Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Great Expectations

As a preservice teacher, I had the assignment to watch the movie, The Marva Collin's Story.  It had a powerful impact on me, and I watch it every year as part of my "Back to School" ritual. I was deeply saddened to hear of her passing last June. Her story will forever inspire and motivate me to "do whatever it takes" for kids.

One of the most powerful lessons that I learned was to have high expectations for my students. I truly believe that ALL students can learn and that it's my responsibility as an educator to "draw out" their excellence. Michaelangelo once said, "Inside is an angel trying to get out" about a piece of marble he was ready to sculpt. I feel the same way about my students. No matter how tough on the outside, there is a child inside that wants to be loved, accepted, challenged, and to succeed.

Sometimes I'm criticized for having high standards for my students. I don't accept average for myself. Why would I ever accept average for my students? Not to my surprise, every year my students reach and surpass even MY high standards of behavior and academic achievement. But, I don't just raise the bar and expect the kids to get there on their own. It takes a lot of WORK to get them there!

Creating a culture of caring and trust in the classroom is essential. Many teachers, pressured by testing deadlines, skimp on the time that it takes to build authentic relationships with their students. This is a mistake! Every year I have to fight the "urgency to cover the curriculum". Taking the time to know my kids is a priority! They need to know that they are loved, accepted and that they can learn and be successful. They need to know that their effort is valued. They need to know that I challenge them because I want them to have the best life possible, and education is the key. I take the time because they are "my kids"! I would never shortchange them. It takes extra time and effort to build trust. Simple notes of appreciation, greetings, high-fives and positive phone calls home build lasting relationships long beyond the school year. It also takes time for the students to build trusting relationships with each other. Team building is crucial to classroom success. Everyone is a teacher. Everyone is a leader. We practice the skills. We practice procedures. We practice listening, sharing, and appreciating each others' effort and achievements.

When I earn the respect and trust of my students, then and only then can I become an effective teacher.

Average is easy. Many teachers settle for mediocrity and being comfortable. They care about their students but are afraid to challenge them, make them think, and let them struggle through a problem. They teach to the middle, fail to challenge the high, and lose hope for the low. My philosophy is to teach to the high and do what it takes to pull the other students up to that level. 

Effective teachers can challenge their students to higher academic and behavioral standards because students trust them. They know that their teacher will give them honest feedback to help them grow. The bar might be high, but the student knows that their teacher will help them get there with incremental steps. As they struggle through a challenge, they are motivated by the little successes along the way and by their progress. Mistakes are learning opportunities and effort to try new skills and grow is appreciated. At first it takes a lot of courage to share mistakes with peers. It takes a lot of courage to speak in front of a class. It takes courage to try new things. Risk-taking is rewarded.

One of the first challenges that we do as a class is memorize and say the poem, "The Man Who Thinks He Can" by Walter D. Wintle. We say it often. "I can't" or "I don't know"* are not phrases we say in our classroom.

I  believe that teachers must have a vision of what their students can become. They must believe with their heart, mind, and soul that they can make a difference in the child's life. As John Hattie would say, "Know your impact!" Armed with high expectations and a vision that can be realized, teachers will do whatever it takes to make a difference.

If I treat you as what you are capable of becoming, 
I help you become that.

 A banner hanging in my room says, "The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is the little extra." Students follow what they see modeled by their teacher. I'm far from perfect! But, I do know that students recognize and appreciate the extra efforts to make lessons and learning come to life. (Sometimes it's years later.) I know that they appreciate my attempts to give them timely and specific feedback about how to improve. I know that the balance between the press and showing I care is crucial. I know that THEY work!

I'm a passionate educator! I believe that we can have higher expectations for our students. I believe we can do better. I can do better! Excuses are not acceptable. Are we having the conversations about our teaching that we need to be having? Do we agree on what 'high expectations' look like? Are we holding each other accountable for student learning? Can we be even more effective than we are? How will we know? As I read, study and reflect, I know that I have a lot of room for improvement. I will make mistakes. This is a journey.

We are what we are because of others before us that had high expectations and challenged us. We owe our students the same.

*We say, "I don't know yet because ....." 
"I need more information."
"I'm unsure about this part."
"I'm thinking."

Monday, September 7, 2015

Dollar Bill Paycheck

I've always joked about how a teacher's paycheck often comes years down the road when former students come back to visit or bump into you in a public place. Fifth graders rarely appreciate the hard work a teacher requires. You may be "their favorite teacher" for the year, but it's much farther down the road when the payoffs come- especially for an elementary teacher.

Every year, I tell my kids that they are part of my retirement plan, and that's why we need to work so hard. I totally expect discounts or free services when they become working adults. :) As part of my retirement plan, I tell them about my desire to go on a vacation to Hawaii. If every student remembered to give me just $1 when they graduated from High School, I could afford to go on my dream vacation. Students eagerly promise to remember to send me the dollar. I started telling my students my plan when I was a new teacher, and now I'm close to retirement. Do I have enough money for that Hawaiian vacation? No, but I've received a lot wonderful "paychecks" over the years and more so recently.

Once I was pleasantly surprised when a former student came into my classroom with a framed $2 bill. One dollar was for graduating from High School, and one was for graduating from college. She'd become an engineer and had landed a high paying job and came to celebrate with me. Ahh...this was an extra paycheck because one of my girls went into a science field. I've always been an advocate for girls going into STEM fields although it wasn't called STEM back then.

Another student came to visit me last Spring right after graduation. She told me how school had always been so easy for her until she came to my class. I challenged her, didn't accept her mediocre work, and gave her opportunities to lead. I don't really remember, but she did. She told me how our simulation for the Civil War changed her because she was the captain of her company. She realized for the first time that she could be a leader. Another paycheck! She graduated with all kinds of honors, a full scholarship, a name for herself in the theater (we participated in a lot of drama activities), and was a confident young woman.

One of my biggest paychecks ever came about 10 years ago. My entire class of former 6th graders came into my room the last week of school after their graduation practice. Only three students were not there, and they came on a different day. Those kids will never know how much they touched my heart! Most of us had spent two years together because I had changed from 5th grade to 6th grade. We grew so much in those two years! It was heartwarming that they all thought of me at graduation time. But equally touching was that all of my kids were graduating. They had big dreams and were on their way. Two of them were leaving within a couple of weeks to serve our country. Some were already making more money than I was as a teacher. And now, a decade later, those same kids contact me and keep in touch. Did they remember that $1 bill? No, not even them. But money cannot replace the "teacher's paycheck" of knowing that you made a difference in someone's life.

Other students have contacted me by email and even Twitter to my delight. Every student has a story! I've laughed! I've cried! I am so proud of my kids! The little girl who wrote me poems sent me one of her published books. A mom sent me letters from her two sons who are both doctors and had their mom find me to give me their letters. Two more of my kids came back just last week to visit and tell me about their successes and future plans. One of my former students recently contacted me and told me that he'd found me and had read this blog. :) I'm so touched!

You see, it all comes down to building relationships. The kids don't remember the facts, the test scores, and all of those great units of study I prepared. They remember the American Revolution and the Civil War simulations and how emotionally invested they were. They remember playing catch with a football after school. They remember the talks, the laughing, the silly awards I gave, the science experiments, writing and sharing stories, reading great books, and the high fives. Kids remember the musical programs, the service projects, and how we learned together. They remember the good feelings. I took the time to build team spirit and camaraderie. I loved and love them! I did everything in my power to provide them with the educational experiences that I'd want for my own kids. They are my kiddos! (quite literally since I don't have kids of my own) I never wanted to shortchange them.

Once again, I'm feeling the pressure to cover the curriculum, assess with more benchmarks, track the data, and make sure that the kids are ready for the year-end tests. Those things have their place. But, for me, my goal is to make sure my students prepare for life and are good citizens of a great country. So, I'm a rebel of sorts. My focus is on continuing to build relationships in my classroom, and the test scores will take care of themselves.

After all, it's the small things that you do that bring the greatest rewards.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Peahens and Frilled Lizards- How Tech Made A Difference!

I'm experimenting and trying to figure out how best to use our Chromebooks, class time, nontech activities, and all that we need to do in a jam-packed schedule. Plus, I have to work with kids coming and going all of the time for speech, resource, counseling, etc. It's a juggling act! Here's what I've done for the past two days.

I moved desks AGAIN. (Using student feedback, I'm trying to find the best seating arrangement for our class activities.) Now I have three large "tables" and two smaller ones. Each "table" is a learning center. The two small groups of desks make one center. The kids rotate to each center with their Chromebook so that they always have it available to them.

Today, one table was my reading group. Another was a math center where kids worked on Tenmarks math lessons and ixl for extra practice with fractions. They chose what to work on for ixl although I gave them some guidelines. The third table was was for working on Quill (grammar, keyboarding, spelling) and TypingAgent (keyboarding). The fourth center was using Edmodo to watch a StudyJams science video, read an article from Wonderopolis, and to work on their StoryboardThat project. In between each rotation, the kids chose a Gonoodle activity. Yesterday a center was independent reading and the kids hung out on the couch, yoga balls, and other comfortable seating. I also used SpellingVocabCity to practice our science words, and another center was for practicing handwriting, (something we really need to practice).

The rotations went beautifully, and I was lucky to have a parent help to moderate the centers for a whole hour today. Although, I must say that the kids were pretty awesome on their own. I didn't have any behavior issues, and kids helped each other with their accounts and other questions. It was quiet. My reading group didn't bother anyone because the other students had on their headphones and were engaged in their other lessons.

The BIG DIFFERENCE was that in my reading groups, the kids had Internet access at their fingertips! We read a book about animal adaptations. I started with my lowest readers first which is a whole group of boys. I started with them first because they are the kids that leave throughout the day for other classes and I needed to spend more time with them reading. The word peahen came up, and no one knew what the animal was and so we Googled it and looked at some pictures. They were able to discover quite a few facts just by looking at pictures and reading the captions. When we turned the page and saw a big picture of an Australian Frilled Lizard, the boys got excited! After talking about some keywords and text features, the kids read the page. While they read, I was quickly able to find a Youtube clip and added it to Edmodo. After reading the page, kids went to Edmodo and watched the clip and got very excited to learn more. We read the page again, this time as a whole group. Our whole discussion about animal adaptations took on a new enthusiasm. They boys wanted to read more! They wanted to find more details! And...because the rest of the class was busy, we took a few minutes to find some answers to their questions. I'm sure that at least one of the boys will choose to do his Genius Hour report about the lizards.

Each reading group was a little different. One group was interested in aardvarks eating termites and another was more interested in migrating butterflies. But, I had TIME to better meet their needs. We had the tech in front of us to help us find information together. I wasn't the source of knowledge. The learning was timely and relevant.

To have 30 kiddos in one class is a lot of responsibility- a lot of individual needs to meet. The system wasn't perfect yesterday or today. It was a lot of screen time to me. (The kids disagree with me and told me that they had plenty of rest in between each learning center block of 25ish minutes.) They loved it! They chose the activity in each center to work on first, and who they sat by for each center. In their eyes, learning with their own Chromebook, moving around to different places, and having choices was great learning. I agree, and it can only get better! This is another baby step towards making learning more differentiated and individualized. I still have a lot to figure out and tweak. I'd love to know your thoughts- especially if you have experience being 1:1 Chromebooks. Any suggestions?