Today was Halloween. It was a long and challenging day. My students were fine. They were typical fourth-graders on Halloween. There was a parade at school and there was a small class party where we shared some treats and watched Charlotte's Web (we just finished the book and, as I do every year, I wept as I read aloud the second to last chapter. I'm predictable.). I had an IEP meeting in the afternoon (on Halloween). Tomorrow, we'll begin our day with our monthly staff meeting. There is homework to do prior to the staff meeting. Plus, I have school work that HAS TO BE DONE TONIGHT. There is no way around it. I am exhausted. I want nothing more than sleep. I survived Halloween. There is little else to say tonight.
The dinosaure pictured above is actually one of my students. This actually happened today. That is all.
I had a meeting with a group of third and fourth-grade teachers during my prep today. The topic discussed was co-teaching. The mentor in our group wanted to know how she could continue to support our efforts. There were many questions asked. At times, I felt like I was being interviewed and tested. I felt a little "under the microscope". We've actually come a long way. In terms of our mutual practice, we've done a lot of meeting in the middle. My special educator counterpart has done a lot to convince me that some kids do need supports, scaffolds, and references to succeed. While these references may be necessary at the outset, we can work to diminish the students' reliance on them. Meanwhile, I've convinced her that a lot of the instruction that our special education students require can be provided in-the-moment and that these students need not always be separated from their peers to receive explicit instruction. There has been a lot of meeting in the middle.
When the meeting had concluded, we headed back to my classroom where the conversation moved toward productive struggle. I shared that while an adult might come in my room when children are working on a task and observe me standing on the sidelines while students struggle, I am not doing so because I'm a lazy teacher. It actually takes tremendous self control to NOT step in and organize my student's work on a task. I shared that it is really difficult for me when an adult working in my room, in an effort to "help" the students and appear hard-working, steps in and takes the lead. I know that they are doing so with the best of intentions. I also know that as they're stepping in to save the day, they are likely wondering why the heck I'm doing nothing to help. My choice to stand back is intentional. Getting started is hard for kids. Making sense of the task and breaking it into workable chunks is sometimes more challenging than the task itself. When I step in and do this important work FOR the students I take away their power. The struggle is worth it. While they are struggling they are developing organizational skills, comprehension, and the ability to pace out a task. Executive function challenges don't improve when I do the work for my students. When it get's MESSY, I stand back. I hold my ground. Sometimes, kids get frustrated with one another. Sometimes the way they treat each other lacks patience or kindness. I stand my and wait.
Here is what happens while I wait. Students sometimes figure things out for themselves. Sometimes they dive in and do it all wrong and realize that work doesn't have to be a slam dunk and that it can be reworked. Sometimes they get so frustrated that they come to me and learn the POWER of self-advocacy. Sometimes, when one student barks, another barks back and learns to stand up for oneself. Sometimes students learn that if they listen to one another more and try to lead less, that the path to success becomes more clear. Students learn to become self-reliant and they learn which of their peers they can rely on. How much of this would they have learned if I stepped in to take the lead?
Trust me, I don't let it get ugly. Learning shouldn't leave a scar. I step in before the tears of frustration fall. I step in before kids get outright mean. I just don't mess with the kids while they're sorting out the messy parts. And when I do step in, I coach a little. I don't lead. I nudge. I ask kids about their thinking. I ask them why they're thinking what they're thinking. Sometimes, prompting a child to think out loud is all the prompting needed. Standing on the sidelines is hard work. Not doing the hard work of leading the way for kids is hard work. Stepping aside so that our students can see their own ability to do hard work can be hard work. So, yeah, it looks like I'm working less hard. It is far more important that I work less hard and my students work harder. The hard work of working less hard is worth the work!
That is right! It is official. I am one third the way to my goal. On the one hand, I can't believe I have written 122 posts! On the other hand, I can't believe I have 245 left to go! That seems really overwhelming. I will have to write posts over the holidays and over February vacation when I'll be on a ski vacation. What was I thinking?
The bigger question is: Is this worthwhile? The sad answer is: I have no idea. You would think, 122 posts in, I'd be feeling some of the rewards of this reflection. I really don't know if it is impacting my practice all that much. I have definitely read more as sometimes, I need some inspiration. I definitely think that the blog has forced me to pause and reflect on the learning happening in my room. It has also forced me to take stalk of what I'm doing well and where I need to grow. I'm just not sure it is making any real difference.
I do know that sometimes it kills me to write these posts. At least it does initially. There aren't all that many occasions when I'm jonesing to come home at the end of the day, feed my family, run my kids around to their extra curricular, do my planning, my grading, communicate with parents, clean my house, and wrap up whatever chores or errands I have, and THEN sit down to write. However, once I get going, once the first few sentences are down, the writing generally flows.
What is worth noting is that when you're writing with no audience there is less stress. I do proofread. So often though, I'm writing late at night and the proofreading, bleary-eyed and all, is fairly useless. Whenever I revisit older posts, I find a plethora of errors. I've had to let that go. Generally, I tend to be a perfectionist. I've had to let that go a little.
Also, sometimes life happens, I get tired, and I fall behind. I have to give myself permission to fall behind and then somehow motivate myself to get caught up. There are times when I think, "this is it, I'm probably done." But then, for some reason, I'm able to forge ahead. My kids have been great about motivating me. They definitely aren't reading this blog but they often ask me what post I'm on or try to guess. Whenever I'm struggling to keep up, they encourage me. It really is helpful.
So, I'm 1/3 the way toward reaching my goal of blogging and reflecting about my practice as a teacher for 365 days. I'm honestly not sure I'll make it to the finish line. Still, I'm proud to have made it this far.
The Boston Red Sox won the World Series tonight. I was scrolling through FaceBook as I watched the game and here is a true fact: the kids were all up watching the big game.
Holy crap, the next few days could be hard. Let's just summarize for a moment. We enjoyed a beautiful FULL MOON at the tail end of last week. Then there were five LATE Sox games for the children to enjoy. The Pats will play the Buffalo Bills tomorrow night and that game will likely wrap up well after 11:00. And Wednesday is FREEKIN' Halloween! Then we teachers will need to rest up over the weekend because next week is conference week! I feel like we should get some kind of combat pay for weeks like these!
So the big question today...should the parents of nine and ten year olds, given the possible consequences, allow their children to stay up and watch these sporting events?
My answer may surprise you. YES! In almost every circumstance, I say, YES! Here is why: The year was 1986. The Sox were chasing down a World Series title. We were playing the NY Mets. I grew up in Worcester and Worcester's own Rich Gedman was in as the catcher. Our Red Sox were sooo close to putting an end to the curse of the Bambino! I was an eighth-grade parochial school student at the time and my parents let me stay up to watch the games. I remember how special that experience was. I remember watching with my dad. I will always have that memory.
Memories and the experiences we have with the people we love form our lives. The goal of education, according to this fourth-grade teacher, is to equip our students with the knowledge, skills, and strategies necessary to live their best life. I just don't think anyone should put off living their lives, including children.
So when do I say a child shouldn't stay up? The student who doesn't care about sports, whose family could care less too, should definitely get to bed. He or she will need the extra sleep. After all, when they wake in the morning, they will be confronted by a bunch of fans who are ecstatic or devastated and exhausted. Dealing with these fanatics will require a lot of patience!
Oh Alfie! You nailed it again in your New York Times opinion piece titled, "Science Confirms It: People Are Not Pets". It is worth the read and Alfie Kohn's writing is entertaining to boot. In short, he wonders aloud about rewards and why so many of us insist on using them to motivate students and employees. He presents a compelling amount of research that proves that rewards do not motivate students or employees and can actually have the opposite effect. In fact, offered rewards, students often become less interested in the task that they were being rewarded to complete.
I read another article recently in Education Week, titled "Why Doesn't Every Teacher Know The Research on Reading Instruction?" This article touted the importance of phonics-based reading instruction. The article spoke in favor of using commercially published reading curriculums versus teacher designed curriculums. While that is a subject for another time, there is a common theme here. There is a fair amount of research available to educators and ed. leaders yet we often ignore the research and forge ahead doing our own thing.
Teaching really is a personal affair. I remember being asked to write my educational philosophy in undergrad and again as I pursued my Master's degree. Given over two decades of experience now, I wonder about that practice. Depending on the district you are employed by, your own educational philosophy has little to do with your every day practice. What makes this even more challenging for educators, especially elementary educators, is that ed. leaders, who come and go, can influence major shifts in pedagogy and curriculum. While some leaders work at soliciting teacher buy in, others make unilateral changes with little regard for the teaching staff. I say, especially elementary educators, because, as generalists, it seems to be assumed that we are not content experts and need a tremendous amount of support in order to deliver our content effectively. Hence all the pre-packaged curriculums purchased with the intention of making teaching more uniformed and comprehensive at the elementary level. Given all the mandates to follow this curriculum or that one with fidelity, there really is little to do with our own educational philosophies. Well, yes, I still believe all children can learn and that piece of my philosophy still guides my practice but the rest has been made largely irrelevant as there is not a lot of choice left for me as an educator.
But let's return to the research. It is easier to embrace a rather dry reading curriculum that is well supported, at least in the primary grades, by research. It is really hard to embrace a social/emotional learning curriculum that is not in line with my philosophy and is not at all supported by research. It is even harder to embrace this when I've never had behavior or engagement problems in my classroom before. Maybe there is a boat load of research, in conflict with the research presented by Alfie Kohn, that supports the use of such rewards-based SEL curriculums. I'm just not aware of it.
In the meantime, I'll plod along with this new curriculum. My heart won't really be in it but I will comply (with a smile). That is, I have to comply until the next ed. leader changes my course.
During the summer months, when I was in the early days of my commitment to this blog, I wondered about student self-reflection and what I could do to help students become more reflective. In the end, it is really hard to add to the school day. A constant frustration of mine is how challenging it is to get it all in given the four hours of instructional time I have each day. Yes, the kids are in school from 9:00 to 3:30 but so much of that day is gobbled up my specials, recess, lunch and arrival/dismissal procedures. By the time the kids come in and take care of morning procedures, pledge and announcements take place, it is nearly nine thirty. The kids head off to their specialists at 11:55 and return from recess and lunch at 1:30. On Tuesdays, we lose the kids to KCR for social emotional/social skills instruction and chorus. That means that on Tuesdays, we only have 2 hours and 45 minutes of instructional time with our students! Chipping away additional minutes dedicated to self reflection seems like a big ask.
Nonetheless, I have found a little slice of time for self reflection. Each day, we wrap up our science and social studies instruction at 3:00 so that we can get the kids packed up for the end of the day at 3:10 when walkers and bus students start getting dismissed. When my students return to the classroom, they work on their highlight reel right away and then begin packing up. The students use their student planners which are purchased by our school's PTO. The planners are intended to be used by students as a place to record their nightly homework. I don't assign homework so repurposing the planners for self-reflection seemed like a super idea. There isn't a ton of space for the students to write which is actually great because filling the space isn't overwhelming. The students are simply asked to write about the most memorable moments of their day.
As I review the highlight reels, I am able to quickly see what has impacted students. My students write about the learning experiences that have mattered to them. Generally, the experiences that make their highlight reels are also the same teaching moments that seem meaningful to me. On occasion though, I am struck my how something that is seemingly small makes a child's highlight reel. Oftentimes, it is the one on one teaching moments that make the reel. Students appreciate the individual attention that they receive.
The highlight reel is also a great tool for eliciting a conversation about the student's day at home. I think that even the most engaged student can be at a loss for words when questioned about their day at the dinner table. By then, exhaustion has set in and the school day seems like a part of the child's distant past. Having a handful of sentences to cue up the conversation can be helpful. Parents are sincerely interested in what is happening during their child's school day. Having this little cheat sheet to spark the conversation is helpful.
At the end of term, I think that it will be fascinating for students to review their highlight reels and see if they can make some generalizations. Do they really enjoy hands on experiences in math and science? Do they like research? Are they most engaged when learning is personal? Giving students opportunities to learn about themselves as students seems like a great use of our time. So far, this is a five minute (max.) investment and it seems absolutely worth it!
We are participating in the #classroombookaday challenge. Our goal is to read 180 picture books this school year. We're well on our way. We've read 36 so far. The books I've selected are pretty diverse. Some of the books are silly, while some are rather serious. The kids look forward to this special time each day. Many have gone so far as to say that #classroombookaday is their favorite thing about fourth-grade.
Some of the books I pick are selected for very specific reasons. For example, we read, Picture Day Perfection on picture day. Other books are chosen because I just love them and I'm eager to share them with my students. My students are not living and being educated in a particularly diverse community so some books are selected to increase their awareness and to help them experience diversity if only through the characters who live on the pages of a book. A few have been read because kids have requested them. Still others are selected for no real reason.
I love reading funny books to my students. Listening to their giggles is pure joy. I love when a silly book surprises them and I get to look up and see expressions of wonder and excitement. Kids love to laugh and teaching them that books can be fun and elicit laughter is a wonderful byproduct of #classroombookaday.
Every once in a while I ask the students to name a few of their favorite books read so far this year. I'm often surprised that the silly books don't make their lists of favorites as much as the serious ones do. Today I read a book titled, Tomas and the Library Lady. This is the tale of the son of migrant farm workers. This family includes two parents, a grandfather, and Tomas. They have moved from Texas to Iowa as they often do to secure work on a farm. This boy, who loves his grandfather's stories, wanders into a library in search of more stories. Greeted warmly by a librarian, who takes him under her wing, Tomas becomes transported by all the stories at his fingertips. He begins to emerge as his family's storyteller. Let's be clear, there is not a ton for my students to relate to in Tomas' tale. He is an eight-year-old child but aside from that, his life is foreign to them. Still, as I read this book to them today, they seemed to be in a trance. They hung on every word. When I was finished, I asked them the same question I often ask, "What did you think?" The first child who shared said, "I just loved it. This is my new favorite. May I have this book for my book box?" Many children echoed a similar fondness for the book. They loved the warmth of the illustrations. They picked up on the fact that the mother in the story, thankful for the librarian's attention to her son, baked a dessert as a gift of thanks. They noticed that this family was so grateful that they gave from their need which was truly generous.
my students to understand what life as a Mexican migrant farm working family felt like. is one of the greatest gifts of #classroombookaday.
One of the most important things that I teach fourth-grade kids is to take critique and then to act on the feedback. This is a hard thing for adults to do. Regardless of our age and where we've taken our skills, career, etc., we really love getting positive feedback and shy away from criticism. Here is the thing: if we're going to improve what we do, if we're going to take our work to the next level, if we're going to up our game, then we need honest critiques of our work. Then, we need to take action.
Of course, this is true for our elementary students. Establishing a classroom culture where critique is valued takes some work. First, students need to be taught to critique work...not students. When students focus on giving feedback on work rather than giving an appraisal of a student, the feedback is easier to accept. Modeling and in-the-moment coaching helps to guide students who are giving feedback. Next, students need to be taught the difference between a fluffy compliment or a vague criticism and specific feedback. The goal of specific feedback is to guide the student so that he or she knows exactly what can be done to make a piece of work better.
Critique is something that happens regularly in our fourth-grade classroom. Before sharing work, I remind my students that they're going to get feedback that will guide them in improving their work. I remind them that EVERYONE in our classroom is working on something. I remind them that their classmates and their teacher will give specific feedback because we care deeply about them and their learning.
Today the students were challenged to make sense of two collections of data. The students in a pre-school classroom and the students in our own classroom were asked to grab one handful of snap cubes and then to count them and record how many they could grab. The fourth-graders were asked to use one representation to share the results of the grab in each of the two classrooms. First, and perhaps because the students knew their work was up for critique, each representation was high quality. The students presented their representations and then hands began to take to the air. One by one, the presenting students called on their classmates to speak and listened to each critique without explaining or getting defensive. In the end, my question is always: given the critique, do you know what you'll do differently next time? The students always walk away knowing specific things they'll do to correct their work.
Critique helps to grow our practice. It certainly has the potential to guide us as teachers. Of course, if done well, it can do the same for our students. Today, we critiqued math. Tomorrow we'll critique writing. In the end, we're looking to elevate our game. I think we're on our way.
The last two days have been really exciting ones for our students. Yesterday, Crystal, from a local farm visited with our students. Today, Jessica, a volunteer farmer at an animal sanctuary just down the street from our school stopped in to chat with our students.
Our fourth-graders, who are reading Charlotte's Web, have been wondering how farm animals should be treated. This question first came up the day that Wilbur escaped. Wilbur, a pig, encouraged by the goose, escaped his pen and had an adventure in the pasture. While out on the lam, Wilbur did everything that came natural to him. He rooted, he smelled, he ran, and he explored. It was a glorious adventure. This got my students thinking...shouldn't Wilbur be allowed to live like this every day? What kind of life was he living all cooped up in a barn with only a small pen to visit where he could "enjoy" the great outdoors? Our students have launched an inquiry. Some already have strong opinions about the treatment of farm animals. Others are just beginning to form their opinions.
Each student will focus in on one type of farm animal. They'll do some research to find out what this specific animal requires in order to thrive. But yesterday and today students had the opportunity to interview an expert. First they brainstormed and refined their questions so that they would have the best possible chance to get the information they desired. In the end, these were the students' questions:
1. Do your animals spend time outside? Can you tell us about their outside space?
2. Do your animals spend time in pens? How do they behave in their pens?
3. Can you tell us about your farm animals diets? Can you describe how they are fed?
4. Which animals do you have at your farm? How do you ensure all their different needs are met?
5. How many times do the animals get fed daily?
6. Do you believe that farm animals should be killed? If so, can you describe how you work to keep it stress free for the animal?
7. Are baby animals kept together? Do they get to stay with their mom? For how long?
8. If an animal who has died a natural death be used for food?
9. How does your farm care for sick or pregnant animals?
10. What are some of the daily chores involved with caring for the animals on your farm?
11. How do you handle misbehaving or uncooperative animals?
Crystal and her family members run a local farm that provides beef, pork, lamb, eggs and some produce. Customers love their products because they know that they don't inject their animals with hormones and they know that the animals are well cared for and have enjoyed a happy life on the farm, roaming the pastures and socializing with other animals. Crystal clearly loves her animals and is dedicated to their well-being. When an animal is feeling under the weather, Crystal brings that animal into her KITCHEN to recoup. That is love! In the end, the animals at Crystal's farm are trucked off to a processor who does the slaughtering in a humane way. The below picture is of six happy little pigs from Crystal's farm. Life is good for them!
Today, the students met Jessica. She is a tour guide and volunteer at a sanctuary farm in our town. She also adheres to a vegan diet. The animals at the sanctuary are well cared for. They receive food, shelter and medical care as needed through donations and through the good work of volunteers. The 100 or so animals at the sanctuary will live out their days in peace there. When they cross the rainbow bridge, they will be buried on the sanctuary grounds.
This little pig lives a peaceful life at the sanctuary farm. His name is Johnathan and he weighs approximately 800 pounds! Life is good for him!
At the end of the day, our students, even the ones who went into these two days with strong opinions, were thoughtful. As Jessica took her final questions, one of my students raised his hand and said, "I enjoy eating meat and even after today, I plan to continue eating meat. However, I hear what you are saying and I really do understand why some people choose to not eat animals. I get it."
So while our project really is about farm animals and their treatment these two amazing community members taught our students more than we hoped. Our experts inspired empathy. This was a wonderful experience for our students and it was a pretty great experience for me too!
I have a student who has TREMENDOUS energy. He isn't really a behavior problem in the classroom. Well, what I mean is that he isn't fresh. He isn't intentionally malicious but he is A LOT to handle. (This is true in the classroom but not exactly true in other environments.) First, he is constantly on the move. He never stops. His body is in constant motion. He dances around the room and because of this he has a HUGE presence in the room. He is also fairly destructive. He ruins stuff. For example, he pulls apart erasers and even pencil top erasers. It is only October and his notebooks are already a mess. He just shoves things in his desk. As a result, some of the corners are torn off, pages are wrinkled. They actually look like March notebooks or maybe May notebooks.
This kid has a really difficult time focusing on any task. If he is to accomplish anything, I have to be in very close physical proximity to him. He works best when he is afforded the option of working one on one with an adult. This is sort of frustrating because this kid is so smart. He is capable. I wish he could focus but he can't! During one of our #classroombookaday sessions, we were reading a book about a kid who struggled. My student shared that he used to struggle to pay attention and that he used to take a medicine for that but that it is no longer needed. Hello, what? I think it might still be needed. Just saying!
Actually, I just really want this kid to be successful. The truth is, he is quite smart. I can always rely on him to make the deepest, most compelling connection to any literature we read. He has remarkable number sense. He is amazingly articulate. English is his second language. He is definitely struggling in some ways. His oral reading is a real challenge. I'm not sure if he struggles with reading fluency and accuracy because English is his second language or because attention is such a struggle. What is notable however is that despite the interruption in his fluency, his comprehension is surprisingly intact. When I can get him to actually put words on a sheet of paper, his writing isn't half bad. His spelling isn't even terrible. However, he requires so much teacher attention in order to attend to any task.
His impact on his classmates is something I'm concerned with too. While I am sometimes surprised at how little his behavior seems to distract other kids in the classroom, he is not always the kindest boy. For example, if the kids are seated on the floor and he can't see the board, he'll start ordering kids around and attempting to direct traffic. It doesn't occur to him that he could just move his own seat. Things get really ugly when there isn't adult supervision. The playground, the bus, the cafeteria, places where there is less structure and more freedom, are places where this kid becomes something like a tornado. During these less structured times, he can become downright mean. He has a way of seeking out the most vulnerable kids and putting them down. What he says to them is hurtful. He knows just how to get at kids. His words are harsh. I can't imagine being his bus driver. I can't turn my back on him for a minute. I just can't imagine driving a bus and having to have my back turned the whole time!
However, today, he was absent. It is wild when he is out. I can't believe the time that is freed up to spend with other children. I know that fair isn't every child getting the same thing. Fair is every child getting what he or she needs. But when this kid is present, he gets more than his fair share of my attention. Other children, who really need my attention are neglected. When they are neglected there isn't an impact on the whole class. When this single child isn't attended to, everyone suffers. This just isn't fair. But today, everyone got what he or she needed. At the end of the day, I hustled off to the supermarket and bought some groceries. I picked my daughter up from field hockey and went home where I made a really nice dinner for my family. I sat in my living room and did school work for a few hours. I wasn't completely wiped out like I am most days.
I wish there was something I could do to change this situation. It is terrible for the students in my class. It is not good for me. It is especially bad for this boy. I feel rather powerless. This is going to be a challenging conversation at parent-teacher conferences. I really hope his parents come.