February and I realised I didn’t know nearly as much about my family’s history as I would have liked. I have spent countless hours on sites like Family Search and Ancestry, combing through records that list names, dates, and locations. At first, this information didn’t make much sense to me, but once I realised it was just data, it was as if a light went on, and I found that a quick glance at a couple of US Census report from the early 20th century could reveal that my great-grandmother died when my grandmother was in high school and, as a result, my grandmother became the primary caregiver of her family even as she was finishing school.

When that light went on, another light went on for me. I realised that the data I love about my profession is only loved because the numbers and letters have meaning beyond what is on the page or screen. However, that meaning is only valuable if I share it with others or use it in a way that moves my knowledge of my students beyond the initial understanding of the data.

When others look at summary reports of my students, they may only see racial demographics or raw scores on standardised assessments or current levels of learning. I look at these same summary reports and I see stories of children who love and support and respect one another with no regard for racial or ethnic difference. I see students who persevere in the face of great odds, who try their hardest even when they know they don’t quite get it yet. I see the stories of students who know what their strengths are and use those to their advantage, especially when overcoming weaknesses. I see the stories of students who have lived in the same house in the same neighbourhood for nine years and and the stories of students who have lived in ten homes in half as many states in the same period of time. In short, I see the meaning behind the data.

I spent today in training with other new mentor teachers in my district. We spent much of the day discussing how to collect and share data when observing our protégés and how to use a coaching conversation to guide a discussion about what that data means. Just as I look at the data and see the meaning, or stories, behind them, I know that I will need to do the same when I examine the data collected during observations.

Yes, I love data. But that is because the data tell me a story and that story has meaning to both me and to my students.


When What Doesn’t Work Still Doesn’t Work

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting this year about what works and what doesn’t work in terms of classroom management and responding to problematic behaviours. Several of my posts this year have been about what I am trying new, but today I found myself thinking about all the things that teachers have done in the past that simply don’t work and, not surprisingly, still don’t work.

The problem for me, though, is that many of my students are used to these ineffective approaches and it is what they expect. Some of them have even expressed frustration with me for not doing the typical things. I have explained that I am not using those tactics because, quite honestly, they don’t work.

So, what have teachers tried to use in the past that didn’t work then and still aren’t working?

  • Raising their voices to talk over the noise of the classroom. I admit I have done this before. (As a matter of fact, all of the things I am about to list are things that I have done before; that’s a big part of how I know that they don’t actually work!) All that raising my voice and trying to talk over my students accomplishes is adding to the noise levels. It doesn’t get anyone’s attention and it doesn’t solve the problem. What has worked, at least occasionally, is lowering my voice or not speaking at all and simply waiting patiently, even if it takes 15-20 minutes.
  • Calling parents. This is a tough one for me. I want to keep parents involved and I want them to know what is going on at school. But I have found that calling parents about the negative things doesn’t have any impact on what students do. All it seems to do is embarrass the student, result in a change of behaviour for about a day or two, and then the student is mad at me for involving Mom or Dad and then the relationship between the two of us is even worse. Additionally, the parents come to associate my phone number with bad news, and that’s never a foundation for a healthy relationship of trust and communication. What has worked is using Class Dojo, where parents can see the positives right alongside the negatives. I still call parents, but I try to save the calls for great news or conversations after we’ve already messaged one another over Class Dojo.
  • Sending a student out of the room to another teacher. Sometimes this works really well. There are some students who just need a break from their peer group and need an opportunity to recover in another space with an adult they trust who isn’t me. I haven’t seen this as a particularly effective tool this year, perhaps because the other teachers in the hall already have their hands full. The closest alternative I’ve been able to come up with is having a quiet space in the room for students to go to, but this hasn’t worked as well as I had hoped because even the quiet space is still very visible to rest of the class.
  • Sending a student to the principal. This is a time-honoured tradition and one that drives me up the wall. I have done it far too many times in my career, even though it never seems to make a real difference. I’m not even sure what the rationale for such an action is, except that it removes a student exhibiting challenging behaviours from the room. The problem, of course, is that student that quickly enters a cycle of frustration, removal, embarrassment, frustration, repeated ad nauseum. In addition, the principal becomes associated with a) being the true authority figure and b) being the person who metes out punishment. (Seriously, how many times have you heard of someone going to the principal’s office and associated it with anything good? As a prospective principal, that makes me sad. I would much rather students come to me for celebrations than for punishment!) The alternative to this is very similar to using a teacher partner. One idea I am considering is using the office as a quiet place for a student to come and work and then return to the classroom. I haven’t tried this yet this year, but I’ve talked to my building secretaries and they are willing to give it a shot.
  • Taking away recess time. This is something I have fought against for almost all my time at Wiley. The problem with taking away recess is that it takes away the opportunity for students to get physical activity, release pent-up energy, and practice positive social skills. I will take away free choice during recess instead. This means that a student may spend all of recess walking laps. If friends want to join them, that’s fine. If they want to run or jog or skip or hop, that’s fine. They are still losing privileges as a result of their choices, but they aren’t losing the opportunity for physical activity. This has been a strategy that has worked rather well in the past and is one I plan on using more of in the future.

So there are some things that I and other teachers have done in the past that haven’t worked then and aren’t working now. I admit that there are still other strategies that I need to be tried. But, as I told one student today, I’m not going to waster my time or their time doing things that don’t work. Even if it takes us all year to figure it out, we will figure out something that will actually work in making a difference. Otherwise we are just wasting time.

Ain’t nobody got time for that!


Options We Can Live With

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog more than once that I absolutely love reading. I read everything I can get my hands on, including shampoo and conditioner bottles and toothpaste packages. I even make sure any movies or television shows I watch have the captions on so I can read those! (They also help since I am hard-of-hearing.)

When it comes to reading books, there are very few that I have read and put down because I didn’t like them at all. I admit that it happens, but I am usually willing to give a book a full read before making any conclusions about it. Sometimes I read a book and, overall, don’t particularly care for it, but find a brief snippet of wisdom that sticks with me.

That was the case with Teaching with Love and Logic by David Funk and Jim Fay. There was a lot about this book I didn’t agree with, but I was reflecting today on one part that really hit home: giving students choices when faced with a problem. (It is quite possible that this was also suggested in Setting Limits in the Classroom by Robert J. Mackenzie. I’d need to read it again to see.)

There are some teachers who give very artificial choices. Here’s an example: “You can choose to do your assignment or you can choose to go to the principal’s office.” The better option is to give choices you can all live with. I sometimes fall short of this, but I’d like to think that, more times than not, I do a pretty decent job.

One memorable occasion was when I was babysitting for some friends. My friends wanted their kids to clean their room. The kids wanted to watch a movie. I presented two options: You can clean your room now and then watch a movie, or you can play for ten minutes, then clean your room and then watch a movie. Either way, your room needs to be cleaned before you watch a movie.” The options were perfect because the children could either play then clean, or clean first. I didn’t care which they did, because I knew that a movie wouldn’t happen until the room was cleaned. The children tried to negotiate, but I held firm to the options and then an interesting thing happened: the boy decided to clean first, the girl decided to play for ten more minutes. But they eventually both cleaned together and then they both got to watch a movie.

No yelling, no cajoling, no negotiating, no threatening. Simply presenting options that we could both live with.

Today I continued my quest to try something different with my class. I presented them with options as we transitioned to new tasks and let them decide how to go about doing it. The first was for our afternoon recess. It was really hot out today and so I said, “I noticed as you came in from lunch recess that you were hot and many of you were sweating. You have two options for our afternoon recess: we can stay here and have an inside recess, or you can go outside to play. I really don’t care either way. You decide.” The students all looked at each other like they couldn’t believe their ears. Was I really going to let them decide? When it was clear I was, they took a vote. Enough wanted to go outside that that was what we did. And the ones who would have preferred staying inside still went out because they felt it was a fair way to decide.

Another presentation of options was after our math lesson. Math yesterday was a catastrophe. What should have been a 30-minute lesson turned into a 2-hour slog and barely any students learned anything. (I should have just stopped and tried something else, but I got caught in my mindset that we were going to finish the lesson one way or the other.) Today I reviewed the expectations for math, explained what we were going to do and how we were going to do it, and we got through the lesson with plenty of time for students to have independent practice on Zearn, Front Row, and/or Prodigy. At the end, I observed the two options before the class: option one, students argue and talk and disrupt and math takes two hours, using up our afternoon recess and writing workshop time; option two, students listen and participate and work together and have time for using Chromebooks, having a recess, and working on writing. Here’s the thing: while I don’t really prefer option one, I can live with it and adapt if that’s what my students really want. But I had a hunch they would all prefer option two, and they did.

Will every day be smooth and problem-free moving forward? No, of course not. We will still make mistakes, we will still get in ruts, we will still lose our focus. But I think our days can be better and I think my students know they can, too. As I said yesterday, it will take lots of time and lots of patience, but I am confident that it will be all the better in the end.


When Patience Is Needed Most

I have reflected several times this year about my desire and efforts to change the way I speak to my students, how I respond to problematic behaviours, and how I want to encourage pro-social skills among my students by using truly restorative practices in the classroom. In preparing for this shift in mindset, I read a lot of books and articles, I watched TED talks and other related videos, and attending trainings.

What I didn’t really fully grasp was how much patience it would take to make the change.

You see, my students have been conditioned to expect a normal sequence of events in the classroom. Many of you are probably familiar with this:

  1. A student acts out.
  2. The teachers tells the student to stop the behaviour.
  3. The student acts out again.
  4. The teacher more firmly tells the student to stop.
  5. The student acts out for a third time.
  6. The teacher, now very frustrated, loudly and angrily tells the student to stop.
  7. The student argues back.
  8. The teacher sends the student to the office and/or calls home.
  9. The student misses class.
  10. The student comes back to class.
  11. The student has no idea what is going on in class.
  12. The student acts out again.
  13. And the cycle repeats, but this time the student gets suspended.
  14. The cycle repeats and again and again.
  15. The student-teacher relationship is one of anger and frustration.

So when I decided to try this new approach, my goal was to end the frustration and anger. I communicate with parents, but I try to keep it positive as often as possible. (I have still had to make the occasional call about a problematic behaviour.) I have also made an effort to not send students to the office for correction because I truly and passionately believe that my students need to be in the classroom with their peers and their teacher, engaged in learning.

What I didn’t expect is that some of my students would be frustrated with me because of this approach. They are frustrated because I am not playing the game according to the rules they are used to. They feel like I am cheating because I am not doing what they expect, what they want. As a result of all this, I am realising that this change is going to take an awful lot of patience, not just for me, but also for my students who are making the right choices all day, every day.

Sometimes this means that everyone misses out on something because a few students are making poor choices, but that is part of building a community. As I have shared before and as I will surely share again, a community is a group of people who work together to help one another.

It will take time. It will take patience. It will take courage.

I am willing to do it. Will my students and their parents be willing to go along with me on this journey?


Dealing with Aggression and Self-Defense

Somewhere along the line, we have done our students and ourselves a great disservice. We have somehow managed to teach them that defending themselves means fighting back, hitting back, using aggression to deal with aggression. As a person who was bullied by others for the majority of my K-12 education, this breaks my heart. I refuse to accept the idea that violence is ever the answer to peer aggression. There is a better way and we need to start teaching that, at home, at school, on the playground, everywhere we go.

Today I witnessed a student smack another student on the back of the head. I stopped aggression immediately, separated those involved, and assured that my students were safe, which is always my first responsibility. I then sought to understand what happened. When asked why one student it another, I was told that the student I saw hitting another was responding to being hit.

I called a class meeting to address the issue and asked my students what the first expectation for being safe at our school was. They acknowledged that they knew that it was to keep hands, feet, and other objects to themselves. I then asked what students should do if someone did not meet this expectation, if someone was not keeping hands, feet, or other objects to themselves. What I heard from many disappointed me: I was told that the correct response is to hit back because the students believe they need to defend themselves.

This was not the first time I heard this phrase used in this way. It won’t be the last. But it still frustrates me, because it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what defense is. Defending oneself is not fighting others, responding to aggression with more aggression. Defending oneself is to “resist an attack made on (someone or something); protect from harm or danger.” Are there ways to do this without resorting to violence?

Absolutely! Here are some strategies (in absolutely no particular order) that I used in response to peer aggression and bullying when I was growing up. The interesting thing is that anyone who tried to bully me often gave up quickly. Unfortunately, new bullies arose each year, but I was able to use these strategies with success each time. One thing I hope you will notice in this list is that violence is not in it.

  • Tell the person to stop! It is amazing how often we forget about this step. Sometimes others think they are just playing around, doing what they do with family at home. Some just need to know that what they are doing is hurting others. The majority of students do not want to hurt others.
  • Walk away. Remove yourself from the situation and the aggressor has no target present.
  • Report the problem to a trusted adult. The adults you trust can’t help you if they don’t know what the problem is.
  • Surround yourself with true friends. Your real friends are people who value you for you, who treat you with love and respect and compassion at all times. They affirm your self-worth and remind you that you don’t derive your value from what others think.
  • Ignore them. Many students begin their aggression with verbal taunts. They want a response from their target. They derive pleasure from seeing others upset. Refuse to acknowledge them.
  • Advocate for yourself. Speak up. Speak out. Make sure that you are always the one in control of you and you take away the power from those trying to assert dominance.

As I shared with many of my students’ parents recently, I can’t control what happens to my students when I am not supervising them. But from 7:55 am to 3:10 pm, when my students are under my supervision or the supervision of another teacher in the building, there is absolutely no reason for any of them to ever use violence as a response to anything that happens at school.

There is always a better way. Until we all get around this and teach it to every student at every opportunity, we are going to see the same problems happening again and again. Let’s change the message and change the cycle. Now.