being a teacher, classroom expectations, summer, teaching

Summer Is Not Here Yet – Tips To Stay Motivated and Energized

See that kid walking in; the one who smiles every day and then just kind of retracts into their own world.  yeah that child, well, it is not too late to make a connection.  In fact, now, as the end of the years nears is the perfect time to try again.  I know you are busy, I know summer looms large, but still, how about another try?

With less than 5 weeks to go, some are in summer mode, both teachers and students, and others continue to push on.  At the end of every day with my students I say, “There goes another day in 5th grade but boy we have a lot to do.”  In our room there is a sense of urgency; a need for efficiency, hard work and a little bit of pressure because the learning just does not have time to wait.  Students are busy with larger end of the year projects and I work more as consultant than direct instructor.  Sure side conversations slip in but overall there is a sense of mission.    A sense of using the year to the fullest degree, of finishing with a bang rather than a fizzle.

So what can we do to keep ourselves motivated?

  • Reach out and speak to someone new.  We tend to retract during this time, feeling that our schedules are overpacked and there is so much to do but there is something about reaching out and making a new connection.  Whether it is with a student, a colleague, or a parent even, now is the time to continue to build relationships.  It provides spark and energy and new ideas, what else could you want in May.
  • Get heavily invested.  I am very invested in these end of the year projects and I am in new territory with all of them. Students are acting as teachers in one with an assessment piece even tied in by them.  Another lets us use Adobe Elements which I have never attempted, you get the drift.  Instead of resting and trying something safe, I continue to push it and it keeps me revitalized, which directly translates to the energy level of the classroom.
  • Now is the time for conversation.  Although my mind is fully in this year, knowing I have a maternity leave coming up, I want to make sure I set my sub up with the best options, so my students and I speak a lot about what works and what doesn’t.  How would they tweak the classroom, how would they alter projects and so forth.  I, in turn, listen and take notes, changing as I go.
  • Trust them more.  I see some teachers pull in the reins and really try to control students more as the end of year nears.  And yes, energy levels are up across the board and yet, I give mine more leeway.  I trust them more to make the right decisions, to represent, and to push themselves.  They have grown so much over the year, now is the time to acknowledge that.
  • Crank the music.  And don’t take yourself so seriously.  Yes, you may be frazzled with so much to do, we all are, but is it fair to give that to the students?  I try to laugh more, smile more, and dance more as the year comes to a close.  We al need the body breaks and you an get a lot of classroom cleaning done with a great 80’s song blaring.
  • Stay with the kids.  And with that I mean, in your mind and in your heart.  I always have an awful time letting go of “my” kids even though I know they are ready, but it is something I pride myself on.  These kids know I am fully focused on them and on their academics.  They know that I want to hear their stories and I want to support them.  Even though our official year is almost over does not mean our relationship is.  So I continue to work on all of my relationships with them to ensure that they know that they belong, that they are accepted, and that room 310 will always be their home, no matter how old they get.

being a teacher, classroom expectations, punishment, rewards

How Do I Punish My Students? Umm, I Try Not To

Recently a comment on my post “If We Would Just Stop Talking, We Might Learn Something” has made me think quite a bit.  Short and simple, it asked, “Do you have your non-punishment strategies written down?  Could you please share it?”  And I went hmmm, non-punishment strategies sounds much more fancy than what I have.  The truth is, I don’t have any strategies; I simply do not punish kids.  In fact, even the word punish is such a heavily loaded word that I cringe at the sound of it.  It brings to mind canning or  publicly embarrassing children, simply not my thing.  So instead I handle situations as they arise, mostly with common sense.  Let me explain by taking some every day situations in a classroom…

  • A student keeps blurting out.  Sense of humor works for me here most of the time and I tend to look at it through a positive lens; wow, that kid can’t wait to share the answer because they are having so much fun!  Strategies used to curb or direct it has been to give them dry-erase boards to write down their answers and then flash them to me or have them tell it to a partner.  If the blurting is more like an epidemic I place a blank post-it on their desk and have them make a tally every time they blurt out.  This is used for self-awareness not as a way to reward or punish and I have seen it help kids realize the extent of their blurting who were otherwise unaware.
  • Homework is not handed in.  Even in a classroom where I try to stay homework-free, some students do not use their time as effectively as others and may have a page or two to do at the end of the day, mostly math.  So the first thing we speak about is time management; what could they be doing differently in class to curtail taking work home?  Then we also discuss taking responsibility for not having their work; if a child tells me in the morning that they did not do their homework and have a strategy for getting it done such as bringing it tomorrow or spending some time during recess, then I am fine with that plan.  The point to the conversation is; I don’t want to be the one that has to come up with the plan or have to find out that they didn’t do their work.  They need to come to me, take responsibility for it and then fix it.  Just like we do as adults.
  • And yet, the homework continues to not get done.  This does not happen a lot in my room because we just don’t have the homework.  And yet it does happen once in a blue moon. Besides a conversation with the student where we discuss things they have tried to fix it, we often do a quick phone call home to discuss strategy with parents.  This is not a punishing phone call but instead a “heads-up” we need to give a little more support here both at school and from home because the work is disappearing.  Often I find the root of this to be disorganization rather than laziness, so my number one point is; ask what happened!
  • Students goof off and generally not paying attention.  This is a huge flashing sign to me that what I am doing is not engaging and that the kids need a break.  So unless I for some extreme reason cannot stop what I am doing, I do just that; stop and switch gears.  Whether it just entails giving them a body break or asking them how they would like to learn about this concept something needs to change.  I have also had them do partner share, journaling, or whatever pops into my head to make sure they stay engaged.  Sometimes a lesson is continued but in a different format, sometimes we scrap it for the day.  
  • Students are staring into space, reading a book or doing other work.  For anyone who has ever been absorbed in a great book, we know how hard it is to stop reading, so I always smile a little when I see a student reading under the table.  And yet, students do need to be doing whatever it is we are doing at the moment.  Often a quick tap on the shoulder or even just silence and waiting for them to join the rest of us works.  It is not a big deal, nor do I make it into one.  

Yes, I have had students throw chairs and tables in my room, yes I have had students hit each other, and yes, I have had to send students to the office because they needed a cool down moment.  And still, even during those more extreme situations, I always try to keep in mind that there is a cause to this behavior and it is my job to figure it out.  So I do not punish my students.  I do not take away their privileges to coerce them to behave.  I do not threaten, I do not dangle things in front of their nose.  Instead I start out the year by inviting them to create the rules of the classroom and then asking them to responsibility for it.  We help each other out, we steer each other as we do, and we take the time to talk.

So although I may claim to not have any strategies, the one I might have is to listen with not just my ear,s but also my eyes.  Listen to what their behavior tells me, listen to what they tell me, and then listen to my own reflection on how to create better situations.  And that’s how I don’t punish my students.
being a teacher, classroom expectations, classroom management

The One Word that Defines Us

Image from here

If there is one word that sums up my classroom management it is “Represent.”  It is the word I leave hanging in the air behind me if I have to leave early.  It is the word I write on the board if there is a sub the next day.  It is a word we discuss, we make our own, and in some ways it ends up defining us as a group.  It is not indoctrinated, neither are my students punished if they fail to live up to it.  It just becomes a hole system, without us even being aware of it.  No rules posted, no heavy-handed discussions, just the word and all of the meaning it has.

According to the dictionary one of the many meanings of the words is To stand for; symbolize and that is exactly what it means for us. When my students are on their own they still represent the community we have created, they are carriers of the message we have chosen to nourish; tolerance, respect, politeness, and engagement.  When we go anywhere we represent our community, our school’s values and those of our parents.  We symbolize what we strive to be, we stand for being upright citizens, humans beings with empathy who know how to act.

Yesterday, a teacher paid me the biggest compliment I could get, “Your students just seem to get it, when they are asked to clean up they do it right away and they do it as a group.”  I couldn’t be prouder.  They do it as a group, they take care of where they are, even when I am not there.  I don’t force the word, it comes up naturally throughout the year and we never define it formally, but it us and it is who we choose to be when we are engaged in school.  It s what we choose to do whether spoken or not.  I could not be prouder of these kids.

classroom expectations, classroom management

I Have Managed

Image from here

This year, I have managed

  • To go without rewards and still have students work hard
  • To go without punishment and still be respected by my students
  • To shift the focus from “what’s my grade?” to “what are we trying to learn?”
  • To have 23 responsible students that are learning to self-advocate
  • To not teach to the test, in fact, we really don’t do tests but show our knowledge in a  different way
  • To teach study skills without boring students to tears
  • To share responsibility for the room
  • To have hands-on learning and still cover all of the standards
  • To see growth in all of my students and even better to have them recognize it themselves
  • To have students groan at the end of the day because they don’t want to stop their work
  • To have students discuss without raising their hand
  • To not manage my students but have a classroom where we each know our part and responsibility
  • To expand my family by 23 students and change

What have you managed?  How can I help?

classroom expectations, classroom management, students

You Know Those Kids in 5th, They Become Those Kids in 6th…

My 5th grade team met with some of the 6th grade team at the middle school, one of those rare occurrences where everyone’s schedule just meshes and you finally get to sit down and discuss expectations.  Hallelujah!  While the whole meeting was a gem to be a part of, one thing that struck me was that the kids who are struggling in elementary are the kids that end up struggling in middle school.  Simple conclusion, yes, but think about the impact of that…

Those kids who have problems handing in work, or don’t know how to ask for help, or who sit back and wait for someone else to figure it out, they keep doing it in middle school.  Those kids who don’t show up to school, or show up with half of their things, who seem unaffected when we ask where their work is, or why they didn’t finish something.  Who horse around, who get in trouble at the blink of an eye, those kids that the whole school seems to know.  Sure ,those kids come to us like that in 5th, much like they came to their teachers in 4th the same way, and yet I wonder; what are we doing to change their habits?

The age old system of losing recess, docking points for late assignments, a stern talking to, parent phone calls, and drill and kill don’t seem to be putting these kids on a different path.  Neither does compassion and community, showing that you care and giving them extra time.  We don’t seem to be having many eureka moments.  So what can we change?  How can we intervene differently?  How can we stop the cycle?  That’s what I left wondering after today.

being a teacher, classroom expectations, classroom setup, Student-centered

5 Steps to Letting Go and Learning More

Yesterday I had the wonderful privilege to give a webinar for SimpleK12 on the topic of student centered learning.  I am not an expert on this topic, far from it, but I am someone who has done it by following her own instincts and now can marvel at the classroom I get to be a part of.  The webinar was very short and we had a lot of questions, the biggest one being, “How do I get started?”  So here are the first 5 steps I took to give my students more control:

  1. Search your heart.  Before you let go of certain aspects of the classroom you have to figure out what you can live with.  Can you live with more noise?  More movement?  More conversation?  Someone asked me if it was a lot more work to teach in a student-centered classroom to which I answered no, it is the same amount of work as I put in before but now I do it in school rather than outside of it.  If you cannot handle more noise you may want to dig a little deeper and try to figure out why, it may be that you fear students will goof off or get off task, which yes that still happens but much less frequently.  If they are engaged they will work.
  2. Tell the kids why.  Too often we make decisions and never tell students what led us to those decisions.  Every year I start out with a discussion of why our classroom is the way it is and how I envision it to run.  I set high expectations for my students who are always surprised at the environment and I let them ask questions.  One thing that inevitably comes up is whether they can earn rewards (nope) so I politely discuss why they should not expect that from me.  That also includes limited homework (if they work hard in school I don’t need to take up their time outside of school), no letter grades except for on report cards (we have conversations and feedback instead), and no punishment (no lost recesses here most of the time).
  3. Then let them talk. I tell the students this is our room and that they need to decide what type of learning environment they want to be a part of.  This conversation is totally student-run, they brainstorm in small groups and then share their results.  They do not post a list of rules or even vote.  We discuss, decide and then move on to bigger things.  Throughout the year we re-visit our expectations and tweak them if we have to.  The level of responsibility and buy-in to the classroom immediately increases without me having to beg for it.
  4. I challenge them.  Every year, I have some sort of team challenge right after they have set the rules to see whether they can figure out how to work together.  This year it was the amazing Bloxes challenge that brought my students together and got them excited.  Throughout the year we do mini-challenges to continue working on teamwork and expectations for the classroom. Different students step up as leaders, again without my direction, and they share the success of the challenge together.  And challenges doesn’t have to be anything crazy, it can be to give them an extra science lesson to explore whatever they want.  Teachers think there is no time for this sort of thing but there is, because our engagement level is higher we get through our curriculum quicker which gives us time to explore.  The biggest time waster in a classroom is usually the teacher talking at the students – how much do you really need to talk?
  5. I ask the kids.  No single thing is more important in our classroom than the voice of the students.  How do they want to learn something, how can we improve, what are we missing?   All of these questions pop up on a regular basis and they add so much to our curriculum.  I know what the goals of learning need to be but the students can certainly work on how we will get there.  Even at an elementary level these kids have incredible ideas and methods for covering curriculum thus getting natural buy-in (no carrot and stick needed) and increasing their enthusiasm for school.
This is how I get started in my classroom every year.  I didn’t read a book that told me to do these things, instead I asked, “Would I want to be a student in my own classroom?”  That answer is now a resounding yes!  We do a lot of hands-on learning, student-led exploration, and try to keep school fun no matter what we are doing.  I love coming to school, I love my students, and I am proud of what they accomplish every day.