Well, That Was Ugly

I have always thought it important for students to learn to work cooperatively. When I worked in the private sector, we worked as teams or groups – almost never without some kind of interaction with colleagues.  Kids need to know how to work in collaborations, too.  

And so, we set out this week to work in cooperative groups to create “rules” for defining two-dimensional polygons.

I modeled the expected outcome (a chart listing the attributes of the four polygons each group was investigating). I semi-randomly created groups of 4 students with one eye on creating a heterogeneous group. Defined and had students take on group jobs – recorders, materials, etc. And sent the groups on their merry way to focus on the task.

Which failed miserably. Why? Because despite our attention to polite dialogue (one student ended up telling her group to “shut the hell up”), the task of working with others needed to be broken down further. Even the simple – or so I thought – task of choosing one out of the four to record on chart paper was unattainable. I ended up spending much of the period on how to choose a recorder, what the responsibilities might be for the materials manager, etc.

Clearly, this is something my students and I need to work on aggressively. After we re-gathered in our meeting spot to talk about what was not working, I knew we needed to work much more diligently on getting along in a group so that the task (remember that?) actually is completed.

Yes, this is a very egocentric group; many try to have private conversations with me at the same time! But we need to learn how to get along in a group and how to negotiate working under group dynamics.

And that, my friends, was the take-away from that math lesson.



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.


For whatever reason, this group of students is having a heck of a time dialing things back after any unstructured time. I noticed it almost immediately which, given all the other chaos accompanying the first days of school was quite an accomplishment. Some of the problems that are interfering with getting back to work: excessive socializing and inability to stay focused on the afternoon’s lessons and activities. We use a behavior chart as part of our positive discipline climate: for more than two days in a row I’ve discovered one or more students who have moved a classmate’s behavior card instead of their own.

It appears that the students have developed some less-than-acceptable work habits, doesn’t it. And before we can begin purposeful work on the academic gaps, there clearly  needs to be a correction – stat.

Many of the students in my room — possibly 50% of the group — are reading at the first grade level and their math skills are pretty low as well.  Are the behaviors at the root of distracting student? I don’t think it takes a PhD to say yes. So, like most teachers I know, I’ve spent the weekend obsessing over the situation and how we can get on track.

Tomorrow I plan to begin a more purposeful outreach to parents of my students. Although we are not scheduled to conference with parents until the first report card in December, I hope to reach out to each family.  If we are going to make up some of the ground lost, there needs to be lots of hard work at home and at school.

I am hoping the parents will agree.

A Tuesday Smile

There are days when teaching energetic 8- and 9-year old students is a challenge; there are times when it is most definitely enjoyable.

On Tuesdays, our Morning Meeting is somewhat abbreviated. The students begin the day with a 10-minute grab and go breakfast followed by Art Class while I am meeting with my grade level team. We facilitate the need to start our day with a welcome by doing a “one minute” greeting – a chance to walk around the meeting area and shake a classmate’s hand. I noticed today how wonderfully the students looked each other – and me – in the eye and said “Good Morning!”. Definitely a great way to start the day! How awesome it was to notice the students who for a variety of reasons previously had been unable to look a classmate or me in the eye. To be able to do so  now, along with a firm handshake, well that’s growth that no test will ever measure.

A bit later in the Morning Meeting, I allow 2-3 students to share something with their peers. Today, one of my quiet kids signed up. When it was his turn, he reached behind his back for a cardboard box liner – pink velveteen if I recall correctly – with about a one-inch hole right in the middle.”What now,” I wondered silently.

Presto! To our delight, he inserted his finger through the hole in the box liner and with a sly smile said “I found this box in my sister’s car so I faked my Mom out. I told her I found this finger in a box.” Believe me when I tell you this is primo third grade humor – the kids could hardly contain themselves and the thought that a Mom had been fooled. Well, that was the the BEST!

I imagine that as we speak, there are 17 children scouring their homes for a box just like the one that was shared today. And probably there’s a rash of finger-in-the-box fake-outs as well.

Balancing Reading Assessment

I’ve just started reading a professional book by the Sisters (Gail Boushey and Joan Moser) called The Cafe Book. The Sisters wrote The Daily Five which I’ve been partially using in my own classroom during Reading Workshop to help manage what the “other kids” are doing while I’m conferencing or working with a group.

When I began my career, like the Sisters, I was uncomfortable if I met one of my reading groups more often than another. But after being encouraged by my Principal to “get out of the way” of more adept readers and not meet with them so often, I’ve been a bit more willing to let go of the fairness is equal philosophy. What this means for me as a third grade teacher is that my more advanced readers meet with me as a group just once a week. They read longer, chapter-based texts, and I’ve taught them (a painful process I have to admit) to work as an independent literacy circle. The time I’ve carved out is spent on my Safety Net and Below Level students – who need more support in order to become more proficient as readers.

So now that I’ve divided up my time so that the students who need more of me, get more of me, what’s next?  Well, if you say Assessment and Conferencing, the kind of assessment that lets you know where your students and and what they need help with, we’re in agreement. However, once you’ve conferenced or assessed a student, a teacher needs to actually do something with that information.

Like the Sisters, I’ve been through a ton of different models and suggestions for keeping track of what my students know and what they need to know next.  Sticky notes seem like a good idea — but like Joan, I kept having to retrieve them from the floor and try to figure out in retrospect who the note was about. Not exactly efficient. Clipboards, file cards, the whole gamut of record keeping is enough to drive one crazy. Trying to find an effective and efficient way to gather information about my students — one that I can sustain when the year’s pace becomes high pressure and crazy — is key for me right now.  I know data gathering is a fact of my teaching life that will probably never disappear.

And then, once I’ve got all this fabulous data, what to do next? I’m hopeful that the Sisters, who seem to have a practical and realistic handle on balancing assessment with putting the results of assessment into practice, have a few ideas.

Everyday Lives of Students

Monday was our first day back from Winter Break — I suspect this is only a New England school vacation as I never experienced it growing up in northern Ohio.  A week-long escape is a welcome respite from the stresses of teaching – and yes, I am aware that I chose this profession – but it also serves to highlight the stress of teaching students in urban education.

Our Monday morning meeting brought forward three stories from my 8- and 9-year old students. Stories that are told in such a conversational way that they seem as normal as a visit to grandma’s. Again, Ruth Payne’s fine chronicle of trauma and poverty, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, helps me to see the events outside of my middle-class white Leave It To Beaver upbringing. For these children, life is what it is.

Story number 1: “my cousin was arrested with his pit bull.” Now sometimes “arrested” takes on a rather broad definition in the mind of an 8-year old. In this case it was true; I verified it by reading the local newspaper online after school: the cousin had been taken into custody after allowing his unleashed and unrestrained pit bull to lunge at people walking in the downtown area, had refused the request of a police officer to leash the dog, and resisted arrest.

Story number 2: brother – who the student had recently revealed was in jail – was rearrested.  This student reported on the event as if it were an everyday normal occurrence.” Had I seen X’s name in the paper? He’s going to jail.”

Story number 3: a tenant living in the same apartment complex as my third student triggered the SWAT team to swarm the building after said tenant threatened a cab driver with a gun. The student had lots of details and had obviously seen most of the confrontation – her details matched the newspaper article too.

Now several things come to mind here.  First of all, the traumatic distractions in these students’ every day life are unbelievable. Secondly, yes school is a “safe place” and expectations for what happens in school remain high. But the distractions and worries these children must overcome to even be close to ready to focus and concentrate are, most of the time, unimaginable.

This is what stresses out urban teachers.  We come to know the human story, the reality these children deal with.

In Need of an Educational Time-Out

School vacation week in Massachusetts started for me as of 2:50 yesterday afternoon.

I know there are some in the private sector who will read that statement and disparage me. But here is why I not only need this vacation, I deserve it.

1.  I am not paid for the days off. Contrary to popular opinion, teachers are paid to work a number of days per contract period.  No one is counting next Monday through Friday in the day count.  Hence, working the requisite 180 (actually it’s 181 in Lowell) days means we stop the clock on Monday at Day 106. The daily count will begin again on Monday February 22.  So you see, taxpayers, you are not paying for my days off. My official work year (more of that word “official” later) will end whenever we hit 180 days.

2.  Since we returned to school on January 4, I have put in 10 hour days 5 or more days a week. It takes planning and preparation to engage children in learning. What it takes for me is 4 hours daily on top of the time I am with the students. That’s not poor time management people.  That’s the amount of time it takes to correct and analyze assessments, reset education goals – sometimes for each student, find resources to meet those needs, and then write the whole mess down using Language and Content objectives as required by my District.

3. Official work week of course in not any where close to the hours spent with students. “Officially”, I am not working during the summer. I am definitely not getting paid. In reality, I am taking courses that not only update my professional understandings but help me acquire the needed Professional Development Point to be relicensed every 5 years. And no, you can’t get PDPs for sitting by the pool or mowing the lawn.  It takes about a week after the students leave to close out required paperwork. It also takes time to gear up for a new school year — I stopped counting last August after I’d spent 40 hours. It was too depressing.

4. The amount of paperwork, testing, reporting, etc. in any given time period during an academic year would bury most anyone I know. Every year there seems to be more of it.  And I’m a classroom teacher – imagine the Special Education people who have legal documents to fill out! I’m pretty adept with a computer having worked with them since 1977 (no that’s not a typo). Even Excel can’t bail me out of time-sucking reports and data analysis.

I am exhausted and slept a record 10 hours last night. I’ll probably take a nap today. Maybe by Wednesday I’ll feel like a human again. And on Monday, I hope to meet my students with some renewed energy and the ability to pull of another round of 10 hour days.