Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Teachers get a variety of gifts at Christmas time. I've received some amazing gifts from students over the years: cards with special notes in them, homemade food, packaged foods, gift cards, candles, mugs, clothes, stuffed animals (new and used), a brass bell with my name on it, Christmas ornaments, books, perfumes, lotions, etc... The list goes on and on of wonderful things students or parents thought I would enjoy.

Today was my first gift this year, from a sweet young lady. She embarassedly handed me a small package tapped to a card in an envelope. The card said "To my favorite teacher, Mrs. George. I hope you like your bracelet."

Opening the box, I found a red and green friendship bracelet this young lady had made for me. I oohed and ahhed and then asked her to tie it on my wrist. She seemed surprised. Her tying job didn't last long so I found her again to tie it tighter, asking her to knot it 3 times this time. I told her I didn't want to lose it. She again seemed surprised and said, "You mean you aren't gonna take it off?"

Looking into her sparkling eyes, how could I tell her that this twisted, knotted, some places braided, some places twisted, this green and red jumble of thread is the most beautiful possesion I have? I know every day she will be looking to see if it still adorns my wrist. And I can assure you it will....

It isn't about the money. It isn't about what the gift is. It is about the love and thought that goes into the gift. A heartfelt note scrawled in a card, and a nickle's worth of thread tangled into a bracelet means more to me than anything that can be bought in a store.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I'm a huge Packers fan. I loved Brett Favre during the good years, and when he first decided to retire, I was happy for him and his family. Brett had always been a picture of honesty and integrity, the kind of role model we want our students to aspire to be like.
Then, the drama years of Favre started, the can't make up his mind about whether he is playing or not. The sharp comments are his former team/coach and community were shocking.
But now, it seems what comes around goes around, and Brett's glory days are done. Instead of leaving football a hero, one of those players all fans remember with a smile, he has become almost a villain, shrouded in both a loss of his ability to lead his team, as well as accusations of misconduct.
Yesterday's Packer's slaughter of the Vikings was the nail in the coffin for Brett.
OK, what does all this have to do with teaching? A couple of things, I think...
#1 When your time has come, leave gracefully. We've all known that teacher who has taught for so long they can accurately predict to the second how long that same lesson they've taught for the past 34 years will take. We've also seen newer teachers who though not veteraned with multi-decades of experience, have reached the end of their 'usefulness' in the classroom.
Whatever the reason for the time to have come, teachers need to take a lesson from Favre and when the door is closing, exit it gracefully with a proud smile and wave goodbye.
#2 Teamwork, the camaraderie of the good of the all, has to take precedence over personal gain or glory. Teachers need to teach their students to be a part of something greater, working towards a common goal, and let them lead the way, at times. We, as teachers, have to learn to let go of the control, not always be the 'sage on the stage' and let students lead the learning. Letting go of the personal parts of teaching, the need to be in control, can be empowering.
#3 Learn to admit your shortcomings. No one is perfect. No one knows the best way about doing anything. Seek out those wiser than you, and listen to their advice. Try to approach things from a new perspective. By rethinking your classroom, your teaching, you might find the new one is indeed superior to the old. But simply sticking with what's always been done, because it's always been done? That's a sure fire, direct path to destruction.
#4 Taking the easy way out is not always the best way. Giving an easier test just so 'everyone passes' doesn't mean they learned it any better. It doesn't prove anything except they can pass the easier version. Maybe next time, try giving the easy version to begin with it that is where you are going to end up anyway! Be responsible for your own actions, your own part in the failures. Set up a winning play, a sure fire path to the end zone, even if it takes multiple snaps, and you just have to keep getting a few yards each play to make another first down. It isn't about making a touchdown from the punt return; it's about getting the points on the scoreboard.
#5 Share the play book. You want all your team mates on the same page? Share the play book. Don't assume students know where you are headed, understand the directions the first time, or that just because you've explained it, they get it. Make sure you are all in the same play book, on the same page, every single time you snap that ball. There is no such thing as over-practicing a play. Work on it together until every player is confident and comfortable with their role in the game.
#6 Last but not least, be the bigger person. Admit when you are wrong. Admit when you've not carried your share of the ball game. Tell your students you've realized you may not have done a thorough job of explaining a concept and want to try again with them. Tell them the test was confusing so you've revamped it. Always be ready to be humble with your students. They will appreciate your honesty and willingness to admit your shortcomings.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lesson plans are like a map for your classroom. You might make it to your destination without the map, but having it there in the glovebox, just in case, sure makes for a more efficient travel plan.
I try to always plan a week ahead, with a general sketch for the unit we are working on. The general sketch might be as vague as I know the next unit we are working on is about Antarctica. I know I want them to be able to map the major landforms, know where the research stations are located, so probably we will do some map activity. I also want them to look at the impact of global warming on that region and how reseach done there impacts our knowledge of global warming in general. They would love to research some stuff about the penguin population, so I think I saw a National Geographic something online about that.
The 'sketch' is nothing more than a general overall idea of the 'stuff' I want to accomplish. Then, I turn that into weekly lesson plans, with an ending assessment always in mind for the activities we are going to complete.
My weekly lesson plans, I work from a copy of a small poster from a Marzano training I attended called "Which of there Classroom Instruction That Works Strategies have you used today?" This simple poster just helps me think through some activities we can use to reach our learning goals - things like summarizing and note-taking, non-linguistic representation, advance organizers, etc... Using this helps me remember to create a variety of learning opportunities to meet the needs of all types of learners, as well as help my students learn to be independent thinkers and learners.
Each weekend, I sit down and structure my week, based on those "strategies", penciling in each day's plan. Often, this changes as the week progresses, students work slower or faster than I anticipated, but I have a good idea of where we are headed overall. I make copies for the week, make teacher keys for anything needed just in case I have to be gone, or just to make it easier for me than searching at the last minute.
With each day's lesson, I try to keep in mind what the final assessment will look like - are we taking a paper/pencil test? Are students designing some project in groups or independently to demonstrate their knowledge? Are we working towards student presentations? With each activity, I purposefully explain how what we are doing will help them achieve their final goal of success on that final assessment - whether it is taking notes/creating a graphic organizer for that final test, or how they might use this information in their presentation, or what parts of today's Venn diagram might help them structure a paragraph in their essay they are writing.
Showing them how all the activities fit together teaches them the process of learning, and helps them realize that everything we do has a purpose, not just a busywork assignment for the day. It holds me accountable in my planning and teaching, as well as holds them accountable in their learning and eventually demonstrating that knowledge.
And... most importantly of ALL. HAVE A PLAN B every day. You never know when the network will fail, when half the class will be gone with some strange virus, or when you will just need something less intense than a large scale group discussion. What you did yesterday may have bombed, and you may need to reteach or reapproach that particular part of the unit. Having built-in Plan B's only makes your life easier!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In anything we do, reflection is critical to continued success. For effective teachers, this component is perhaps the most important part of their success. Having the ability to look critically at what you've done, the impact it had on student learning, and how you would do things differently next time, that reflective piece of the puzzle, is what sets apart great teachers from mediocre ones.

We all teach lessons that go well. We all teach lessons that bomb. It's a fact of life in the classroom. Somedays we are on our game. Some days, at best, we coast through.

Maybe that is the next great craze for professional development - forced reflection for teachers. A once a week, minimum, journaling activity where teachers critically dissect their lessons....

Would it really change anything? Would the less successful teachers be able to look honestly at their shortcomings and find the missing parts?

As a teacher, I am always looking at what I did, and often, focusing on what went wrong. When my students blow a test I thought they were prepared for, I point the finger at me and my teachings methods. When behavior gets out of control in my classroom, I rethink my own reactions to the situation. I try to rationalize how I could have changed the situations before these digressions happened, and strive to make it different tomorrow, next week, next year.

I don't think of myself as perfect. I don't think I am the 'greatest' teacher ever. But I know that every day, every time I teach, I think about my role in the success or failures of my students. I try to take that reflection of my role in their learning journey and use it to improve.

Can that be taught to struggling teachers? Sometimes, I think yes, and other times, when I hear a struggling teacher boast they "use TOO many best teaching practices" in their classroom, I wonder.

I think it all comes down to humble-ness, of being the kind of person who never feels you measure up to your own standards, of always looking for ways to improve.

I remember one of the teachers who taught here when I was first hired. Her room was always immaculate. Students in her classes were ALWAYS on task, perfectly behaved. Yet, SHE asked the principal to attend a classroom management trainings. This teacher who had such perfect control over the same children who would set fire to buildings in their spare time! SHE wanted more classroom management training!

We all need that humbleness, that ability to find ultimate fault with ourselves and our teaching, and the ability to seek improvement along the way. THAT is the difference in being a GREAT teacher and a mediocre one.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Being organized sometimes gets a bad rap. People almost brag about their own inefficiences. In reality, most of us strive for a certain balance in the organization schemes in our classrooms.
Yesterday, in my rant, I was critical of preservice teacher training lacking in adequately preparing teachers for real classrooms. Today I will try to offer some easy practical ideas for how new teachers (or old ones who want to become more effective) can structure their classrooms to meet the needs of students.
We often hear that the first 5 minutes and last 5 minutes of class are the most important, the time when students are most ready to learn. Unfortunately, these are also the most common "down" times in classrooms. In order to easily establish order every day immediately, as well as captivate those first 5 minutes of sponge-like minds, have some sort of starter activity ready each day. Ideally, this activity will focus students' minds on the upcoming days work, tying it to what you did yesterday. This is also a perfect time to incorporate writing into your curriculum, easily and naturally. Ask students to explain a concept covered yesterday or to speculate about a topic you will be discussing today. Have them draw a diagram, create an analogy, or even pose a question. These can be done in a notebook or even in an online blog. But whatever the task, however it is to be completed, getting students in the habit of doing this immediately each class period focuses their energies in on the topics to be taught. An additional bonus? This gives you a few split seconds to take that dreaded mandatory attendance or take care of other immediate housekeeping tasks.
Now that you have your students rapt attention on your subject, drag them into the days lesson! Bridge together yesterday's learning with today's. Revisting yesterday's material briefly helps catch up absent students, even if just vaguely, and also brings to the forefront of students' memories what was learned. Engage them with discussion with a partner or at their table, them responses shared with the larger group.
Vary the activities throughout the class period. Note-taking may sometimes be necessary but don't have it last longer than 8-10 minutes at the most! Pause to discuss the notes, sketch remembering pictures, or write reflections to share. Move students about the room so their blood gets moving again. Then, if you MUST, continue the notes.
Plan different times of the class for different activities, some of which are quiet, individual work, others involving the whole group, and still others which have students working with a partner or small group. Shift your position often as well. Talk from the front of the room, wander as you speak, or even control your powerpoint from the back. All that movement shifts students' attention to a new location, re-engaging their minds.
The best strategy for heading off discipline problems is to be proactive. Talk to students in the halls. Stand outside your door greeting them as they arrive in the morning. "Hey, nice jacket!" or "Go Packers!" or "how was the game last night?" all go a long way in establishing those critical relationships with students.
Make your classroom a welcoming place for students by keeping it neat and tidy. Put some bright posters up. Or... create those amazing bulletin boards you see in some classes (never in mine...). But the best thing to display on the walls is STUDENT WORK! Have them create colorful maps, large graphs, illustrated biographies... anything that can be stapled to a bulletin board. It says, "I VALUE YOU AND YOUR WORK!" One year I cut out every picture and article in our small town newspaper that featured a student. I started in the summer with Little League pictures and 4th of July Parade floats, and continued throughout the entire school year with sports pics and articles, student of the week mentions, etc... These I plastered on my classroom door. Kids LOVED looking for themselves in the collection. Time invested? 5 minutes a week. Payoff? HUGE!
Keep the momentum of relationships during class time as well. I always joked with students who are teetering on the brink of misbehavior about having a roll of duct tape and a taser. That twisted sense of humor works well with middle schoolers, and for me. Maybe it won't fit your classroom but surely you can come up with some fun way to refocus your students with humor. Trust me, humor beats yelling ANY day, for your own sanity, as well as your students.
Homemade cupcakes go a long way for good will as well. (or cookies, or even a cheap bag of smarties candies purchased for half price after Halloween) Giving your students, ALL your students a treat on occasions says you think about them outside of school. Give them out on test day for 'brain food'. Toss them out to people who give right answers in class discussions. It really wakes up a lagging conversation! (especially if you are a bad thrower, as I am!) Anything to make them sit on the edge of their seats and participate. Bribery?? maybe... but it works!
Review, study, learn the material together. We often have the mentality that students ought to study outside of school (and they should...) and it is their responsibility to learn the material we present them (well.. it is to a certain extent) but in reality, often students do not know how to study or learn material. Teach them to make notecards. Teach them that repetition is the key to retention of material. INTENTIONALLY teach them to learn. Play review games. Have them create test questions. Have them review each other. Make learning automatic and fun.
Effective teaching is about creating a persona, a classroom, a learning environment - one that meets your needs as a teacher, but more importantly the needs of your diverse set of students. Learn, grow, change.... be always finding a better way. Once you stop learning and changing yourself as a teacher, you will no longer be effective.
You might also want to read Taming the Dragon of Chaos, an article I wrote for TEACHER magazine several years ago, for more ideas.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I've never considered myself to be a particularly organized person. My life tends to be made of piles of this and that, trails of where I've been scattered with remnants of what I was doing when I was there, and constant comments of "What was I doing?" as skitter scatter from task to task. I am perennially planning ahead, making lists, even lists of lists, trying to find order in the confusion, but always, I feel as if I am flying by the seat of my pants.

At school, my goal is always to be a week ahead. That may sound organized, I know, but in reality, without that week's cushion of 'stuff' planned ahead, I feel like the walls are pushing in on me, as I flounder day to day, wondering if I need copies for tomorrow (or even next hour..) and the interference of an unscheduled staff meeting before school, or a student who announces they are going to gone for a week starting in ... well, 5 minutes... can send my mind overboard.

Plans change, certainly, and within those week's worth of plans, there is always room for change and flexibility. However, I have a game plan, and if we get there slower than I planned, well, yahoo... I have more planned than I thought!

Being in the position I am in this year, in and out of other teachers' classrooms for much of my day, I am shocked at how many teachers fly by the seat of their pants, day to day, with no idea where they are headed the second half of the hour, much less tomorrow, or next week.

On the one hand, to each his/her own. Whatever works for you.

On the other hand, I, as your coteacher, your partner, your other half of the teaching team, NEED to know what's going on in order to help you, help my students, and be able to adequately plan my own time management. I am not an expert in your subject matter either, so a little time to prep for today's lesson helps me feel like I know what you are talking about, and helps me better help my struggling special needs students.

I am just confused and overwhelmed right now, wondering how to manage to keep my own head above water.

Beyond me, and even more importantly, it's about the kids, especially struggling students. They need a game plan, a logical attack of the material, a sequential presentation of facts, and how to think about and learn the material. How can they be expected to grasp the content when the game plan in the classroom is complete chaos?

I think the solution lies partly in teacher prep programs. Somewhere along the path of training new teachers, we need to teach organization, classroom management (both of student behaviors and the actual structure of what an effective classroom looks and works like), and the importance of these in how students learn.

School has to become more about the students and their success and comfort zones for learning than about the teachers and their own needs. I think more than having a special ed teacher, such as myself, in as a coteacher in these classes, providing support for classroom teachers through a coach that helps them create organized learning environments, ones in which students feel safe and comfortable in what is expected from day to day, would go farther in helping all students succeed than the current model we use.

Most days, in most classes, I am not much more than a glorified aid, cashing a teacher's paycheck. Wouldn't it make more sense to create a position that actually helps teachers help students?
But then again, do these fly by the seat of their pants teachers want to grow and learn and change...... maybe THAT is the real problem.....

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I admit it: I am a huge Survivor buff. But this season has me questioning my alliance with the program.
I always enjoy the variety of walks of life of the castaways. This year, I was excited to once again see a teacher. Naonka is a PE teacher from Southern California. How cool! (or.. so I thought)
Now, I realize this is a game. I realize the producers show us what they want us to see with the clips of the day to day life, the tribal council, etc...
This season, I am embarassed for teachers everywhere to see one of our colleagues act the way Naonka does. Not only does she let the F-bomb fly so often I sometimes forget what her face looks like, she was caught stealing food from her tribe. She is a self-proclaimed bully, liar and cheat.
How does this look to Naonka's students back at home? How do parents feel about this person being a role model for their children?
Again, I know it is a game. I know it is "TV". But come on, if you are going on national TV and telling everyone you are a teacher, could you please ACT LIKE A TEACHER and be morally upstanding in your actions?
Naonka will probably make it to the end, win the million bucks, and retire with more money than I will ever make. Good for her. I think maybe not having her in the classroom as a role model for young people is a good thing.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Sitting in my classroom this Sunday afternoon, at one of the crossroads/turning points of the school year, I am heartened and disenchanted, both at the same time.

We have reached the end of the first marking period and I feel I have seen such great progress in most of my students this year. My special ed PreAlgebra class has managed to stay with/or even just ahead of, the regular ed PreAlgebra class. Granted, we are not plowing through grade level material yet, but doing what, for an average 8th grader, would be all review from 6th and 7th grades. But plod ahead we are, with most of my students doing extremely well. As we head into more abstract material, more algebraic concepts, I anticipate our progress to slow. I am excited by the enthusiasm and efforts of most of my kids though, so I am confident they will rise to meet the challenge and my expectations.

Other parts of my new role are frustrating - the kids who don't care, who refuse to let me care, who fight the system at every turn and corner, who are determined to take a one-way street away from school. One minute they acknowledge my efforts, smiling, saying the right things, fessing up to their discretions, plotting their course ahead with care. Then, the very next moment, they again are in the middle of the fire, in the office for swearing, making inappropriate gestures in a class, or screaming obscenities in the hall, sleeping through yet another class, frustrating another adult in their life to the ends of their rope.

I've always prided myself on the ability to connect with kids, even the hard-core ones. Even these guys, somedays, I think, I am making it!! There is hope, a little tiny glimmer of faint light at the end of the tunnel, and... it is enough to get me here another day. Other days, it seems no matter how many times or way I try to light that fire again, a huge wave of despair washes over them and me, not only putting out the fire, but leaving the kindling so wet their is no chance of relighting it.

Other parts of my job frustrate me. The being spread between so many classrooms, so many teachers, some of whom work with me, some of whom seem to work against me, themselves, and logic itself is the worst part. I struggle with the ineffectiveness that prohibits learning from occurring easily with even the best student, when this ineffectiveness makes learning nearly impossible for struggling students. But I am learning to breathe in, breathe out.... breathe in, breathe out.

I repeat daily:

God, grant us the...
Serenity to accept things we cannot change,
Courage to change the things we can, and the
Wisdom to know the difference
Patience for the things that take time
Appreciation for all that we have, and
Tolerance for those with different struggles
Freedom to live beyond the limitations of our past ways, the
Ability to feel your love for us and our love for each other and the
Strength to get up and try again even when we feel it is hopeless.
It's an uphill battle with no winning in sight, and I struggle with accepting that fact. Acceptance is key to sanity, sanity is key to helping these students experience the most success possible. Accept I must....
Into the second marking period and beyond.... anxious for the next part of the journey....

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

'twas a better day today.... or sort of....

The sleeper from yesterday, the one who sleeps nearly EVERY day, managed to be awake during math class, even took his quiz and got a C on it! HURRAY!!! Then, he slept through the next hour, science class. And now, last hour, my prep hour, he got kicked out of history class for being disruptive (at least he was awake?) and now, is sitting with me, working on his notes.

The other one... the I don't want to do anything but torture my sister kid.... I sat and had a long conversation with during my prep hour yesterday. Things were looking up, I thought, dared to think... But today, he was apparently screaming the F-bomb in the hall about his sister and another teacher drug him to the office. He was gone the rest of the day.

You win some, you lose some. Today was a toss-up, but it beat the heck out of yesterday.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

I am frustrated today.... very.... There are 2 young men who are causing me such grief I am out of options with them it seems.

#1 - sleeps through class every hour, every day. Today, in prealgebra, I made him stand. I figured at least he was awake. But the next hour, in science, I could not even get him to wake up enough to stand.

#2 refuses to do anything but torture his sister. He even went so far as to throw her books in the hall garbage can today.

*sigh* I feel like a failure with these two young men. I have exhausted every thing I can think of, and then some.... and nothing changes their behavior.

These are the kinds of kids I wish I had a magic wand for, some carrot I could dangle to get them to at least be occasionally cooperative. But alas, no...