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Classroom Teacher: Reality Check

The view from down here.
“It all falls on the classroom teacher, it always does” she reminded me. This was my mother. A retired elementary school teacher, who had made it the long haul. In the classroom for her entire career, advocating for kids, mentoring new teachers- reminding me when I express frustration in the system that, I shouldn’t be surprised because “other people just don’t get it. Everything is the responsibility of the classroom teacher.” In other words- s#!t rolls down hill. I’ve been hearing it for years. But, honestly I didn’t quite get it until recently.
I’ve spent most of my career as a middle school teacher. I guess I have that genetic mutation that appreciates the sass and limit-testing of the adolescent. Anyway, after a few years of moving around, including coaching and mentoring new hires to “fight the good fight,” I opted for a change. Something I admired about so many of the elementary classrooms I had visited as a coach, was the deep sense of community that I watched develop within those four cheerfully decorated walls. In my ever idealistic dreams of the next chapter of my life as a teacher, I thought- that is where I belong. If I teach in an elementary school classroom, I can have so much more of an impact! I can foster a sense of community, encourage students to work together, develop their character, their leadership skills, and of course… differentiate instruction so they don’t end up in middle school with so many gaps in their learning. Yes- if I meet them each exactly where they are (in grade 2) and do my job, I will change the course of the future.

Last night at dinner, a friend was telling us about the new job she’d be starting as her maternity leave comes to an end. She is taking a position where she will work three 10 hour days, instead of five 8 hour days. While it will be a decrease in hours, it will work for her family, and for that we were celebrating. My mind wondered… thinking about all of the ten hour days I had been working since September… Someone interrupted my thoughts with a question. “So… I know teachers work a lot more than the hours they have to be at school… but how many hours is the actual school week anyway?” As I answered, “Umm… 35ish, I guess…”  my mind raced with the math of my typical work week. 7-5 most days, 7-6 some… there was that day I made it to my 4:00 dentist appointment on time. That felt like a holiday.

And yet, almost every morning (while I race around hoping that the hour before my students arrive will tick by more slowly) I chastise myself for my lack of preparation, for everything I’m not doing. And most afternoons, I leave wishing I could just find three more hours to prep, to  plan… or maybe even (dare I say?) to think. On the way home, I beat myself up about the administrative tasks I’ve pushed off yet again- logging those scores into the database, filing last week’s evidences into student folders. And then I offer myself some consolation- if something’s gotta give, at least it’s not your face time with kids… But let’s face it- I judge myself solely on what I haven’t accomplished in my classroom. Don’t we all?

So during the rest of that celebratory dinner, I multitasked, making some mental lists, doing some serious math. What was it that was getting in the way of the real work I wanted to do with kids? Why hadn’t I helped every student choose a “just right” book from our classroom library yet, met with reading groups regularly, held enough writing conferences and completed a running record for every student? I found my answer in the math. My students are at school for 6 hours and 15 minutes each day. They attend a specialist class, eat lunch, and have recess- all outside of our classroom. This brings our time together for teaching and learning down to just 4 hours and 25 minutes. Next, we visit the lav as a class- twice a day. While I wish it were faster, it takes a solid 15 minutes each time. We practice our math facts in the hall because I’m trying to squeeze every educationally productive minute out of the day possible, but these necessary bio breaks bring our time together to 3 hours 55 minutes. Next is snack. Seven and eight year-olds need a healthy snack during the day. I dreamed of protecting this time for reading aloud while students munched. I imagined kids eating their snacks on the edges of their seats waiting to hear what would happen next to Junie B. Jones or Charlotte, the spider.

fruitcup

 

Fruit cups however, are killing me. Every day at least three kids bring a fruit cup for snack- a very healthy option for sure. The seal though… they can’t open it themselves. And even when I open it for them and suggest they drink the extra juice first- the end of our snack time always brings the “sticky desk sweep.” I race around the room spraying down the desks of every student who had a fruit cup or yogurt. This is a new routine for me- and quite genius, I think. It saves me instructional minutes later, when students would regularly raise their hands mid lesson to say, “my desk is sticky. I don’t know why.” This would cause a much more serious loss of instructional time… but alas- the read aloud snack time dream was just that- a dream. After accounting for snack time, we’re left with 3 hours 40 minutes, on a good day. Let’s subtract 15 minutes for classroom jobs and cleanup at the end of the day, and 15 minutes for the morning meeting that helps us remember we are all individuals, that matter- and care about each other. (I will foster a sense community!!)

I have 3 hours and 10 minutes. And thank goodness- because I am going to need every single one of those minutes! My “job” is to design opportunities for these amazing second graders to learn math, reading, writing and science or social studies concepts each day. Oh yeah, and I have to deliver a 40 minute phonics lesson each day- that luckily I don’t have to design…so… 2:30 it is!

What did I do so irresponsibly with those minutes this week? How is it that my “to teach” still feels so long?? Monday we had an assembly… one hour gone. Tuesday, I was out learning about the phonics program. Enlightening? Yes. Necessary? Definitely. Wednesday was picture day. Thursday, we had chorus rehearsal and our hearing tested. And Friday… why was Friday so hectic? Oh right… it was Halloween, hat day and we met with our fourth grade reading buddies. And thank goodness we did- because I definitely did not sit and listen to each student read this week.

So, kudos to all of the elementary school teachers who have the systems in place to juggle these demands. Those of you that juggle them and don’t sleep at school- you are my heroes! I’m watching and learning from every single one of you, every single day!

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Teaching with Online Discussions

I decided early this year that I have a responsibility to improve the quality of online discussions. As a teacher, I often feel responsible to improve the world I live in. Knowing each year, that I will spend so many hours every day with so many impressionable, mold-able citizens of the future- can sometimes feel like a lot of pressure. I know my time working on digital citizenship is well spent though, because my students have digital footprints that are growing faster than they are!

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Teaching students to have respectful, productive academic discussions online follows the same construct as teaching anything else. Students need to be taught explicitly. Students need clear, timely feedback. Students need to play an active role in creating/ designing the expectations. Students need to be exposed to and evaluate samples of the work they are being asked to create.
My students used Edmodo a great deal this year to have online discussions. Sometimes we discussed a current event, other times a shared novel. One reason I liked using Edmodo was that I had the ability to give students feedback on their posts. I also liked that I could create small discussion groups. Here is a snapshot of a reading group discussion.

Edmodo Screen Shot
I found this threaded discussion rubric online and love it! It came from Educational Origami, a blog and wiki dedicated to 21st Century Teaching & Learning. You’ll want to bookmark their page!
Based on this rubric, threaded discussion posts should:

  • Refer to posts and thread
  • Enhance the discussion
  • Be clear and concise
  • Add own opinion based on thread
  • Develop an argument (supportive or opposed)
  • Develop suitable questions
  • Critique other posts
  • Answer questions and defends stance or position

If I could go back in time, I’d have this list in mind as my goal, as I elicited student ideas about what threaded discussions should look like. We revised and narrowed our expectations as a group this year, and ended up with a similar list, but starting with the end in mind always helps!

Do you have any advice for teachers who plan to dive into online discussions this year? Have a rubric to share?

The Wait is Over

What a productive week it has been… in terms of my thinking. I feel like I have made incredible progress, even though nothing tangible has happened… yet! I knew before this school year began that I wanted to get my students blogging. I also knew I was in love with the idea of Genius Hour. Here it is, January- and I cannot check either off of my To Do list. I feel confident though, that all of that will change for me this week. And the best part is, that once we begin, forward motion will ensue no matter what. What happened in the last week to push me forward from dreaming to doing? Just right collaboration, and faith… that’s what! A couple of months ago I brought my nagging “I really want to have a genius hour” plea to my high school teacher friend, who was further along in the process than me. I listened to her stories, her “what I’d do next times” and gained confidence as she reflected. Read More

PD or Infomercial?

After hearing/ reading the unrelenting enthusiasm of my colleagues who have attended ‘edcamps’ and ‘unconferences,’ I determined I needed to experience this phenomenon for myself. Could it really be that everyone who attended these events got exactly what they wanted and more? People who had experienced unconference-style events reported feeling professionally satisfied, respected and invigorated.
My attitude is generally pretty ‘glass-half-full…’ maybe even mostly full. This however, seemed too good to be true. I’ve watched enough late night infomercials to know that when something sounds like a win-win, and costs only 4 easy payments of $49.95 (a much better deal than $200)- your best move is to change the channel.
products as seen on tv
I’ve tested that theory a few times just to be sure, and my juicer, food dehydrator and wavy hair-maker all insist- my theory is correct (too good to be true). In the name of research however, I thought I should look a little more deeply into this idea of no-cost, participant led, free-learning that everyone was raving about.
My research told me that the closest edcamp event to me wasn’t until August, so I needed to get creative if I was going to get to the bottom of all this hype.
I decided my colleagues’ constant quest for knowledge, might provide an opportunity to bring the research specimen directly to me! Some of my (amazing) colleagues had been exposed to a variety of tech tools while coaching around the state this year- and their interest was peaked. “I just need time to sit and let someone show me this without pressure,” said one coach as she was getting to know Drop Box. Another asked again, “Can’t we just put some time aside so that the people who are using Twitter can help the rest of us get started? They’re learning so much!” The teacher in me heard: “I am ready- teach me now!” The conspiracy theorist in me wondered, “did someone pay them to ask that? Are they like the live studio audience at the taping of an infomercial?” Nevertheless, my wheels were turning!
The teacher in me won out. I networked with two other coaches to explore how we might utilize an unconference style format to meet the very diverse learning interests of our colleagues. We took our cues from David Wees, who has posted valuable details about Edcamp Vancouver, and linked to Kristen Swanson’s TED talk about organizing Edcamp Philly.

Shawn Rubin, who organizes EdCampRI (which is coming up in October-yes!!), was also key in supporting the event by sharing his insight and reflections, as we found ourselves looking for answers. It’s so helpful to talk to someone who has done something before, pick their brain about the logistics you just don’t read about in an article or blog post, and breathe a sigh of relief, realizing it’ll all work out. And it did!
Our unconference was small- about 35 participants in all. But, it yielded some serious learning. You can see pictures and comments Tweeted that day on our Storify.
Upon reflection, it seems like those educators who told me how great their experiences at unconferences were telling the truth… I guess they weren’t paid actors, like I suspect everyone in the studio audience of an infomercial is. I shouldn’t be surprised. Educators are dying to learn new strategies to engage students and families… on their own terms! Engagement at the unconference was high- really high. At one point, we tried to interrupt learning to transition to the next session… and it just didn’t happen. No one wanted to stop their learning conversation for a minute. For me- that was the highlight of the day! My brain was fried when the day was over. I learned SO much. And, I’ve been playing with the new tools and tricks I picked up that day…a lot.

Brain map
Unfortunately, not everyone who wanted to attend was able. In fact, a few people who we really wanted to share this experience with, couldn’t make it on June 26- which was kind of a bummer. Then, though people started asking, “when’s the next one?” which led us to wonder if there might be a next one. Maybe my research isn’t done yet. Maybe June 26th is a little like the first month I had my juicer, before it was relegated to the way back of the cabinet to collect dust. I should probably experience more unconferences before I draw any conclusions. And maybe, I should dust off that juicer in the meantime.
Juicers

Week 4 Challenge: Assessment in Instruction

Dear Teachers,

Thanks for wanting to jump back in with us as we dig into Assessment in Instruction! This is the last of the 4 challenges- and I know you’ll finish strong! To get started, think about which level you feel most accurately describes your daily teaching experiences…

Level 1: There is little or no assessment or monitoring of student earning; feedback is absent, or of poor quality. Students do not appear to be aware of the assessment criteria and do not engage in self-assessment. There is no attempt to adjust the lesson as a result of assessment. -> Level 2: Assessment is sporadically used to support instruction through some teacher and/ or student monitoring of progress of learning. Feedback to students is general, and students appear to be only partially aware of the assessment criteria; few assess their own work. Questions/ prompts/ assessments are rarely used to diagnose evidence of learning. Adjustment to the lesson in response to the assessment is minimal or ineffective. -> Level 3: Assessment is regularly used during instruction through teacher and/ or student monitoring of progress of learning, resulting in accurate, specific feedback that advances learning. Students appear to be aware of the assessment criteria; some of them engage in self- assessment. Questions/ prompts/ assessments are used to diagnose learning, and adjustment to instruction is made to address student misunderstandings.   -> Level 4: Assessment is fully integrated into instruction through extensive use of formative assessment. Students appear to be aware of, and there is some evidence that they have contributed to, the assessment criteria. Students self-assess and monitor their progress. A variety of feedback, from both teachers and peers, is accurate, specific, and advances learning. Questions/ prompts/ assessments are used regularly to diagnose evidence of learning, and instruction is adjusted and differentiated to address individual student misunderstandings.

There are Four Key Elements in this Component:

Assessment

Which one do you consider your strength? Is there one you will focus on most this week? Set a goal for yourself for this 1 week challenge. To increase your chances of success, make it public by sharing it in the comments. Check out my Assessment Learnist Board and my Assessment Pinterest Board to get the ideas flowing!

Let’s make it a meaningful week of growth for your students and for your practice!

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PS~ You may want to connect your thinking to the related RIDE_assessment_Rubric or I3_Assessment_rubric

 

Respect & Rapport… Naturally

I’ve been following the release of each week’s #yearatMH video clip since hearing Sam Chaltain speak at this year’s NTC Symposium. These clips are a prime example of the value of respectful relationships within, around and between members of a school community. If you haven’t watched one yet, make today the day. I believe these videos to be powerful on so many levels, not the least of which is shaping our expectations (& those of non-educators) of school culture. Share with a parent and watch how quickly they find themselves able to articulate what they want from their child’s school! Think too as you watch and listen, about what pieces of this experience you can bring into your classroom. What do you notice about the language of learning (both verbal and non verbal)? How do adults and students show respect for each other, the school and learning? Happy viewing! I hope this is your first if many visits to this site!!
~Alicia

Student Engagement- Week 2 Educator Challenge

If you are back for round two… congratulations on your successes during week one! If you’re just joining us, welcome~ we’re thrilled to have you here and hope you join the conversation! Let’s think about where we are starting!

Level 1: Projects, activities and assignments lack challenge, are inappropriate, or do not cognitively engage students. -> Level 2: Projects, activities and assignments inconsistently challenge all students appropriately and only cognitively engage some students. -> Level 3: Projects, activities and assignments are appropriately challenging for all students, require 21st century skills, and cognitively engage almost all students in complex learning. -> Level 4: Projects, activities, and assignments are appropriately challenging for all students, require 21st century skills, and cognitively engage student in complex learning.

With these descriptors in mind, which level would you say best describes your daily teaching experiences? Read More

Are we asking too much? Who’s getting Shortchanged?

What would parents think if they knew?

I find that the majority of first year teachers I support teach in multi-age, self-contained special education classrooms. Many of the challenges they face are unique to this setting and predictable to administrators and veteran teachers in the school. Many of these challenges are also driving potentially long term and high quality special educators out of these settings and into other positions.

There are two major issues of equity that I see as prohibiting these programs from being the vehicle by which students’ transition back into the general education setting is supported and encouraged.

Access to Curriculum

There are two issues within access to curriculum. First- teacher expertise. I have yet to see a school or district find a way to provide the same professional development opportunities to the classroom teacher with students in grades 5-8 in his room as provided to the sixth grade math and science teacher next door. By professional development, I mean more than just the once or twice yearly content and strategy workshops (although that would be a start). The sixth grade math and science teachers meet bi-weekly as a cohort to plan, develop common assessments, problem solve around student misconceptions and work together to design ways to skillfully differentiate instruction by scaffolding a challenging topic in next week’s lessons. Throughout their time together, these teachers reflect, build on experiences, analyze student work and support each other. The good news for the students in sixth grade general education math and science classes is that they will reap the benefits of their teachers’ work for years to come. The level of expertise of these educators continues to grow as they interact as a community of professionals. This is an excellent example of teachers leading their own professional development. They’ll likely pass along any materials they created to Tim, the self-contained special educator, and someone will probably stop in his room to recap the learning… but just like in a classroom where 21st Century Skills are paramount, the growth and development of the learners is a result of actively participating in the learning experience, not just accessing the paper and pencil product. All of these teachers have the best of intentions. Read More

My Territories

I was first introduced to the idea of a writer’s notebook by my tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Catamaro. I loved that notebook! My notebook helped me see who I was as a writer, and focus on the writer I wanted to become. It met my needs as a learner the way nothing before had. I was impulsive and unfocused, and in my writer’s notebook my ideas and Mrs. Catamaro’s feedback would wait for me. I could read and reread. I could process what I wanted, when I was ready. I’ve used the writer’s notebook with my own students and hope I provided them with opportunity to navigate their learning that Mrs. Catamaro did for me.

My Blogging Territories (Like in A Writer’s Notebook, these are ideas I want to remember so I can write about them later)

Common Frustrations & Pitfalls of New Teachers

  • Curriculum- Where is it? How can I write it? I haven’t even learned their names yet!
  • “I don’t want to be mean…” Let’s explore consistency and inconsistency. How can we lower students’ anxiety?  Which teacher actions actually model respect?
  • Feedback, grading & that gigantic pile!!
  • Top Ten myths to dispel around Home/ School Communication: No news is good news, right? In high school, parents are just more hands off… they want it that way…

Educational Issues that keep me up at night

  • Meaningful Reporting Systems: A,B,C,D,F… but what about E? Why do we report? To whom are we reporting? What is the goal? Do all of our answers align?
  • Creating Communities of Respect
  • Effective Teacher Evaluation
  • The push to privatize education, and the lack of honesty around the push
  • Biased reporting
  • Equity in Access to Education & ‘Soft bigotry’

 

 

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