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?

A Happening Halloween

Halloween in my classroom was a great success! On Wednesday afternoon, I made a very big deal about how my students would get to indulge in the bucket of candy on my desk during our Halloween festivities. Then, on Wednesday, I told my students after our morning meeting that they certainly deserved some chocolate to get us through the morning. I brought the bucket over to the rug and put it down on the floor. Hands instantly shot inside, but they soon realized that the candy had vanished!

And so began our spooky Halloween mystery. I gave each one of my students a logic puzzle grid that had four suspects and four different candies. My students’ mission was to find out which suspect liked which candy, since the person whose favorite candy was Hershey Kisses had surely stolen our stash. To earn their clues, my students completed different Halloween tasks — pumpkin math activities, graphing using coordinates to reveal a picture, decoding a Halloween riddle, and writing about how to carve the greatest Jack-O-Lantern ever. After completing each task, my students got a new clue, which required them to use their reasoning skills to eliminate person-candy combinations. They were so surprised when they learned that our class secretary had taken our candy! I was really pleased with how enthralled my students were in the task (they grilled my principal on his motives out at recess) and the quality of the work that they put in on the Halloween tasks. I know how exciting Halloween can be for 2nd graders, so it was nice to be able to channel that excitement into some meaningful and fun learning.

What did you do in your classroom for Halloween? Have you ever had any classroom nightmares on that day?

(I left my materials from our field trip to Mexico at school on Friday, so I will have to write about my field trips in my next entry. I hope the wait will be worth it!)

Bridging the Gap Between Home and School: Designing a Literacy Intervention

I am really passionate about and interested in home-school relationships. So far in my classroom, I’ve been doing everything that I can think of to get information out to my students’ parents about what we’re doing in class and how they can help out at home. All of my weekly homework assignments require the involvement of a parent to help to build in opportunities for my students and their parents to grapple with academic material at home. I also send home a bi-weekly newsletter and maintain a parent website: https://sites.google.com/site/newsfrommisshewes/.

Yet, despite all of this, I still have students who are struggling to show their understanding of the material they are supposed to be covering at home. We had our first spelling test on Thursday, and even though my students had a month to practice their words at home with their parents (and I sent home reminders), I had over the half of my students spell more than half of the words incorrectly. (The words were taken from the second-grade list, so they were not extraordinarily difficult.)

Late this week and throughout this weekend, I’ve been thinking about what the disconnect might be between the parents saying that they are working hard with their students and the lackluster performance of their students. It occurred to me that just as we don’t hold our students accountable for content that we haven’t taught them, we also should not hold parents accountable for teaching their students things if they have never been instructed on how to effectively work on academic material at home.

To this end, I’ve spent the last few days working on a home literacy packet that I’ll be sending home with each of my students on Monday. I also plan to try to disseminate this information and model these practices with my parents in a workshop format, for those who want to attend. My packet is titled, “A Menu for a Healthy Home-Reading Diet” and emphasizes that just as a healthy diet requires eating from a variety of different food groups, becoming a healthy reader requires having many different experiences with texts.

Here’s a glimpse at what the menu looks like:

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I sent home a notice last week that informed my parents how their student had done on our benchmark assessments and included items that gauged their interest in learning more about how to support their child’s literacy development at home. Unfortunately (but predictably), the greatest interest so far has been shown by the parents of the students that are already thriving in terms of literacy. I’m hoping to reach the parents of the struggling readers with my packet — I hope that it will prove successful!

What strategies do you use for engaging your more reluctant parents? I’d love to hear suggestions and comments!

P.S. If you are interested, my complete literacy packet is available for download on Teacherspayteachers. I am just getting started on this site, but I appreciate the way that it opens the doors of different classrooms and helps to break down teacher isolation and celebrates the great work that teachers are doing every day!

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!