Monthly Archives: May 2015

Year-End Reflections

The year is over and I’d like to look back to reflect on each subject. This is more for me, but I hope it encourages you to reflect upon your year.

Reading: This year, in reading, I made a concerted effort to include much more nonfiction in the texts we read. We likely approached the magic 50%-50% level in our nonfiction-fiction balance during lessons. Yet, when students selected their own independent reading books, fiction remained king. I’ve been wondering what I can do to increase students’ nonfiction interest. Maybe do more book-talks from that section? Maybe show some nonfiction books I’ve been reading? Or maybe I just had a group that loved stories, and that’s okay. I was satisfied by the time and choice I allowed students. I developed my best conferring form yet, though I still think I will tweak it a bit for next year.

Writing: I could teach writing all day, every day, and I still would have lessons that I didn’t complete. I can quickly come up with a dozen lessons which would have benefitted my writers, but we ran out of days. This is inevitable. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied. My group made amazing gains, but there was so much more we needed. Next year, I want to increase the emphasis I place on the different modes of writing – narrative, informational, and persuasive. I hope to show students how the traits of writing connect across all three modes.

Math: My math instruction improved greatly this year as I made videos to flip portions of our math class. Students who demonstrated a basic knowledge of the day’s math concept were allowed to watch a video to further their learning, work independently, and then meet with me to extend their learning. This really benefitted my high-ability math students, who were able to work at their own pace. Now that many of these videos are done, I will be switching to do a different pilot program. Yikes! Lots of new videos on the way…

Science: It would be great if I could hold a science class every day, but time and testing don’t allow this. However, I did a pretty good job with our limited time. Some science content was integrated into our writing block, including a research project about animal adaptations. Other science units based on experiments and the design process were condensed in special weeks the students really enjoyed. Next year, I would like to use some of these experiments and engineering tasks as springboards into informational writing, which I feel is the hardest writing mode to teach.

Social Studies: All our social studies content is integrated into other subjects. This works well for history, economics, and geography. Government is the one area which I could do better. Maybe this could be integrated with a persuasive letter writing unit? Or maybe a field trip and an information presentation about it? I’ll work on it next year.

Again, I encourage you to reflect on your year as well. Think about what went well and why. Consider what could have been better and list some ideas to improve. Good luck!

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The Unnecessary Teacher

I felt worthless and I’m okay with that.

My class is currently in the middle of an interdisciplinary project integrating our economics standards into our writing workshop. Here are the basics: The students “become entrepreneurs” as they create their own business. They learn economics content about goods, services, supply, and demand, and all of this new knowledge helps them decide what they will “sell” at our culminating event, a Market Day visited by other classes.

In order to increase demand for the goods or service they plan to sell, we study and practice creating content using various persuasive techniques. Techniques include sense appeal, humor, fear, and many more. (Here’s a great source we use for lessons.) We examine print ads and commercials, identifying the techniques being used, and use these as mentor texts as students create their own print ads and video commercials. Lessons in filming, importing, and editing video are included when needed.

So, last Thursday morning, the students were working with their groups. Some chose to divide the tasks among individuals, getting help from peers when needed. Others chose to work together on one task, completing it before moving on together. They were efficient, productive machines. And who did they not need? Me. After the mini-lesson, I circulated the room, ready to answer questions and provide assistance, but I was ignored. They were so engrossed their work, most groups didn’t even see me walk by. I was just an extra. I could have gone to Starbucks.

After I got past the shock of being unnecessary, I started to be proud of what I had helped set up and what the kids were doing. The Market Day culminating event made everything they were doing real. They weren’t working just for me; they were working with this real purpose. It was driving everything they did.

Now that more time has passed, I see the challenge for myself: figure out how to make everything in school as authentic as possible. I know that not every skill with lend itself to this type of project, but more than I realize probably do. I’m excited to tackle this next year.

Teaching Teamwork

Some students in your class have been on a baseball team, basketball team, soccer team, Boy Scout troop, computer club, and church group.

Most, however, have not.

Teamwork skills in schools have never been more important. We have, rightfully so, developed collaborative activities requiring students to compromise and work together toward the same goal. The working world will require our students to be productive team members, and we want our students to be successful. Because we know this, teachers from kindergarten to high school have students working together.

Teamwork can be challenging. It would be nice if every student entered our room knowing how to function in a team, but we know they don’t. As teachers we have two options: 1. Just keep doing more group activities and hope it gets better. 2. Explicitly teach the students how to work together. Teaching is far superior to hoping.

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I have found five “teamwork agreements” help facilitate the behaviors I’m looking for in group members. I start teaching these during the first week of school, and they still make an appearance here in May whenever we see an activity involving collaboration on the day’s agenda.

1. Use a kind tone of voice. – I demonstrate how a sentence like “I think we should do this” can either sound helpful or snobbish depending on the way it is said. I want the students talking. This helps them know how.

2. Be open to others’ ideas. – Students need to know that the first idea is not always the best. Talking about how I work with my grade level team helps them see how this works.

3. Take turns. – Yes, no matter how old your students are, this should be on your list.

4. Stay with your group at all times. – This is a must for management. For groups to function, all members must be there; nobody can be hanging out on the other side of the classroom. If appropriate, you can add the requirement that students are only conversing with their own group as well.

5. No hogs! No logs! – I came across this in a blog post a long time ago, and it’s gold. “Hogs” control the group, limit others’ potential, and do the entire assignment themselves. This won’t work. “Logs” sit back and do nothing while everyone else does the work. Likewise, this won’t work either. Just labeling these classic types of nonproductive group members makes students less likely to fall into these roles. They’ll even catch each other. I often hear them says, “Remember, no hogs and no logs,” as I walk around.

Teaching these agreements during the first month of school is key, but students will need to review them throughout the year. Hopefully you can use these ideas to guide your students to become productive team members.

America: The Land of the Free and the Home of the Test

So if today was your first day in a new country where you didn’t speak the language, what would you be worried about?

If you are a normal human being, you might be worried about getting food to eat, making sure you knew where to go, and you would definitely want to know the exact location of the bathroom. You would absolutely not be worried about taking a standardized test.

But unfortunately, for one nine-year-old at my school, a standardized test and the accompanying tears defined her first day in an American school.

Tuesday morning, a young girl whom I’ll call Gabriela, arrived at our school ready for her first day. Any first day for any child holds a flurry of emotion — feelings of nervousness, excitement, curiosity, and fright all at the same time — but for a child who doesn’t speak any English, these emotions are likely exponentially greater.

So picture it: Gabriela comes to school, anxiety bubbling in her stomach. She’s scared, but she also interested to meet a new teacher, make new friends, and discover the workings of her new classroom. Will the teacher be nice? Will the kids like her? Will this school be different from her school in Mexico? Her mind races.

What greets her as she walks in the door? Standardized testing. Lots of it. On this special day, a day she will never forget, Gabriela spends a large portion of her day taking a standardized test. It doesn’t really matter that she just unpacked her things in her new room because she has to take the test. It also doesn’t matter that she doesn’t speak English. She’s not exempt. Why not? Math is supposed to be universal, although almost every question has directions written in English, and even though the English Language Learner teacher is allowed to read some directions, this doesn’t help because Gabriela can’t understand him.

Frustration sets in. Then, the tears come. To Gabriela, this is America.

She makes it through Day 1 of testing. Six more long days to go.

It’s clear that our testing system in this country is broken if we have to witness what actually happened to Gabriela. I don’t use the word ‘tragedy’ lightly, but that word fits here. Some might even call it abusive. Everyone would call it sad. Unfortunately, a lack of knowledge about how government rules and law affect real children stands as the biggest roadblock to change. If the public knew about what standardized testing was doing to real children, there would be outrage. At least, I hope so. With any luck, this blog post will give others some of that knowledge needed to facilitate change in a broken system. Please take action in any way you know how.