being a teacher, community, Student, trust

Kids Shouldn’t Feel Like Tourists: How Every Classroom Should Be a Tribe

Taken today – oh what a beautiful flag

“I feel like I belong.”  My little brother turns to me as we walk through the Copenhagen aiport minutes after landing.  We are indeed home, even if just for a short while, but I immidiately got what he meant.  I belong to the same tribe he does; the Danes, and with that comes certain hidden knowledge, requirements and social norms that normal tourists simply will not be a part of.  This is all unravled to us as we are raised; how to speak to elders, how to dress, how to survive in a culture which is very liberal but has heightened politeness and manners standards.  The manual for being a Dane has not been written, and indeed, it changes as the population changes, and yet there is a “Daneness” that I recognize.  We are indeed tribe members and not just by looks – in fact not all Danes are blonde like I am – but by culture and behavior.  We are members because we know how to be and the society lets us be, with only a few perplexed comments on our Americanness (13 years abroad will do that for you).

This is much like our classrooms.  We set them up to be inclusive and welcoming to our students but do we set them up as a tribe?  (And I am not referring to the Tribes program here).  A tribe would mean that every person involved in the classroom felt like they belong and understood the hidden language of the classroom.  A tribe means safety for all of the people wherever they venture in the room and also that they will be protected by other students outside of our territory.  A tribe is bigger than just being a class.  All of this is certainly something I strive for every year so I mulled about this all day and reached the following conclusions.  To be a tribe we must

  • Recognize that we are an entity, that yes we are part of something bigger in the school, but also see that we are our own unit contained within the walls of our classroom.
  • Realize that we are unique.  There are other similar classrooms but this actual composition cannot be replicated anywhere else and this is something to celebrate.
  • Determine our culture.  What do we value, what do we see as proper behavior and how do we act amongst each other?  These are all vital for a tribe to feel togetherness and should not be set by the teacher.  For real understanding, appreciation, and cooperation it has to be set up together.  A tribe may have a leader but it is still a regular person who holds that position.
  • Determine our hidden language.  Discuss the assumptions we bring into the classroom,  set expectations and explore pitfalls.  Unspoken assumptions in particular can be devastating for a classroom and need to be discussed openly so that all involved people have a real chance of ownership and understanding.
  • Allow change.  A tribe should not stay the same all year, it should move and fluctuate as the classroom moves much like a country’s culture.  What should remain though is the sense of belonging of understanding the classroom culture and being able to navigate it all successfully without feeling like a tourist.

Being a tribe is so much more than being just a classroom, even a really good one.  It allows students to lose inhibitions (and the teacher too) and to revel in a meaningful learning environment.  No longer just visiting for the year in the teacher’s classroom but actually building the foundation of it and then actively maintaining it throughout the year so that ever person who walks into the room can exclaim, “I belong.”

This goes beyond just building community and rightfully so and will therefore take top priority in the coming year for me.  What about you?

being a teacher, choices, Student-centered, trust

5 + 1 Things I Learned This Year

I was recently asked what would be my top 5 things I have learned this past year in my journey to radically change my classroom.  So after some deep pondering and gut checks, here are the lessons I have learned, or the top 5 + 1.

  1. Give them choice (and a voice).  The number one thing my students said they loved was the fact that they had a choice and a voice.  As teachers we are taught that we are the only experts but this is so far from the truth.  My students have a lot of background knowledge and a lot of enthusiasm so letting them choose the type of project they wanted to create or how they wanted to learn something meant there was buy in.   No longer was learning mandated, there was actual buy-in from everyone.
  2. Trust your students.  I was not sure that my students could handle all of the responsibility I was giving them but throughout the year I was proven wrong again and again.  In fact, my students could probably have handled even more.  Trust also means that if they tell you something not so nice, you should celebrate it, not get upset.  The fact that my students trusted me enough to tell me something was boring is something that I relish and then learned from.  
  3. Trust yourself.  I knew I had to make big changes in my room and yet I questioned myself throughout the year.  was not giving them a letter grade really benefitting them?  Was not having punishment in my classroom better for all of us?  Were we accomplishing as much as we should have?  My gut told me I was doing the right thing and yet doubt snuck in sometimes, in the end, do what you believe in and then stand behind it.  There is a reason your common sense is telling you something is amiss and needs to be fixed, so fix it to suit you.
  4. Ask yourself the tough questions.  I asked myself whether I would be a student in my own classroom.  Before this year, the answer would have been a resounding no.  Now that answer has changed.  In fact, I love being in my classroom as much as my students do.  School should be about learning, yes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be engaging and enticing at the same time.
  5. Give yourself a break.  There were days were I sucked as a teacher.   Days were I pined for inane punishment just to make them behave or were I raised my voice.  There were days were I didn’t feel like giving feedback or having lengthy conversations about projects.  Some days I just wanted to lecture and be done with it.  Thankfully my students snapped me out of that really quickly.  You are not perfect, you never will be, and that is ok.  Trust the direction you are taking and make adjustments as you see fit.  
  6. Be Quiet!  Teaching should not be about teachers pouring information into the heads of students, but rather teachers as a guide letting students explore, create, and make connections.  When we let the students own the classroom and the discussion they also take ownership of the learning, and that is a beautiful thing indeed.  So get off the stage but set it up for them to learn and then stop talking.  Much like we ask our parents to not help with homework, we should also ask ourselves to not take away the pleasure of learning.  

So there they are; my biggest lessons this year.  I am already excitedly planning for my transition to 5th grade next year and reevaluating what worked, what sucked, and what will I definitely do differently.  A new year brings new challenges and for that I am thankful.

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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?

believe, choices, community, connect, education, educators, honesty, hopes, inspiration, invest, leader, learning, life choices, Mentor, promise, reform, Superman, teaching, trust

I am the Reform

I am the reform when I trust other teachers.

I am the reform when I stand united, and not divided.

I am the reform when I discuss, assess, and learn with my students.

I am the reform when I trust in others.

I am the reform when I ask for observation, feedback, and growth opportunities.

I am the reform when I discuss, even with people with whom I disagree.

I am the reform when I reflect, reject and reinvent.

I am the reform when I ask for help.

I am the reform when I learn more.

I am the reform when I am not afraid.

I am the reform when I listen and I speak.

I am the reform when I believe.

Are you the reform?