A New Classroom Addition: The Peace Corner

In my classroom this year, I have several students who struggle with regulating strong emotional feelings. (Don’t we all, from time to time?) Last week, after attending a training on restorative practices (a Restorative Justice-esque framework), I resolved to try to continue to avoid using traditional discipline methods. This approach aligns with my personal beliefs about how to best develop character and positive habits in young people, but, too often, I find myself slipping into more traditional approaches when a youngster gets the whole class whipped up into a flurry that seems to call for a quick solution that recognizes that wrong has been done. The amount of patience and composure required to uphold the pathway that I’m trying to choose in m classroom is often daunting, especially when I’m tired or frustrated, but, on the days when I can pull it off, things feel so much healthier and so much happier.

One tool that I have implemented in my classroom this week to aid me on my quest to stick to this path of alternative “discipline” is a “Peace Corner.” One thing that I want to move away from is sending students out of my classroom when they are being “disciplined,” and the Peace Corner is a way to recognize the validity of student feelings and the right to have some time to process feelings independently, without having to send a message that there isn’t a place for that in the classroom. The Peace Corner is a small area in our classroom that I have set up with a soft pillow, a desk with a fabric covering that can offer privacy or a place to write or draw. There are also a variety of items in the Peace Corner that can help students to feel calmer — shells, little games that require lots of focus and concentration, a glitter jar that they can shake and observe, and lots of coloring and writing materials.

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photo 1At this point, I’m experimenting with implementation of the Peace Corner. My students were instantly curious about it and have been, for the most part, very respectful of the fact that it is a special place in our classroom for thinking and processing, and not a place to go and play or avoid work.

Students can either elect to go the Peace Corner by coming and speaking to me about how they are feeling and what has triggered it, or they can be encouraged to go there to gather their composure when a flare-up or incident seems imminent or has already occurred. In the latter case, the visit to the Peace Corner is followed with a conversation with me where I ask them to respond to several questions, which were presented to us at the training last week. I have these questions as posters in the Peace Corner, so that students will be able to read and consider their answers to them while they are processing their feelings and emotions.

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I really like the questions bring the behavior, rather than the person to the forefront; rather than saying, “You are a bully” or “You are a cheater,” the conversation focuses on how they are a “person who has been unkind to others” or you are a “person who has made a poor decision which impacts your learning.” Additionally, there is also a turn towards thinking about how the behavior impacts others, with a special emphasis on how to make things right.

I’m really excited to see how this change works out over the next few weeks — hopefully it will send the powerful message that I want to convey that we all make mistakes and feel intense feelings, but that we do have a responsibility to be able to work on taking responsibility for what we do with those feelings and/or how we repair the potential damage we may have done when we do let our feelings get the best of us.

 

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Student-Led Conferences: Signs of Student Ownership

This past week was a long one — I think that I spent more hours at school than at home. I am feeling fortunate that the Thanksgiving holiday break is upon us (just two more school days to go!) because I am definitely in need of an opportunity to recharge my batteries.

But, the extra time that I put in this week was so rewarding. This week, my school held our parent-teacher conferences. These conferences, however, as I described last year (https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2013/11/17/parent-teacher-conferences-and-parental-expectations-for-children/) are not of the typical variety, where the parents and the teacher sit down together to discuss the child. Instead, these conferences involve the parents and the student and, in my version at least, the student takes the reins for directing the whole conference.

I was a bit nervous about this year’s conferences. They really snuck up on me and I didn’t have much time at all to discuss them or what the expectations would be for them with my students. In retrospect, I am actually glad that I didn’t have time to prep them on what to do — watching their conferences unfold without my explicit instruction about what to do was far more insightful and interesting from my perspective.

For the most part, I was really floored by the students during their conferences. I had given them a list of things they might consider sharing and talking about and gathered up a lot of their materials from the classroom so that they would have it at their fingertips. What amazed me most was how accurately they described what we are doing in our classroom — rarely did I have to interject to clarify something. Additionally, the enthusiasm that my students showed when talking about their work (especially some of the students who display negative attitudes toward classroom tasks of any stripe) truly surprised me. In fact, one of the students who I have been struggling to figure out actually stayed for more than an hour, showing his parents literally everything he has done since September. It was so validating to hear my students speak so proudly about what they’ve accomplished since the beginning of school.

Perhaps even more valuable than watching my students share their work was observing the interactions between my students and their parents and their parents’ reactions to what was being shared. Unlike last year at this time, I hadn’t officially met all of my students’ parents, so being able to do so really helped me to gain a better understanding of where my students are coming from. I give many of my parents so much credit for making the time to come in for these conferences — they are balancing so many things at one time, from school to financial struggles to multiple children — that it’s pretty astounding that they made the time to come in for their second grader to tell them about their work. I think that, as educators, it is often easy to want to blame the parents for student issues (and in some cases, there may be specific things that do clearly stem from parents), but, the more time that I spend with families in my community, the harder I find it to think that the challenges that lower-class children exhibit fall squarely on the shoulders of their parents. That’s one reason why I think it is so important to hold conferences and why I love that the students attend ours — parents love their kids and it is no more clear than when they sit through their child reading and sharing every paper they’ve done all year.

Overall, despite the late nights, conferences were a wonderful success this year. What do conferences look like at your school or in your community?

A New Look for My Students’ Blog

I’ve spent a good chunk of time this evening working on revamping the layout for the blog that I maintain with my students. Specifically, I’ve been creating a new header image for the blog, which will be the first thing that all visitors see when they visit our site.

Originally, I intended to teach my students a lesson about what murals are, invite them to create their own, and then have them vote for which drawing would represent our classroom on the blog. However, after all of my students were captivated by my Prezi on murals and spent a sustained amount of time working on their own, I simply couldn’t resist incorporating them all. I also love how including something from each of the students reflect a cohesive classroom culture.

Here’s the result:

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I cannot wait to share this with my students when we update our blog this week. I know that they will be so thrilled to see their artwork displayed so authentically.

We haven’t updated our blog too many times yet this year, but I have found introducing blogging to young kids to be so magical. They are amazed that they can write something and have it be published and shared. Our blog was one of the greatest successes (and most frequently student-cited favorite parts) last year, and I am expecting even better things this year. Right now my focus is on trying to get parents to check our blog regularly — it is such a powerful tool for sharing not only what is going on at school, but allowing parents to see student work. I also want to work towards having my second graders have greater autonomy over posts — toward the end of the year last year, students were typing the posts, but I am hoping to find ways to have them generating content more independently this year.

Do you blog with your students? How do your students like the experience?

Our Classroom Vision and Being “CURIOUS” Learners

Things are continuing to go smoothly at school — I am quite pleased with the work that my students have been doing and how they are starting to adapt to some of the routines and procedures that we’ve jointly created for our classroom.

This week we spent some time brainstorming what our classroom vision would be. We looked back at our “best classroom” activity from last week and thought about what would need to happen in order for us to make that vision a reality. The result was the vision, which we brainstormed together: “In our classroom, we will become smarter by being kind and caring, being respectful and responsible, being happy, and working together.”

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The students spent time decorating our vision poster and then, this morning, spent time reflecting on what our vision means to them by drawing and writing about what our room will be like if we all act in a way that allows our vision to be a reality. Their answers were pretty impressive — ranging from simply things like having straight lines, to everyone being happy, to everyone being curious and asking questions.

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After creating our vision, we spent a lot of time talking and thinking about rules. My students’ first homework assignment was to list the rules that they need to follow at home (also a good way to potentially find the pulse of what’s going on at home for my students). They then completed a Venn Diagram where they compared their rules at home to their rules at school. Next, we chose a word to create an acronym for our classroom rules — they chose “Curious” because we are the “Curious Questioners.” Finally, the students had the opportunity to propose rules and then we held a class vote to determine which ones we would use.

Here are our resulting classroom rules/beliefs:

Conquer challenges
Use kind words
Respectful and responsible
Inside voices
Okay to make mistakes
Unusually hard workers
Set a good example

The students worked on writing and creating images to represent our rules.

photo 3Overall, my students were pretty engaged during these somewhat-lengthy community-building experiences. I am positive that we are getting off to a stronger start than last year and I am excited to see how the students’ investment in and accountability to our classroom rules and policies are impacted by their increased involvement in their creation.

Next week, we are beginning a new unit of study — “Being Good Learners.” My students will first be learning about whether going to school is a right or a privilege.

Imagining the Best and Worst Classrooms

photo 1School is now officially underway! We’ve had four days of school, and things have been going pretty smoothly thus far. My new kids are eager and excited to be in school. I am enjoying their energy and getting to know them. What I’ve been most pleased with, thus far, is their kindness towards one another — they seem to want to help each other and are (mostly) kind and considerate towards each other. It feels promising!

This week, we’ve been spending time getting to know one another and starting our work for building a solid foundation for our classroom community. I’ve been doing this process very slowly, hoping that the most time we spend on it, the better off we will be for the entirety of the year.

In terms of starting to lay this foundation, we’ve done a couple of activities this week geared towards starting those conversations. So far, the students and I have talked about teachers and their jobs and what qualities they like teachers to have. They wrote their first journal entries to me about what their “dream” teacher would be like. Yesterday, we read the poem “Nasty School” by Shel Silverstein and talked about what might make such a school unpleasant (though we agreed it might be fun to go there for a day or two!) My students then used four of the five senses to describe what the best and worst classrooms smell like, look like, sound like, and feel like (in terms of both tangible touch and how they make our hearts feel.) We created charts based on a discussion that we had after the activity, which you can see below.

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The next step in this process is to create a “vision” for our classroom by thinking about what our goals are for our classroom. We will then use our charts to develop our classroom “rules,” which will be the things that we all need to agree to do to make sure that our classroom is like the “best” classroom and not like the “worst” classroom. I am excited to see how this process goes in terms of increasing student engagement and buy-in for our classroom policies.

Biographies: Tackling Science and Gender Stereotypes

I began my lesson on Thursday afternoon by having my paper passers hand out a piece of “one-side good” paper to each of their peers. I invited my students to close their eyes and to picture a scientist in their minds. Once they had an image in their heads, I asked them to translate their vision into a drawing. My students diligently worked on this task and as they finished, I had them use a magnet to hang their drawing on our white board. The ending result was a “scientist gallery.”

My second graders' scientist gallery.
My second graders’ scientist gallery.

Once everyone had a chance to contribute our scientist gallery, I asked my students to take a few minutes to think about what was similar and what was different about the drawings that they had produced. My students commented that they all looked slightly different, but that most of them were in a lab working with “potions” and that they were doing science inside. Once students discussed their observations, I had them brainstorm and contribute to a T-chart about who scientists are and what they do.

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Our scientist T-chart.

I used their comments as an opportunity to introduce the word and concept of a “stereotype.” Prior to this lesson, I expected us to debunk the stereotypes that scientists are mostly men and that scientists all work in a lab. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the majority of the girls in the class actually drew female scientists! (Apparently this stereotype either hadn’t trickled down to them just yet or — just maybe — they won’t fall prey to it. I’m curious to ask them about math now…) After we briefly covered the concept of a stereotype (this was just an initial exposure to a concept that we’ll return to again and again this year), I had students brainstorm other places where scientists might work and what materials they might work with other than “potions.”

This lesson provided a segway into one of my favorite biographies Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell. This particular text highlights several of the key themes of my biography unit — all famous people were once children not unlike my students and that childhood dreams and habits can shape who we become.

More About My Biography Unit:
As I mentioned earlier, my first thematic unit of study has been about biographies. The emphasis in this unit has been on students feeling inspired by remarkable individuals; realizing that they, too, can become someone important; and getting to know one another. I’ve also woven in math and history topics related to schedules, telling time, and dates in history.

We began our unit with a KWL chart – my second graders came up with some great questions about biographies.

biowanttoknowI used the questions that the students brainstormed to shape the discussions that we had during subsequent read-alouds and guided reading sessions. We have had some quality discussions about the types of illustrations included in biographies and the methods biographers use to conduct research about their subjects.

I’ve been really pleased with how interested the students are in biographies and autobiographies — it’s been a really accessible jumping-off point for introducing students to some of the key features of nonfiction texts. My students have made extensive use of timelines (including adding key dates to our classroom timeline from their own lives), glossaries, and author’s notes.

Here’s a list of some of the texts we’ve explored during the unit:

We’re wrapping up our unit this week with the students completing and sharing their own autobiographies, revisiting and answering some of our initial questions about autobiographies, and thinking about things they might do to bring their own passions and goals to fruition.

This unit has been a great way to get our year rolling because it’s given me ample opportunity to expose students to some of the issues that we will be exploring throughout the year, including race, heritage/ethnicity, gender, and social justice and diversity more broadly. It’s also given me a chance to start pushing them to think beyond their small rural community — and its largely homogenous population — to the broader world in which they will one day be (and already are) citizens.

From Teacher to Facilitator

With my first full week of teaching under my belt, I am still really pleased with how things have been going. We’ve been able to dive into some of the curriculum (which I promise to write about next week…) and the kids have eagerly seized onto the topics of biographies, nouns, and telling time.

Though they are only seven or eight-years old, I am eager to have them become responsible, self-directed learners during the course of the year. This week, I’ve started putting some steps in place to facilitate this process, some of which have been more successful than others.

  • Calendar Time: After modeling calendar time last week, I handed the duties over to the students. Now I stay in my chair and wait for them to direct each other about what to do. I have index cards on the board that say the six current components of our calendar time (the date, days in school on the place value chart, days in my school on money, name that number, math concept of the month, and spelling word of the day.) Under each index card I write a student’s name, and the names rotate one spot to the left each day, so students get a chance to do each task. The students have really loved the opportunity to be in charge of this activity — I have found they are much more engaged on what could be a very repetitive or even boring routine.
  • Center Time: I have been getting the students initiated into how centers will work in our classroom. I have a pocket chart at the front of my room that has the names of five different centers (What?, Why?, How?, Where?, and Who? — which align with the table signs that I have hanging in various places in my classroom). Over the past week, the number of students saying, “Where do I go?” and “What do I do?” has significantly decreased. I am hoping next month to move into centers where students will get to choose from a plethora of activities what they would like to do — it seems like they are almost ready for that, which I am really excited about.
  • Homework Messages: One effort that fell flat on its face was my experiment in having my students deliver messages about homework. My students get a large homework assignment each Monday that they have until the following Monday to complete, which I send home a thorough description about because my expectation is that the parents and students work together. However, in the middle of the week, I also send home their unfinished Mad Minutes with the expectation that they complete them for extra math practice. I have told the students about the Mad Minutes EVERY day after school for seven of our nine days. I sent home missing homework slips in folders yesterday and I got SIX emails and notes from concerned parents (out of 14 students!) who said their student had “no idea” about the Mad Minutes homework. I guess they aren’t quite ready for that yet!
  • Classroom Chat Monitor: My most clever (and most successful) initiative thus far has been the classroom chat monitor. Last Friday and this Monday, my students were exceptionally chatty in class. On Monday night, I was reeling about what I was going to do. Since I try to avoid punishment and good-behavior-linked rewards at all costs (another topic which I should write a post about), I was in need of a solution that wouldn’t simply be a bribe or a “do this and you’ll get that” scenario. So, I did two things. First, without explanation, I put in a chunk of free time (15 minutes) during the afternoon to give them an opportunity where they are allowed to chat as much as they want. (The results have been amazing so far — you wouldn’t believe the academic tasks students work on during this time!) Additionally, I instituted the position of “Classroom Chat Monitor.” This student observes and listens to class throughout the day and then issues a report at the end of the day where the class receives a thumbs-up, thumbs-to-the-side, or thumbs-down for their chattiness for the day. The Chat Monitor also makes recommendations about a way we might improve our chatty tendencies. The students are all clamoring for it to be their turn to be the chat monitor and I’ve noticed a significant improvement since the position was put in place. I think it really helps them to hear the “You’re way too loud”-related comments from a peer and not just from me.

So, things have been going fairly well as I try to slowly take the training wheels off. We still have a long way to go until my students will be able to tackle some of the curriculum that I have planned for them this year, but I like where we are going so far.

What do you do to try to be a facilitator of learning rather than a hegemonic teacher? I’d love to hear anything that has proven successful (or unsuccessful) in your own classroom!