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

Posts tagged “Teachers’ Secrets

March Madness Celebration

I feel very fortunate to work in a school that has classroom parties because I know that it is a tradition that has been vanishing in many parts of the state and in the country. Our awesome Wiley PTA assists us in planning and organising these parties, which are usually done three times each year: once in the fall, when we have a Halloween party; once in December, when we have our Winter holiday parties (recognising that we have students of many faith traditions, we don’t have just a Christmas party), and a Valentine’s Day party. Now, I love parties and I love holidays. But there is one party that I dread each year: the Valentine’s Day party. It usually ends up being lots of cupcakes, lots of sugar, and lots of drama. And so when my fourth grade partner this year, Mrs. B, suggested we abandon the Valentine’s Day party and have a March Madness celebration right before Spring Break instead, I was fully committed to making it happen.

When February came around, even though we had told students and families that we were not going to have a party, there was still some disappointment that we weren’t having a party when everyone else was. (Never mind that my class got to watch a movie that afternoon, instead.) But by the end of the day yesterday, when we had our celebration, I don’t think anyone was wishing we had had a party in February instead!

The March Madness celebration had four components that we turned into stations that the students rotated through: party food in Mrs. B’s room, where students had pizza, chicken wings, egg rolls, macaroni and cheese, chips, salsa, cookies, soda, ice cream, and more; filling out brackets in my room, where students learned about the NCAA tournament brackets and then filled out their own; NCAA tournament history in the Library, where students read a short passage about the tournament and watched highlights videos; and basketball outside with the P.E. teacher.

I can honestly say that this was the most successful party I have had in my seven years at Wiley. The students had fun, the teachers had fun, the parents had fun, and every learned something while doing it!

Huge shout-out to Mrs. B for the idea, the planning, and the implementation of something that I hope will become a new tradition for the intermediate students in my building! So many people were asking if we were going to do this again next year; my answer was the same every time: That’s the plan!

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Cooperation, Collaboration, and Assessment

For many years now, schools have been making a concerted effort to increase the levels of cooperation and collaboration, both within the classroom among students and within the schools themselves among students. It seems strange to me, then, that we still assess students individually.

Think about it. Students spend most of the day working in groups, talking to one another, helping one another, supporting one another. They are taught to share knowledge and resources to find solutions to complex problems, to find creative paths to those solutions. The school day is literally filled with co-laboring, which is the root of the word collaborate.

Then, after they have spent all this time learning and designing and producing together, we sit them at individual desks with individual copies of an assessment and we tell them to show us what they know on their own. Is it any wonder that so many of our students who flourish working in groups (and I mean actually working together, not just copying the work of someone else) struggle when we give them an assessment and tell them it has be completed without any help from others?

There are so many other ways we could assess our students. Portfolio reviews, group assignments with individual contributions recorded, and whole-class discussions are some that I have used after seeing the research that goes into them. There are surely a multitude of other tools that we could use to determine whether or not our students know the material they have been taught and understand how to use the tools they have been given.

And yet we still default to the independent assessment. It is built into our DNA as educators, it has been enshrined in our practice, and it has been encoded in our laws.

A few nights ago I rewatched a favourite film of mine: Australia. There is a line shared a few times that I often come back to when I reflect on what we do in our classrooms and in our schools: It is this simple but profound statement: “Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.”

I often think about what schools would look like, sound like, feel like, be like if I could start from scratch with a team of highly-skilled teachers, staff, and leaders and recreate the education system from the ground up. We did it in our nation over a hundred years ago, back in 1893 when the Committee of Ten designed the system as we know it today. What would happen if a new Committee of Ten were commissioned and charged with redesigning the system with 21st century learning as the focus? What would we change? What would I change? Why?

These are some of the things that I think about. I don’t really have any answers yet. What do you think?


Recalibration

Sometimes you get into a pattern of doing things and it seems to be working well so you keep doing it. Other times you get into a pattern of doing things and it starts off all right but then goes astray little by little until you look around and realise that you aren’t anywhere close to where you want to be.

I once heard a story about an airline pilot who set a course for a lengthy flight that was off by just one degree. For some flights, such a minute error wouldn’t make a significant difference, but for long flights, an error of just one degree can result in the plane being hundreds of miles off course. In this particular story, by the time the error was recognised, it was too late, ending in a tragedy.

Now, I’m saying that the minor errors in an elementary classroom are going to lead to tragedies if left alone, but I am thinking about how easy it is to get in a rut and not recognise the minor errors until it may feel like it is too late to go back and fix them. For example, teachers often set a voice level expectation in the classroom as we help our students learn how to modulate their volume based on different settings. If everyone is meant to be reading independently, we may tell the students that they should be at a voice level zero, which is silent. This isn’t because we don’t want talking, but simply because talking while others are reading is distracting. On the other hand, a student who is giving a presentation to the entire class may be told to use a level four voice, which is a presenting voice that can be heard by everyone.

If I tell students that they should be at a level zero and then ignore the quiet talking, what I am actually communicating to them is that a level zero is actually a whisper or quiet conversation. If this goes on for too long, then eventually we don’t even have a baseline for what a level zero actually is. Fortunately, we can recalibrate. We can pause whatever academic instructional topic we are on and adjust voice levels to where they need to be.

We have been doing some recalibrating in my classroom over the past few weeks to fix some errors with how we do our reading workshop time. Tomorrow morning we will do some recalibrating with voice levels, too, so that students can more effectively work while respecting the rights of others to work without distractions. After all, the classroom is a community and a community is a group of people who help one another!


Limits with Limitless Possibilities

I am a big fan of setting limits, of establishing boundaries, or making parameters known. These are things that make like slightly more predictable, comfortable, and safe. I’ve blogged before about the benefits of setting limits in the classroom and how that relates to classroom management. What I am writing about today, though, is something different. I am writing about the limitations that actually lead to limitless possibilities.

It has been a long-standing tradition in my classroom that students get 30-45 minutes each week on Friday to engage in an activity that I call “Read, Write, Think!” While I have blogged about this before, too, the gist of it is that, during this time, students have several options: the can read independently, with a partner, or in a group; they can write independently, with a partner, or in a group; or they can think by  drawing, playing cognitive games with others, solving puzzles, or doing math. This is a time when Chromebooks are closed and students are selecting what they will do.

There are definite limits to this activity. It is not free choice, which is something that they may have done in the primary grades. It is not indoor recess, which they have had lots of during the cold months of winter. It is a time for students to select from a menu of options a task that they want to engage in. Some may wish to do something from each category. Others pick on option and stay with it.

What is interesting about these limits is how limitless the possibilities are. There are three categories with ten sub-categories. But I have hundreds, if not thousands, of books in my classroom. Student writing can be anything at all. I have dozens of cognitive games and puzzles. There are likely an infinite number of math problems or challenges that students could tackle. And so the limitations still have limitless possibilties.

It is easy to look at the limits and bemoan what cannot be done. Far too often, I hear students say, “But I don’t want to do that!” My goal is to help them see the limits and as a way of focusing on what they can do, though. I definitely have limitations on what I can do in my life, but within those limitations? The possibilities are endless!


Learning Through Play

I am a big fan of learning through play. It is one of the main reasons I started my after-school tabletop gaming club. But I try to incorporate meaningful play into the classroom, as well. Sometimes I am more successful than others, but I keep trying. I think students learn more effectively and retain concepts and skills longer when they developed them through a play-based structure.

Maybe this is why websites like Prodigy are so popular among students. They are practicing and developing math skills in order to level up wizards and fight off monsters. I have some students who would play Prodigy all day long if they could.

Of course, while students play Prodigy using their Chromebooks, they don’t actually play anything on their Chromebooks. I have made very clear from the start that the Chromebooks are a learning tool, not a toy, and that while there are games that can be played using them, we don’t play on them. Fortunately, most of my students readily grasped this nuanced idea and know better than to ask if they can “play” on their devices. (This is also why they know they aren’t permitted to use Chromebooks during indoor recesses, which are very much a time for them to actually play.)

But there are other ways for students to learn through playing. Today while preparing for my math lesson on determining factors of whole numbers, I realised the lesson itself was pretty dry and I needed something more engaging, more fun. So I grabbed my giant bag of base 10 cubes and a box of Ziploc sandwich baggies and got to work. I made a dozen sets of bags that just had handfuls of cubes of differing amounts tossed in them. I told the students that they were going to work with partners help me make a math game. Included with each bag was a blank half-sheet of paper folded in half. On the outside, students were to record the number of cubes. On the top half of the inside, they were to draw and label as many arrays as they could using their cubes. On the bottom half of the inside, they had to list all of the factors and determine if the number was prime or composite.

Did the room get noisy? Yes. Did some students need some extra help? Of course. Did some students mess up their first half-sheets and need new ones? You bet! Did they show an understanding of factors and how to identify prime or composite numbers by playing with small cubes? They sure did!

Tomorrow we will move on to identifying multiples of whole numbers and then we will use Kahoot! (a game-based quiz platform) to review factors and multiples before wrapping up this topic and having a formal quiz on it early next week.

How have you used gaming in your teaching?


Empowering Students

I was out of the classroom all day last Wednesday. I had a great substitute, a former Wiley teacher that many of my students know because they had her in first grade: Miss C, who has been mentioned in this blog more than once. While things were generally okay, there were still struggles and challenges while I was gone that I wished had not happened.

I was out of the classroom again this afternoon, and I had Miss C, who is now married but is known by the same name (at least for the time being), but I wanted to see if I could help the students have more success. One thing I had thought about was empowering them to make choices on their own.

I had one student who likes to work in another teacher’s room when he is feeling overwhelmed by peers around him. I gave him two passes that he could use, one during reading workshop and one during writing workshop. I reminded him who the substitute would be and encouraged him to stay in the room to help as needed but made sure he knew he could use his passes if he needed to.

Another student often gets bored in class and needs something to do to feel like he is contributing in a helpful way. So I gave him the task of putting mail in the mailboxes and in helping Miss C with technology issues if they happened again.

A third student had a math assessment he needed to complete. He knew that he would be able to use his Chromebook once the assessment was completed, and so he had an incentive to complete his work.

And so it went. Students were given specific tasks and were encouraged to do their best while I was gone. I left the room right before lunch, with students excited to help their former teacher and show their current teacher what they could do.

The report I got at the end of the day was that the students were awesome. They worked on reading, vocabulary, and writing. They helped the substitute, they cleaned the room at the end of the day, and they generally followed directions, met expectations, and showed that they knew what they were expected to do.

I have often been asked about my approach to student discipline. I am not shy about stating that my approach is one of encouraging actual discipline: self-control, self-regulation, and pro-social skills. Discipline is helping student treat others with respect and dignity and to advocate for themselves when they feel that they are not being treated with respect and dignity. Too often, teachers use “discipline” to mean “punishment.” What I heard from my friend and substitute today was that my students showed that they have the discipline to do what is expected when they are empowered to do it. They didn’t need threats of punishment or retribution; they only needed to know what to do, how to do it, and why it should be done. Knowing they can do it in the classroom, I hope they realise that they can do it anywhere!

Does it work every day? No, of course not. My students are children who are still learning. I am still learning and I am 35 years old as of last Friday. I don’t ask for perfection; I ask only for effort. I am pleased that my students responded by rising to the occasion!


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.