being a teacher, change, Passion, questions, Student-centered

Would You Like Being a Student in Your Own Classroom?

It was a simple question really, “Would I like being a student in my own classroom?” that stopped me in my tracks.  Last year when the students had left, the chairs had been put up, and the exhaustion hit, I realized that no, this was not the type of classroom I would have wanted to learn in.  And so began a quest of soul-searching, revising, and rethinking, in order for myself not to become a statistic; another new teacher who quits.

I don’t know where I went wrong.  After all, in college, teachers loved my lesson plans and raved about my ability to connect with students.  I graduated with a big heart and a big head.  I was going to save the world.  And yet, something didn’t click.  In social studies last year I remember scolding my poor students because they were obviously uninterested.  I kept telling them that this was important and they better listen, thinking that yelling at them would make them snap to attention.  Or the student who once again didn’t do his homework, he got an earful as well because that would show him.  Oh how off track I was.

It really hit home when I read a parent magazine last summer in which a question was posed, “My child dreads going back to school, what should I do?”  The answer?  “Remind them that they will see their friends and how much fun they will have during recess, art and music class.”  Recess?  Art?  Music?  What about writing, reading, math?  What about the majority of the time?  Would they be glassy-eyed robots just waiting for the next bubble of fun outside of my room?  I had to change.

So I looked inward, reflected, and realized that i had it all wrong.  School wasn’t about me, or about the knowledge I was going to impart on my students.  Instead it is about them, the students  Those eager kids that show up ready to learn if you let them.  So I had to get out of the way while still acting as a guide.  I have written many posts about my transformation and how much it has affected me as a person and as a teacher.  Most importantly though it is through this transformation of my own ego that real change has happened.  Now I look around my classroom and I celebrate.  There is the girl who was too shy to even look at me busting out of her shell as she acts in a fractured fairy tale.  There is the boy who barely could add two numbers nailing most math concepts.  Or the shy and kind boy, who’s biggest wish now is to be on more committees so he can decide things.  That is what it is all about.  My students are ready for 5th grade, they are ready to leave me with their new knowledge, their energy, their inquisitiveness.  I got out of the way and it worked.  Now when I ask my kids what is the best thing about school they tell me it is all the learning, the projects, the work.  Not recess, not the parties, not their friends, that is just extra.  And what a victory that is.

So I will continue to change and adjust.  I will continue to ask myself whether I would like to be my own student.  It was not a pretty realization back then and it wont ever be but it was a necessary one.  Now I am proud to say that yes, I would love to be a student in my own room, and not because of the teacher, but because of the opportunities to learn.  Would you?

being a teacher, change, Student-centered, testing

Yes, I Test My Students – As Long as its Worthwhile

Image found here

I have tests in my room… there I said it.  This reward-disliking, limited homework, freethinking teacher actually dares to test her students.  To some this is surprising, to others borderline offensive, and yet to me it makes perfect sense.  See, I believe it is all in what you do with the test.

I used to give tests just so I had a grade to end home and record in my grade-book.  The test was always the final product, the destination of our learning journey.  If a student failed the test or did poorly, it was not my fault, but rather that of the student obviously having poor study skills.  My second year teaching I realized that maybe it wasn’t the student but instead my teaching that was the real cause of their poor test results, and finally this year I realized that it was all me, and even more so, that I actually had power of the format of the tests and what answers they provided.  So this year I took the power away from the tests and gave it back to my students.

Tests in my room take many forms.  There are the dreaded WKCE tests, our state’s standardized testing which take up a whole week of our time in October.  That week is tough for me because this represents the type of tests that I immensely dislike.  Tests that offer no chance for redoing, learning, or even results to be worked with.  We take them, lock them up, send them off and then get results in March – yes, at least 4 months later.  They also test on curriculum that we haven’t even had a chance to teach yet in 4th grade, so we try to cram that into our poor students just so they can regurgitate it when needed, which often they can’t.  Those tests don’t make for any deep mastery, they don’t create appreciation of the world for the students, or even provide them with real learning opportunity.  It’s a take and forget test, that just happens to decide funding for my district.  Sure we try to make it fun with singing, bubble gum and other projects, but still they are something to be lived through and forgotten about, sorry.  Those tests deserve all of the bad publicity they get.

There are valuable tests though, such as the pre-test and post-test I give in math.  Some people may scoff at the notion of pre-testing students on curriculum they have yet to be taught but experience has taught me that done the right way, this is incredibly valuable for the teacher and for the student.  It simply is all a matter of how it is presented to the students.  We discuss how this pre-test is a way for me to guide my teaching, that anything they don’t get they leave blank, and to not spend a lot of time on it.  If they get something, great, if they don’t, great.  Either way it helps me teach them better.  There have been units when a student or two has mastered everything before it has even been taught, knowing that information gave me a chance to offer enrichment rather than the same material.  Those pre-tests let me know when students lack background knowledge or when the whole class is ready for harder concepts.  Those pre-tests also give my students a chance to see what is to come and some even comment on how excited they are to learn something.  These pre-tests are the same as the post-tests, which means I can compare their growth.  How did they do, where are the holes, what did I miss?  I always make it a point to show the students their growth from to pre to post; they often can’t believe how much they have learned.  Those tests inform and push me harder.

Then there are the tests that naturally evolve.  In science rather than a test on the structures of life, my students made an incredible crayfish documentary.  They chose to research and document all of the knowledge they had garnered with the world, rather than put pencil to paper, and became real experts in the doing.  If I ever need proof that they learned something, I just have to watch the 6 minute video.  Or how about in social studies when we learned about Native Americans for the 3rd time in their short school career.  Rather than a formal test, I told them to research whatever they wanted as long as it had to do with Native Americans in WI.  The result: corn bread, models, posters, and time lines were some of the chosen projects.  We don’t do spelling tests but rather test each other when we cannot spell a word.  We don’t do grammar tests but instead create grammar hunts throughout the school.  We don’t do tests that seem purposeless, but rather embrace those that give us something and disregard those that don’t.  We discuss as a classroom how we would like to show off our learning and we find ways that suit all students.  That doesn’t mean we never test, it just means they become more meaningful to us.  As an example my students asked me to test their knowledge in social studies about pioneers because they were unsure of what they needed to remember, so I did.  Tests don’t have to be rigid.

Which brings me to my final discovery in my classroom; tests are not the end.  In my room, they are another step in our journey and only a tool used to figure out where our holes are.  So once a test has been given, it is given back for correction.  Students may use their books, their brains, each other, whatever they can to solve a problem.  Often the mistakes are careless, soemtimes not, but almost always they are fixed and the right knowledge emerges.  Tests are not meant to be the end all for me, they are meant to inform, so when I let my students work with them again I am living that philosophy.  Students know that they get a second chance, because let’s face it, sometimes a question is misread or life is distracting, yet they still try their hardest the first time.

So I return to the point of tests; are they to inform our instruction or to provide us with grades?  I choose the latter every time.  Inform me please, make  me a better teacher, help my students learn more, and don’t ever stop us from enjoying the adventure that is school.

being a teacher, change, choices, education reform, hopes, Student-centered

What Have I Done?

I wish I could say that I run my classroom like a well-oiled machine,after all isn’t that what effective teachers do? In truth, it is more of an adventure as our day unfold. Sure the destination has been determined and even a tentative path, but often my studentts’ questions or wonderings are just too juicy to pass up. So we veer off the path and in the end, end up with more knowledge than I could have planned for.

I teach the way I hope my daughter is taught one day. I teach my students to find their voice, to speak up, to share their ideas. At first this seemed like a trap to them, like if they really spoke their minds about schools, they were going to get into deep, serious trouble. Now, about two thirds of the year has passed and these kids are not afraid to tell me the truth. If I am speaking too long, they ask me to let them work. If a lesson is boring, they tell me so, but even better, often offer up suggestions on how to make it better. The same thing goes for praise; if they love something, the tell me, they blog about it and they tell their friends.

And so I wonder what have I done? What have I set my students up for? I will not be passing on students who are used to sitting in their desks listening to a teacher deliver all of the learning. My students will want a voice, a choice, and a goal presented to them. My students will be demanding, honest, and have high expectations that their input will be valued. What have I done?

As we change our approach in the classroom and get more in tune with how we think education should be, are we instead just harming our students by showing them a different way to learn? Would it be better if we shelved our ideas for more student-centered learning and let our students remain in the mold they have fit into for so many years? When we reform are we really just setting our students up for failure? I would love your thoughts on this.

aha moment, answers, assumptions, balance, being a teacher, believe, change, education, education reform, educators, elementary, hopes, inspiration, invest, school staff, talented, teachers, teaching

Bring Out the Experts

The education community loves experts. Experts are flown in, bussed in, and wined and dined. If you are an expert on something chances are there is a school that wants to pay you for sharing your thoughts. In fact, you don’t even have to claim to be an expert, others will often bestow that title upon you as a favor. After all, how else will your expense be excused? So I wonder, how does one become an expert, after all, aren’t we all just humble learners?

The word expert is tinged with weight. To be an expert you must be not just knowledgable, but also an authority. Yet who decides when one is an authority? Does it need a book deal? A huge following? Or someone else who is an expert to look at you kindly? Who decides who the experts are?

We are quick to bring in outside experts whenever there is a need but often I wonder who could we have turned to on-site? Who at this school could already have shared that same information at a fraction of the price? Who at this school could have had the opportunity to teach others, much as we teach our students every day. I consider myself lucky being surrounded by experts every day. I find myself among some incredible educators that work hard to bring their expertise into the classrooms to benefit the students. Isn’t it time for all of us to recognize the experts among us?

I dare to propose that we are all experts. Although not world known, or even known outside of our small circles, yet we are knowledgable of something particular, something that we can claim authority on. And so consider this; at school you are indeed surrounded by experts. Whether they are experts at teaching the civil war, grammar, haikus or how to dribble, they have deep intimate knowledge that they can pass on to others. So share your expertise with others, go ahead open up and discuss what you know you are good at. We have to get better at celebrating each others knowledge, each others succeses, simply each other. We are all experts, how will you foster expertise?

being a teacher, change, communication, control, students

What Do you Mean I am Not the Center of Attention?

This year I stepped out of the limelight.  Hard, cruel, and totally uncomfortable but I am learning to just be quiet.  And not so that I freak my students out with long stern stares or raised eyebrows, although that does happen on occasion.  But so that students can talk, learn, and explore.

You see when a teacher talks a lot, and teachers usually love to talk, students turn into drones.  We know all of the material already so we are so eager to tell the kids all about it.  Some call it excitement over curriculum, I just call it teacher mouth.  We talk to get them ready to them learn, we talk about the learning they are doing, and then we talk about what they have just learned.  Have we ever thought that maybe us being quiet would let them learn better, more, faster?

So I decided that this year would be it.  After reading brain research that shows that students pay proper attention to the same amounts of minutes as their age; oh yes, I have 9 minutes of attention time, I knew I had to stop talking.  Immediately, me ego tried to stop me; how will they ever learn anything if I don’t tell them all about it?  Well, that has been the great part.  Students seem to be actually learning more this way.  They are talking to their classmates about concepts, they are figuring things out on their own and most importantly; they are eager to get to work and learn something.

As the proud parent that lets go of the bicycle so junior can peddle on their own, I am learning to let go of my own ego.  We are so highly educated that we think the only way the students learn best is if we teach them.  Wrong, the best way for student to learn is to explore, and fail, and then explore some more.

So while my classroom may be a little more noisy, ok, a lot more noisy, this year, and lessons may be taking a bit longer because the students have to discover the answer rather than me pointing it out to them, there is also more excitement, more come on and do it and more get-to-it-ness then there has ever been before.  So even though I catch myself sometimes talking too long, I am also getting better at letting go.  After all, I know this stuff already which is why I  am the teacher, now let them have their turn in the spotlight.

acheivement, alfie kohn, assumptions, being a teacher, believe, change, choices, communication, difference, elementary, get out of the way, grades, homework, learning, parents, promise, trust

How Homework Destroys

It finally happened; a parent decided to disagree with my new take on homework. They do not feel that I am providing enough and thus am doing a disservice to the students by lulling them into a fake sense of security in their skills. My response at first was indignation; how dare so and so question my fantastic educational shift in philosophy. Why are they not enlightened or believers as well? And then it dawned on me; I have not shown them the way.

I spend a lot of time speaking to students about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what the goal is for their learning but not enough explaining that to the parents. And while I hope that parents have faith in me, I cannot take it for granted. I am, after all, messing with a system that has been set in place for many years and that these same parents are products of. So, of course, my system may come as a shock at first, and without the proper explanation it will continue to be so. After all, parents have been trained to think that for every grade level you figure out homework load by multiplying the grade level with 10 minutes. So by 4th grade, students should at the very least be doing 40 minutes of homework a night. And yet, my students don’t. They do most of their work in class, even staying in for recess so that I may help them, and I never willingly send home a piece of homework that I know they will struggle for hours with.

Homework should be practice, a showing of skills. It should not be a two hour time consumer where both mom, dad and the encyclopedia gets involved. I explain this to my students and the sense of relief is visible in them. They know that I will challenge them in class but at home they may pursue life instead. So if you work hard at school then the reward is rest, family time, and a pursuit of happiness. And it works. My students are still learning everything they should for the year, albeit in a more hands-on manner. I am shying away from worksheets and instead having conversations about learning. Our favorite tool is our dry-eraseboards that allows me a quick check in for understanding. And the students are noticing the difference. No longer dreading the afternoon because I will continue to haunt their day. No longer dreading school because it means so many extra hours of works. No longer dreading learning because they are realizing that learning is something you do at school and that it doesn’t come form worksheets.

When I recently welcomed 9 new students into my room, one “old” student told me that she was looking forward to seeing how the newbies would react since I “teach a little crazy.” And perhaps that is true. I am loud, obnoxiously so at times, and I have high standards. I push kids to learn, I push kids to understand, and then I back off. I let them think about it, let the learning resonate within them, and then I challenge them to dredge it out again the following day.

By no means, am I the perfect teacher. I have many years of learning to come, but I do know that I am on to something here and I stand at a fork in the road signaling a massive shift in my whole educational philosophy. I believe these students are learning, I believe I am preparing them as well as any other teacher, and most importantly I believe I am letting them be kids at the same time. My students know that if something is homework it is for the benefit of their learning and is important to do, not just another piece of paper that their teacher didn’t get to in class. They know that I only assign it if it is truly valuable, and not just something for me to use for grades. They know that we will meet and discuss their learning, always knowing what is missing, what is accomplished, what the direction should be. They know that if I assign something to them it is because they have the skills needed to do it. Do yours?