My kids, probably like all students, have times when transitions are smooth, simple, and stress-free and times when transitions can be slippery and stressful. This year, my students had been struggling with the transition back to the classroom after their time at “specials” — PE, art, music, etc. When my students return to the classroom after their specials, we still have almost two hours of learning time. But, day after day, regardless of the transition strategies I was trying, we were losing time getting back into learning activities. Not only that, but their focus flagged for the remainder of the afternoon, leading to a lot of (unnecessary) redirection and frustration on my part.
With spring finally beginning to show itself here in New England, I decided to try a new strategy for navigating this difficult time of the day for my students. I’ve long wanted to incorporate more physical activity in my day, but struggled to find times to fit it in without carving into time I hold sacred for other activities. Thus, a time when we were losing time anyway became a logical place to try out a few minutes of physical activity.
So, for the past two weeks, I’ve been experimenting with having my students return to the room after specials and quickly collect their coats. Once everyone is dressed, I’ve been taking my students on 5-12 minute walks around the schoolyard and parking lot (and, around the school building itself during subzero March weather and inclement weather…).
The changes in my students at this time have been remarkable. Now they rush eagerly back to the classroom, rather than dragging their feet down the hall. They also challenge each other to get ready as quickly as possible, as they know that maximizes the time that we have for our walks. Once we get outside, their joy is palpable — they can be noisy and move their bodies freely, they can chat with a neighbor and splash in a puddle. While our walks have been limited thus far to blacktop due to especially soggy conditions as the snow finally begins to recede, as things dry up, I’m looking forward to being able to bring them onto the wooded trails behind our school, exposing them to incidental learning along the way.
The best part is, that after just this short amount of time, my students are more settled, happy, and respectful for the remainder of the afternoon. It’s hard not to be in a better mood after getting to take in some fresh air and sunshine outside — I’m sure its positive influence on me is another reason these walks have been so successful. Needless to say, we have significantly increased our productivity in those final two hours — no pulling teeth required.
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.
After devising the overview sheet, I also developed a more detailed version that describes how I’m defining each of the nine character strengths.
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.
I’m excited to start making good on my commitment to elevate character skills to the same level of importance as academic skills!
I can hardly believe that 2014 is coming to an end. It’s been a good year for me, particularly professionally, as I completed my first year of teaching and dove into a second with much greater confidence. I’m hard at work now thinking about what my aspirations for 2015 might be. It is definitely going to be a year with a lot of changes for me, personally and professionally, and it is difficult to envision what the year might hold in store due to the uncertainty surrounding those changes.
But, for now, I’m content to merely reflect on the last year. When 2014 began, I compiled a reading list that I hoped to tackle during the year and, for several months at least, wrote about the books that I had read here on this blog. My intent in reading these books was to try to maintain a connection to the broader world of education beyond my school and classroom and to become more informed, inspired, and more critical in my practice. While I fell off the bandwagon in terms of providing updates about these books, I did read all of the books on my list, except for one. In so doing, I definitely achieved my goal of becoming more informed about the world of education and keeping my finger on the pulse of what is happening in the field. Additionally, a number of these books inspired me with a profound vision of the classroom that I want to continue to work towards this year — a classroom with meaningful, relevant curriculum that helps my students become savvy and considerate citizens.
I’m copying my reading list here and am annotating it for anyone who might be interested in reading one of these books!
Gender and Sexuality:
The Second Sex – Simone de Beauvoir (Not explicitly about education, but I found this book to be such a powerful mediation on what it means to be female. Fortunately, some of the conditions de Beauvoir reports have been improved, but so much of what she said seemed relevant today, decades after the publication of this seminal work.)
Literature as Exploration – Louise Rosenblatt (An excellent read for English nerds — an apt summary of the work Rosenblatt did in advancing her transactional view of reading; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/502/)
The Experience of Reading – John Clifford (A collection of responses to Rosenblatt’s work; see same link as above.)
Mosiac of Thought – Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman: (A practical text advocating for the teaching of reading comprehension strategies as a means for attaining higher-level thinking; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/)
Readicide – Kelly Gallagher:(A brief but powerful text advocating for a return to reading for pleasure, for the use of powerful and relevant texts, and a turn away from the skill-and-drill reading associated with standardized tests.)
Teach Like a Champion – Doug Lemov (Going to try to read this later — when I am in a mindset to reflect on my practice as a whole. I’ve also heard mixed things about this volume recently…)
Make Just One Change: Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions – Dan Rothstein (A highly readable text that shows you how to encourage higher-order thinking by having students create their own questions, rather than respond to the ones that we develop for them; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/07/25/reading-update-2/)
Invent to Learn – Sylvia Martinez (A down and dirty guide to the “Maker” movement, which encourages students to tinker and create as a significant piece of the learning process; this book captures and projects a vision for what I think is the greatest potential for using technology in the classroom.)
Place-Based Education – David Sobel(A brief but lovely book that outlines an ecological, relevant, and community-centered approach to education. This book stuck with me all year and inspired a year-long, nature-based, writing project that we are working on in my classroom; more here: https://cultivatingquestioners.com/2014/05/11/place-based-education/)
Real Talk for Real Teachers – Rafe Esquith (Rafe Esquith is one of my heroes — hearing him say that he has bad days in the classroom was incredibly grounding for me. This book has tips for everyone, from novice educators to seasoned veterans.)
The Flat World and Education – Linda Darling-Hammond(My first encounter with Darling-Hammond; this book is an examination of the how the achievement gap and inequities play out across the many different domains of education — student outcomes, teacher preparation, school resources, etc.)
Inequality, Diversity, and Multiculturalism:
Teaching Toward Freedom – Bill Ayers(This book profoundly inspired me and pushed me to return to the essential questions about why I teach. Highly recommended and a quick read!)
Rethinking Multicultural Education – Wayne Au (Rethinking Schools) (I love anything Rethinking Schools offers. This book did not disappoint — it was full of articles and ideas for incorporating multiculturalism into the classroom.)
The Skin That We Speak – Lisa Delpitt (An edited volume examining language politics, practices, and identity. Essential reading for those interested in literacy and social justice; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/509/)
Multiplication is For White People – Lisa Delpitt (An excellent work from Delpitt, advocating for high expectations for all and proffering ideas about how to prevent an “opportunity gap from becoming an achievement gap.”)
The Price of Inequality – Joseph Stiglitz (An economics text that may not be the faint of heart; for those seeking sobering information about the wealth gap in the US, this book will lay it for you very clearly; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/647/)
There Are No Children Here – Alex Kotlowitz(Recommended reading for all human beings — Kotlowitz brings a Chicago project to life in vivid detail; more here: https://wordpress.com/post/53713735/659/)
What books did you read in 2014 that are worth sharing? I’d love to hear about them!
I recently attended an in-service day for all teachers and staff in my district. These in-service days are always fascinating opportunities to get a sense of the pulse and tenor of the whole district. This year, we have used a workshop-type approach, which has provided us with a far greater diversity of offerings, but also a wide range in terms of quality of offerings. (Isn’t this is always the case, though?)
During this particular in-service day, I was reminded once again about the huge gaps that exist between the research being done by academics in the field of education and those educators who are working with kids day in and day out.
It was a session that was introducing a new book study that some staff in the district will be undertaking that my activated my concerns about this well-known and huge chasm between the academy and schools. The subject of this book study is going to be poverty — which is a noble and worth topic to pursue, particularly given the daily realities that exist in the communities that my school district serves.
The book that we will be reading is one that seems to be highly regarded among practitioners, but which I have heard extensive concerns about from two different professors during my time in graduate school. (I guess it wouldn’t hurt to reveal the title of this book — it’s Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind.) The basis of the criticism that I heard from these professors, one of whom is a neuroscientist, was that the claims made in the book about brain research are taken a bit too far in terms of their implications for practice. Essentially, the book cites numerous studies about the brain — it is, in fact, very well-researched. However, these professors raised concerns because one, it seems like some of the research is stretched in a correlation must mean causation way, and two, because the work revolves around a deficit-based approach to poverty — where these students must be “fixed” due to deficiencies that they possess. Moreover, in a video that we watched about the book, results were promised in “weeks, not months or years.” Such claims to rapid change always raise a red flag for me.
I’ll leave the discussion of the actual book here, because I am not an expert on the subject matter and haven’t read the book myself for a few years and extolling the virtues or shortcomings of this book is not what I want to get at in this post. Rather, I want to discuss how slim the offerings can be for educator-friendly resources that bridge the gap between research studies and classroom practice.
One clear place that could serve as a resource for teachers are academic research journals. While there are a plethora of education journals filled with valuable research, the articles published in these journals rarely make it into the hands of teachers. Access to these journals can be expensive and the language and style of academic articles can make reading them quite uninteresting. What there is a strong need for is people who take the findings of these tremendously useful and interesting research studies and translate them into more succinct and clear bulletins that would be digestible for busy practitioners.
There are authors who do nobly attempt to bridge this gap between the ivory tower and the schoolhouse, but too often, claims are made that something is “research-based” that are really based on stretching the research in a direction that the authors of the study may or may not have intended. And the reason why is clear — what use is the research if we can’t make use of it in some way?
Yet, I believe there needs to be more of an effort to put conflicting views and studies in dialogue with one another. Too rarely, authors of books ignore or only briefly mention conflicting findings or views that run counter to the one being pitched and presented. This becomes a problem when there are only so many books that attempt to translate research into practice for teachers — these books are skewed and then teachers, with a limited time for reading, do not encounter the whole range of thoughts, opinions, and research on a topic. (This is obviously not just a problem in education!)
Of course, some of the problem also lies with teachers and the education profession in general. Book studies like those done in my district are rare, I think, and in them, teachers are often encouraged to take these books as “the word,” to trust the authors as “experts,” and to assume that what these books say could and/or would work in their classrooms. Additionally, as mentioned before, access to the high-quality research coming from academics is too challenging to obtain and because of its abstract style may seem to be not for teachers. Moreover, because teachers are not often treated as professionals, they are often forced to read certain books, rather than encouraged to choose their own or to seek out books that stand in opposition to one another.
In sum, I think there is a great need for more efforts to bridge that huge gap between the work of the academics and the classroom practice of teachers. Teacher-researchers could be a powerful resource in this area, in addition to those people endowed with the access to academic publications and the ability to skillfully present these findings in an objective, fair, and reasonable way that does more than offer the “latest research-based” panacea to teacher’s problems. In a field where it seems like you can find a research study to back up almost any claim you want to make, it is essential that practitioners have access to as many views as possible and are given opportunities to draw their own conclusions and make their own connections between research and their practice.
The holiday season is officially upon us. And, at our school, this tends to mean that our student population is fluctuating as winter arrives and families struggle even more to make ends meet. I got my first new student last year at this time and, like clockwork, a new student arrived in my room just a few days before the Thanksgiving break. I continue to see new faces in the cafeteria and others that I recognize are here one day and gone the next.
The arrival of my new student coincides with the first time this year that I have to send out student report cards. And, as I look over their performance in the first half of the year, the pattern is pretty predictable: the students who are advanced are generally those who come from supportive, better-off families, and those who are struggling come from less-supported, more financially-unstable households.This is not to say that I’m not working with all of my students. I am, of course, and all of my students seem to making positive forward progress.
However, as a teacher, I’m told by the media and pundits that this “achievement gap” can and must be closed. The rhetoric about “equal opportunity” and examples of charter and other types of schools that are educating all students suggests that schools and educators ought to be able to “fix” poverty and the difficulties and instabilities that it brings for students.A new book on the subject seems to come out every year, each operating from a deficit-perspective that focuses on solving the problems that students bring to school and making up for their deficiencies. This climate puts exceptional pressure on teachers, who have to deal with the daily realities from which those who espouse policy and these lofty goals are often so far removed.
I’d challenge anyone who thinks that schools alone can fix poverty to spend a day in any classroom in a public school. These days, I’m not sure it even matters whether that school is in a rural, urban, or suburban area — the suburbs are actually where some statistics suggest that poverty is growing most rapidly. Take my student, for example, she has been in three different schools this year — less than a month at each of the first two. Essentially, she has missed all of the first part of second grade. While I am sure that she will be able to make progress, it is highly unlikely that, despite my best efforts, she will be able to finish the year on par with the students who received a full year of uninterrupted instruction.
By saying this, I’m not trying to do what some policymakers accuse teachers of doing — making excuses to justify their own incompetence in providing instruction. And I’m certainly not saying that I’m throwing in the towel on my students who come from difficult circumstances. I strongly believe that all children can learn, and that doesn’t change if I assert that other factors than mental hardware alone influence educational outcomes. Nor am I blaming my students’ families. Having met all of them, I can attest that the vast majority are hard-working parents who are dedicated to their children. In many cases, they themselves have suffered at the hands of the education system, stymieing their options for making a sustainable living.
What I am saying is that it seems, (to me, at least), like schools will never be able to solve the “poverty problem” (as many pundits call it) alone. I can be providing the best instruction in the entire country (and I’m not, by the way), but it doesn’t matter if my students aren’t available for instruction because they missed the bus and their family doesn’t have a car, or they have to move for the third time that year, or they come to school hungry and worried about what’s going to happen when they get home from school that night.
Don’t get me wrong — schools can and must do a lot to help accommodate and ameliorate what they can about their students’ situations. But, without systemic, societal interventions that go hand in hand with quality schooling, I think I’m going to keep seeing a certain pattern on my report cards regardless of the quality of my instruction.
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.
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?
Today marks the second day of school that we’ve missed this week — the first due to a wild Maine blizzard that knocked the power out at the rural schools that make up my district and the second due to a power outage just at my school. If this is any indication of how the winter is going to go, I’m going to be in school until July!
This post seems like a good opportunity to write about something that I have been doing this fall — serving as an informal teaching assistant (TA) in a senior education seminar at my alma mater. Initially, I was quite anxious about this role, because I felt like I wouldn’t have much expertise to share with students who are just three years younger than me. I needn’t have worried, however, because it turns out that I do actually know quite a lot about being out in the world of American public schools. My role has sort of blossomed into that of a “real-world reality-check” provider. As someone who shares many of the lofty ideals about social justice that the students in the course hold, it is beneficial, I think, for them to hear about the ways in which their paths will not always be easy, the hard choices that they will have to make, the balance they will have to strike between mandates and their own desires. In other words, I’ve fashioned my role to position myself as the person that I would have benefitted from hearing from when I sat in their chairs, about to embark upon the world of teaching for the first time.
The whole experience has been so engaging and enriching. It’s much more effective than any other professional development experience in which I have participated. The students ask the hard, meaningful questions that often are not asked in my school or district, and it has really led me to re-examine the reasons why I am doing the things that I do in my own classroom. In contrast to other professional development experiences, which are usually not about overarching philosophy, but about the latest fad strategy, being a teaching assistant has forced me to really hold a mirror up to myself and check whether what I am doing in the classroom really aligns with what I believe and who I aspire to be as an educator. It has not been an easy process, but I know that I am going to come away with some things that I need to change to re-orient my classroom practices, and that making those changes will help me get closer to being the type of educator that I want to be.
Additionally, I always find it so rewarding to be in a situation where everyone is thinking critically and deeply at every turn. Those spaces often seem rare in our society, where quick-fix solutions and the stresses of daily life are huge barriers to that type of slow, methodical thought process. I hope that I can keep seeking out these types of settings, because they, more than any others, seem to lead to real growth and seem, to me at least, like the best arena for developing ideas that will be truly transformational.