Approximately 16 weeks ago, I began hosting a student teacher from Eastern Illinois University, a man I will call Mr. G (it is what the students called him, too, since his last name was much longer than even mine). For 16 weeks, he was in my classroom every day, working with students, getting to know them, and, only a few short weeks into his placement, teaching them all day every day.
This made my job much different than what I had been used to doing for the previous five and a half years. More specifically, my job went from teaching my class directly, with all of the thousands of decisions involved in that process, to sitting back so that Mr. G could teach while I gave him feedback and support.
At about the same time, my classroom became even more crowded as I welcomed in a team of five pre-service teachers from the University of Illinois who were in a collaborative placement. I rarely had all five of them in my room at the same time, as I shared the placement with the other fourth grade teacher and our reading interventionist, but it meant that, on any given day, I could have had up to six extra adults in my room (including America Reads/America Counts tutors, Vis-a-Vis tutors, and other volunteers).
For the past four weeks, the U of I students were in a full-time placement, and we all got very used to have lots of adult support in my classroom. We were able to do a wide variety of group work, targeted instruction, and one-on-one work.
But, as with all good things, an end had to come, and that end was last Friday afternoon. After four weeks of an abundance of teachers, we are now looking at the final four weeks of school with just two of us: me and my amazing aide.
True, we still have the tutors and volunteers who come in at different times each day, and yes, the reading interventionist and special education teacher are both able to push in at times, but brief push-in is a huge difference from full support all day long.
Today was the first day with just the two of us. The day started strong. The students were introduced to our next short inquiry unit on Westward Expansion, they went to Music, and then we did our Reading Workshop. Reading Workshop was interrupted by a tornado safety workshop we attended, but then we got back to work and ended the morning reading more of The Lightning Thief.
After lunch, however, was a bit of a challenge. The combination of warm air, lots of sunshine, playground disagreements, and plain old fatigue resulted in a loss of focus for many of my students who are wondering if they are really going to be able to make it through the last month of school. (Spoiler alert: they will.)
I’m excited about the final month of school, though! My aide and I are going to be doing great things with my class, we are going to be doing great projects with Miss C’s kindergarteners, and this last month is just going to be fantastic!
The other day I had the opportunity to accompany five Wiley students to the 39th annual Urbana School District Young Authors Celebration. I have written quite a bit about the Young Authors program in the past and continue to feel a great deal of gratitude that I get to work in a district that so thoroughly supports this program for our students in grade K-8.
During the celebration, we got to listen to a professional storyteller, Mama Edie, who told students that we are all storytellers: any time we come home from doing something and start off with, “Guess what?!” we are preparing to tell a story. I love telling stories. It is often the way that I introduce new topics in my classroom, whether it is fractions (talking about the time I messed up a recipe because I didn’t double the ingredients correctly), or early American history (the story of the Revolutionary War), I am always telling stories.
I also love listening to stories. My students have wonderful experiences and they rarely shy from telling them, no matter how silly or how serious they may be. I listen to podcasts as I bike to work so I can listen to the stories of other school leaders, I watch documentaries, television shows, and movies to listen to the stories others have to tell, and I surround myself with music to embrace those stories, too.
So it should be no surprise that, when given the opportunity, I find ways to let my students tell stories through their writing. Inspired by an activity I used at the Young Authors celebration yesterday, I had my students today engage in collaborative storytelling using Rory’s Story Cubes to start the stories.
Students broke up into groups of four and spread out in the room. Each group was given a sheet of paper, a pencil, and four random story cubes. Then they were given five minutes to start telling their stories. Every five minutes, they would rotate papers, read what the previous group wrote, and continue the story, using the story cubes if needed or just picking up where they left off. This provided a great way for them to tell stories together, have fun, and work on writing, all at once.
As students read each others’ stories, they began revising and editing, making corrections and clarifying confusing points. They supported one another and engaged in the writing process in a way that they don’t often do. While I won’t be able to do a writing activity like this every day, it was a great way to kick off the return of Mr. Valencic teaching writing. (My student teacher is finished on Friday and so we decided to transition back some instructional control to me today, starting with writing so that he wouldn’t start a new unit and have me finish.)
How have you engaged in collaborative storytelling? Do you find it valuable?
[NOTE: The following is a review I wrote for MiddleWeb, an online organisation all about teaching and learning in the middle grades, which they define as grades 4-8. I have written four reviews for them previously, all of which can be found here. This review will likely be on their website in the next two or three weeks. In the meantime, you can read it now.]
Quick! Grab a pen or pencil or open up a new document on your computer. Ready? Good. Now, write down the name of every initiative you school or district has adopted since you started working there. Go ahead, I’ll wait. All finished? Okay. Now, circle all of the ones that you can prove are improving student learning and growth. How many initiatives did you list? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? How many did you circle? One? Two? Zero?
If there is anything that school leaders and policymakers are frustratingly good at doing, it is coming up with new initiatives for classrooms, schools, and districts. Whether the initiatives are focused on academics, behavior, instruction, culture, family engagement, teacher quality, or any number of possibilities, there is not a school in the nation that doesn’t have at least one new initiative put into place every year. But what do we do after we initiate the initiative? How do we know if it is actually making a difference? Are we even bothering to check? Or do we just start something new and keep doing it mechanically, thinking to ourselves that this, too, shall pass? Has the Shiny New Thing become so commonplace that we don’t even care if it works or not?
Dr. Nikki C. Woodson, an educational leader, and James W. Frakes, a business consultant who has spent much of his career working with the manufacturing industry, both believe that the problem with initiatives is not the initiatives themselves, but the lack of intentionality and monitoring. In their book, Is It Working in Your Middle School?, they provide a simple framework for identifying appropriate initiatives and monitoring them with consistency so that teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders can separate the wheat from the chaff and put into place programs, policies, and practices that will lead to meaningful, lasting changes in your school.
While focusing on middle schools, the authors are quick to note that their framework, based on proven quality assurance processes, can be used in any school setting and, indeed, in any organization that wants to know if what they are doing is actually making a difference. Their process will help anyone with an interest in improving their school to identify all of the current initiatives, or programs in place, eliminate the ones that have no discernible purpose, set S.M.A.R.T. goals, identifying quantifiable strategies, assess the efficacy of the strategies, monitor for success, and plan for next steps to the school improvement process truly continuous. To help the reader through the process, Woodson and Frakes provide templates for reflection, goal setting, planning, and monitoring which can be either copied from the book or downloaded for free through a website given. They also use a case study to model how their framework has been used to change a middle school’s approach to improvement plan goals.
Classrooms, schools, and districts are constantly adapting as they try to keep up with the latest research, best practices, and the ever-changing landscape of education in the 21st century. These adaptations are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing; they can push a school to grow and improvement. Growth and improvement will only happen, though, if teachers and leaders work together to monitor the changes and keep asking each other two simple questions: Is it working? How do we know? If you are concerned that the programs you are using in your classroom, school, and/or district are not making a difference in student achievement but are not sure how to prove it, or you are convinced that your programs are working but need evidence to justify continuing them, this is the book for you! You may not be able to stem the tide of Shiny New Things coming your way, but you will be able to show which ones are making a difference in the lives of your students and which ones are just passing fads.