Carving Out Time for What Matters

I believe that a classroom schedule reveals what is valued in the classroom. What the schedule looks like is, I believe, highly political, particularly in the era of standardization of curricula. I do recognize that many teachers are seeing increased usurpation of their autonomy in developing their own schedules, which makes carving out time for everything we want to do challenging. But, I also believe that the schedule shapes everything and is where we, as professionals, need to take a stand about what we value to create a flow to the day that aligns with our teaching philosophies and that will help to adequately prepare students for the ever-changing world.

Early this week, I participated in an STEM Education research conference — it was thrilling to be in a setting where everyone was talking about science. I have never had a mandatory professional development session in my district that was about science — it’s completely swept under the rug due to the massive weight of math and literacy. (Disclaimer: I have an M.Ed. in literacy, so I value and love literacy, but have experienced tremendous shifts in my thinking about science and social studies as the subjects for leveraging engagement and providing authentic opportunities for applying literacy skills.)

While at the conference, there was much lamentation about how little time there is for science. The results of a survey of Maine teachers about their science practices indicated that science instruction is minimal in many classrooms. I’m attaching the graphics from the grades 3-5 results here — the K-2 looked very similar, but I didn’t get that handout.

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I left the conference feeling determined to go “all in” on STEM education this year. And the first place to legitimize that focus is in my anticipated classroom schedule. I carved out a big block of time this week to start thinking about what I value and what needs to find its way into our precious classroom time. As you’ll see, I have the blessing (though sometimes a curse) of a 7-hour day with my 2nd graders, so my pool of time to work with is a bit larger than in some other settings.

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The biggest change from this year in my hypothetical schedule is devoting the entire afternoon after our Unified Arts classes to STEM. We’ll spend the early months of the school year doing nature study, which will integrate science and writing. This time will evolve into a more general science period during the colder weather, though I’ve been inspired by Laurie Rubin’s bookTo Look Closely to keep taking my students out periodically in the winter.

The second component of our afternoon will be spent on technology and computer science. If I want to help my young students become digitally literate, I’ve got to walk the walk and give them ample time to learn about technology and to develop their computational thinking skills. I’ll be sharing more about my computer science work (a major summer project for me) in a later post.

Another significant change are the lengthy morning work time blocks, in lieu of traditional reading and math instruction. I had the pleasure of visiting a Montessori school this year and these blocks are my attempt to bring a little bit of Montessori to my public school classroom. I’ll be meeting with small groups and individuals to provide instruction during these times, but, when they aren’t meeting with me, my students will be free to choose their own order for going through the required assignments of the week in math, reading, geography, language, writing, and Spanish. I feel optimistic, but a bit anxious, about these blocks and figuring out to set them effectively is a work in progress that I’ll continue to tinker with until we start school.

The only other large change is a slight shift in our morning and afternoon routines. I have always given my students an “Independent Learning Time” at the end of the day, where they are free to tinker and explore and make autonomous choices about what they’d like to do. After reading The Curious Classroom by Harvey Daniels, the idea of “soft starts” nagged at me for weeks. Soft starts can take many forms, but they are intended to be a way for the students to begin the day with autonomy and have a chance to settle in for the day. I plan to have a host of options for students during this time, ranging from visiting our wonder stations, to board games, to art projects. I know that I do a form of “soft starts” for myself each day — I feel like students would benefit from that same opportunity to settle in.

Because I’m shifting the ILT time equivalent to the morning, I’ve decided to eliminate Closing Circles, which are always hurried at the end of the day, to mindfulness time. I envision this time being an opportunity for students to again make choices, but to choose from a variety of activities with a more reflective, peaceful nature. I’ll play a yoga video each afternoon, but also invite students to draw, write, read, look out the window, or anything else that helps them to feel a moment of peace at the end of a busy day.

While I’m sure elements of my schedule may have to move slightly as I find out concrete times for things like guidance and library, I am committed to retaining the integrity of this schedule. For this first time, my schedule on paper honestly reflects my priorities and goals as an educator and I believe that, with careful work, it will be a positive step towards generating a classroom of truly Curious Questioners.

What does your classroom schedule look like? How do you balance fitting in what you have to with fitting in what you want to include?

Working on Our Play

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We are entering the third week of work on our Dr. Seuss play. I find myself marveling at how slowly the process is going, but also satisfied that we are taking the time to lay a solid foundation of organization and expectations that will hopefully lead to success further down the line.

As you can see from the first picture, the initial step in our play process was making a list of all of the things that we would need to do to successfully put on a play. It was very interesting to observe the steps that my students believed would be necessary; they offered many very detailed ideas that had to do with parts of their costumes, but struggled with conceptualizing the bigger categories of tasks that we would need to accomplish. (No big surprises there, I suppose, as looking at the big picture is often challenging for second graders!)

In addition to making our to-do list, our first week of work also consisted of reading The Lorax many times to familiarize ourselves with the story, discussing how the book is very different from the animated version that came out a few years ago, and generating a list of characters that would need to appear in our play.

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During week two, we looked through various scripts that I found for The Lorax online (I was lucky enough to not have to start from scratch), considered how to adapt the script for our purposes, and applied for roles in the play. The students also started working the music teacher on two musical numbers that we will incorporate into our play, which I am very excited about!

This week, we started by making a set of expectations for play practice and I told the story of how my performances last year were undermined by some goofy behavior from students not involved in the group that was currently on the stage. We also have highlighted our individual speaking parts and stage directions in the scripts. On Thursday, we are going to open discussions about costumes and sets and have our first read-through of the script.

Already, I can see that this experience is going to be very challenging for many of my students. The amount of patience involved in waiting your turn, the degree of teamwork required, and the sheer amount of time it takes to stage a production are not easy things for second graders to handle. I am really looking forward to observing how my students respond to these challenges and (hopefully) watching them grow some essential life skills in the process of putting on our play.

Passion and Risk in the Classroom: Planning a Play

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 1.24.10 PM On Monday, it’s Dr. Seuss’ birthday, which is undoubtedly one of my favorite days of the whole year. I am a Seuss fanatic — a Seuss-ologist, if you will. My independent research project during my senior year of college explored the influence of the language use of Dr. Seuss on students’ comprehension and I am constantly seeking ways to incorporate Seuss-ian texts into my classroom. In fact, the current unit my students and I are working on is about Dr. Seuss, poetry, and is focusing more specifically on The Lorax and environmentalism.

Teachers are often told to “teach what you’re passionate about,” and the beginning of this unit has illuminated the wisdom of that statement. I feel myself being more excited, more enthusiastic, and ultimately, more engaging, when I am talking about Dr. Seuss and his work with my students. They seem eager to listen, to ask questions, and to be around the positive energy that I feel emanating out around me. Right now, I’m not feigning energy and passion, as I sometimes do with other, more mundane topics that are the sort of necessary evils that you have to teach but that are just impossible to get enthralled and swept up by. My excitement is authentic, it’s genuine, and my young students notice.

I’ve also found that it’s considerably easier to be creative and to exercise risk when you have passion for what you’re teaching. One of the major tasks that my students will work on in our Dr. Seuss unit is a theatrical adaptation of The Lorax. Now, last year, when I did my Dr. Seuss unit, my students worked in their guided reading groups to create mini-plays, based on their understanding of The Cat in the Hat, The Butter Battle Book, and Horton Hatches the Egg. This, too, was a risk, but nothing on the scale of what I’m endeavoring to pull off over the next several weeks with my students. I’m not exactly a theater person — I appreciate plays and musicals, but the idea of orchestrating a whole production is definitely something new for me. But, because I’m passionate about the subject matter, I find myself so much more willing to devote the time and effort to taking a creative risk in my teaching.

This has gotten me thinking about what is lost as teachers are increasingly encouraged, in my opinion, to move away from creative approaches in the classroom in favor of increased standardization because of the ever-increasing demands of accountability. Creative enterprises, like my Lorax show, can fit within the standards being delineated by districts and the federal Common Core initiative. But, if teachers aren’t actively encouraged to cultivate their passions and to use the energy they feel about those topics to engage in risk-taking, I feel like we might miss out on the facilitation of  some exceptionally memorable and meaningful educational experiences for their students. I feel fortunate to be in a setting where I can take these creative risks and be supported in doing so, and hope that I will continue to be as long as I stay in the classroom!

So, this week, I’m diving in. My students and I will be working on a script for our play and deciding what characters to include. Their excitement about this project already seems boundless, and I am eager to work with them on a long-term project that will help them develop academic skills, but also, give them a chance to apply so many of the character skills that we’ve been working on cultivating throughout the year. I think it will be valuable for my second graders to work on something that is long-term and hard, that will undoubtedly involve mistakes and maybe crises, and that will push them out of their comfort zones. Stay tuned!

Curious Questioner Character Strengths

After a lot of thinking this week, I’ve finally compiled the nine character traits that I aspire to cultivate in my students. For some of this work, I’ve borrowed heavily from the resources at the Character Lab. Because I love things that come in 3s, I decided to go with three categories of character strengths, each containing three different traits.

I’ve created the overview sheet that you can see below. I see myself using this as both a poster in my classroom and then also having students keep individual copies somewhere visible, where they will encounter it frequently. I think this will be a particularly valuable tool if I do wind up teaching slightly older kiddos next year.

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After devising the overview sheet, I also developed a more detailed version that describes how I’m defining each of the nine character strengths.

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While it might be a little late to be starting this work for this year’s class, I am going to work on starting to use the language I’ve defined here when I talk about character with my students, which will allow me to build the “muscle memory” I need to use this common language and to help my students start connecting their actions to specific traits.

I introduced the word “grit” to my second graders this week and they are so excited about trying to practice it. They even asked if we could have a way to visually track the grit that we are showing in our classroom. Work relating to character seems to really pique students’ interests, because it can be so obviously connected to their real lives. As long as the instruction is not overly didactic, I think these types of lessons can be highly motivating for students. I’m excited to see how my students progress in terms of perseverance over the next few weeks, as we continue to talk about and identify grit.

My next steps in this project are to start developing lessons and activities that I can use to get students thinking and talking about these traits. While almost all lessons leave room for character objectives, I think it is really important to talk about character explicitly and on its own and not always have it implicitly embedded into something else.

I’m already starting to collect some resources that I can use for these lessons. One really fascinating piece that I heard on NPR this week connects directly to grit: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/15/377526987/yosemite-dawn-wall-climbers-reach-the-top-after-19-days This piece discussed the arduous journey of free-climbers struggling to ascend El Capitan in Yosimite National Park. I think that students would find this piece fascinating, cool, and see the direct connections to grit and perseverance.

I’ve also been poring over Peanuts cartoons, because I think that they get at some really interesting things related to character, but in a humorous, lovable tone.

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I’m excited to start making good on my commitment to elevate character skills to the same level of importance as academic skills!

Draw a Scientist 2014

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One of the primary  goals that I have for my second graders in rural Maine is to become more aware of the world around them. As someone who is interested in social justice, I also aspire to have them recognize injustices and to envision a different world than the one that we currently inhabit.

I try to educate my second graders about stereotypes throughout the duration of the school year. The first lesson that I do on this topic coincides with our study of science beginning in earnest. Prior to beginning our first science project, I ask my students to pause and to picture what they think a scientist looks like and does in their heads. I then ask them to draw that image and collect and display their images in a “scientist gallery” for everyone to see.

Once the images are hanging, we have a discussion about what we notice about our images — how they are similar to and how they might be different from one another. This leads into a discussion about how the stereotyped image of a scientist — of a crazy-haired, older male chemist is, in fact, just one narrow version of what scientists actually do.

This is the second time that I’ve done this lesson and I was pleased when I saw that this year’s bunch had much less stereotyped versions of scientists, at least around gender. In a class with more boys than girls, there were 7 pictures featuring female scientists and 7 pictures with male scientists. This was significantly different than last year, when only my drawing and two others featured females, even in a class heavily dominated by girls.

In terms of what the scientists were doing, however, “potions” continues to rule the day. My students had 9 scientists using potions and 6 doing “something else,” with some of those something elses being awfully close to the lab scientist image. Hopefully we will expand on these notions of “what scientists do” by the end of the year.

I follow up this activity by reading aloud “Me…Jane” by Patrick McDonnell. The students are always captivated by this charming text and it really helps to affirm that stereotypes are narrow and often limit our thinking about what the possibilities are for ourselves and those around us.