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

Posts tagged “Teachers’ Secrets

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.

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Teaching Students to THINK

Students in fourth grade talk. A lot. And because they talk a lot, they say a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have read a few books by Dr. Tony Wagner, an educator who has focused his research on the skills or competencies students need to survive and thrive in the 21st century, and the seven he has identified are: problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication, analysing information, and curiosity. (This is very much a simplification of his findings, but if you are interested in knowing more, I recommend his books The Global Achievement GapCreating Innovators, and Most Likely to Succeed.) All of these survival skills connect to communicating with others, though, so it would make sense that, as students enter the middle grades (4-8) and really start developing these skills, that they are going to spend a lot of time talking to and with each other.

But because they are in the early stages of learning how to do these things, it also means that they spend much more time saying things that they ought not to say than I, their other teachers, or the classmates, would prefer. Today was one of those days where the opportunity to teach students to THINK before they speak presented itself and I took full advantage of the moment.

Many teachers, and others, I would hope, are familiar with this concept. Before saying something, you should ask yourself five simple questions:

 

Now, I certainly did not come up with this acronym, nor did I make the image. (I tried to find an original source for it, but failed in my efforts.) And there are some variations on it, but this is the one I prefer.

Far too often, my students justify a comment they make by arguing that what they said is true. I don’t disagree with them. However, I do ask them to consider further if the comment is helpful to our learning community and, if so, how. I then ask if it is important to say it right then and there. This is slightly different from being necessary, which may need to be said, but not at that moment. And I end by asking if it is kind. When presented with these questions, students will  often recognise that while what they said was true, it usually wasn’t helpful, important, necessary, or kind.

Now, to be honest, there are still some students who say things that are hurtful or unimportant or unnecessary or unkind anyway and will try to justify it to themselves and others but, most of the time, they will acknowledge that the comments were not appropriate for that setting and will apologise to their classmates and/or teachers.

That is part of learning how to do something. We try, we make mistakes, we change, and we try something new. Sometimes we try the same thing several times before finally admitting that it isn’t working. But we never give up on ourselves or others; that’s what being a community of learners is all about, and that’s why learning how to THINK before we speak is so very important.


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.


Authentic Choices

“Authentic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in education, much like “meaningful,” “reflective,” and “engaging.” Some educators, unfortunately, use these words as a way of playing a game. As a result, I try very hard to make sure that I don’t throw “eduspeak” around just to say it; I think often about the counsel to say what you mean and mean what you say. So when I talk about “authentic choices,” I mean giving students options that are both real and acceptable. (This is likely a topic I have written about before, but my computer’s battery is about to die so I don’t have time to search for it.)

I used to give students many different choices at once, but I discovered rather quickly that there were too many options and students were easily overloaded. So, instead, I usually limit the choices to just two. I make sure that they are options that both the students will find want to select and I am okay with them selecting because they all result in students learning. Sometimes these options relate to selecting a book for a guided reading group. Sometimes it is whether we are going to work on writing first and then math, or math first and then writing. Sometimes the choice is whether to do read to self with lights on or off, or music playing or not.

The point isn’t to have life-changing or mind-blowing choices. It is simply to give the students choice and to make sure they know that they are the ones deciding. I always tell them how many choices they have and that either option is completely acceptable to me. What I don’t do is give them false choices, such as choosing between reading at their desks or having a detention after school. Using language like that does nothing more than lead to student distrust and resentment.

Authentic choices definitely improve the culture of the classroom as students recognise that they have a say in what they do. (Obviously, there are times when I cannot give them choices, such as if they have to do a state-mandated assessment or we have to be at one of our special classes at a specific time.) But whenever possible, I try to give students choices so that they can experience making decisions and observing what happens as a result of those choices.


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.