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!