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

Posts tagged “Personal Reflection

The Peaceful Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That didn’t happen.

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

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

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SMART Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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


2017 Reading Challenge Update

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.