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

Posts tagged “Professional Development

Competitive Inquiry

Over the past couple of years, I have been blitzing my way through the over 130 episodes of a podcast called Educators Lead. It consists of interview with school leaders and teacher leaders across the United States and, occasionally, from Canada. I am currently on episode 102, so I still have a way to go before I am actually caught up.

From time to time, I hear of something on the podcast series that gets me thinking a lot more about how I do what I do. One such thing I recently learned about is a strategy that Dr. Ryan B. Jackson calls “the competitive teaching model.” You can learn more about how he developed this strategy by watching his TED talk below:

While I am nowhere close to being an expert on this strategy, the idea of having students compete against one another for a mutually positive goal caught my attention and I thought about how I could try that in my classroom. As a book by Eric Jensen I read a year ago pointed out, “”if the potential gain is good and the potential loss is acceptable, try out new ideas.” With that in mind, I decided to try something new with an inquiry project my students were starting.

Illinois is in the process of implementing new social studies standards. As is typical with my district, we are using the standards now. These standards, aligned to the C3 Framework, represent a massive shift in how we teach about social studies. Instead of historical events and people and places presented in a chronological order, we are looking at broad topics related to Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. One of the standards for fourth graders is to understand how where we live shapes their lives. Relying heavily on a unit designed by a wonderful colleague of mine in another building, I started this unit by explaining the two key components of research the students will be doing:

  1.  a large group project comparing Urbana to Gibson City so that students can identify how the two communities are similar and how they are different, based on a series of six questions we came up with as a class and
  2. an individual project learning about another state in our country and comparing it to Illinois.

We started the first part today. I used ClassDojo to randomly divide the class into two groups after we came up with our six questions. One group was tasked with researching Urbana and the other group is researching Gibson City. The groups were told that they would be sharing their findings with the other class in two weeks.

So, where does the competitive piece come in? Well, I overheard one of the students in the group researching Urbana ask, “Hey, what is Big Grove? What does that have to do with Urbana?” I responded, “That’s a great question that I expect you to be able to answer as part of your project!” At the same time, the other group had someone ask, “What’s important about Gibson City?” I responded, “Well, Gibson City has a world famous landmark and I expect you to identify it in your project!” Then I told both groups, “Oh, by the way, you have each been given a specific task. If you aren’t able to complete it, your group will fail this assignment! Have fun!”

Now, I didn’t actually think that was a competitive challenge, but when the groups realised that they both had a challenge, they took to it with a vigour I have rarely seen in my classroom! Without even telling them they were competing, they decided to take it as a competition anyway! (Now, before I get any angry phone calls or emails, I should assure all parents and others reading that I will not give any group a failing grade simply because they miss one part of the project. My statement was meant to be partially hyperbolic–I say partially because I fully expect the groups to find the information I required as a part of their project.)

While  I don’t know if Dr. Jackson will totally agree with my tiny step toward using a competitive teaching model in my classroom, I would say that I am at least trying! In the meantime, my students are fully engaged in learning as much as they can about these two communities.

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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 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?


New Mentor Training – Day One

As mentioned yesterday, I was absent from my classroom today in order to attend New Teacher Mentor Training with 21 other new mentors in my district. While I have informally mentored new teachers in my building for six years, this is the first time that I will be acting as a mentor in a formal capacity. My protégé is our new librarian and I am excited for this opportunity to work with her in an official capacity as she gets used to Wiley and the Urbana School District.

Training today focused on an overview of mentoring. It was interesting to realise how much of mentoring aligns to my responsibilities as a cooperating teacher when working with pre-service teachers (i.e. student teachers) and the goals I have as a future school principal. Of course, the biggest difference between being a mentor for a new teacher and being either a cooperating teacher or a school leader is that this role does not have any evaluative aspect; in fact, my conversations with my protégé are confidential and when I give her feedback, it doesn’t get shared with our principal or entered into any tracking system. In other words, my role is to help and guide and support but not to judge or evaluate.

I am excited about this opportunity to grow as a professional educator and hope that my support will be valuable to our amazing new librarian!


Restorative Practices

As many of you know, I earned a Master of Education degree in Educational Administration in May 2016. Over the course of the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to interview for several administrative positions throughout Illinois. It is very common for an interviewer to ask me about my approach to student discipline.

As I mentioned last April,”discipline,” to me, is not simply educator code for “punishment;” discipline is all about helping students develop self-management. As a part of this, my response to the interview question also focuses on my passion for restorative practices in the classroom. This is a concept I have been learning about for about four years, and have paid particular attention to since the passage of Illinois Senate Bill 100, which requires schools to use them to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions through the use of alternative procedures, such as restorative practices.

My school district has been using these at the middle and high school for a few years now, while I have been trying different ideas in my fourth grade classroom. Restorative practices are, simply put, focused on restoring healthy, positive relationships among students and their teachers. Some of these practices may be the Collaborative Problem Solving strategy I wrote about here, or Restorative Circles, sometimes called Classroom Circles, described here.

I facilitated my first formal restorative circle with my class this morning. Several students had been engaging in a disagreement that started with recess the day before. It turned into disruptions during their fine arts class and then spilled into the classroom. Rather than using the Office Discipline Referral form and outsourcing my authority, I had the students involved in the disagreement sit in a circle in the middle of the carpet and then had everyone else sit in a larger circle around them. As the students in the inner circle talked through the issue, they had to describe what had happened and how it made them feel. The others observed simply. One the main problem was identified, those in the other circle were able to share how the incident made them feel. Then the inner circle continued their discussion, focusing on solutions that are acceptable to all parties involved.

Restorative circles are not a quick process, but they have a much more lasting impact that traditional discipline techniques that don’t, in fact, focus so much on student-centered self-mastery and problem solving as do collaborative problem solving and restorative practices. I will continue to learn more about these practices as the year progresses, but I think we are definitely off to a great start!


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…)