Two Tales in Education

Author collectionTwo stories from the education world caught my attention this week, and I feel that both are worth the time to read. The first story, Why Teachers Quit by Liz Riggs, is a cautionary tale from 2013 about teachers and burn-out. The second, Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues is by Natasha Singer of the New York Times. It is a warning for anyone who worries about the possible effects of corporate America’s influence in schools and school materials.

The Atlantic recently reposted Liz Riggs’ 2013 article Why Teachers Quit which was originally printed in October 2013. Even with a 4-year time gap, this is an article that is relevant and worth reading for anyone interested in retaining educators. The turn-over rate cited in the article, 40-50%, refers to the numbers of teachers leaving the education profession within the first five years of their career.  While I believe this attrition rate to be lower in 2017 thanks to strong induction and mentoring programs available to beginning educators, many beginning teachers continue to leave education for other fields.

Although many of the teachers Ms. Riggs interviewed were from charter schools, the conditions which lead to decisions to leave education are often some of the same expressions of discontent heard now from both novices and experienced teachers. The responsibilities of educators don’t end at the dismissal bell. Planning, assessing, writing reports – those workloads are often overwhelming and makes for an unhealthy and out-of-balance life.

Even when one goes into education for all the best reasons, the reality of the profession can become overwhelming. With all of the emphasis on teacher quality, there continues to be a need to ensure that the extracurricular demands on talented educators are not overpowering.

The second article, Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues, was recently published in the New York Times and describes a new trend in education: recruiting teachers to promote edu-products. While understanding that obtaining “free stuff” is a way for classrooms and educators to afford enhancements and the latest in bells and whistles, I think this pathway is a very slippery slope. It makes me more than a bit skeptical about the motives of corporate American forming relationships with educators to obtain favorable product placements.

As a retired educator, I can still recall the disproportionate amounts of time spent each evening writing plans, pulling together materials, researching, contacting parents, and grading student work. I am not quite sure how Kayla Delzer, the third grade teacher chronicled in the Times article finds enough time to attend to teacher responsibilities; blog, tweet, and post on Facebook; and sleep. I wonder about the cost to her students.  Is her objectivity in evaluating appropriate materials compromised? Are her students missing out when their expert teacher is away to promote these materials?

Two tales for the week, both cautionary. Anyone out there listening?


What IS Important to Elementary Kids

The Daily Five Tip of the Week had a wonderful cover story this week. In it, Lori Sabo writes about the lasting impact Joan Moser had on a former first grader, recent high school graduate. In the end, the former student describes her current self through the books she loves.

IMG_0190Beyond the well-deserved thanks that Joan received I think is a far more important message to all who work with elementary students. What matters to elementary kids, what they will take away, is a love of learning.

Clearly, Joan’s former student learned to love to read, not from the rigor of the Common Core (which was not part of our educational landscape 12 year ago), but through the nurturing environment created within the walls of the classroom. That environment included coaching this student through some reading challenges, instilling a sense of confidence and independence, and creating a safe and relaxing physical space to learn.

Planning for the upcoming year will inevitably include achievement data and plans for improvement. And there will be pressure to meet incredibly (ridiculously) rigorous curricula. But, hopefully, it will also include some serious thought given to what’s important – really important – to elementary students. A place and a space in which to learn to love learning.

Classroom Reorg: Making Our Space Less Cluttered

I’ve been spending a bit of time thinking about what the physical atmosphere and arrangement of the classroom projects.  I am a packrat. There, I’ve said it. I saved egg cartons – must have had to toss about 50 of them when we moved 16 years ago – knowing in my teacher brain that I “might need these some day.” Well, someday never came.

As much as I would like to make the classroom into a homey place, I worry about the wisdom of bringing upholstered furnishings into a space and risk bedbugs or other interesting things. Fire inspectors tell us that only 50 percent of our wall surfaces (or is it 20?) can be covered – and nothing within X feet of a door. Sprucing up foggy plexiglass windows with a window valance is out of the question.

Even so, there are things I can take control of. I have a concern that a cluttered classroom translates into a chaotic message for students who are easily distracted. I understand that there have been rules created to ensure teachers have equitable access to equipment -our Union book spells out some of this. But an overhead and extra cart in the room – I don’t use this any longer as we recently obtained projection equipment – just takes up space.

Here are some of the things I am considering:

  • Clear the countertops as much as possible. Use the surfaces for displaying special literature or projects.
  • Using the “return” on my desk for the students’ mailbox center and for the newer computer. Where will all that “stuff” on the return go? I am rehabbing a 4-drawer file cabinet which I’d like to use to get stuff of the surface areas.
  • Get rid of the rectangular reading table. I have a round reading table that can be used for conferences or listening or what-have-you. I want to conference right at the student’s desk or read in small groups in a rug area.
  • Put the television in storage. The cart it sits on must take up 6 square feet.
  • Throw, recycle, sell – get rid of any personal teaching material that doesn’t support the current framework or hasn’t been used in more than 2 years.

This year I will be sharing my space with at least one – possibly two – SpEd/ health paraprofessionals and some medical equipment for one of my new students. It is not only a nicety that the room becomes less cluttered, it is imperative. There may be decisions to be made about where adults put personal “stuff” and how much can or cannot be in the room. That will most likely not be met with enthusiasm.

Time to roll up sleeves and get cracking.

Letting Go

One of my New Year’s Resolutions – the list is really long! – is to try not to be such a control freak about what we do in the classroom. I’m letting go of the idea that I need to be at school before 6:30 am (our school begins at 8:30) and that I can’t possibly leave before 5 pm to get things done. Yesterday I left the house at 7 am and discovered that there is a world of sunlight out there!

Well, the reform movement can also be applied to my students. Yes, in general, they are a handful, but just maybe they will step up to the plate if I shift some responsibility on to them.

Up to this point, I had very complicated management for what part of the Daily 5 Cafe each student was responsible to complete on a daily basis.  I felt the need to do this because of the requirements for small-group instruction within our school – Safety Net students must meet with teacher and literacy partner (also a teacher) twice each day. Out of a 40 minute block, that does not leave much time for self reading, does it? And when do these very needy kids get to experience (and possibly get jazzed up by) other aspects of literacy? It was a puzzlement.

So, I’ve shifted things around so that the whole group lesson is scheduled for a half-hour instead of 15 minutes. Will I spend 15 minutes in lecture mode? Heck no! I just am keeping that time so that kids can go off and start other things before they are in full small group rotation mode.  I think it will work – at least it did yesterday.

Additionally, the rest of the students who are not in a small instructional group, now have the flexibility (I think my exact words to them were: “I think you are grown up enough to handle this….”) of completing the D5 activities in whatever order pleases them. They have to make 3 commitments: 1) to read for at least 20 minutes every day without interruptions, 2) turn in their response journal on the assigned day and 3) not to spend all of the D5 block standing in front of the classroom library chatting it up.

As I was testing students yesterday (our mid-year Fountas Pinnell tests start now), I looked around the room in amazement. It was quiet, the conversations that were taking place seemed to be about literacy, and outside of 2 students who were testing whether or not I’d notice, no one was in the classroom library socializing.

It is hard for me to let go. Most of the time I feel responsible for making sure everything goes perfectly — and there’s the problem. It is not just my responsibility – it is a shared one. And as far as perfect? Well, these are kids, so I need to remind myself to park perfection at the door.

So far, so good.

Adventures with Flat Stanley

We’ve read the book, we’ve done the project with our kids (honest truth: not one of the 25 got a single Flat back!). This week my class has been hosting my niece’s Flat Stanley. And we are having a blast. Sorry, can’t post pictures of kids, but trust me on this.

Working on multiplication riddles? Flat Stanley can help.  Daily 5 Rotations? Stanley watches over us and keeps us on task. Assemblies, Bank presentations, whatever we are doing Flat Stanley is there to share the experience.  We’ve got one more week’s visit with Stanley and then we’ll have to say good-bye; however, in the meantime, we’re enjoying sharing our school and our experiences.

Thanks M for sharing your Flat with us.

Mindblowing Task of Setting Up a Classroom

I’ve been at this for 23 Fall startups now and I’ve yet to find the “perfect” room configuration.  Over time, I’ve managed to get the task of setting up – at least for Day 1 – down to a two-day affair, but it is not without angst.

My students do not sit in rows – they never have. I’ve been an early adapter for collaborative or cooperative learning and have just never let go of those concepts.  This year I have 24 students on my (current) roster. That number will probably not be the final count of students. I currently have 5 groups of 5. While that’s not an ideal configuration of students in a group, I dislike have so many clusters of desks around the room that the walking flow is impeded. Here is a wide shot of how the desks are arranged at present:

The desks for the students are arranged in the front 2/3 of the classroom space. This year I have an ELMO and projection equipment to include for whole-group lessons or for sharing examples of student work.  The classroom already has a pull down screen at the front of the room over the white board.  Off to the side there are some shelves and cabinets for storage and a sink (big smile).

At the rear of the room, opposite the white board, I have placed 5 2-shelf units that comprise the Leveled Library for the classroom.  There is a tack board above these shelves.  In this area, I have a large gathering rug, a sizable rolling easel,  and a rectangular table (doubling as extra small group instructional space and a listening center area).

The alphabet chart is above this board. I generally have the students help decide where the wall displays are going, but in the case of the alphabet chart – a royal pain to hang on a good day – the decision is fait accompli. This year I am implementing the Literacy Cafe along with the Daily Five as a management tool. The Cafe strategy board is to the left of the image.  I’m still struggling with where to put a Choice chart for students.

Another important area in the classroom is our Behavior Tracking area near the exit door.  This is a spot for students to monitor their behavior color and it is also where the daily schedule will be posted.  To the left of the behavior chart is a lunch choice board. Students are expected to make one of 4 lunch choices as they enter the classroom by placing a personal magnet under the choice for the day.  This choice board doubles as an attendance check-in for me.  If the meal magnet hasn’t moved from the ‘parking lot’, then the student is absent – otherwise I get to choose lunch for them. Since I teach Third Grade, this routine is pretty reliably run by the students.

I use magazine boxes to store students’ reading materials. Those boxes are stored on the counter top between the classroom’s windows. When it is time to begin reading activities, student retrieve the magazine box and keep it on the floor next to their desk or wherever else they may be working during Reading Workshop.

So will this work? I sure hope so. I keep my requirements pretty simple:

  1. students need to have the ability to work in groups
  2. clutter, especially mine, is keep at a minimum – the space needs to be clean
  3. traffic flow is easy and everyone can be visually monitored

Now for the test: students arrive Tuesday and we will see how successful this room configuration is.

Some thing to smile about

Our elementary school, like many others, has a moment at the beginning of the day for school-wide announcements. In our school, the Morning Announcement also includes the Pledge of Allegiance and our school’s Learning Pledge.  Each morning, coming together as a school community, we recite both pledges together.

As you can imagine, sometimes a student will be in the hallway just as the announcement is starting.  Given the location of my classroom (at the intersection of two hallways), I often get a bird’s eye view of how students handle being “caught” in the hallway during the Pledge of Allegiance.

To my knowledge, without any adult prompting, students – singularly or in groups – stop at my doorway, face the flag visible from the doorway, put hand over heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. No big deal as far as the students are concerned; they are doing what is expected to get our day started. Upon finishing the Pledge, the students continue on their mission without missing a beat.

Coming together as a community of 500 or so learners is an important way we get started on our day.  In a time when we are hearing about all the ways schools and students allegedly do not measure up, here is something for which we can be proud. And to think that the kids thought this up themselves. As teachers and parents, we must be doing something right.