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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Trying Something New

There is an old maxim that is often attributed to various famous people who, while they may have said it at some point, are likely not the origin. The maxim is this: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting a different result.”

There are several things I find interesting about this statement: First, it emphasises doing the same thing the same way. That is different from trying to accomplish the same thing by doing something in a different way. The first is unproductive; the second is the heart and soul of critical thinking and problem solving. Second, the statement has a lot of validity in and of itself; I don’t know why people feel the need to attribute it to famous individuals or organisations. Third, I have noticed that those in my profession are notorious for doing the same thing in the same way and getting frustrated by the same results, as if we expected something else to happen.

This was on my mind today when a student of mine was acting out in class, getting up and wandering the classroom, and trying to tell others what to do instead of focusing on personal responsibility. This is a student who is used to teachers taking away recess time, calling Mom, sending the student to the principal’s office, and either issuing detentions or suspensions. When asked, the student admitted that this has been the typical response of teachers since kindergarten.

When I heard this, I simply looked at the student and said, “Then why on earth should I do that, too? It clearly doesn’t work; your behaviour hasn’t changed in four years as a result of the punishments. Why don’t we try something new?” The student looked at me as if I was crazy. But I was absolutely serious. The usual punishments haven’t worked. All they have succeeded in doing is make the student less inclined to want to be at school in the first place.

During this conversation, I thought about the Collaborative Problem Solving strategy I learned about this summer. I especially wondering if I was remembering the three steps of his Plan B approach: Plan B showing empathy, defining the problem by expressing concerns, and inviting them to brainstorm solutions. What I realised was that the most challenging component is getting the student to engage in the conversation. (Ironically, this was strongly emphasised in Dr. Greene’s book.)

I am going to be gone tomorrow but I am going to try again with this student on Wednesday. Because while I am not going to do the same thing in the same way and expect a different result, I am absolutely going to try something else.


Reducing Distractions

Classrooms have a lot of ambient noise in them. I once used a decibel meter on my iPad and found out that the average level of noise in my room was about 65 dB if everyone was present and trying very hard to be silent. Once we add movement and activity, the noise levels increase dramatically.

This can be especially challenging when I am trying to teach my students to engage in different tasks at the same time during Reading Workshop. Some students will be reading independently, some will be doing individual practice on Chromebooks, some will be working on writing, and others will be meeting with me. The size of these groups vary depending on the activities, but it almost always results in an increase in noise, even when we are trying to work as quietly as possible.

Today we added to the mix our Drama teacher who came in to work with the students on an arts infusion project involving narratives and plays. Even though she was only working with a relatively small number of students at a time, the ambient noise was enough that many were distracted and struggled with staying focused on their own tasks.

I realised this afternoon that what may help my students the most is a simple tool to reduce distractions: noise-cancelling ear muffs. I once had a massive classroom supply of these that I picked up at Harbor Freight nearly six years ago. In fact, I had 30 sets, because I had 28 students that year and I figured a few extra would not be a bad idea.

Over the intervening years, however, that collection has dwindled down to just one pair. Some of the original 30 were borrowed and never returned. Some were damaged, either accidentally or, sadly, intentionally, by students. One way or another, I have lost most of my collection. So now I am contemplating devoting a portion of my wonderful district-provided classroom budget to restocking. (I usually use this money to purchase new books for my classroom or to pay for subscriptions to educational websites to support learning.) While Harbor Freight still sells them, I can get them for much less through Dollar Tree where they are, of course, just $1 (although I have to buy them in cases of 12, that’s really not a major concern).

The question really isn’t, “Should I buy them?” though; it is simply, “How soon should I place an order and provide a simple tool for my students to work with fewer distractions?” I am thinking tomorrow is a good idea.


Recovering from a Long Weekend

It happens. We get into the flow of a five-day work week with a two-day weekend and then, BAM!, we get hit with a three-day weekend. What do we do? What do we do? We have this extra day! An extra 24 hours where we don’t have to go to bed early because we don’t have to get up early to get ready for school or work! It is a holiday and, by golly, we are going to make the most of it!

I’m all for holidays. I love them. They are fun and exciting and, sometimes, even restful! Over the Labor Day Weekend, I got to travel to Ohio to visit family that I haven’t seen since last Christmas. I hung out with my two nieces and my nephew. We played with toys, we laughed, my nieces painted my toenails, we ate ice cream, I read a book, we took long naps, and we played games. It was awesome.

But then Monday came, and it was time to head back home. Because, as we all ought to know, Tuesday still comes after Monday and that meant it was time to come back to work, back to school.

I wish I could say my class just picked up right where we left off last week. I wish I could say that we kept on keeping on without a single disruption.

I wish.

To be totally honest, today was probably the most challenging day of this year so far. (And yes, I realise it was only our twelfth day of school.) There was a lot more talking and there were a lot more students who were having trouble focusing on what we were trying to do.

I should have stopped and regrouped. But I kept trying to push through, hoping that my students would correct themselves and get back to being the awesome, amazing, hardworking, focused students I had the first eleven days of school.

But I didn’t and, really, that is my fault. The challenges today are on me. I should have stopped. I should have helped them regroup, to use restorative practices to help my students get back to where they were supposed to be. Sure, my students had a role in the chaos that happened today. Sure, they could have been more helpful in helping me. But I am the the adult in the room; I am the one who does know better and should have been better.

Sometimes we make mistakes. It happens. We get caught up in the moment and we forget what we are really trying to do because we get mired in the stuff that gets in our way. Fortunately, tomorrow is a new day, a new chance to start over, to reevaluate, to apologise, and to make amends.

Thank goodness for new days!


Restorative Practices Part II

Last week I wrote about using restorative practices in my classroom, focusing on the using of restorative circles. After missing a day of work due to an illness, I found myself reflecting today on another restorative practice: restoring the classroom to its normal way of doing things.

I was hopeful yesterday that my students would continue to do the things that they typically do on any given day. Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly what happened. And so today I had to take time to restore not just our routines and procedures and expectations, I also had to take time to restore my relationships with my students.

If I am going to be an effective teacher, I need my students to know and believe two things: first, that I will always do all I can to keep them safe and second, that they can trust me to make sure their time in the classroom is used to help them learn. In other words, my job gets down to two words: safety and trust. If I don’t have those, then I can’t do anything else, no matter how brilliant my units may be or how amazing the technology tools we have are.

So I spent part of today working to restore the trust and restore the sense of safety. It meant that I had to be firm and consistent with everything I said, to take time to listen to what my students had to say to me, and to show them that I will do the things I say I will do. I also had to own my faults in the troubles that happened yesterday.

Restorative practices are not just about gimmicks; they are about truly restoring relationships so that all can succeed, both students and teachers.


Sick Day

Today was the start of the second full week of school, just the second Monday for my students, and I missed it because I came down with some awful sickness over the weekend.

While my class was hopefully eating breakfast in the classroom, I was lying on the couch, munching on saltine crackers. While my class was hopefully reading independently in 20-minute stretches, I was lying on the couch, reading Frogkisser! by Garth Nix. While my students were supposed to be learning about how to actively listen to one another, I was trying to figure out what the word “fossick” meant. (Answer: to dig around looking for something; it is still used with some regularity in Australia, which is where Mr. Nix is from.)

While my students were eating lunch, I was wondering if I could hold down a small bowl of plain oatmeal. While my students were likely listening to Wonder, I was on hold with my doctor on the phone, trying to get information about a billing statement from last June. While my students were ideally reviewing plane figures, I was taking a break from my book to watch a movie, which required considerably less movement than turning pages. While my students were probably writing letters to the principal to suggest ideas for after school clubs, I was eating jello. And while my students were preparing to go home, I was feeling grateful that the aches and pains in my body had finally subsided.

Of course, there are a lot of unknowns in that paragraph about what my students were up to today for the simple fact that I don’t know if the plans for the day were followed, either by my substitute or my students. And because this absence was unplanned, I didn’t take time beforehand to prep my class on my expectations for what my students should do when I am gone. (Hint: they should be doing the same things they do when I am there.) I also don’t know how much support our special education teachers and literacy interventionists were able to provide while I was gone. I just don’t know.

I’ll find out tomorrow morning when I get back to work. I am hopeful that my plans were followed, that my students were learning, and that we will be able to pick up tomorrow right where we ought to. But if the worst happened and none of my plans were followed, well, that’s part of life. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. In those cases, you simply evaluate the situation and move forward.

 


Second Step

One of the many things that I appreciate about living and working in Illinois is the recognition the state has that every resident deserves access to a high quality public education. It is so important, in fact, that it is written into our state constitution! (If you don’t believe me, it is right here in Article X.) Another thing I appreciate is that Illinois expects all students, as part of this high quality public education, to learn not just academic and physical skills, but also social/emotional skills–what we often refer to as social/emotional learning or just SEL.

The very first class I took in my graduate school program was on “school adjustment,” or how students adjust from life at home to life at school with, quite often, a very different set of expectations. As part of that class, I got to research different SEL programs offered to schools and learned that the one we used in Urbana, called Second Step, was one of the highest ranked programs because it is thoroughly research-based and tested across a wide cross-section of learning environments throughout not just the United States, but the world. I also learned that the edition of the program we were using was rather old and began a personal campaign to convince the Powers That Be to invest in updating to the newest version.

A year later, I was told that we would stick with the old program because it wasn’t that much different. A year after that, I was told that they were looking into it. And then, at the end of last year, I was told that we were switching over to the newest edition for the entire district. I was, of course, ecstatic, although I hadn’t even had a chance to look deeply at what the program looked like.

Today was the first time I taught a Second Step lesson with the new curriculum. The first time I noticed was that my students were actually engaged in the lesson for the full duration of it. The videos, the prompts, the discussions, and the pacing seemed important and relevant to them. I love the embedded videos, that the scenarios presented are actual fourth graders dealing with actual problems that fourth graders actually encounter, and that everything is focused on helping my students achieve, as it says on the cover of the program binder, social and academic success.

“But wait!” you cry, “You said that social/emotional learning is in addition to academic and physical skills! How does SEL lead to academic success?”

I’m so glad you asked! Students who are able to navigate the world of public education, in their interactions with peers and teachers and others, are going to be able to better navigate the world of learning about mathematics and literacy and science and history and all of that.They are deeply connected. Students who can respond to disappointment, to anger, to joy, and to boredom, and to excitement, just to name a few, in a way that doesn’t disrupt their lives are going to be able to stay in “learning mode” in a way that others will not.

And that is why social/emotional learning is so important to me. Gone are the days that we simply assume that kids who do well do so because they want to and those who don’t don’t. We recognise that our children need to learn how to do well and if they aren’t, it is because they don’t know how to do it… yet. I am so excited to see how this program works throughout the year and to see the different it makes in my students’ lives! Huge thanks to those in my district who listened to my pleas and saw the same need I saw in providing a better SEL program to all of our students!


Book Review: Lost at School

I have done a lot of reading over the past three months. In fact, I am currently reading what I believe is my 20th book for the summer. I haven’t written blog posts for every book I’ve read, some because I’ve written about them before, but mostly because I tend to save my reviews for professional books and I have tried to read for more pure pleasure this summer than I have in the past.

That being said, I really do enjoy reading books related to my profession, especially when those books give me not just inspiration, but reliable strategies, techniques, or ideas that I can incorporate in the future. One of the books I recently read did just this. The sad part is that it is a book that I first placed my hands on in 2012 and has been languishing on my shelf and in my TBR pile for nearly five years. (more…)


Book Review: What Every Superintendent and Principal Needs to Know

My mother has served on the school board in the grade school district I attended as a child for many years. Far more years than anyone else on the board, actually. (She wasn’t on the board when I was a child, though. I think she first ran for, and was elected to, the board in 2000 or 2001.) In her many years on the school board, she has had the chance to attend the Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials. (I have had the opportunity to attend with her as a guest for several years now and have blogged about my experiences.) This conference, often called either the Joint Annual Conference or the Triple-I Conference, is an amazing experience, with speakers and presenters and vendors who inspire and invigorate school leaders.

One of the years that my mom went to this conference without me. she got a copy of a book called What Every Superintendent and Principal Needs to Know by Jim Rosborg, Max McGee, and Jim Burgett. She didn’t read the book, but she gave it to me because she knew that school leadership was on my radar as a possible future option for me. (More on this at a later date.) I honestly don’t remember if she told me anything about the authors or not, but I think that Dr. Burgett was a keynote speaker at the conference and she was impressed by his message.

Jump ahead to a few months ago. I was listening to a podcast series on educational leadership and heard a two-part interview with Dr. Burgett, who mentioned writing this book. I found him to be a captivating speaker and was excited to read a book to which he was a major contributor. I could tell that he had had plenty of experience and developed a considerable amount of expertise in school leadership. I also vaguely remembered that I owned this book, so I dug it out and threw it onto my To Be Read pile at home.

This book isn’t bad; it just wasn’t great. I wasn’t excited to turn the page to see what other wit and wisdom and research and expertise the authors had to share. Much of it seemed commonplace; other points are outdated; others I vehemently disagree with (especially their take on standards needing to be entirely local). The advice was sound; I just don’t know if it was groundbreaking. Maybe it was when these gentlemen wrote this book. From the podcast interview, I got the impression that school leaders weren’t trained very well in the day-to-day operations of schools. So maybe I felt like this was commonplace because I have been blessed with great school leaders who model these practices.

There were some points in this book that struck a chord with me. One of them was a suggestion on how schools can be more active as community centers. As I read a chapter by Dr. Burgett, I had this idea: What if school districts partnered with local businesses to hold an annual job fair open to the public? The key would be that businesses would not have to pay to use space or tables; if they are interested, they are given space in the gym and potential applicants can meet with managers or HR personnel, fill out applications, even have on-site interviews. And, of course, there would be information booths about the district (including any adult education opportunities), transportation, housing, parks, service organisations, etc. I could see this as a way of promoting employment, connecting business and school leaders, and generally improving the quality of the community. And it would be all free of charge.

Another point that struck me was how Dr. Rosborg described the role of the school administrator:

“Your job success will be evaluated by such subjects as physical facilities and equipment; the effectiveness of teachers; the school’s curriculum; test scores; public relations; your effectiveness with the media, stakeholders, and politicians; collective bargaining; diversity; changing demographics; school safety; the perception of school discipline; and the monies available to fund programs. Add to this your need to have specific knowledge about transportation, special education, technology, buildings and grounds, food services, diversity issues, union organisations, health issues, and personnel…

“The good administrator helps teachers incorporate a significant range of strategies and a vast array of resources to help each individual child. The administrator helps develop a team spirit among the teachers. The goal is to create an attitude where the entire school exudes a zealous commitment to reach each and every child.”

I have struggled to come up with a good explanation of what it is I think my job as a school leader will be and why it is so important. Dr. Rosborg put it perfectly, though. Being a principal or a superintendent isn’t easy and it isn’t for the faint of heart, but that zealous commitment to reaching each and every child is what makes it all worth while!

Even though I wasn’t super impressed by this book, I am willing to give all three of these authors another chance, but I think I’ll seek out books written individually instead of collaboratively. I think all three authors have a great deal more to share that can influence others, including me, for good and I hope to tackle some of their other works in the future.

For now, though, I think it is time I take a break from the school leadership books and read something delightfully absurd. I’ll be back with another professional book soon enough, though!