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.

Back to the Classroom and an End-of-Summer Trip

After exactly two months out of my classroom, I spent two marathon days in my room at the beginning of the week. It was a little odd to be back after so long away, but I have quickly found my way back into “school mode.” The past two days have been full of sifting through all of the papers that I held onto during the year, organizing materials, and shifting furniture. I will post some pictures of my new classroom layout at some point next week. I am already being much more intentional about making sure that my classroom arrangement and design lines up more smoothly with my personal theory of learning — I’ve put almost nothing on the walls to ensure that the students have plenty of room to display their creations and I’m situating their seating arrangements far differently than I did last year. I am hoping that it will be a learning environment that will grow with us during the year, rather than confining us and our thinking.

We had a school staff meeting on Monday, so I was also able to get all of the scheduling information that I needed to plan my schedule for the year. I’m going to be trying out a few new things in terms of shaping the learning time, including an “Independent Learning Time” in the afternoons, where students will be able to work on any project of their choosing or continue to work on other things that they may have started earlier. I’m also going to be making sure that I do one Spanish lesson a week with my students — my school doesn’t offer foreign language, so I’ve been studying up so that I can teach them myself!

My weekly schedule breakdown looks like this (at the moment, anyway). We actually have a pretty long school day, but I’m already feeling really worried that I won’t have nearly enough time to fit everything in — my units tend to be long, interdisciplinary, and quite involved… We’ll see how it goes!

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I start my official staff requirements at school next week. As a final summer hurrah, I am heading on a trip to Canada this weekend. I haven’t been since I was really young (and have no recollections whatsoever about the trip), so it will be exploring somewhere new for the first time, which I love. I’m going to be visiting Quebec City and Montreal. It should be a great way to wrap up the summer!

The End of One Adventure…The Start of Another

Well, it’s official — I’ve survived my first year as a classroom teacher. And, boy, did I have a lot of reasons to be glad that the year was finally coming to an end. This year has truly been a “trial by fire” and I’ve been assured numerous times that the class and chaos that I inherited this year was incredibly abnormal.

Yet, despite everything, I was still really struck yesterday by the fact that the year was truly coming to an end. It really upset me that all of my students wouldn’t be there for our last moments together today. Before yesterday, I had sort of shoved our farewells out of mind, assuring myself that I would see them all in the fall as they move onto third grade, but then I realized that it really will never be the same, that I’ll never say, “Okay, Curious Questioners…” and have it be this group of students who responds. As they were leaving today, I felt like I still had so much to say to them, so much more to teach them. But alas, we’ve really reached the end.

And I really don’t have much time to process those departures, because tomorrow I am driving directly from my staff in-service day to my summer position at Upward Bound. Upward Bound is a program for high school students who are either low-income or will be the first in their family to attend college (or both). I’m going to be teaching junior English and I am feeling invigorated by the challenge of transitioning from teaching fourteen 8-year-olds to teaching four sections of eight 14-year-olds. My course is framed around the book “Feed” by M.T. Anderson. Here’s a look at the questions that we’ll be exploring during our six weeks together.

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In addition to teaching, I’ll also be working closely with an advisory group and living in a dorm with the students. I’m really excited to get to have a teaching experience that will feel refreshing and and be rejuvenating (at least I hope so!) I asked my second graders for advice on working with high schoolers and they recommended “giving more homework” and “teaching them division.”

So, for the next few weeks, my posts will revolve around my experiences jumping into this very different teaching situation. Who needs summer vacation?

Wrapping Up the Year

Somehow, it’s really coming — the end of the school year, that once seemed so far away, is now approaching at a blistering speed. We have only seven days left at my school — but one of them is our field day and another is just a half day. So, we’re really down to the wire. I’ve been trying to think about how I can bring closure to what has been an up-and-down year — but I’m already recognizing that things probably won’t tie together with the neat bow that I would choose if I had it my way.

Here’s what I’ve got planned for wrapping things up:

  • Books You Can’t Leave Second Grade Without Knowing About!: I started this activity this past Monday, and my students are loving it. I am a children’s literature enthusiast, and I found myself getting very frustrated that I couldn’t make certain outstanding books “fit” with what we were studying throughout the year. So, I’ve started a countdown of the best 10 books that we haven’t read this year. Each day, I read a new one to my students — their attention and conversations following the stories have been impressive and quite sophisticated. They especially enjoyed “Wilma Unlimited,” which I read earlier this week.
  • Portfolio Browsing: Next week, my students will review all of the work that they’ve put into their portfolios this year. They will choose three pieces that reflect “best effort work” and will justify their selections. I am eager to see what they choose and how they will reflect upon and describe their hard work.
  • Letters to Next Year’s Students: I don’t know where I first came across this idea, but I think it’s a nice way to recognize successful completion of the year and to “pass the torch” of their acquired expertise to the students who will follow them. I am very excited to see what my students choose to include as advice for next year’s students!
  • Choosing Adjectives: To make sure that all feedback on their performance this year isn’t coming from me, I am going to have my students work together as a class to choose a positive adjective that describes each of their peers. I expect that seeing all the ways in which their peers see them will have a big impact on my students. Too often, kids, like adults, often focus on the negative, so it is my hope that this activity will leave them thinking positive thoughts about each other.
  • Blog Review and Slideshow: I am so happy that I had my students keep a blog this year. It was a great opportunity for them to have authentic writing experiences and to engage with a real-world audience. Additionally, it will serve as a kind of scrapbook of our year. We’ll be able to look through all of our old entries, look at our photos, and watch the videos to relive the school year. I think it will be wonderful!
  • Curious Questioner Certificates: On our last half day, each student will receive a certificate. I have worked very hard to choose accolades that aren’t specifically tied to academics, but rather to positive qualities that each student exhibited during the year. This way, hopefully students will really take home the message that character is just as — if not more — important than academic ability.
  • Special Books: As their sendoff into summer and end-of-year gifts, each student will get a book from me — carefully chosen to reflect his or her interests. I hope that these will be “special books” that my students will keep on their shelves long after second grade.

It is so odd to think about wrapping up the year. I know that no matter how much more time we had together, I would still have this feeling on seeing them leave that “there is so much more that I want to say to you.” I can already tell that I do not like the end of the school year!

What do you do to make the end of the year special for your students? Do you have any year-end traditions?

Place-Based Education

Despite the busy-ness that comes with the end of the school year, I have still been working my way through my reading list. I haven’t given much though to the order in which I read the books, but the pairing of the last two that I read was just perfect.

I had read Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch earlier in the year and recently read her very famous and influential work — The Death and of the American School System. This book details the many problematic components of school reform in the United States, including standardized testing, an increased emphasis on accountability, vouchers and school choice, and the influence of wealthy private sector managers into schools. As we discussed in my teacher leadership course last year, Ravitch also bravely details how she was seduced by some of the components of school reform — which do sound promising in theory — and what caused her to change her mind. I really appreciated reading a book on education written by someone who could admit to being human and to having opinions that change over time in response to evidence and contemporary situations.

I sometimes find that reading about the current state of school reform in the United States makes it feel like resisting and fighting back is becoming more challenging by the day, as policies become more entrenched and accepted as “the way things have to be.” So, it was wonderfully refreshing that I followed up Life and Death with Place-Based Education by David Sobel. This brief book got me so excited because I could feel the lightbulbs going off in my head on each page. I had heard a little about place-based education before, but reading more about the approach whetted my appetite to learn much more and to think about how I could apply place-based education in my own classroom. Essentially, place-based education is about providing students with meaningful, authentic activities that help them actively practice being citizens. The projects usually have an environmental emphasis that helps students consider how the place where they live shapes them and to cultivate a sense of responsibility for caring about the place in which they live.

It was really the emphasis on citizenship that made so much sense to me — I have been trying so hard to cultivate a sense of good citizenship in my students this year, but it really can’t be something that they just passively absorb from a few read-alouds and discussions. Just like any other subject, if we want students to acquire a skill, we need to teach it and give them authentic opportunities to practice that skill.

The book discusses a “pedagogy of place” where there is a “necessary interpenetration of school, community, and environment.” I find this concept so beautiful and so directly in contrast to the school-reform approaches currently proliferating in the US. Those who read my blog regularly know that I am also deeply interested in community engagement, which is an essential component of the place-based approach.

Needless to say, I will be learning more (and probably writing more) about this approach in the future. It gave me hope after reading about the failure of many school reform tactics. As I was reading about place-based education, I kept thinking, “This is how education ought to be.”

Curriculum and Student Choice

One of my biggest goals for my classroom has been to involve my students in as much of what goes on in our classroom as possible. As I’ve been getting my bearings this year, it has become obvious how much easier it is to not let students have a lot of voice in determining what goes on in our classroom. It’s much simpler if I just decide what we’re going to do and what it’s going to look like — and some days, it’s a real struggle to keep seeking their input.

But, their input has been so rich — once they got over the shock of being asked to provide it, that is. My students have had a direct say in some changes that I’ve made to our daily routines and I’ve noticed their buy-in has increased because of it. I’ve also worked on trying to give them more choice in how they demonstrate their understanding, what components ought to be included in their final products, and what activities they want to work on while we do centers. Of course, it hasn’t gone perfectly and I still feel there are some areas where I don’t know how to incorporate greater student choice. (My current area of focus is spelling — I want to enhance student choice but without the logistical nightmare of having 15 students all choosing entirely different words to learn. My best idea is to have the students brainstorm words they’d like to learn and then using those. If you have any ideas, let me know!)

Anyway, two weeks ago, I took the biggest — and riskiest — step yet in incorporating student choice in our classroom. After looking over the curriculum topics, I am confident we’ll have covered most of them by May, so I turned over control for deciding what we’ll study in May entirely to my students. I explained this to my students and reveled in the looks on their faces as their notions of teacher as curriculum-chooser shattered in an instant. I wrote on a piece of chart paper “Our Unit Ideas” and then left the paper easily accessible on our easel for two weeks.

My first observation upon doing this was amazement at the ideas that my students had for units. There were no inappropriate or silly ideas from my second graders — in fact, many of their topics were so academic (states, the presidents, other languages), that I was quite taken aback at their seriousness. You can see all of their ideas below:

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After the brainstorming period ended, I drew up ballots where students each voted for their top three unit choices. There was a tie between human body and volcanoes. Interestingly, when I offered students the option to do mini-units on both, they were opposed to the idea. In our revote, volcanoes came out on top. (Luckily for me — I took a course entirely on volcanoes while I was in college, so things couldn’t have worked out better!)

The next steps in this process are for me to discuss some of the details of the unit with my second graders. I want to find out what kind of project or product they might want to create at the end of the unit and what information they want to learn about volcanoes. Working with the students on this has been so invigorating — and I am hopeful that it will lead to greatly increased student motivation when the volcanoes unit does roll around. I really cannot wait!

What do you do to incorporate student choice in your classrooms? I’d love to hear any ideas floating around out there!

Thinking Beyond My Classroom in the New Year

Throughout the break, I’ve been seizing the opportunity to think about things other than my classroom and my students. This winter break is the longest amount of time that I’ve had away from school since the year began, and I’ve been surprised by how much I don’t miss it.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy working with my students, but, overall, I don’t think that I’ve felt as fulfilled by teaching as I thought that I would. I feel as though I’m doing a good thing, that I’m pushing back against the things imposed upon me to which I simply cannot blindly subscribe, and that my students are having a very different educational experience than they have in the past and than they may have in the future (though I hope I am wrong about that prediction.) I am by no means an outstanding teacher, yet, but I do feel as though what my students are getting in my classroom is meaningful for them as people, not just as students.

So, I am left with the nagging feeling that I’ve felt for some time now — that teaching alone does not seem to be enough for me. This is very difficult for me to come to terms with, as throughout my education, I have fought against those who told me that I ought to do something “more” than be a teacher. I believed that teaching would be enough. But, now I am thinking, that maybe in its current form, the structure of the role of a teacher is at best frustrating, and at worst, debilitating, to aspirations that teachers have beyond their classrooms. I watch the other teachers at my school pour their hearts into their classrooms, spending many, many hours creating lessons and activities. But, I do think that the need or desire to devote so much time to one classroom comes at the cost of shrinking the opportunities and time that teachers have to think about the broader picture of education and what they might be able to contribute to it. Thus, the relative absence of current teacher voices in educational academia.

So, as I prepare to dive back into teaching in the New Year, it is with the resolve to not only continue to provide my students with interesting and meaningful educational experiences, but to cling tightly and even increase, my grip on the wider world of education.

These are my ideas for doing that, so far.

  1. Write about my teaching and practice not only here, but in places where teachers’ voices ought to be heard.
  2. Read, read, read. I plan to do a better job keeping up with the latest research in scholarly education publications and to read the many, many education books I’ve collected and lacked the time to read this year.
  3. I’ll also be taking on a second blogging project, with one of my professors from graduate school. I’ll be blogging about using children’s trade books in the classroom. (I’ll post a link when the website gets up and running).
  4. Look for ideas and solutions to my classroom challenges not only from my colleagues, but from the wider world of education.
  5. Continue to listen to the persistent, nagging feeling to determine where I ought to go from here.

Fellow teachers, what do you do to maintain your connection to the world of education beyond your classroom?