Be the change, change, classroom expectations, guest blog

Flying Above the Radar

With the arrival of our twins, I asked for guest bloggers and was super excited to share this post with all of you by Kaitlyn Gentry…

Too often in education, and in life, people aim to fly under the radar. No one wants to fail, but appearing overtly successful makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It is like a cultural regression towards the mean. Occasionally people fly high and norms are challenged, but aren’t those are statistical anomalies, ones that can be corrected with a wider data sample or retests? Why would a tiny point continue to appear above the radar, outside of that regular curve?

            My previous year was a successful one: students grew, parents were happy, and I emerged from my first year as a third grade teacher unscathed. But that is what happens when you fly below the radar. Soon thoughts began creeping in…Why had the year gone so smoothly? It must have been those sticker charts and earned recess minutes, those warnings of “this is impacting your conduct grade”, the “If I were taking this test, I’d be paying close attention to the chart of page 52.” The carefully calculated control I wielded over my group of eighteen boys had allowed for effortless success; except when it didn’t. Those small failures: students no longer caring to earn extra recess because they saw through the ploy, boys ignoring the conduct grade pleas, memorization of the chart on page 52, without understanding the chart. These were easily explained away: these are the strategies that everyone uses, the boys are ready for summer, the required chart on page 52 is actually pretty boring.
Enter the outlier.
I realized I was wrong. Those excuses were just that, excuses, and I began to see that I wasn’t alone in my thinking. There was a cluster appearing outside of the curve…a conversation was growing about the amount of control exerted upon our students, about the threats of grades, homework, lost recess, and the more subtle “positive reinforcement” of earning stickers or treats to memorize, regurgitate, and perform in lock-step fashion. I realized that in order to make my next year a true success it was not going to be smooth, within the curve, or below the radar.
This year was messy: filled with conversations about citizenship, having a voice, effort, reflection, process over product, and growth over grades. Instead of discussing their monthly grades, each student wrote a reflection paper, covering areas of growth and difficulty in every subject, which we reviewed together. These reflections also went home at the front of their folder, to be reviewed with parents, before grades were discussed if they chose to do so. Instead of removing or adding recess time for talking in the hallways, we discussed the impact of showing respect for the other classes in session. Writing assignments were no longer assigned a letter, instead I wrote to each student on their papers, citing strengths and areas for improvement. My students did not simply “aim for an A,” but sought to improve their writing mechanics, structure, creativity, or detail. Not only did this allow my students to understand specific and measurable goals, but it also helped them take responsibility for their growth. They were not relying on me to “hand down” their grade, they were able to improve by focusing on specific skills.  I eliminated many of the multiple choice tests and created projects which gave the students choices to experience authentic learning opportunities. They were no longer memorizing empty facts about the medieval time period; instead they were investigating the history of medieval warfare to design a realistic video game and “teaser video.” I stopped assigning stickers for books read or neatness. Instead, I learned about what my students liked to read, and why. We discussed beautiful artwork and made connnections between finished art and final papers, with students remarking that craftsmanship is present in both. It was eye-opening to realize how I devalued both of these areas by simply assigning stickers for completion, insteading of encouraging a conversation to occur. I was at times very uncomfortable, and so were my students, but our existence above the radar was making a real impact. Conversations were starting in classrooms nearby, students were responding, and growth was happening. Could I view this year as more of a success?  
Enter the point under the radar.
It was one sentence on a final student survey: “I look like I know what I am doing in compositions, but sometimes I do not; next year look for the boys who don’t stand out.” I had missed one…A tiny, small voice, hidden below the radar. In all of my efforts to reach each student, to listen to them, to support their individual growth, I had overlooked at least one. He was reaching out now, but it was too late, the final desk cleaned, the last locker emptied.
However, his message will help me not regress towards the mean, because the mean is created by those who have already deemed their methods as successful, instead of striving for more. I will not count this year as a “success” because I missed at least one, there is much more to be done, and next year I will continue to be an outlier, to work beyond the curve to reach each student, even those hidden safely below the radar.
Bio of Kaitlyn Gentry:
I am entering into my fifth year of teaching, and my third year with my third grade boys at Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland. I attended Calvert, and I feel fortunate to be able to give back to such a wonderful community where I am encouraged to explore, take risks, make mistakes, and to grow alongside my students everyday. I have loved establishing a PLN through twitter (@mk8g) this year and write about my ever evolving pedagogy on my classroom blog ( to teach my students not to just be “consumers,” but “producers” as well!

classroom expectations, future, hopes

Will School Rob My Daughter of Her Voice?

There she is, my daughter, not caring one bit who hears her or whether they approve of her actions.  She saw a piano, saw an opportunity and knew she had to sing.  I sit there, slightly mortified at first and then slowly relishing this moment.  She doesn’t care, she is performing, doing what she loves, making up songs that take their truth from the pictures.  She is just being her…

I worry what will happen to this part of her personality as she grows up.  will she continue to do what feels right at that very moment?  Will she have opportunities to create when she has that urge?  To sing and play and do what makes her her?

Will school allow her to stay herself or will the rules of the classroom tell her to be quiet, to sit down, to do what is prescribed and follow the program.  Will her only chance of individuality be choosing what color pen to write in or the picture on her binder?  Will she be lucky enough to have teachers that will continue to offer her opportunities to explore herself, to continue to build her confidence while teaching her the rules of society?

I do not expect for her to be given a free pass to perform like the kids in Fame, but I hope someone recognizes that this little girl is not afraid to share.  Not afraid to express herself.  Not afraid to raise her voice, and that they will celebrate it rather than roll their eyes and tell her to sit down and listen.  I hope school doesn’t take my little girl out of her.  I hope school becomes a place for growth and not for reigning in and quieting down.  I hope she gets an opportunity to create and express herself in some way.

being me, classroom expectations, homework, talking

Flipping for the Flipped Classroom Seems To Be the Trend but Not for Me

from icanread

Hey Pernille, we watched a video on the Khan and the flipped classroom model today.  I think you would love it!

Oh, yes I am already familiar with it, why do you think I would love it?

Well, you love technology….

It’s true, I love technology for what it does for my students and I.  I love that we can grab cameras and document our learning.  I love that we can blog and start conversations with others.  I love that I send my students out the door with tools that others may not know about in middle school, thus spreading their knowledge and giving them options.  But I don’t love the flipped classroom, it’s not for me, sorry.

Sure, it is a cool concept.  Videotape your lecture so that it can be accessed anywhere and then use the class time to discuss and investigate and really learn more.  I love the classroom part.  I love the idea of not standing in front of students talking and instead getting to the actual work stage, the exploration, the stage that the kids so desperately want to get to anyway.  But the lecturing is not for me.  Sure, there are times when I have to provide background for my students, in fact, every day that happens, but the idea of taping a lecture and then forcing them to watch it on their own time upsets me.

When I do my background providing, or “teaching” in class, we have discussions.  The students ask questions, clear up misconceptions, and sometimes we end up in a totally different arena then we intended.  I know I need to keep it short, I know I need to keep it relevant so that we can do the work, so that the kids can have time to explore.  I know I could talk a lot longer if I had the opportunity.  Being on live in front of the kids mean I have to be a story teller, I have to be at my best so that they stay with me and stay engaged.  Sure, there are times I wish I had it recorded so that they could watch it again because they didn’t get it the first time, but then I realize that they didn’t get it because I didn’t do a good enough job explaining it.  And having a recording of me explaining it poorly is not going to do them any favors.

Then there is the homework aspect of the flipped classroom.  We expect students to use their time outside of school to watch all of these videos. Can you imagine how much time that would be if every class in a high school setting required this?  My teenage rebel self rolls her eyes.  I would never have been into that as a teen and in college I did my homework on my breaks at work, my breaks between school and work and wherever I could.  I didn’t sit in front of a screen, nor did I have access to it.  I worked full-time while going to school full-time and did much of my reading in my car.  Flipping my classes would have meant that was not an option.  Sure, times have changed since I graduated 5 years ago, students have more access to portable computers, yet we are still asking them to take their outside time and do the work in a matter determined by us.  We are still taking their time.

So I leave you with this simple question, why not skip the lecture altogether?  Perhaps we wouldn’t need the concept of the flipped classroom if we just stopped talking and got to the point?  Perhaps if we actually honed our craft as story tellers, not as lecturers, students would have the opportunity to get the teaching and the exploration all at once?  I know it sounds crazy but I think it can be done, we just need to stop talking so much.

behavior, classroom expectations, punishment, students

No School For You, Bully! But Did We Fix Anything?

The news broke last night that the 4 middle schoolers who were caught on tape tormenting their bus monitor received a year’s suspension from riding the bus as well as school.  A whole school year! (I should add they get to go to the district reengagement center, not just sit at home).  So while many cheered at the justice being served, I shook my head and once again thought about how we dole out punishment in the American educational system.

I am not here to argue that what they did was in any way justifiable.  I am not here to argue that they should not be punished.  But a year’s suspension?  Since when does any bullying incident result in a whole year away from school?  This seems to be another case of media sensationalism leading to excessive punishment, without actually thinking about how these kids could be helped instead.  Where is the repair?  The discussion of what led to all of this?  The plan for something like this to not happen again?

The sad thing is, we only know about this case because one kid foolishly published the video to Youtube, apparently proud of their achievement as bullies.  The bus monitor didn’t report it, or at least we don’t know that she did.  She also barely spoke up for herself throughout the ordeal, instead sitting their stoically taking whatever evil words they could fling at her.  How often does that happen, those untold stories of bullying that we only discover after it is too late?  How do school react to those stories where young children commit suicide due to the cruel nature of others?  What about the every day bullying that happens in our hallways, in our lunch rooms, at our recesses, right underneath our noses?  What punishment do those kids get?  How often do we say it is just a part of growing up, it is just a  part of school, it is just a part of life?  How often do we come up with a repair plan but then don’t follow through?  How often do we not believe the children that report the bullying?  So when a case like this one, that seems so cut and dry, we jump on it, flaunt our muscles, blame the parents and then punish those kids with every thing we have.  Those kids are going to pay.  Those kids will be an example.  Those kids will learn.  And yet, we don’t actually fix the problem.

So I wonder what can we as a society do to prevent these situations from happening?  And how can we serve justice in a way that makes sense, that makes children change their behaviors?  How do we focus in on all bullying and not just those cases that make it into the media, that start an outcry?  How do we teach children and adults, because adults are as much of a part of this as children, that bullying is vile and inhumane?  They say kids learn best from examples set, well, how are we setting the example?  What responsibility are we taking for all of this?  And how do we truly show kids that bullying is not just “not ok” it is deplorable?

alfie kohn, classroom expectations, no homework

I Don’t Think Your Students Are Ready – When We Don’t Assign Homework

Mathematics homework
Mathematics homework (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“….I worry about your students next year, I don’t think they will be ready…”. My heart is pounding so hard it sounds like a truck, I can feel my checks blazing, my hands are clenching. She worries? About my students? About those kids that I have poured everything into? Those kids that have set higher expectations for themselves than any other grade I have taught? Those kids that demand a better education, a deeper discussion, a better understanding of what we do and why we do it. This teacher worries about my kids? My ears fail to listen and I feel the need to explain myself, to defend and argue but instead I raise my gaze and ask simply, “Why?” The answer is swift, “You don’t have any homework…” I wait, what else, but there is just silence. Homework and not giving it once again the center of a discussion.

So what is it about homework and whether to assign it or not that becomes such a flashpoint in education? Both sides are passionate in their reasoning for or against but the discussion seems to happen more outside of our schools than in them, not amongst colleagues. This teacher had decided, without speaking to me, that since I did not assign homework, students were not held responsible for their learning. Students were not held accountable for showing what they knew and I had no idea of how to challenge them. This was not a fair assessment by any means but still the one that had been made. So when others are misinformed about what a “no homework” classroom really is like, is it up to us to reach out and educate? Or should we expect them to come to us to become informed before they pass their judgment?

We may have all of the answers ourselves but how do we communicate them to other staff? How do we make others realize that there is a way to still deeply teach something without assigning outside of school work? How do we help others realize that homework does not have to be an integral part of what school is and that children will still be prepared for what is to come? Are we only fooling ourselves when we do boast that we are still creating responsible, accountable, time managing students without the use of homework? Can we truly not prepare students for the “rigors” of school if we do not do what others around us do? Can my fifth graders still be succesful in middle school even though I did not expect them to do two hours of work every night? Have I fooled myself into thinking that I am helping them become deeper thinkers when all I am really doing is robbing them of their chance for success? Was that teacher right? Should I be worried about my students?

classroom expectations, safety, students

Yes, We May Be Shocked But Let’s Not Pretend to Be Surprised

English: this is my own version of what bullyi...
English: this is my own version of what bullying looks like (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the video of Karen Klein, the bus monitor who was relentlessly bullied by middle schoolers, went viral, the world is shocked.  How could these children treat another human being this way?  How could these kids get away with it?  And we show our outrage by donating money to give Karen a vacation, to get her away from her job, as a way to apologize for the torment she was subjected to at the hands of children.  We show our outrage by sending death threats to the children involved, swearing that this time, it has to stop.

And sure I find myself shocked as well, shocked that children once again prove just how cruel they can be.  Shocked at the level of bullying these kids stoop to.  Shocked that they talk about stabbing her and gang up on her and never stop.   But I am not surprised.  And neither should anyone else be.  This happens every day, on busses across our nation.  Whether it is kids turning on each other other or turning on adults, this is our reality.  We talk about bully prevention but forget that the minute our children are out of sight from us, they make their own decisions.  As parents we hope that the decisions they make will make us proud, rather than mortified.  We hope that we have raised them right, to be decent human beings that do not harm, that do not torment, that do not bully.  And yet, the moment we send them out of our door, they make their own decisions, good or bad.

I see this with my 3 year old when I pick her up from daycare.  How rather than solving a dispute she hits another child, and I stand there mortified.  Shocked even, that my loving child, hit someone else when she didn’t get the toy she wanted.  Yes, it is a stage, and yes, she is only 3, but still…we have raised her better.  She knows she is not allowed to hit.  She knows what the consequences are.  She knows our expectations, and yet, her arm raised and slap, making the other child cry.  Far cry from the bullying that happened to Karen Klein, but the same nonetheless.  The hurting of another human being.

So what can we do?  We talk about training against bullying.  We talk about awareness of what makes a bully.  We monitor our children, our students, we talk and talk and talk.  We share videos, we enlist celebrities, we punish, and we talk some more.  And yet it doesn’t seem to make a difference.  Kids continue to be kids, and kids continue to bully.  So let’s continue being outraged, but let’s not be surprised.    Surprise means we are not aware and that is a luxury we no longer can hide behind.