Friday, September 16, 2011

Making School Magic

     Remember at some point when you were a child when you became old enough to figure out that magic was fake?  It was almost depressing when we realized that the magician on stage was really using slight of hand and props to deceive us.  Even after we thought we had it all figured out, there would be times when a great magician could do something that we couldn’t explain.  It made us think that maybe there is such a thing as magic!
     In my classroom I try and add some wonder to the monotony of each day.  This can be as simple as pulling something fascinating out of a cabinet or as complex as planting something in the room to make it suddenly appear at the right moment.  The element of surprise has a great way of keeping students attention. 
     I also enjoy using props to keep the students engaged. For example, when I’m having my groups share out I will hold a sticky note above the heads of the students and say, “Sticky, who do you want to share?”  I then drop the sticky and the students watch as it flutters haphazardly down to the table.  I then say, “You are the chosen one.”  “Sticky has chosen you.”   As silly as this exchange may be, my students beg for more group work just so they can be chosen by the almighty sticky.  It’s like magic. 
     We all enjoy a little magic in our lives.  As adults it may take the form of a new baby, a fancy appliance that works miracles, or a place where we can recapture the wonder of our youth.  Without these moments of magic our lives can end up rather stale.  So let the show begin.

(In the comments below, please tell me how you add some magic to your student’s daily grind.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Victory for a Girl Named Hope

There is a girl in my class that I’ll call Hope that is a very sweet girl.  She is the kind that sits at the carpet and looks like she is paying close attention to the lesson and so at times I call upon her to have her share an answer with the class.   It is at this time that I discover that even though she is listening, the words are just bouncing around in her head.  So I wrap up the lesson and spend some more time talking with Hope and a few others to make sure that they understood what we were talking about.   I know that with low performing students, like Hope, that they can struggle to hold onto even the most basic of concepts. 
                Hours of tutoring, teaching, and conferencing have helped to give Hope a tenuous grasp of the basic concepts.  The blank stare that I used to see is slowly being replaced by bits and pieces of understanding.  Today my day was made when I had my students turn and explain a math concept to each other and I listened in on the conversation of Hope and her partner.  It seemed like she would be stymied again, but slowly she pulled from her mind the proper things to say and was able to explain today’s concept to her peer.  I made sure that I praised her for her excellent explanation and made sure to write a note in her agenda.  A broad smile remained on her face for the rest of the day. 
                The greatest joy in teaching is when we see one of our students who has not been blessed with much, gain understanding, because of our help.  To think that even though this one lesson is but a fragment of the learning that our students will need to be successful, the concepts we teach them are  more than the they had when they entered our classroom.  We have had the opportunity to improve a life forever.   So today I celebrate the little victory that meant the world to a girl named Hope. 

(In the comments below, please tell me of a little victory you had this week)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Getting It All Done

     If your day is anything like mine, then you arrive at school and begin completing hundreds of tasks.   I usually start my morning rounds by heading to my mailbox where I get a few items to pass out, some specific notes I’ll have to remember to deal with, a tardy notice to correct, and an administrative request.  I then walk down the hall and have conversations with a guidance counselor or peer who says hi and try to keep the information from our conversation in my mind.  I then enter the classroom sit down to check my email and find a parent email requesting information, twenty emails from my district and office personnel reminding me of upcoming events.  Finally, I gather up my copy requests, things to turn in and make a trip around passing stuff out as you power walk to be back by the time the students arrive. 
     Teaching is one of the few jobs where you are then locked into a room for several hours unable to take your eyes or concentration off your kids.  All the while parents, administrators, and other personnel are working hard to give you additional items to work on once you are released from your real job of teaching students.  So as the school day ends a teacher has to either race to get everything done before they leave or they simply give up and stay as long as it takes to get it all done. 
    A few years ago I was introduced to the OHIO principle. (Only Handle it Once)  Once I learned this I started placing my calendar by my computer.  As soon as I got an assignment that was due later I would write it down instead of just hoping I would remember.  For emails and administrative requests I would try and take care of it the first time I got the message.  The good part about this way of work is that I very rarely needed to worry about remembering to accomplish something.  It would already be done. 
     Until the legislature deems that each teacher should be provided with a personal secretary we all have to find systems that enable us to accomplish hundreds of tasks throughout the day.  Even with volunteers, Teacher Assistants, or simple organizational principles teachers accomplish incredible amounts of work each day.

(In the comments below, please tell me some of your systems for getting it all done.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Celebrate the Little Things

     In my classroom I have a chart that displays the student’s basic fact knowledge.  These facts are probably one of the most boring things to learn in school, but extremely important to being successful in 5th grade math.  If I simply said, “Learn these facts,” then most of the students who didn’t have photographic memories would not learn them ever.  
    After four previous years of teachers asking my students to learn their facts, I find myself having to foster in them a desire to accomplish this mundane task.  To this end, I posted a poster on the board to put my student’s progress toward their goal. We call them Math Fact Masters and you would think there wasn’t a cooler accomplishment in the world.  As each student passes a level we congratulate them in the front of the room.  As students complete all four levels they become famous for a day; sitting in the teachers cushy chair and getting a nice note in their agenda.    All the attention makes the students beg to practice their facts.
     As teachers we become the greatest motivator in our student’s lives.  The students look to us to teach them what they don’t already know and to encourage them to learn more.  As we celebrate our student’s successes we are showing them that even the most boring things in life can have great rewards.       

(In the comments below, please tell me how you make your students feel special)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

When Home is Not Helping

      I have a girl in my class with a sweet smile and a great deal of spirit.  She comes in most days cheerful, but as the year has progressed she has lost some of her chipper spirit.  Her grades have slipped and she is not focusing in class.  After handing back papers I took a moment to talk with her about her low test score.  I asked her how she had studied and if her mother had reviewed any of the material with her.  She looked at me and said, “My mom doesn’t have much time to help me, because she spends all her time yelling at my dad.  They are getting a divorce.” 
      Everyone has experienced or knows someone who has had a family that has been torn apart.   Kids naturally look to their parents to provide them with help and security.  When this family environment blows apart children experience stresses that can consume their emotional and mental strength. 
     As teachers we cannot fix the home environments that our students are coming from, but we can make an effort to understand our students.  As we understand what is going on at home, we can better understand why the students are acting the way they are at school.  Once we have this knowledge we can begin to develop support to meet the needs of our struggling students. 
   For the little girl in my class I know that I have to work hard to maintain her attention and I might have to recue her at times.  I’m going to provide extra tutoring opportunities since she will not be getting help at home.  It also brings home to me how important our classroom culture is.  I have to create a caring environment where my students feel safe.  I can’t change the hurt my students experience at home, but for 7 hours a day I can provide my students with attention, encouragement, and the skills they will need to be successful.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Extreme Complainers

      If there were an Olympic event for griping then I think the top awards could easily be won by   teachers.  After being verbally abused, underpaid, and looked down upon for working with kids, teachers have an easy excuse to be champion complainers.  We certainly have a great deal to complain about with all the nonsense we face each day, but at some point it gets to be enough. 
       I went to a school get-together Friday night so that I could get to know some of my fellow staff members better.  I got to see how talented a third grade teacher was who had built an addition on his house all by himself.  Another first grade teacher I talked to had traveled the world teaching with her Army husband.  As I moved from group to group I sat down with a crowd who were delving into students, parent, and other teaching related issues they had faced at school.  The names and topics were flying around and after a week of teaching, I just didn’t want to start my weekend with more talk about school.  So I graciously listened for a while and then made my way to the exit to go start my weekend away from education.
     Gripe sessions allow us to get troublesome issues out in the open.  Complaining enables us to find comfort that others are suffering in the same way we are.  We can even find humor in some of the ridiculous situations that we find ourselves in.  However, it can also be counterproductive when we spend so much time complaining about the problems that we become unable to see solutions to our issues.  Gossip can fly around so fast that we can sometimes have it fly back in your face by the time we have made a trip down the hall.     Complaining also leaves us unsatisfied, because after we have vented we really haven’t changed any of the issues that got our ire up in the first place. 
   We all need someone to confide in to help us carry our burdens.  Yet, when we think of our conversations throughout the day, would we say that we spend more time in productive conversation or in unproductive complaining?  From what I have seen, the most successful teachers have this balance right.

(In the comments below, let me know what you do when you are around Olympic complainers.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Help Me to Learn So I Can Improve

      I’m amazed at how much we celebrate fake in our society.   On television we see many characters that have no ability, but work to convince the public otherwise.  My daughters have come to accept that musicians on the radio are auto tuned so that whether they can sing or not the computer just fixes it.   We touch up our photos to make us more of what we are not.  People lie to get jobs stretching their resumes; the list could go on and on. 
    In my classroom I am always amazed how everyone knows everything until it is time for a test.  It makes our job harder to divine out the truth when children think they already know everything.  So we  have to constantly assess after our lessons to make sure the students  have learned what we intended for them to learn.  Even more important than our efforts to police our students is our constant effort to get kids to honestly assess their ability and become self-motivated to learn what they don’t know. 
     Today I had a student come to me before the end of school and said, “Mr. Smith, I don’t understand the math you taught me today. “  So while the other students were packing up for the end of the day I sat down and reviewed the lesson again.  She started to figure out where her misunderstandings were and I was able to get her on her way as the other students began to file out of the room.  I’ll make a point of praising her to her parents and in front of the class.  She is a student who is going to succeed because she realizes that to improve we must admit our weaknesses and make an effort to improve those areas. 
     What areas of our lives are we pretending to have mastery when we have so much more to learn?  What are we doing to improve in our weak areas?  Are we willing to ask for help?  These are all questions that we need to foster in our students.  It also doesn’t hurt to practice what we are teaching our students as well.

(In the comments below, please tell me what you do to motivate students to evaluate their abilities?)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Fear of Failure

     Wouldn’t it be fun if we could just teach and the kids could just learn whatever they wanted to?  The classroom would be buzzing as everyone investigated topics that fascinated them.  I’ve had a taste of this for the first two weeks of school.   We have experienced learning with no pressure.  This joyous time may come to an end next week as I begin to hold my students accountable with grades.  As soon as I mention the word test, I’m sure my students will begin to show me their fear of failure.   
     In the lower grades students often don’t even have grades, but use checks, smilies, and letters such as V, S, N.  In third grade students are introduced to the A-F grading system and learn that grades are important to adults.   In our state students have the added stress of hearing that if they don’t pass the end of the year test they will “Flunk” third grade.  The students quickly learn that grades are something to be fearful of, or at the very least, something to be very nervous about receiving. 
    Now, I know grades aren’t all bad, because they can be great motivators for smart kids.   However, they can become anchors for students who have struggled.   With all of this in mind, I have been working hard the last two weeks to establish the culture that the reason we are all at school is to learn and not to earn grades.   I hope to take some of the fear of failure out of our educational experience.
     I gave a pretest today to gauge where my students were in division.  Those who have listened to their teachers and learned multiplication over the past two years have had no problem learning what I have been teaching them.  Others that never got around to learning multiplication are having a terrible time with division.  I now have a week to teach my students what they didn’t learn over the past two years.  Regardless of the educational background of my students, I work hard to assure that my student’s first experience in my class produces some success.
     One technique that I use to avoid test anxiety is to give students the chance to retake any of their assessments that they do poorly on and then average the new score with the old. This won’t make a poor student a straight “A” student.  However, it takes some of the fear out of tests, because the test does not become an end, but a springboard to another learning experience.
      It is my hope that  the fear of failure will be removed from my students by providing them the ability to earn the grade they want through hard work in addition to their smarts.  For me, I have seen far more people in the real world be successful by working hard than by being successful, because they were a stellar student.   When we have cultivated our student’s desire to learn, we will have achieved more success than any grading system can assess.   

(In the comments below, please tell me how you help students avoid the fear of failure)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Can't I Just Close My Door and Teach?

    Today I had a very productive day where my students had fun learning without interruption.  Then came an after school faculty meeting.  At our meeting we were told to take our schedules and toss them out.  We then had to align 1,665 minutes of instruction into seven periods.  We also had to consider the mandated time allotments, forced reading block, forced intervention block and specials.  Comments were made by my administrators such as “You must teach health and social studies every day even if it is just for five minutes.”   “You’ll have to teach less math or cut your math block time to an hour at the intermediate level.”  Further threats were made about this being tied to our evaluation and if administrators walked into our room, we better be teaching at the appropriate place on the schedule.   
     I worked on the numbers for about two and a half hours and finally thought I had it.  I have a sneaking suspicion that there might be a minor problem.  Not with the schedule, but my new schedule may not fit into the computer just right.  The computer doesn’t care what is best for the students. The computer is simply there to make sure that all the teachers look the same on paper. 
     In the good old days you could just nod your head in a meeting and then go into your classroom, shut the door, and do whatever you wanted to.  With this new age of accountability someone in an office at the state capital thinks up a “brilliant” idea.  They then call someone at the county, who then threatens the principals, who then unload on the teachers.  The downhill minutia can get so deep that by the time it hits the teachers it is a big smelly mess.
      One of my favorite phrases is that if you don’t like something, then just wait a few weeks.  It will be changed by then.  As I fussed and fumed this evening about the hours of my life that I was wasting on a schedule that was simply going to be put into a computer and forgotten, I wanted to just cut loose and tell everyone I came in contact with what a ridiculous activity I was forced to waste time on.  I even had to go to a school meeting and would have to put on my cheerful face in front of students, parents, and administrators.   I didn’t know if I could pull it off.
      After an hour away from the schedule I was able to begin to get a grip.  The reality is that regardless of how I feel, I’ve been told to fill out this new schedule and turn it in.  No one asked me my opinion and the general public probably doesn’t care about my stupid schedule.  So I have the choice to turn this into a big deal or just do my best and turn it in.  I refuse to become one more teacher who goes out into public and just talks about all the ridiculous parts of our job.  We have enough trouble getting respect as it is. 
  So I guess my plan is to turn it in early and I’m sure it will just sit in an office for a while.  If I have done something wrong then I’m sure an administrator will let me know and will possibly provide me with a feasible way to accomplish this impossible task.  Until then, I’ll get back to my room, shut the door, and get back to having a great time helping the kids to learn. That is my idea of a “brilliant” idea.

(In the comments below, please let me know some of the ridiculous things you have had to do as a teacher this year.)     

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Teachers Seem to Live Forever

     I remember when I was in fifth grade I had an old grandma looking teacher named Mrs. Vancleve.  In her class we learning social studies and reading.  I can’t remember a single lesson, but to this day I remember her vibrant polyester dresses decked out with costume jewelry and white hair coifed in the same perfect way every day.   I would have guessed that Mrs. Vancleve was in her seventies when I was in her class and would retire at any second. 
     Ten years later I was back at my elementary school and was amazed to see some of my old teachers.  Mr. McLintock, my second grade teacher, was much shorter after ten years than when he was when I was in second grade.  Mr. Kline had less hair and was actually thinner.  Yet, Mrs. Vancleve looked untouched by time.  Her hair managed to stay exactly the same.  You could imagine that she slept sitting up so that it never moved.  Her outfit, although new, had the same style I remembered.  She also had the same dark rimmed glasses that she probably started wearing the 50’s.  I realized that my guess of 70 years old must have been off, or else Mrs. Vancleve must have turned sixty and quit aging. 
     As I begin year number 17 of my teaching career, I know that I could retire in my early fifties.  The idea sounds good, but unless I have a burning desire to forge into another career, I will most likely keep on teaching as long as I can just like Mrs. Vancleve.  I know that someday my former students will reflect on me as their teacher.  I’m sure they won’t specifically remember most of the items we learned together, but they will probably find some nuance or phrase I recite to remember me by.   I hope it makes them smile. 

(In the comments below, please tell me some of the comments your students have made about your age.  Or let me know some of the quirks of former teachers that you remember still today. )

    Kids are always fascinated by the age of their teacher.  If given the opportunity  their first personal question almost always is, “How old are you?”.  The students use this information to place you in the adult world like, “My parents are older than you.”  Their parents also look at age to define you as a teacher.  Some want new teachers for their child that have fresh ideas and are willing to give their all to their class.  Other parents want older veteran teachers that know what they’re doing in their classrooms.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Teaching as a diet?

     Working as a teacher is like going on an instant diet.  Each day I wake up early in the morning.  Stumble around in the dark and get ready to get to school just as the sun is beginning to rise.  At this early hour the last thing I want is a big breakfast.
      At lunch I usually teach up till lunch time, take five minutes to walk the students to the lunch room, Then another five minutes are spent walk across the school to get my lunch and check my box.  I sit down and inhale whatever food I can in ten minutes and then make a phone call, check email, or prepare for the next email.  Then it’s back to the classroom until school ends. 
      I also cover miles of walking going from parking lots across campus and back and forth from my classroom to other classrooms, specials, the office bathroom and all around.  I try and be efficient, but it rarely worlds out that simply.
     With all of this running around and inability to eat you would think I was as skinny as a bean pole.  I guess I would be if it weren’t for one thing, stress.  To compensate for all the stress and business of the day I eat my troubles away all night.  I enjoy my supper and savor every morsel.  I don’t feel bad if I binge on chocolate or ice cream.  I can justify just about anything, because I know that tomorrow I’ll be back at school on my instant diet.

(In the comments below, let me know how you spend your so called “lunch break”)   

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Child Thinks Your Mean

       We have so many distractions to our teaching each day and email is just one of them.   Email is a great way to communicate back and forth with parents.   It provides a one sided conversation where words are usually put down with little consideration.   It is also public record in our state so it becomes an even scarier form of communication.   In the past I have gotten some amazing emails, but todays may top my  list.  So instead of responding in print I’ve arranged a face to face meeting.
       As I finished school today I finally had a moment to sit down and read my email.  The second message on the list was from a parent of a child who had missed school today.  The letter went on to explain that while getting ready to come to school today her child broke down into tears and refused to go to school.  When the parent asked her child why he didn’t want to go to school he stated that his teacher, me, had yelled at him and humiliated him in front of the class for not getting his books out of his desk fast enough.  With such grave accusations I made an attempt to contact the parent by phone.  At first she was in the car driving so I told her I would call her back.  Next , as we introduced ourselves her cellphone died and we were disconnected.  On the third attempt I was able to make contact with the parent.  The parent then reviewed the situation and I suggested we meet tomorrow morning to talk together about this conflict. The parent seemed happy to be able to discuss this situation so that her child would feel comfortable enough to return to school.
     Instead of preparing for class tomorrow I will be working through this child’s concerns and attempting to catch him up on the six hours of learning he missed.  I’m sure the parent will arrive moments before the other students come to school.  I’ll have to discuss why the student feels I yelled and I’m sure that it will come out that his definition of yelled is the same word as talked to.   If the boy does feel  humiliated then  I need to be sensitive to this, but I will also let the child and his parent know that at certain times this year I will be making requests such as move quickly.  It won’t be a reflection on their character, we just need to move along.  I’ll have to explain that the comment about getting books out quickly was a blanket statement made to the entire class and I did not mean this one child when I used the word, “class.” In the end we’ll understand each other and look back on this dramatic experience and say, “What was this really all about?”   
       When parents take their children’s word at face value they can sometimes get the right information.  When they immediately respond to their children’s words by storming the school they often find themselves in an embarrassing situation.  And when the whole event is all done, there is rarely an apology for the hours of time a teacher has wasted.  That’s not what email is for. 

P.S.  I had the conference this morning.  As predicted the mom and her child came five minutes before the start of school.  The student admitted that I had not yelled at him or humiliated him.  His new story is that when the other students had already gotten their work out, he felt that they were looking at him and this embarassed him.  After our chat the student had a wonderful day so I assume that he got what ever it was that he wanted.   From the parent, I never received any sort of apology or acknowledgement that a lie or false representation had taken place.  I guess it is easier to fire off a negative email than to admit that her son was taking advantage of her.   

(In the comments below, please share some of the amazing distractions you have had to deal with in the classroom.)