alfie kohn, assessment, Be the change, being a teacher, change, choices, grades, homework

Change Doesn’t Have to be All or Nothing

I remember the first orientation day when I had to face parents and explain to them that their child would probably not have much homework in my classroom.  I remember the fear that almost made me choke on my words, the way I had to remind myself to look up, the way I held my breath waiting for a reaction.  Then I added that instead of letter grades students would get feedback and we would set goals, grades would only show up on trimester report cards and no where else.  By now I was breaking into a cold sweat, my stomach churning, hands were clammy.  Somebody had to react, and then…nothing.  No raised hands, no sour faces, just a quiet wait for what else I had to share. 

Big changes for sure coming from this sophomore teacher.  Big changes that I felt had been necessary for me to be a better teacher and to provide a better education for the students.  Big changes that I had decided to do all at once.  And yet, you don’t have to.  Even though I speak passionately about how throwing out grades or limiting homework has been the best decision I have ever made, that is exactly it; it was my decision.  Something that I knew I had to do to restore my sanity, my passion for teaching.  And yet, that doesn’t mean it is going to work for you.  Perhaps my ideas are too extreme, or just do not fit with your educational philosophy and that is perfectly fine.  But maybe, just maybe, you would be willing to try it for just one little assignment?

Perhaps you are curious but just not ready to go all out.  Perhaps the idea of limiting homework overall sounds insane but maybe it could be tried for a unit?  Perhaps rather than a letter grade, for one project, feedback could be given or students could assess themselves?  Perhaps just trying something different one time will work better for you?  Perhaps, you might like it, perhaps you wont, but perhaps one time will change your mind?

As a first year teacher, if someone had told me to limit homework, or to get rid of grades, I would have rolled my eyes and not listened.  I would have thought them radical, extreme, or totally clueless.  I was not ready for that type of teaching.  I was not ready to take my teaching in that direction.  That direction had to come from within me, the timing had to be right, as did the purpose.   And that is ok.  It is ok to not embrace what Alfie Kohn says.  It is ok to have faith in whatever one believes is the way to teach, there is room for us all in education.  But perhaps, we should all try something else, just once, and then see if that change is meant for us or not. 

being a teacher, change, classroom expectations, our classroom

What Dreams Reminds Us Of

Last night I lost control of my class.  It was a dream, of course, it being Sunday today, but I have had this dream before.  The students are older – nothing likethose  older students to be disrespectful.  The classroom is crowded – poor teaching conditions.  The task is simple and yet they don’t understand.  They talk amongst themselves.  They get up and move around to talk.  They are too busy, too bored, to listen to me.

So I raise my voice and I yell at them.  Except in this dream I always start to lose my voice thus leaving me  feeling powerless.  The students proceed with their misbehavior.

They rush into the task I have created, they do it wrong.  I signal for their attention by yelling but I cannot yell over the crowd.  They ignore me and we do not get through what we need to.

They start to answer my questions but they are doing it all wrong and the frustration increases until finally the bell rings; class dismissed. the students are upset, I am ready to quit teaching, and my heart is pounding.

The first time I had this dream I thought it was a reflection of me and it was; how I used to be.  How I used to control my classroom.  Yet this dream is nothing like my now classroom.  The students are the perfect age for me, they are moving around because they learn better that way.  They pay attention when they need to and I barely ever raise my voice.  Instead I wait until I get their attention and then provide them with the task.  But the biggest difference; the task itself.  In the dream the task is meaningless, not tied into anything, and totally controlled by me.  In reality our tasks are building blocks, shaped by the students and with a bigger purpose.

So I wake from  my nightmare shook up but aware that i have changed my reality.  That I no longer thrive on controlling my students but relish the freedom they have in my room.  Relish the community we have built.  relish the learning happening.  My brain may be playing tricks on me but it does serve a reminder of why I changed my classroom philosophy; I did it for the students.

balance, change, classroom management

The Dangerous Weapons in School, Or When You Remove the Permanent Markers……

Recently, and no I am not making this up, we were asked kindly to confiscate all permanent markers from the students.  It wasn’t that there had been a huge problem with students using these to write on things, but there had been a couple of incidents and it was therefore deemed necessary to ban permanent markers in the 5th grade totally.  After all, it is much easier for us to ban things rather than teach appropriate usage.  To say I was perplexed at the approach is an understatement.

So this got me thinking, if we remove the permanent markers, what else should we remove from the students?

  • Paper – not only can this create dangerous paper cuts but it can also be used to communicate secret messages or ideas.  Highly subversive stuff if left in the wrong hands, and let’s face it, all students hands are wrong.
  • Pencils – this master weapon can be used to write these aforementioned dangerous messages, and also if you sharpen it really really well it is a dangerous weapon in itself.  (For more bad usage of pencils duo check out #pencilchat on Twitter – there is some scary stuff there)
  • Rulers – ever see a kid spin a ruler on their pencil – ’nuff said.
  • Compass – sharp points and the ability to poke things, no more of these.
  • Scissors – who allowed this stabbing and scratching tools into the classroom in the first place?  Gigantic bad idea.
  • Erasers – these things can be thrown at other people and also used to erase things we want to see such as notes being passed and wrong answers.
  • Textbooks – these mammoths of knowledge create backaches for kids, they can be torn apart by devious students and dropped on someone’s foot.

The more I think about this more I see the problem here.  These kids are not equipped to handle any of these tools maturely and I am sure there are more out there that need to be banned.  Think of how wonderful this will be; then all the students will have to do in a classroom is listen tot he teacher filling them with knowledge.  Win!

assessment, being a teacher, change, Student-centered

Why Giving Second Chances Should be Second Nature

We have all had the phone call, “Tommy studied so hard but didn’t do very well on the test, is there anything we can do?”  How many of us have said, “No, sorry…”  I know I used to.  I used to be the queen of no extra credit, no re-takes, no second chances.  That is until then I realized how this didn’t reflect adult life.  In my job I get second chances all of the time.  If a lesson doesn’t go as planned, I re-do it or teach it again.  I don’t get observed only once to have my teaching career decided but instead multiple times by various people. If we have a bad day, we go back, fix it, and then move forward.  Every single day I get to learn from my mistakes. So why is it we are so hellbent on not giving our students the same second chance?  Yes, I know that standardized tests have inane rules we have to follow, but nothing else does.  We decide the rules and for some reason a lot of the time those rules do  not involve allowing students to learn from their mistakes mistakes.

Last year, my students got to fix everything they handed in.  Stupid mistakes became teaching moments, sloppy work was enhanced, and gaps of knowledge were filled in.  It was certainly more work for me, but what it taught the kids was invaluable; perseverance, dedication, and not being afraid to try something.  More learning occurred in my room last year than ever before.  And this year is no different, my students give me their best and then we figure out how to learn even more.  By giving them second chances, they are proving to me how much they really know, outside of the anxiety, the pressure, and the rigidity that can occur. So why not try it?  Give your students back that test and tell them to fix it, give them back their work and tell them to enhance it.  Give them another chance to learn.

being a teacher, change, education reform, Student

But Wait, I ‘m Only One Person

As I am continually awed by the incredible educators I get to teach with not only in my school, but also in the world, I am renewed in my already strong belief that we are the change.

We are the change for all of those children whose lives have been determined by assumptions, circumstance, and test scores outside of their control.

We are the change for all of those teachers who don’t think they have a voice.  You do.  So although you may just be one person, there are so many things you can do to change the system.  To bring the focus back on the kids, on improving teaching conditions, and keeping our students passionate and curious.  So

Stand up for yourself.

Speak up – one voice joins the chorus and together we are louder.

Blog, write to the paper, get it out and spread the word.  Change will come if we continue to fight for it.

Join together – enough of the us versus them debate.  Enough with tearing other teachers down.  Show me a perfect teacher and I will show you 10 people that disagree.  We are not perfect nor should we ever think we are; embrace each other, and stand together, this is for the kids.

Tell them they matter.

Realize that you matter.

Try your ideas and then be proud if they work.  Be proud if they fail, at least you tried something.

Believe in them, believe in you, and believe in your team.

Be the change.  Be the change.  Be the change.

You may be just one but think of how far one person’s words can go, the ripples they can start, the waves they can become.

being a teacher, change, inspiration, motivation, Student-centered

Some Thoughts on Motivation

Honestly, this post has to start with a disclaimer.  I have only been teaching for a little over 3 years in a middle-class school at an elementary level.  Because of this I have had few run-ins with highly unmotivated students, as well as older students.  And yet, unmotivated students surround us, they show up in our schools at an alarming pace and already at the elementary level we struggle to reignite the fire.  So perhaps an elementary perspective is not so awful after all.

“Mrs. Ripp, this is so boring.”  That sentiment greets me on semi-regular basis from one child.  Most days he is passionate, funny, and involved, that is, if he likes what we happen to be during.  Today is no different, he has been involved, engaged, and eager most of the day but now the fatigue has set in and the writing prompt just does not want to get done.  This is a regular occurrence throughout America, passionate students that are mostly motivated at all times but sometimes hit slumps.  This post is not about them.

Instead, this post is about those kids that put their head on their desks, that groan when we give directions, that could not care less about threats, rewards, punishment or motivating pep talks.  Those are the kids we all meet; the truly unmotivated.  Those students that do not see the relevance, the importance, or even the wisdom behind school.  Those students that feel that this is just a temporary illness, something to be waited out for real life to begin.  And yes, we have them even at the elementary level.

The other night, I shared on Twitter, “I always wonder if having unmotivated students just mean that what I am teaching is unmotivating, I think it does.”  Lo and behold a man I admire greatly, Tom Whitby, was kind enough to engage me in my train of thoughts.  As we discussed, my own thoughts became much clearer:

Motivation is linked to the teacher whether we we believe it should be or not.

If a student fails, the teacher is most often the first to be blamed before any outside factions are investigated.  

We have the most control over what happens within our classroom.

As part of this discussion, Tom Perran offered up this article discussing how teachers only have control over 10 of 16 motivating factors.  And yet as teachers we do have to own up to our part in motivation.  Last year, when I sat through another round of book report presentations I yawned often, stretched to stay awake, got droopy eyelids, and yet admonished the students for getting restless and unfocused  Hmm, that doesn’t seem right.

As teachers, part of our job is to provide engaging lessons, but it is this definition of engaging that seems to mess us up.  I used to think that by engaging it meant me lecturing for a while and then giving the students work time, as long as I kept the questions coming, the students were engaged, right?  For some reason most of the time my results were less than stellar.  I also used to think that as long as I provided some sort of choice then the students would find their motivation.  And while our more self-reliant students did because they already have a sense of duty instilled by the teacher, some students didn’t.  Enter in punishment and rewards.  If a student didn’t turn in their work then recess was taken away, and if that didn’t work then a 0 was given.  Ooh a failing grade.  They even got their name on the board and were not offered a chance to enter the weekly drawing for the monthly pizza party, confused?  So was I.

The problem with punishment and reward though is that it often only motivates in the short term.  A student knows that as long as they hand something in, even if it is awful, then that counts as a finished product.  As a teacher, I often lost sleep over what to do with these students.  they seemed already by 4th grade to hate school, finding it a punishment for childhood, and worst of all, they knew how to work the system.  So what to do?  Again, I realized that the problem wasn’t the students, it was the curriculum and how I taught it, so really it was me.  See, I am the biggest in school motivator there is.  While I may not be the one that decides what to teach, I most certainly am the one that decided HOW to teach it.  And if I thought that lecturing (which even put me to sleep in college) was going to capture the imaginations of 9 year olds then I was an idiot. 

So after almost a year of changing things up, this is what I have realized as far as motivation:

  • Choice matters.  When students choose not just what they will do for a project but also what they would like to learn about within a perimeter, you get buy-in.  This continues to be one of the most exciting simple realizations I have come across.
  • Motivation is contagious.  When one student gets excited and has an opportunity to share that enthusiasm, it catches.  My students get to blog about projects, we have huddles where we share and we are a bit louder than we used to be.  But guess what?  Those loud noises are usually students super excited about something.
  • Eliminate punishment and rewards.  This short-term motivator seemed more harmful than helpful to me.  This year we have class parties when we feel we want one, I have lunch with all my students several times a month because they ask me to, and no one is excluded from anything.  When homework doesn’t get done, I ask them how they plan to fix it, most students choose to do it at recess.  Fine by me, they are free to go if they choose.
  • Be excited yourself.  The fastest way for kids to lose interest is if you are bored.  I realized that I hated some of the things and taught and how I taught them (goodbye grammar packets), so something had to change.  Now my students joke about how I almost always introduce something new with “I am so excited to do this…”
  • Look at outside factors.  Some students have a lot more on their plate than we could ever realize.  Ask questions, get to know your students, and be a listening ear.  When my husband lost his job, it was hard for me to be excited about things as well because I was too busy worrying.
  • Control what you can.  We will never be able to control what our students go home to but we sure can control what happens in the room.  All the teachers I know choose to create a caring environment where all students feel safe.  This alone means students let their guards down and feel it is okay to work hard and have fun.
Loss of motivation doesn’t just happen overnight, I believe all students start out motivated and then life gets in the way.  At some point during their school years they start to hate school feeling it is stagnant and irrelevant.  I therefore do everything in my power to ensure that students leave my classroom still liking school, perhaps a small goal, but an incredible important one.  If they like to be in your room, then it is up to you to figure out how to keep them engaged.