Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reflecting on my Classroom Culture

I am currently reading the book Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov.  I love what I have read so far and am slowly implementing techniques as I can.  I've been going over chapter 5 a lot in my mind because I'm having trouble with creating a strong classroom culture.  I want to take a moment to reflect on the five principles of classroom culture and how they are playing out with my students.

According to Lemov, these five principles are discipline, management, control, influence, and engagement.  They all work together to create a strong classroom culture, but many teachers focus on one or two instead of all five.  I am guilty of this as well, which is why I need this reflection.

Discipline is often thought of as something we do to students, but it is actually something we should teach students.  Lemov defines it as "teaching students the right and successful way to do things."  It took me a while to understand that even the simplest things like how stand quietly in a line needed to be taught.  I have finally come to terms that EVERYTHING in my room needs to be taught, not just curriculum but procedures, communicating with peers, and staying organized as well.  I'm getting better at teaching these things, but I wish I had known this beforehand because now I finally understand what the first six weeks of school should have looked like so I wouldn't have to take the instructional time to do it now.  I've also noticed that my students are quite visual so I need to have posters and pictures of all these things as well.

I found out that management is really what I thought discipline was, "the process of reinforcing behavior by consequences and rewards".  I was focusing heavily on this at the beginning of the year through the use of a color chart to serve consequences and stickers & prize box to serve as rewards.  I have since learned that I cannot rely on those alone, that the other four principles need to be in place as well.  I'm trying not to overuse them, but I'm still worried that my students will become desensitized and start thinking they don't have to behave unless a reward is attached.  I was against this type of system in the beginning, but my students weren't responding to just logical consequences and redirection so I finally caved in.  The other day I was praising my students for walking in the hallway so quietly and one said, "so where's our sticker?"  This is exactly what I was afraid of, but I explained to her that I was still rewarding her by giving her verbal praise.  I explained to the class that they won't get stickers every time they do something right because that's not how it works in real life and the expectation is that they behave well because it is the right thing to do, not because they are getting a reward.  I'd like to continue building up the other four principles so I'm not relying as much on my consequences and rewards to manage them.

I'm still trying to understand exactly what Lemov means in his description of control.  He's right that it is the kind of word that puts people on edge, including me.  I tend to think of myself as a teacher who has started out trying to control my kids.  I've been told by my coaches that I need to relax a little bit, so that's what I've been working on....not trying to control every single thing and every single behavior.  It's hard because there are still moments of chaos and students not on task, which is really difficult for me to witness, but I've also noticed that I'm less stressed when I'm not trying to control every situation.  Lemov also talks about the power of language and relationships.  I've improved  my tone of voice a lot where it is much more firm and deep so the kids know I'm serious.  I'm still building relationships by having lunch with them, but I noticed this week that I'm not showing them enough love.  I see other teachers love them up like mothers and I haven't reached that stage yet.  I don't think I can be that maternal because I don't have kids of my own, but I know I can show them I care about them more.

I've never thought about influence before, and I have a lot of work to do in this area.  I don't think I'm inspiring enough, and I'm not quite sure how to get there.  I can tell them they can do it, but many of my kids have already experienced so much failure in their lives that they still don't believe it.  I do have some students that already have the intrinsic motivation to behave well and do their work, but I haven't reached them all yet.  I think I should come up with some key phrases and challenge myself to use them a certain number of times throughout the day.  I will also need to research what other teachers do to influence their students.

This is also an area that I have found some difficulty with.  I've been talking with my literacy coach for ideas on how to make my lessons more engaging, so I'm trying those this week.  I'm looking at using more games for math (in my lessons, not just center time), and am thinking about administering a multiple intelligence survey to the class (if I could just find one that's easy enough for 3rd graders to understand).  I'm also hoping that when the Promethean board  gets installed in my classroom, I will have an easier time with incorporating technology into my reading, writing, and math lessons.

I still have so much work to do in order to have the kind of classroom culture I require.  It's definitely going to take me all year, but I know in the end I will be a better teacher for it.  

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why We're Not on Task

I just finished typing up all the notes I've taken documenting student behavior since the beginning of the year.  What's interesting is during the process, I started to feel like a big tattletale who was being very redundant.  The behaviors I'm specifically thinking of are things like, "talking while I'm teaching," and "off task during writing/reading/math time".  Things like that make me feel like a whiny teacher because kids do that all the time in every classroom.  Even I was one of those kids who talked too much and passed notes during class.  But there's a vast difference between the kind of student I was and the kind of students I teach: I still got my work done and understood most of the material.  With my students, they'll talk and play around but won't get the work done and don't understand the material.  This is what underlies my frustration with their behavior.

I've been trying to force myself to lay off a bit and let the kids be kids, understanding that it's hard for them to sit still and be quiet multiple times during the day.  But I really struggle with a child who doesn't pay attention during the lesson and as soon as it's over will come to me saying, "what are we supposed to do right now?" so then I have to re-explain what I just said during the time that I'm supposed to be conferencing with students or pulling a small group.  I haven't started a single small group during reading or writing yet this year! 

Now, I don't want you to think I am this ogre of a teacher who has no heart and doesn't try to see things from my students' point of view, because I'm not.  I was told by an instructional coach to "be curious about them" because there is always a reason why they aren't paying attention or why they aren't on task.  So the other day we had a class discussion where I asked them why they talk while I'm teaching and why they aren't doing their work.  These are the responses I got:

-kids just want to do what they want to do and not what others tell them to do
-distracted easily
-spoiled and can do what they want at home
-bored and zoning out
-I don't move their color enough (meaning I don't dish out enough consequences/give too many chances)
-don't know what to do because they weren't paying attention
-going to bed too late
-think school is time to play
-I'm talking too much during the lesson
-don't know how to ignore others
-can't help themselves
-people talk about them and they get mad
-don't like learning
-lazy at home
-hyper and have ADHD
-like to play a lot instead of learning
-feel special for getting prizes & teacher likes them more (I think they meant some of the same kids get more prizes than others)
-think it's play time
-didn't have fun during the lesson so not interested in doing the work
-think they're too cool
-asking for books & pencils is distracting
-kids can't have conversations but grown ups can - not fair

I realized that there were some things I couldn't control, but some things I could.  I was especially interested in hearing more about the being bored part, so I asked them for ideas on how I could make the lessons more fun and this is what they said:

-ask questions (I do ask them lots of questions, so I'm not sure why this was suggested)
-give us a break
-give out a treat for good behavior
-calm down from recess
-more action in lesson
-play games
-say something like, "hello kids, are you ready to write?"
-act and use expression
-give stickers for being good during the lessons

This list was much shorter but there were some good ideas.  I tried using more expression and action this week, and will continue to work in that area.  I wouldn't mind giving out stickers for good behavior during the lesson, but it's hard to concentrate on that while I'm teaching at the same time, especially when I can't catch every single student who is behaving well.  I may see a few but someone always says, "but I was being good too!" so then I'm stuck.  Ideally, I would like to believe every student who told me that but the reality is that I have quite a few liars and sneaky children in my classroom (just being honest).  As for playing games, I'm a bit stuck there too.  We play games during math centers but not during reading and writing.  That's basically because the Balanced Literacy model isn't designed for playing games, so I'm not quite sure what playing games during those subjects could look like.  The only time we will have centers then is during Word Study, but we haven't started word study yet.  Are any of you skilled in Balanced Literacy and have incorporated games into the workshops?

I've also been observing things on my own and have come to the conclusion that some of my students just don't learn well in a whole group setting.  They need that small group or one-on-one attention.  I also have many kids who are not on grade level (example: 12 out of my 23 third graders read below a third grade reading level).  So the struggle then becomes, how do I meet every one's needs by myself when about half of the class is not paying attention during a whole group lesson?  Do I cut out whole group entirely and just do small group lessons for everyone?  If so, how do I manage that when students are still off task, disruptive others who are trying to work, or need my help while I'm with the small group?  I've been trying to let the off task behaviors go and continue trucking through the lesson, but I am constantly bothered by the fact that I know those students didn't get it, thus they won't fully master the material, which means they won't be fully prepared for 4th grade and they'll still be reading below grade level, and the cycle continues.  I teach in Washington DC, and any of you who follow education in the nation's capitol knows that we can't afford to keep passing kids on who aren't grasping grade level concepts.  We're in a state of urgency but I feel like I can't win here. 

Right now I'm going to brainstorm the needs of each of my kids and see if I can come up with some ideas to incorporate more learning styles in the lessons and address their learning needs.  I wish I had some help though because the clock is ticking away and Monday will be here in the blink of an eye.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lesson Plans, Oh Lesson Plans

Lesson plans are a thorn in my side....yet I wouldn't be able to function without them.  I rely on them to stay on top of what I'm teaching for the whole week, but I hate the fact that they take soooo much time to create.  I won't even go into how they are due on Fridays, which is pretty much impossible for me.  What I've been wondering lately is where is my time better spent?  Right now, I spend my weekends planning my lessons for the upcoming week.  However, when Monday rolls around I have no materials made for the lessons.  This means I usually have to stay late every night making the charts, work, and materials for the next day OR make them in the moment, which causes behavior problems in my classroom.  So of course, I would love to have the weekends to make the materials, but then when will I do my lesson plans? 

I wonder, if there were a weekend where I could do 2 weeks worth of plans so then I could then switch my roles where I use the weekend to create materials and use the week to do lesson plans after school?  I haven't gotten myself to manage my time well enough yet where I can do it all in one or two nights, so either way working on the weekends and staying late after school is unavoidable. 

How do you work out the lesson plan vs. material making time crunch?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

My Educational Values

I have some really great instructional coaches at my school.  Lately, they've been talking about what we value as teachers and how that shows up in our classrooms.  They've also told me personally that they believe I'm not being true to myself, like I'm acting how I think a teacher "should" act or like how other teachers at my school act, but it's not my natural self.  I thought about this a lot the other night and think I finally understand what they mean. So I asked myself, "What do I value as a teacher?" and this is what I came up with:

I believe...

-learning should be fun
-kids need structure
-kids need to be nice to each other
-kids need to develop empathy and compassion for others
-kids learn from each other
-kids need to be explicitly taught and things need to be modeled for them
-kids need to constantly review material in order to master it
-kids should be able to read and write independently
-kids should be able to articulate their thinking
-kids should know how to work cooperatively in groups
-kids should be taught how to help others properly
-kids should be responsible for their materials
-kids should be prepared for the day
-kids should be held accountable for their actions
-kids should feel comfortable and safe in the classroom
-kids should take ownership of their classroom
-kids should see their own work displayed
-kids should be challenged to think critically
-kids should be able to function without me being there
-kids should be treated with respect
-kids should be spoken to in a loving but firm way
-kids should feel loved
-kids should feel proud of their accomplishments
-kids should be able to handle conflicts peacefully
-kids should understand how things work in the real world
-kids should know there are consequences for their actions
-kids should understand that the world does not revolve around them
-kids should know what's happening in the world around them
-kids should reflect on their learning
-kids should share and be kind to one another
-kids should express their creativity
-kids should have dreams
-kids should be prepared to go to college
-kids should feel inspired to learn

I also asked myself, "What kind of teacher am I/What kind of teacher would I like to be?"  This is what I came up with:

I am/I would like to be a teacher who:
-makes her students feel loved
-is excited about learning
-gets her students excited about learning
-can manage a classroom well
-teaches her students how to behave properly
-trusts her students
-loves technology
-loves to read
-wants all of my students to feel successful
-moves my students' levels up
-remains patient in stressful situations
-knows my students very well (academically and personally)
-is taken seriously by my students
-turns my students into hard workers
-continues to learn about my craft and improves
-can celebrate the small things

Some of these qualities I already posses, and some I am still working on.

I think the next step in this reflection is to pick a few of my values to work on each week, then by the end of the year all of my values should be present somewhere in my classroom.

What do you value as an educator?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Awful Day

Today was not a good day at all.  I feel like I'm in crisis mode where if I don't get the class under control, we won't learn anything all year.  I have a wonderful coworker who took me to another school to introduce me to her mentor teacher and we talked for a while.  She even gave me some manipulatives to use with one particular student.  I'm so grateful to have her support, especially when there are some really fake teachers I work with who are waiting and hoping for me to fail.  That's been hard to face, but I'll let God take care of them.

So, what am I going to do tomorrow?  We're going to completely redesign the classroom.  I'll be moving my carpet to a new location so I can move my desks around.  We'll be facing a different board, and I'll be stripping down the class rules to make new ones.  I'm also getting rid of some levels on the behavior chart so the students have less chances and reach more severe consequences quicker.  Basically, I've been told that I have to be a drill sergeant.  It's gonna be a challenge for me but I'm going to do my best.  I'll keep building relationships, but the fun has to be sucked out of the room for now because my kids can't handle having fun.  It's hard to say that but everyone can see they're not ready for fun, and they're not ready for lots of choice. 

I was able to reward my students who are able to make strong choices with fun while those who made poor choices watched the others have fun.  I'm gonna keep working on's just hard when I can only be in one place at one time. 

My head is spinning with so many ideas that are always shared, and I'm overwhelmed.  I feel like I keep changing something everyday, but my kids keep giving me reason to.  For every thing I come up with, they come up with a counter behavior for it.  Somehow someway I have to show them that I'm the boss and I run the show, not them.  *sigh* Let's see how tomorrow goes....

Monday, September 27, 2010

Reflection 1

Just wanted to reflect on my day.  I tried something new where I mapped out the entire day so that I would know everything I wanted to do and in the right order.  I noticed that in my room there is a lot of down time for the kids to get into trouble because I'm not always prepared with what comes next, so I wanted to fix that this week.  It ended up being 4 pages long, just for Monday, but it helped me stay on task and on track.  We even managed to get through all of our subjects, from Morning Meeting to Writing to Reading to Second Step (violence prevention program) to Math to Specials to Science.  So I'm happy that we got through every lesson.  It didn't necessarily change the behavior issues I'm having, but there was more time on task than there was last week.

Another thing I did differently that helped end the day a bit more smoothly was do our class jobs and get ready for dismissal an hour before we actually dismiss.  Since school began, dismissal has been one of the worst parts of my day because it has been so hectic and chaotic, especially with so many parents picking up their kids early.  So today I had us dismiss (pack up our backpacks and whatnot) right after they came back from specials, and then we went into the science lesson and used that to finish the day.  It was much smoother, so I'm going to stick with it.

I also tried to end the day with a final closure where we shared something we learned, but many of the students were mentally checked out so it wasn't as powerful as I had hoped.  I will keep pondering over that.

Let's see...I also got rid of transition time, which was a 2-5 minute period where students could go to their locker or sharpen their pencils.  Most kids took it to mean free time and were just chilling and getting into trouble, so I decided to nix it.  Now I let students sharpen their pencils when they need to and just ask me before they go to their lockers.  It worked pretty well, though the kids were bummed to lose their "free time".

Tomorrow I'm going to talk to them about what types of behaviors will make them move their color (we use a color chart with clothespins).  My only concern is that so many students exhibit those behaviors so frequently throughout the day that it's hard to keep up with and sometimes I have to let certain things go.  I'm nervous that now that these behaviors are written explicitly on a chart they will start to notice that I can't always keep up.  For example, I can't always stop the lesson to tell someone who is talking to move their color because they are ALWAYS talking and I would never get through the lesson.  So I tend to highlight the super disruptive ones who actually interrupt me, but it still feels inconsistent.  I'm not really sure what to do with that.

Last thing, I'm often told that I always need to keep my voice level and not let the children see that they are getting to me.  I find this to be extremely difficult for me because I'm a super transparent person and most people can always read my emotions.  Even today, I got so frustrated that I told the class they were making me angry and I would have to start taking away their PE time if they kept it up.  I just don't know how to hide it...I'm an emotional person by nature and I get irritated by all the misbehaving.  Any advice?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Random Venting Session

I've been wanting to blog for a while and haven't set out time to do it.  I have a lot on my mind in regards to my classroom and what's going on, so I'm not sure what this post will look like in the end.

What I can say for sure right now is that I'm a first year classroom teacher who is in survival mode.  I remember reading about these different modes from the book "The First Days of School" by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong, and survival mode definitely sounds like me.  I am really struggling with classroom management, and every day I'm just trying to get through it.  It sucks a lot because I really love to teach and I want so badly to be good at it, but management does not come naturally to me.

I read all the time about how some teachers are naturally good at it but most of us have to work at it to improve.  I'm constantly working and pushing myself to try different strategies, and some things work but others do not.  I'm just so frustrated right now because I'm really unhappy with the behaviors in my classroom, and I feel at a loss for how I can really change them.

I have a tendency to complain about the behaviors they exhibit that I really don't like, but I don't want to get caught up in all that here.  I do it enough at work and am trying to quit.  The funny thing is that I really love most of my students.  I'll admit there are a couple who work my nerves on the daily and it's taking me a bit longer to warm up to them.  And it's those kids who are causing the majority of the behavior problems in my classroom, which are trickling down to the rest of the class.  But someone told me to be curious about them, and really get to know and figure out why they behave the way they do.  So I'm working on that relationship building.  I've already eaten lunch with all of my students at least once (in small groups), and now I'm eating with each child one-on-one.

I'm trying to keep believing that things will get better, but I'm also realistic and as we get closer to November, I'm starting to accept the fact that this is who they are and there is only so much I can say and do to build character in them.  This may be the reality of what my classroom is like all year.

I will continue to gather strategies from everywhere: other people, books, observations, etc.  I will continue to hope it will get better, but I don't want to set myself up for disappointment either.  Hopefully, I will be able to make more time to blog about specific issues and continue to reflect on my role in the class and what dynamic I bring to the culture that I have created.  Because one thing I will not do is place all the blame on them....I recognize I play a big part in this too and I've started to ask myself what I'm doing wrong, since at the end of the day I'm the only person I can really control.

Anyway, this has all been just some random babblings.  I have a lot on my mind and I just needed to get something down on "paper" and out of my heart.  I hope my future postings will be more streamlined and focused than this.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A New Planning Process

Today's training session was mostly giving us time to plan the first 20 days of school, in math.  I was sooooo excited to finally get some planning done so I could be ahead of the game when classes began.  However, my attempt at a 20-day rough sketch didn't quite go as planned.  I only managed to crank out focus points for three days.  Now it doesn't take a strong mathematician to know that 3 out of 20 is a failing grade, but I'm telling myself not to look at this as a failure because I did learn some things during the process (and it's all about the process, right?)

Lesson planning has been a struggle for me since the beginning, but it's gotten easier as the years went on.  It used to take me hours just to do one week's worth of plans, and I was constantly changing my templates and approaches, always looking for a way to make it easier and quicker.  See, I'm a very detailed-oriented person, I tend to think sequentially, I over-analyze everything, and I don't like to make wrong decisions.  Combine these traits together and you can pretty much imagine why lesson planning can be such a headache for me.

Well, today I came into the session knowing these things about myself and coaching my mind not to go there. I started out well in the beginning, but as more things were explained and more teachers were asking questions, my old habits started creeping back.  Eventually, they took hold and I became stuck.  I didn't know where to start, I didn't know where to go next, I couldn't figure out "the right order" and I was so fixated on not planning the unit out correctly.  The instructional coaches offered solutions such as grouping things together, not planning out an entire day at a time but just getting an idea here and there of where I want to go, making a list of the goals then shuffling them around to make them fit, etc.  Towards the end of the session I was starting to get somewhere, and I managed to jot some things down for the first three days.

I also figured out why lesson planning all of a sudden became hard again when I felt like I had mastered a system that worked for me last year: I was having to plan something new.  For me, it was routines, and mixing those routines in with content.  For the past three years I've only been taught how to plan content, so when routines got thrown into the mix, I panicked.  Well, now I know what my new challenge is, and I will have to keep working with myself and giving myself some breathing room to take longer than usual at the beginning.  I'm going to allow myself to struggle through this new planning process because I know by the end of the year, this will once again be a breeze!

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Reform Symposium

I'm a bit behind the rest of the edu world, but I'm glad I was able to watch at least a couple of the presentations from The Reform Symposium.  I enjoyed the two that I saw and they've both given me ideas for my classroom.

First, I watched George Couros' (@gcouros) presentation on "Identity Day", which sounds like a super cool event and a wonderful way to get to know students better.  I love his passion on developing relationships with the entire school community and hope to grow in that aspect in my own teaching.  I'd like to try having an "Identity Day" in my classroom too.  If it is a success then I hope I can help expand it to the whole school, just as George as done.  Even though his school holds this event near the end of the year, I wonder if it is something I can do in the beginning of the year, at least on the smaller scale of just my class.  I'm very concerned about student relationships (with me, but more so with one another) and am looking for ways to help them build a sense of community where they will want to be kind towards one another.  My school is big on responsive classroom, and this seems like a great way to accomplish that.  So right now I'm toying with the idea of making this one of the first assignments for the kids to do (with their parents), and then I can invite the parents, administrators, and other classrooms in at the beginning of the year to learn about my students (as well as them learning about each other).  I need to outline it a bit more, but I think this could be a really great experience.  Thanks George!

Second, I watched Silvia Tolisano's (@langwitches) presentation on "Skype Around the World", where she talked about why and how she uses Skype in her classroom.  I clap my hands for her because her students are doing some pretty amazing things!!!  At the end of last year I pretty much told everyone that I wanted to use Skype in my classroom this year.  I didn't really know how I wanted to use it, except to connect my students with other students across the globe.  At this moment, I still haven't hashed out a specific project or how I'm going to accomplish that and tie it to our learning goals, but the collaborative chat going on in Silvia's presentation did give me a couple other ideas that are swirling around my mind now too.  One is to have virtual career days.  I've been thinking about doing career days with parents and community members, but with Skype the sky is the limit!  As many of the teachers said during the presentation, I might be able to connect with real experts, in our local community and beyond, and they can share their careers with the kids (hopefully in their actual office!)  Someone else in the chat mentioned giving interviews too, which I think would also be fun and a great experience for the kids.  Another person mentioned meeting the author of a book the class is reading (sorry I can't remember the specific names these ideas came from).  I'm getting excited just thinking about what we can do with Skype this year!  I need to start planning (and keep my fingers crossed that our Internet connection is functioning properly now).  Thanks Silvia!

Even though I only saw a couple of presentations, I am glad that I was able to catch what I did.  I love how social media has taken teacher collaboration to a new level!  I'm hoping that this year I can be better about connecting with the teachers in my PLN and bring all of these wonderful things to my school and all of our students too!

Back to School

After a wonderful and relaxing summer vacation, today I am officially back in the working world.  This week I am attending a summer institute focusing on reading and math.  I have chosen to participate in the new teachers session because this will be my first year as a general education classroom teacher (previously was an ESL teacher for 3 years).  I'm going to teach 3rd grade and I have a mix of emotions that range from excitement to fear.  I am looking forward to the challenges and all the success that I know is to come.

I wanted to get back to my blog, as I have abandoned it pretty much all summer.  I cannot make any promises on the frequency of my updates, as I am not an avid blogger who updates on a consistent basis.  In fact, I'm at the point where I am really blogging more for me than for my audience (sorry folks), but I appreciate those who read and leave comments, especially when sharing personal experiences or offering ideas for my classroom.

Anyhow, I just wanted to give myself a quick reflection of today's training.  I want to push myself to reflect frequently this year on what goes on in my classroom so that I may continue to improve.  Today's session focused on math and the components that make up the math block.  Our presenters modeled many of the activities we would be doing in our classroom and encouraged us to experience them from the perspective of our students.  We started with Morning Meeting (singing songs and everything), then went through most of a math block, participating in the problem of the day, a building number sense activity, the mini-lesson, and reflecting at the end.  What I appreciated about today's session was that it gave me the jolt I needed to get my head back in the game, and the ideas started flowing.

For the past few weeks I've been trying to do some educational reading and planning, but often felt stuck.  I would start but then come to a point where I wasn't sure where to go next.  Being in a room full of teachers once again, and having the instructional coaches take us through a math block modeling and discussing what we noticed was just what I needed to set me in the right direction again.  Tonight, I even came home and watched a few presentations from The Reform Symposium, which sparked some ideas for other activities I'd like to do with my class this year.  I hope this feeling lasts and that it will fuel me during tomorrow's planning sessions so I may map out the first 20 days of school.  Sometimes I bog myself down with planning because I am so detailed and focused on "doing it right".  But that's another topic for another day.  Overall, I left today's session feeling that I have a good understanding of how the math block is structured and what goes in each component of the block, so I can begin to incorporate that into a concrete unit plan tomorrow.

Welcome back to school y'all!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Candid Conversation

Myself, along with two other teachers, have started a 4-H club at our school.  Currently we have about 12 female students in 4th and 5th grade.  This week, we decided to have a "girl talk" about relationships.  Our intention was to focus on relationships with boys, as some of the girls have "boyfriends" (we do not approve), but somehow the conversation turned to student-teacher relationships.  I don't even remember the comment/question that created the shift, but I do remember the honesty in the responses these girls gave.

Last week a teacher was so frustrated that she started crying in front of her kids.  She came down the hall looking absolutely miserable and ready to throw in the towel while we all comforted her and offered words of encouragement.  When we brought up this incident with the girls, we asked them why the students treat her so poorly when they wouldn't think of treating us the same way.  What we got was a very simple and honest response:

"Because we respect you."

Our ears perked up and more questions came pouring out of us teachers, curious to get into the minds of the students and why they behave the way they do.  We probed further into why they respected us but not the other teacher, whether it had anything to do with race (she's white and we're black), what kinds of consequences they expect to have, why any of this should matter when it comes to basic respect.  Here is a summary of what I learned and took away from the conversation:

-The kids don't respect her because they think she is soft.  She appears soft because of her emotions.

-With classes that have lots of behavior issues, one reason is because they feel the teacher can't control the class because they know nothing will happen to them if they do something wrong.  So why bother act appropriately?

-Some suggested consequences included: referrals, taking away recess, calling parents (all of which have been done mind you, but the kids still misbehave).  But they say that when someone acts up the teacher just looks at them or walks out of the room, or the teacher is only concerned with the behavior of the "problem child" in that class.

-Other teachers get respect because the kids are afraid of them.  One girl said, "if you come around the corner we straighten up cuz we know we're in trouble."

-The kids want structure.

-It does not have anything to do with race (we asked this question more than once and every time they all said no).

This was such an interesting conversation for me because I myself have struggled with being the nice or soft teacher.  In my few years I have toughened up a lot, and I do see a difference in the respect I'm given and my ability to manage the students.  The difficult part for me is, however, that I am not naturally mean or "hard" as they put it.  One girl told me that "I'm hard when I need to be", which lately I feel like is all the time.  I empathize with the teacher who cried because I feel her frustration with her students.

But the kids have spelled out the reality: don't even cry in front of them, don't "act soft".  They'll take those emotions as a sign of weakness and take advantage of it (I personally don't believe crying is a sign of weakness, but that's just my opinion).  Even being nice has to be handled carefully.  You can't give them a reason to think you're not in control. 

If I get my own classroom next year, I'd like to have a conversation with my class about this topic.  I hope that I can get them to see that whether someone shows emotion or not does not warrant blatant disrespect, no matter how you view it.  We should treat all people with the same decency and respect regardless of how we feel about them.  We treat them this way because that's who we are as pleasant human beings.

I hope they will be able to understand and internalize this message.  But at the same time, I will continue to put on my "tough act" and do my best to give them the structure and discipline they subconsciously (or consciously) crave.

My New Adventure!

In keeping up with The 30 Goals Challenge, I am finally posting about my accomplishment of Challenge 3: Start an Adventure (waaaay late, I know).  No, it's not an educational adventure I am embarking on, but a personal one.  I've joined Weight Watchers!  This is my 2nd week, and I have been doing fairly well so far; I really like the program.  In the end, it will also have a positive effect on my job as I'm confident that I will be more energetic at work.  I'm excited about this new goal as I work toward a healthier lifestyle and better relationship with food. Now I can move on to the next challenge as well!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Starting Where Kids Are

A few months ago, I became a member of ASCD (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).  One of the benefits is to receive a publication called Educational Leadership, which is like a magazine for educators.  I recently got my first issue and I love it!!!  I'm really enjoying all the articles I've read so far, and I just finished reading one that I'd like to reflect on for a moment.

It's called "When Student's Don't Play the Game" by Jessica Towbin, and it talks about students who are disengaged with school.  Towbin's vignette centered around her experience in an urban high school classroom with students who did not want to do the work required in her class.  This hit home for me as I've come across many kids, even at the elementary level, who exhibit a similar disinterest.  Sometimes they're bored with the material, other times the concepts are too hard so they simply give up. A few of my students have also convinced themselves wholeheartedly that they are not as intelligent as the others in their class.  All of this leads up to a lack of motivation that I have been trying to tap into and change all year.

The article highlights a pedagogical philosophy that most teachers are familiar with: "start where the kids are".  I've always looked at this statement from an instructional mindset to mean starting at the level of the student's background knowledge, skills, and abilities.  This could mean that if I have a student who is in 3rd grade but reads at an early Kindergarten level (which I do), then my time spent with him will be working on building his reading level starting at beginner's phonics, while the rest of his class is entering chapter books.  It's focusing my instruction on the child's immediate needs rather than forcing him to produce work that is way beyond his current abilities.

However, the article has also given me a new idea to think about when it comes to starting where a child is: his/her interests and views about his/her own education.  I conducted interviews at the beginning of the year to get to know my students better and learn about their interests, and I also try to buy books for them to read based on what they've told me they like.  But there are still those days when getting through a lesson seems painful because they're just not into it.  This shows me that I still need to do more to motivate and engage them.

One of the things Towbin did, which I believe to be a necessity for teaching, is to tell students why the work is relevant.  Kids need to know how schoolwork matters to them in the real world.  There are times when it's easy for me to build those connections and times when I honestly have no idea why they need to learn it other than there's a standard that says I have to teach it.  Or I may have a reason for why it's important, but the student still doesn't buy in to that explanation.  Let's face it, my real world experience is very different from theirs and I need to think even deeper about why the material matters for their lives.  This is a challenge that I am choosing to give myself for this reading unit we are about to start next week.

Another thing Towbin tried was to let one of her students do a writing assignment in a way that interested her instead of how the teacher wanted her to do it.  I thought this was very interesting and now I'm wondering how I can apply the same concept into my own practice.  My position doesn't offer the flexibility needed to do big projects with my kids (another reason why I really want to be a gen ed teacher), but there are a few students that come to mind who would probably appreciate me asking if there's another way they'd like to do something. 

As we go through the rest of this year, I'd like to make more of an effort to have a dialogue with my students about the learning we are doing, why it matters, what keeps them interested or makes them not interested in it, and how can it be more engaging for them.  This way, I can really see where the students are at that given moment.  Since their level of knowledge and experience is always changing, their starting point for a given lesson will always be changing as well, and it's my job to stay aware of that. 

I encourage you to check out the article (linked above) and have a similar conversation with your students.  Keep Towbin's words in mind as you reflect on your efforts to start where your kids are:

"When I am effective, I don't meet students where they are just once at the start of the year, or even just at the start of each new unit.  I meet them where they are every day, and rarely as an entire class.  To engage these students in learning that matters to them, I need to repeatedly ask the question, 'Where are you?' and be prepared to step back and listen." 

Blog Carnivals

I'm days behind in "The 30 Goals Challenge".  I started six days ago, but I'm only on Day 2 of the challenge.  That's because I feel stumped.  Originally, when I read about Day 2's goal - to contribute to a blog carnival - I had no idea what this was, and that intimidated me from giving it a try.  So I put it off (as I always do when I'm having trouble starting something).  Well, today I told myself that I have to just do it, just sit there, read it again, figure it out, and do it.

So here I am, looking around the education blog carnival list, trying to figure out exactly what this is all about.  I think I have a pretty good understanding now (not solid yet, but enough to know what I need to do to accomplish the goal).  I found a carnival that I'd like to join, and the submission page is open....but I have nothing to submit.  So I'm back at square one where, once again, I'm stuck.

I've only written one real post so far (not including my welcome post), but I don't love it enough to feel it's worthy of submission.  So I told myself I would write a new post, and now I have "blogger's block".  It's most likely because I feel some invisible pressure to write something "good" (whatever that means) since I'm going to be submitting it to a carnival.  Maybe I just need to step away from the computer and try again later.

At least right now I've found a carnival that interests me and I know what I need to do to contribute to it.  Goal 2 is *almost* accomplished.


I just submitted one!  Let's see how this goes!  On to Goal 3 - Start an Adventure!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Give & Take Power Play

After a long hiatus of inclusion teaching, I finally worked my schedule where I could go back into the classroom consistently for math instruction.  I started again last week and I found myself stuck in a situation that I wasn't quite sure to handle, and I've been thinking about it ever since.  It revolves around the issue of giving vs. taking power away from the teachers when dealing with classroom management.

In one class the kids were doing well with staying engaged in the lesson and participating in our guided practice, but when it came time for independent work, it felt like chaos ensued.  Not because they didn't understand the material (they all did very well answering the questions), but because of what happened when their work was complete.  The general ed teacher and I were walking around looking at their work and helping when needed, but they all finished roughly around the same time and it became a myriad of kids calling out our names or coming up to us to have their work checked, which ultimately led to a lot of moving bodies & elevating noise levels which distracted those who were still working.

Now, I'm not a teacher who is afraid of movement & noise, but I prefer it to be structured and relevant to the task at hand.  Needless to say, this was a bit much for me, especially because I would be conferencing with one student and 2 or 3 were calling my name elsewhere in the room, without ceasing even when I pointed out that I was already working with someone else & they needed to be patient.  My immediate solution was to use the technique that I use in my own classroom - when you're finished simply give me a thumbs up & wait till I get to you, don't call my name.  Some of the kids did that when I told them about it, but the rest just stopped calling for me and went over to their general ed teacher instead.

Then, in another classroom, I came in after the regular lesson and the kids were beginning their independent work.  I parked myself next to one of my ELL students to help her figure out the problems while the gen ed teacher went to the back to talk to a student who was refusing to do his work.  There were only a few other students on task and the rest were running around the room.  Two students even found a blow-up globe to start throwing around the room.  I continued to work with my student and we made it through the whole assignment, but it was definitely not in an environment conducive to learning. 

Now, I don't tell these stories to make the teachers look bad in any way.  They're both new teachers and have been struggling with management all year, and the kids can be a big handful especially in the afternoons.  What I have been wondering though, is what should my role look like as a support person in their room?  Should I be imposing rules on the kids and aiding in managing them when they're rules are different from my own?  Or should I just sit there and do what I'm supposed to do which is help my ELLs access the material (and help others who don't get it as well)?

That's what led me to this question about giving and taking power away from teachers.  I'm not comfortable with coming into someone else's classroom & imposing my own rules, because that takes power away from the teacher.  In fact, even if I tell a child to do something that they haven't practiced and is not a normal routine in their room, it will most likely be ineffective, or only work in the short term while I'm there. 

I thought about offering some suggestions to the teachers, but I have my own insecurities about my management skills (I basically feel they're not where I want them to be) and I ask myself, who am I to tell them how to manage?  I know these are my doubts & fears getting in the way yet again, but I'm also the youngest teacher in the school and I'm only in my 3rd year so I'm no pro by any means.  I do know these teachers pretty well and I'm sure they wouldn't mind if we sat down & came up with some ideas together, but I know they already feel helpless & I don't want it to seem like I have the magical answer, because frankly I don't.

But I'm curious readers, how do you handle the power balance?  When is it ok to step in if a teacher is struggling with managing one kid or the whole class?  Have you done it in a way that doesn't take away the teacher's power?  What should a support teacher's role be in the general ed classroom?

Please share your thoughts.


As with most things in life, getting started is the hardest part (at least for me).  When I have an idea, a million and one things start flying through my head that hold me back from beginning.  They usually revolve around the fear of the unknown, which is pretty much what I'm experiencing right now with this blog.

I've always kept journals for my private thoughts and life reflections, but I've never had a public blog before.  Lately, I've been getting into reading blogs (most of whom I've found through Twitter), especially ones focused on education.  That sparked my interest in creating my own.  Then today, I was looking at The 30 Goals Challenge e-book by Shelly Terrell and decided that I wanted to give the challenge a try (though I'm a month late).  The first goal is to "post your first 2010 diary entry", which is what this is.  I do realize that participating in this challenge will require me to update on a regular basis, which is always a struggle due to my busy schedule, but it will be another welcomed challenge for myself.  

On a side note I want to say...
I do have some hesitations about blogging, mainly because I'm an honest gal with a big heart, and I don't ever want that to get me in trouble.  I am passionate about education so I have strong opinions about it.  There are so many wonderful things about teaching, but it does not come without its fair share of problems. With that being said, there are some days when I love my job and some days when I don't, and my posts can reflect either of those days.  They may range from my successes in the classroom to my concerns and questions about instructional decisions, to my frustration with things that aren't working.  If a post should ever reflect this frustration, it is not to be taken as a bashing of my school, city, or school district.

In fact, anything I write is solely my opinion, not that of my school, city, or school district.

I'd also like to point out that I am a lifelong learner and I love hearing others' opinions.  It gives me different viewpoints to mull over and other perspectives to take into consideration.  So please leave comments.  I will do my best to keep the conversation going!