There is not a single one of us who has made it out of a teacher preparation program without being asked to form and pen our educational philosophy. I still have my original. It is not that I now disagree with anything I wrote back in 1994 it is just that now I have a boat load of experience to back up every bullet point. Also, I'd add a few pretty important ideas to my own philosophy as it was originally written.
One thing that is really hard for me as an educator is having strong convictions and then being asked to use methods that are not aligned with my educational philosophy. As I write this, I know that I must sound like an insubordinate know it all to some. Really, that is not my intention. I don't ever want to be insubordinate. So instead, I find some kind of hybrid compromise so that I'm still technically following district mandates but yet I don't feel like I've sold my soul. There are three areas where I've really struggled.
I have this really cool kid in my class this year. He is bi-lingual. He is a really engaged learner with a lot of energy to burn and his oral communication skills are effective and honest. He seems like the kind of kid that always plays it straight. I predict that I'll know when things are good and he'll let me know when things aren't. Anyway, today was day two of our #classroombookaday challenge. I didn't feel nearly as much pressure picking out today's book as I did yesterday's. Yesterday's book, Sometimes You Fly, had a perfect first day of school, growth mindset, message. But for the second day, I wanted a book with characters or a story line that were a little more developed. In the end, I chose Riptide, by Frances Ward Weller and illustrated by Robert J. Blake.
I chose it for a few reasons aside from the fact that the plot was nicely developed. I chose it because it was still hot as Hades in the classroom and this was a beach book. It seemed perfect as we were preparing to head into the long weekend. I was returning to the Cape for Labor Day and this book was set just one town over at Nauset Beach. I read the book to a captivated audience. Weller does a beautiful job of allowing the suspense to build slowly before the reader reaches the tension-packed climax. It was no surprise to me that tears were running down my face by the time I closed the book. (I'm one to cry at a sad, or especially happy book - better for the students to see this early on!) I ask only one question when we finish: "So, what did you think?"
The first few students shared that they loved the book or liked the book or thought it was great. Then that active little guy raised his hand and shared that he knew why I chose it. He said that the dog was destined to be a lifeguard (which he was) and that everyone tried to dissuade him and that because he was so determined, and never gave up on himself, his dream came true and that as students, they shouldn't give up on their dreams.
Um, WHOA! I wish I had been that insightful when I selected Riptide. That message certainly was there! This kids response, and while I paraphrased it a little or at least as best I can remember, was remarkable. Not only did it point to a deep comprehension of the text, it illustrated that this kid can make sophisticated connections. I was floored.
Unfortunately, this kid floored me twice today. Over the course of the first week of school, the kids will complete a survey for me. I only ask that they respond to a few questions a day. Their stamina for writing isn't well established at this point so I know that if I asked them to answer all the questions, they'd feel fatigued and write down anything, providing little detail, just to be done. Anyway, I looked at the surveys during lunch. The first question on the survey is: "Tell me three things I should know about you." This same student wrote: "The first thing you should know about me is that I'm not good at reading." WHAT??? It broke my heart. The truth of the matter is that I haven't heard this kid read yet. I'm not sure how accurate or fluent he is. However, goal number one with this guy is to teach him the characteristics of a good reader. He needs to understand that it is ALL about comprehension and meaning-making. This piece is by far the hardest for children to master yet he has shown such promise with meaning-making.
I am of the opinion that elementary teachers put WAY too much emphasis on fluency and accuracy. I get that these are easier things to measure. Timing a kid and counting how many words he or she can read accurately in a minute is easy. More time consuming and challenging is measuring comprehension. I don't think we sit and talk to kids about their comprehension often enough. I get why. I get how hard it is to have a five-minute meaningful conversation with a kid while the rest of the class....BUT, we are doing our kids an injustice when we only measure their success with fluency checks. I feel like we attend to the science of reading but not the art. Honestly, we do the same thing to kids with math facts. We assess the heck out of those and we lead kids who struggle with fact fluency to believe that they are not good at math. I'm not saying that reading fluency and fact fluency are not important. They are incredibly important. What I hope I'm saying loud and clear is that a student who struggles with fluency is not a bad reader or bad at math. As educators, it is our real job to ensure that kids come to understand this too.
Somewhere along the line, my student came to believe that he is not a good reader. This is my problem. I need to figure out specifically what he does well so that we can build on that while working to address any skills that are not as strong. I will only succeed as this little guys reading teacher if at the end of the year he says that he is good at reading. Based on what I'm seeing from him so far. He already is. I just need to work so that he can see it too!
Today was really terrific. As a teacher, you do much to prepare for this big day. There is so much anticipation. There is always a tiny little voice in the back of my head wondering if it will be worth all the hard work.
If I had to do it all over again. I'd do it exactly the same way. It helps that this group of students is particularly observant, thoughtful, and grateful. They really seemed to like the room and they went out of their way to let me know this. In particular, they liked the classroom library! Pure joy is what I'm feeling as I put a ton of time and fair amount of money into the classroom library this year.
It was a terrific day. Before I go too much further, let me share one little fact. It was, at the end of the day, approximately 1/2 hour after the kids left, 88 degrees in my classroom. In our town it was 96 degrees with a heat index higher than that. Can you believe I'm saying the day was terrific? It really was though. I'm not lying.
I seem to have a great group of kids this year. One of the activities we did was a math lesson called 100#s. It is an activity that my team found at Sara Van Der Werf's blog. (She is definitely worth checking out!) The intention of the activity is to create a picture of what collaborative problem solving looks like. This was the perfect lesson for that purpose. While math focused, all students could access the content. The task really did lend itself to collaboration and fun. My students moved through each round with the best of intentions. I didn't hear anyone use a bossy tone and no one came to me with a tattle. This is rare. Usually, at the beginning of the year, while classroom norms are being established and students have little understanding of my expectations, there is a struggle to work collaboratively that sometimes even ends in tears. I am absolutely hoping that this is a sign of amazing things to come but there is a tiny part of me that wonders if the kids were just too hot to argue with one another! I'm fairly sure it is the former and not the later. There are amazing things in store for us!
At the conclusion of the day, I sat down and phoned my students' parents. More often than not the parents thanked me for calling and agreed with some of the observations I had made about their children. These parents also reported that they had already had detailed conversations with their child about the school day. Despite the oppressive heat, we are all feeling fairly optimistic about the school year. I had to leave quite a few voicemails. I promised myself that I'll work hard to make contact with those parents soon. But for now, I couldn't be happier with the feeling of optimism!
I can't believe that I said goodbye to last year's class just 64 days ago. I can't believe that my 62-day summer has come and gone and that the kids are coming tomorrow. I'm ready. I think. You never really know for sure in this line of work. At the very least, I've done all the regular things I normally do to prepare plus some new things too.
I'll tell you what I'm NOT ready for...the heat. The forecast is for a gorgeous 95 degree day in MA. When I popped in my classroom this afternoon it was 84 degrees. It is exponentially warmer once the little heat-makers arrive. I plan to wear my Hogwart's cloak when I meet these kids. I predict that they'll be some perspiration to go with our inspiration.
My plans, although flexible, are penciled in. Due to the heat, we'll go SLOW. We'll begin the day by just chatting and getting re-connected. Then we'll introduce the #classroombookaday challenge by reading our first picture book together. I've selected Sometimes You Fly by Katherine Applegate. I love everything about this book. From the sweet, sweet, illustrations to the poignant message, this book is perfect for a first day of school read.
Then comes the big sorting. Each kid will be called to sit on the stool in front of their peers and will place the sorting hat on his or her heads and instantly find out which of the four Hogwarts houses he or she will be placed in. Houses are sort of a big deal. A student's house is his or her micro-community. They'll work with this small group (5-6 witches or wizards total) throughout the year. While they'll have lots of opportunities to work in pairs and groups with students from other houses, they'll work with these students on many project and problem solving activities. As a result, we'll do a lot to build relationships here so that they are primed for collaboration.
Our first real task is a team building math task. To learn more about it, see Sara Van Der Werf's blog. Establishing some norms for teamwork will be essential if students in our class will contribute to their group and learn from members of the group.
There will need to be some time made for housekeeping (moving into lockers and desks, passing out notices, practicing the fire drill procedures, dealing with school-supplies etc.) I'll try to move through these tasks with great efficiency so that we can stay focused on the important task of relationship building.
We'll finish our day with two grand finale-type events. First, we'll watch the Flipgrid videos that students produced during the last week of summer in order to introduce themselves to their classmates. (I'll scramble during the day to help any student who wasn't able to produce a video so that he or she has a video to share too!) Finally, we'll take to brooms for the first flying lesson of the year. As their teacher, I'm going to ask these kids to put aside their fears and to trust me quite a bit this year. This activity really is just about having fun. Still, I know I'll notice who the eye-rollers are and who jumps in with both feet. No matter what reaction they put out there for public consumption, most kids remember their first flying lessons fondly during end-of-the-year reflections.
And, just before I say good-bye for the day, we'll circle-up and debrief. I'll pose just a few questions for their consideration:
I really do want to honor my commitment to using end-of-the-day reflection every day. I think it will be a great way to communicate out the learning, highlight accomplishments and set goals.
I can't wait to meet these kids tomorrow! But now, sleep! I know I'll need every drop of energy I can muster tomorrow.
How will you intentionally build relationships with and between your students?
There just isn't any work more important than the work of relationship building. Without it, none of the other really important work gets done well. Relationship building begins on day one. While there are some very intentional things that I do to build relationships with kids, some of the relationship building happens naturally in our classroom. When I listen to my students I send a strong message that what they have to say is important and that they are important. When I stop what I'm doing and take time to be present to a student, that student thinks that he or she is the most important person in the room. And inside that moment, the student would be right! When I give a student my full attention and really engage, I'm sending the message that no person nor other thing is more important. This done repeatedly, over the course of days, and weeks, and months, builds strong relationships.
I do other things in and outside of the classroom to build relationships and community. Some of the more important things that I do are:
This type of feedback gives the power to my students. It is a heck of a lot better than me calling out, "I like how SOME students, like Margo, have made positive seating choices." In this example, Margo is probably dying a little and the other students feel like I'm manipulating them into being just like Margo. Plus, from a social perspective, I probably haven't done Margo any favors!
It really is all about relationships. That is what our kids hold onto...more than any content we teach. They, remember who we were as teachers and how we treated them and their classmates. Relationships matter.
How will you help build a dynamic, kid-centered, school culture?
At first glance, this question seemed pretty easy to answer.
I have a goal of talking less this year. When I talk less, the focus is on kids. They'll do the talking and their classmates and I will listen. They'll learn a lot more this way and so will I. I can learn more about what kids know and what they're able to do by listening to them than I can by doing all the talking. Can it get more kid-centered than that?
Of course there are other hallmarks of kid-centered classrooms. Our classroom is one where students have agency. They have a say in much of what they do throughout the day. Choice helps students to feel empowered in our classroom. Our Daily CAFE reading class structure puts students in the driver's seat. They have a say in establishing their goals and they decide which of the daily 5 literacy choices they'll focus on during our rounds of literacy instruction/practice. They are often in charge when it comes to decisions about how they'll show their learning. Decisions about what will be learned are based on what kids in our class can do and what knowledge and skills they'll need next.
But this doesn't really answer the question, does it? The question asks what I can do to build a dynamic, kid-centered school culture. That is a bigger, tougher, question to answer, isn't it?
I can be an advocate for kids in my school. I can give their concerns and worries and their valid complaints my voice. Better yet, I can stand behind them encouraging my kids to find their voices so that they can represent their own concerns and thinking. I can work to ensure that we treat kids and their educations with the respect they deserve. I can continue to ask the questions: how can we give our students more voice and more choice? Is the decision we're about to make in the best interest of the kids? I'll help us all to wonder what we can do to create a space where kids feel they belong. Too often, we focus on getting kids to comply. I'll work to shift the focus toward helping kids to establish a school culture where they have power.
While I'm always happy to speak up, I'm not always confident that I am capable of inspiring change in my school. Traditionally, I've contributed on the smaller stage. I work effectively with my grade-level team but I don't stretch myself to contribute school-wide. This is sort of strange because I haven't hesitated to contribute to district-wide efforts. I'll have to think more on why this is so.
Anyway, this school year I will share thoughtfully. I will give great consideration to how my share might be received and I'll be as sensitive as possible. I will be more receptive and tolerant of opinions that differ from my own. Again, I will make an effort to truly listen so that I can better understand all the members of my school community and their varying opinions. However, as I do this, I'll continue to return to our kids and I'll ask the question; what is in the best interest of our kids (not our adults).
I'm not sure I've really answered this question. It seems like I've put a lot of loosey-goosey intentions out there. This question deserves more thought and it deserves action. I promise to dedicate both thought and action as we move through the school year.
How will you take ownership for your own learning?
This is an easy one. I don't have to dig deep to respond to this question.
I'm wired to own my learning. I have never been complacent. Never in my decades of teaching have I felt comfortable just going along doing the same old thing. Never. I have always been personally motivated to learn and improve my practice as a direct result of what I'm learning. This practice of continuous learning has been further fueled by the women I teach with. They're wired the same way. A week never goes by without receiving a text or an email or a tweet sharing out some awesome new resource. Sometimes it is a link to a blog. Other times it is an article, a Twitter thread, or an Amazon link to the next book I should read. Sometimes this passion for learning looks a tad different. Sometimes it is my colleague next door or from across the hall running (not exaggerating here) into my room to share the awesome thing that just happened or the interesting thing a child just shared. Sometimes inspired learning happens around the lunch table when we finally have a moment to sit down and share what is going on in each of our rooms. Sometimes I learn from my colleagues during common planning time or team meeting times or during our data block. More often though, it happens organically as we move through our 180 days together.
I am so appreciative of the excellent professional development opportunities I've been afforded by my district. Some of them have been truly amazing and transformational but I don't depend on these opportunities to fuel my learning. I am grateful for them. However, I work to ensure that I am learning every year, every month, every term, every week, every day. You get the idea.
Our state works to ensure that teachers are learning by mandating that we accumulate a given number of professional development points (hours spent learning = points) and they dictate that we spend a certain number of hours on content, pedagogy, sheltered English Immersion, and special education. Meeting the state's requirements at recertification time has never been a challenge. I own my learning. I certainly don't behave as an educator committed to life-long learning because the state of Massachusetts dictates that I must. Silly.
This year I'm trying something new. I'm doing what I've always done to maintain my hunger for learning. Only, this year, I'm reflecting on what I'm learning and what I'm thinking about what I'm learning, and what I'm doing about what I'm learning through this blog. I'm making my learning visible. Okay...maybe only visible to me. But still visible.
How will you make learning personal and authentic for your students?
I've been thinking quite a bit about "personal and authentic" since my project based learning training with the Buck institute. Over the course of the three-day training we saw many powerful examples of personal and authentic learning and it was inspirational I do want to create powerful learning opportunities for my students and I think that making their learning authentic and personal will be critical.
During the week at the Buck Institute training, a colleague and I designed a project that will focus on the regions of the United States. While we have MANY standards to "cover" under this topic, our unit focuses on the standards having to do with natural disasters. What fourth-grader won't be jazzed to learn more about disasters? In the end, our students will work in small teams to develop a green screen public service announcement. Their announcements will list the natural disasters typical in their region, highlight one historical disaster in their region, and teach the audience how to prepare for, respond to, and prevent some natural disasters. Their learning and final product will be authentic. They will contact local agencies like, the chair of our town's master plan, fire, police, emcs, National Guard, FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Red Cross. They will set up a panel where fourth-grade students can question the experts who typically plan and execute responses to disasters in our community. This is authentic work. People charged with producing public service announcements do consult with experts in emergency management. We feel like the project will be engaging and we look forward to giving this project a go.
My class will be pen-pals with some of the seniors from the senior center. Generally, the students write back and forth with their pen-pals throughout the school year. At the conclusion of the year, we will gather together to have a big identity reveal. I'm wondering if I can capitalize on these relationships. There are rich opportunities for my students to learn about the past from someone from an entirely different generation with completely different experiences. I'm wondering if there are opportunities for my students to learn civics, geography, history, etc. from some of their pen-pal friends. I'm also wondering if there might be an opportunity for my students to share some of what they know with the seniors. My own mom has made amazing strides with technology in the past year. She has learned from her kids and her grandkids. I'm wondering if all of these seniors have access to tech coaches. Could my students provide some coaching? Is this even something the seniors would be interested in? Finally, might we expand our plans and incorporate some social get togethers where the learning is not planned but might just happen authentically. I'm thinking about hosting something as simple as a game night. Our students could bring the game one night and the seniors could bring it the next time. How cool would it be for my students to learn to play pitch or scrabble or whatever from the seniors? Might there be other things these sets of pen-pals can learn from one another?
Finally, I'll be on the look out for ways to integrate authentic problem solving in the classroom. I have been hard at work. setting up the physical space for the new year. In a previous post, I wrote about the #ClassroomBookaDay challenge I'll be taking on with my students. In that post, there is a photo from another teacher's classroom highlighting the display she set up to showcase each of the books read in her classroom. I've got a big bulletin board reserved for this purpose. I measured it (8 ft. wide x 3 ft. tall approximately) and started thinking about how I could configure it to create 180 cells where book cover photos will be displayed. The picture shows a 18 x 10 grid. I started running numbers in my head and quickly determined that there would be too much dead space or the cells would be oddly shaped for typical book covers. I started to consider other configurations. 18 x 10 is 180 so 9x20 is 180 too. So is 30x6. Our first math unit is on factors and multiples. Isn't this a real problem my students could solve if I gave them tools to support their thinking? So, in the first few days of school they'll get square tiles, calculators, pencils, paper, and any other requested tool to help solve this problem. Truth be told, I actually did solve this problem one day recently while driving along in the car with my 15 year-old son. He and I agreed that it was very satisfying to come up with a configuration that works perfectly. He is a sweet boy and he often humors me when we take on mini-math problems like this but he seemed sincere when he said that it was sort of fun. I asked him to say more about this. He said that he liked that it was a real problem that I had and he liked that he could solve it using any method he chose and he liked that it was untimed. Untimed is a big deal for my son who has processing speed challenges. As soon as he hears that he has limited time, his ability to actually work productively is reduced. This was enough positive feedback for me to be convinced that this problem is worth solving with my students. I'll be on the lookout for problems that are authentic as we move through the year.
One thing that has been nice about starting this blog is that I do go back to read posts I've written. They remind me of what I've learned and the commitments I've made to inspired learning. I hope that I'll read this post months from now and be able to cite many examples of personalized and authentic learning that have become the new hallmark of our classroom.
If students saw the classroom design before the first day of school, what kind of learning experiences would they expect?
I hope their answer would be "MAGICAL". Our room is Hogwarts-themed and the school year is Harry Potter inspired. There are theme connections all around the room. Keys hang from the ceiling and a chess board is set off to the side. Wands and snakes and spiders litter the walls. The classroom door, covered in bricks, has been transformed into Platform 9 3/4. Owls flutter here and there. Quidditch goggles, brooms, robes and even Moaning Myrtle's toilet seat help to set a magical stage.
The classroom library is smack dab in the middle of the room. It is housed in six bookcases and includes picture books, chapter books, non-fiction, poetry, traditional literature, etc. There are lots of matching pairs of books that students can read with a buddy. There are cozy, oversized, chairs for students to curl up in.
The classroom desks are are pushed together to form four groups of five or six desks. There is a table where small groups can meet. There are larger meeting spots in front of the classroom SmartBoard, white board, and another larger meeting spot where we'll share #classroombookaday picture books.
Every decision around classroom design was intentional. The classroom is a place where fun will happen. Most importantly, it'll be a place where community is valued. We'll use those meeting spaces to build and nurture our community. We need spaces where kids can talk to one another and where they can listen to one another. We need work spaces where students can collaborate and we need quiet spaces too.
Our classroom library is central to our classroom. Reading will be an important part of our classroom culture. We'll share books and our love of reading throughout the year. Literature will help my students to develop their social skills and will help them to grow more empathetic.
Our classroom is inviting. It is warm. It is fun. It is a place where I hope every student will find that they belong.
If students could sneek a peek I suspect they would expect their learning experiences to focus on the students BEFORE the content. I suspect that they would anticipate a reading-rich experience. I know they'd sense that community is important and they might be able to predict that they'll be lots of opportunities to collaborate. They might even guess that projects will be key to their learning. The math games and manipulatives out in plain sight will send a clear signal that math will be fun and that the students will spend a fair amount of time modeling and making sense of math.
If my students could see the classroom design before the first day of school I certainly hope they'd be eager to come and to learn.
Our district's assistant superintendent shared out six questions to consider before the start of school. They originated from @thomascmurray. Well thank you very much because you both just inspired this post and the next five.
What will you do on day 1 that has your kids running back on day 2?
I don't think that you can over emphasize the importance of having a little fun. Playfulness on the first day is essential. We'll even get downright silly. Our Harry Potter theme inspires fun and playfulness and even the possibility of magic. Not bad for the first day! Theme inspired happenings include: