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

Posts tagged “Personal Reflection

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.

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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.


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.