The pressure to begin

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Tuesday was our first day of school with the kids.  Unlike last year, I have not looped with these students. This year, everything starts at the beginning. And that is most definitely an overwhelming prospect when we teachers begin to think about what routines need to be taught. When I prepare for those first days, the burning question is “what do I want this to look like in our classroom at the end of the year?”

So much of this first week is not academic; it’s procedural. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Many education experts advocate for building the classroom culture over the first six weeks of school. However, the pressure to start academics weighs on all of us – administrators and teaching staff. When assessments are scheduled for the first month of school, there’s an implication that the academics have become the focus fairly early in the year.

In the Daily 5, reading stamina – the amount of uninterrupted time students read with focus – is built one minute a day, one day at a time.  Starting at 3 minutes, I need 27 school days (5+ weeks) to build reading stamina to 30 minutes daily (a minimal goal for fourth graders).  And when I take a shortcut to get to this goal? Well, that’s when some less-than-ideal behaviors pop up. Building purposeful habits can’t be rushed.

So if all these culture-building steps create a safe and vibrant classroom environment for kids, why don’t we just do it?

The pressure to start curriculum too soon is strong. Even experienced veterans start to feel the nagging pressure to be at a particular spot in the curriculum by a date carved into a calendar.  Am I trusted to assess my own students’ needs, design and deliver the instruction to take them from their entry point to where they need to be at this grade level?

I’m not sure I am.

 

Bulletin Boards

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When I first started teaching, I changed bulletin boards monthly – always with, what I perceived was a “cute” theme.  Laminated cutouts, tracings from an overhead projector…. I diligently changed the boards in my classroom to reflect seasons and my own idea of what would make the classroom seem cute or homey.

Oh boy, have things changed! Next Tuesday, when my students enter our shared space for the first time since last June, those cute, decorative, perfect bulletin boards will be missing in action.

Why? Several reasons. Over time, I’ve recognized that the perfect, teacher-created bulletin boards can create a dizzying space. While I don’t want the walls to be institutionally devoid of anything, there is a balance needed. Kids don’t need to have more stuff to distract them. So, mainly anything I put on the walls is necessary as a reminder (example: Daily Five I-Charts) and mostly co-created with my kids.

Now I use one color for a background throughout the classroom. Following Gail Boushey and Joan Moser’s lead (the “2 Sisters“), I use a very light pink which is easy on the eyes and not a distraction from what will end up on those boards. IMG_0008_2

Putting up backgrounds is tedious, measuring, pulling the material taut and stapling it to the ugly grey material of the board takes lots of time. When I used to use construction paper, it would fade very quickly. So for the last several years, I’ve “invested” in plastic table cloths from our local party store. This material doesn’t fade, stays up, and staple/pin holes are pretty minimal. And they are inexpensive. Sweet!

Similarly, I use a border that stays in the background, but ties all of the display areas together cohesively.  The black border that I have chosen is a simple, corrugated, plain border which just happens to be reasonably inexpensive.

As you can see, outside of the bare bones of what will become our CAFE board and an alphabet strip, the boards are bare and ready for the students and me to begin creating essential reminders of what we are learning or student work.

We are (almost) ready for the first day.

Begin at the beginning

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How do you define your classroom space?

IMG_1255I like to call mine collaborative classroom design.  As a follower of Responsive Classroom, I know how important it is for students to feel ownership and have a voice in designing the space we share. When I walk into my classroom space for the first time after a summer break, I ask myself:

  • Is the classroom a reflection of me? Or will the students own the walls with their work on display and the tools or charts they need to use?
  • Is there visually too much? Has there been consideration given to create a visually calming space?
  • Are the supplies students use placed so they will be able to access them independently?
  • Is there a purposeful sense to the flow of traffic in the room?

Just four things to consider and yet, these four are so important! I want the IMG_1249students to feel that they have a shared responsibility for the room – for the upkeep, tidiness, and for the feel of the space. I want my students to know they can access needed supplies without asking me where something is all of the time! When it isn’t working I find my kids may not tell me with words, but with their actions that something is working or not working. Believe me, when it isn’t working, it is crystal clear!

This week, I will begin to reset my classroom after its summer cleaning and spruce-up. As I set up for a new year of learning, I will keep my four considerations in mind and prepare to collaborate with my 24(ish) new best friends.

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Scheduling (I’m dancing as fast as I can)

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How do you start planning for a new school year? I begin with thinking about my daily schedule.

At the beginning of my career, this was more problematic because teachers weren’t given all the contributing factors (like lunch, recess, and special schedules) until the day before the kids came. That made for a long night before school started. This year, our principal has made the decision that lunch times will stay the same as will specials. Knowing when students will out of the classroom for allied arts and lunch is a giant help in planning for instruction.

The wild card this year is that there are many mandated time allotments and not enough time in the day to meet all of them. Teachers in this district are asked to provide time on task for almost as many minutes as there are in the entire school day. That leaves no time to get to point A from point B, no time to transition kids from one activity to another, no time for recess or bathrooms. Sorry, no can do.

scheduleSo, today I began to triage what I hope will be our class schedule.

When I try out a times on paper, I like to think about what worked with my students. I sketch and re-sketch on paper, let it simmer for a while, come back, and give it another shot. Hopefully, I have something that will make sense and be able to record these ideas on a spreadsheet before setting up any kind of plan book.

My nature is that I like to mix things up halfway through the school year, but because I am teaching with a Special Education partner with an even more complicated schedule, that’s not always possible. So whatever schedule I create needs to meet the mandates from our Central Office and School Committee, be natural for students, and be possibly in place for the whole 180 days.

Yes, I am dancing as fast as I can, and school hasn’t even started.

 

Outside Influences

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This article by Catherine Gewertz and Lianna Heitin in Education Week caught my attention: Fourth Graders Struggle With Icons, Directions on Computer-Based Tests.

Can we all let out a big DUH?

The students surveyed, an admittedly small sampling, all claimed to have access to computers at home. The students knew some very basic functions, but some others (see figure 2 in the article) like using a drop down menu were not. Oh and reading directions? Well fourth graders apparently are a mirror of what most of the rest of us do – they didn’t read them.

So why did this catch my attention? Well, several reasons. When administering computerized tests, is there some thought given to what tools are developmentally appropriate for, say, fourth graders or is everyone expected to use functionalities the same way adults do?

Secondly,not every one of my own students has ready access to computers. While improved on prior years when perhaps one of 24 students had a working computer at home, some do and some do not. So, that means, the understanding of these icons and keys on their assessments will make for lots of interesting results – not necessarily about the topic being assessed.

This makes me wonder: to what degree will students’ familiarity with technology tools affect their performance? And since student performance on tests is also associated with my evaluation, how will this skew things?

One door closes and another opens

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I hope you will not mind this personal post. Our lives have been consumed for the last three months with selling our home, the place we have spent the last 20 years.

We bought this home in 1994. Built in 1931, its structure reminded both of us of our childhood; in fact I often referred to the architecture as “Leave It To Beaver” or Father Knows Best”. I realize that puts me in a certain age group :-).

Last spring, after shoveling what had to be a ton of snow, we decided to put our house on the market. It’s always enlightening to find out what matters to buyers. At times our house was described as well maintained, small, not worth the ask, old (no kidding!). One looker complained that we had more than one type of tile in the house. We learned to have a thick skin.

However, a buyer willing to wait for a new septic system and appreciative of an older gem of a house, is about to sign on. I feel a responsibility to our old house. It needs someone to love it as we have. I think our new buyers will do that.

Today is our last visit to the old place. In a few days we will no longer own property. Walking through an empty house and listening to the echoes of memories is bittersweet. There’s been sadness and grief and indescribable joyousness within these walls.

And while we turn the lock on our past 20 years, we remain hopeful that the next 20, the next adventures, will be as sweet.

Math, Flexible Thinking

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My fourth graders had a burning question all year long: How old are you?

I’m not so much embarrassed by my age, as I am shocked at how quickly I got to this ripe spot in my timeline.  However, having said that, I do not directly answer that question.

Instead, I always give the students an equation on the last day of school. It usually involves a cube root. “But you didn’t teach us that!” they complain. And my reply is, “When you learn what that means, you’ll have earned the answer to your question.”

This year one of my fourth graders told me she didn’t need to know a cube root to figure out my age. Curiosity engaged, I asked her how she proposed to find the answer to her question.

Easy. You told us you were in sixth grade when John F. Kennedy died, so I can figure it out without a cube root.” And off she went to find a JFK biography in our class library.

Which reminds me of two things. One, be careful what personal facts you reveal. And two, being flexible thinkers in math is just as important as working through an equation.

 

 

 

And so it goes…

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Yesterday, after 360 2013fielddayadays together, my students and I said good-bye. From here on, they are off to Middle School and, in all probability, we will not cross paths again. It was, for me, a bittersweet moment. And perhaps it was for some of them as well.

We’ve had our share of challenges and our share of triumphs. In our Morning Meetings over the last week, the kids and I sh2013fieldday3legsared what we are most proud of accomplishing and the times when we’ve been embarrassed. Sometimes I’m grateful Teacher does not see everything.

For me, I am proud that the kids have learned that I expect them to persevere. We don’t give up. I think that was embodied by their effort in our school-wide tug-o-war. The kids had a strategy for pulling together this year and, even though one class member might have wanted to be in the coveted anchor position, together they decided who, for the common good, would be the best in that position.

During the awards assembly, they clapped for each other, congratulated classmatphoto 1es from other homerooms. They made me proud to know them, even for just a little while. When I took a last snapshot with my phone yesterday, the kids insisted it wasn’t a “selfie”; it was an “us-ie”.

So, we go on about our lives. We take different pathways and maybe once in a while we will stop to remember each other and the special two years we spent in each others’ company.

Time to un-hibernate

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The weather in this corner of the northeast has been a real challenge. Since January 1 we’ve accumulated 4 school snow day cancellations; thank goodness this week was a school vacation week or we’d be adding at least one more snow day to the list.

Spending your vacation at home is not very exciting. Yes, we got some things accomplished, but there were no adventures for us this week. Unless you find shoveling heavy, wet snow up and over your head onto snowbanks the size of Mount Washington adventuresome. Or you think chipping 3 inches of ice off the driveway is fun.

It is hard to be spiritually uplifted when everything around you is the color of slate, crusted with sand and embedded with the roadside detritus torchidossed by commuters on the way to somewhere. The endless supply of grey, overcast sky seems to be a constant lately.

Yesterday, badly in need of a break from all this winter ambience, I took a detour from my to-do list of errands and ended up at a local garden greenhouse, miraculously open at this time of year. Oh, the beauty of the greens – ferns, prayer plants, coleus, African violets. There is something about the smell of the wet soil that is heavenly.

And so, I’ve declared this the end of my winter hibernation. We are moving toward spring, even if the spring is within the walls of a greenhouse.

And my soul is filled with promise and hope.

 

A Lesson in Discussion in Mathematics

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It wasn’t exactly where I had anticipated directing the discussion yesterday. And as it turns out, that was not only a moment of revelation, it was a glimpse into good things that can happen to mathematical discussions.

Have you seen a problem that is something like this one?

31 students are going on a field trip. They travel in cars holding 4 students and a driver. How many cars will they need?

With second language learners, I expected that we would have a discussion about what should be done with the remaining students.  We never actually got to that.

At the Summary point in our lesson, I asked volunteers to explain their thinking and computation for the problem. Three student volunteers stepped up to the document camera and explained their thinking: student one divided 31 by 3; student two divided by 4 and student three divided by 5.  Which one was correct?

The rest of the students kept turning around to me to see which of the three students had the right – as in which student had the one correct solution.  I’ve been working on this area of my teaching for a while now, and fortunately I did not take the bait.

Because had I stepped into the discussion as “teacher as the holder of all things correct” , I would have missed one of the all-time great moments of teaching — the time when the students follow all those discussion norms we’ve worked on and have a debate about which student had the most logical interpretation of this word problem.  I wish I had filmed it!

What did these fourth grade mathematicians decide? Although student one’s  interpretation made sense to him, there was general agreement “4 students and a driver”  did not mean divide by 3. Student two pointed out that bus drivers don’t go inside on field trips, so neither would car drivers; if the students were fourth graders, divide by 4. And student three? Student three is steadfastly holding the position that if the students were high school aged, one of them might be able to drive; therefore, divide by five.

And my question – what to do with the remaining students? Well, we’ll work on that one on another day.

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