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?

Two “Snow” Days and The Joys of TA-ing a College Education Course

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.

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:

2014header

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?

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.

      photo 2  photo 3

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.

Classroom Tour 2014

My school had our Open House last night and it has me so excited about the upcoming year! My new students were so excited to see our room and to have their parents meet me last night. Additionally, many of my former students popped back down to our room for a visit — it was bittersweet to see some of them. I can’t believe that they won’t be in my room anymore come Tuesday!

I’m just about ready for the first day of school and my room is definitely the neatest that it will be all year. I’ve moved a lot of things around since last year and am pretty happy with how things are as I plan to start the year. (Maybe I won’t have to move everything around every month this year.) My classroom space has a lot of built-in things, which are nice, but they can also be pretty limiting in terms of options for arranging furniture. But, I think I’ve got things organized in such a way that the space will grow with our learning — there’s lots of room for displaying student work and storing their projects!

So, without further, ado, here’s a tour of my space.

doorThis is the door to my classroom – our class mascot “Q” remains prominently exhibited.

supply_cart

Our supply cart and paper station are just inside the door.

corner from door

Here’s the view of the room when you walk in the door.

timeline

This is my desk (constructed from three student desks!) and our huge classroom timeline, which is one of things that I am most excited about heading into the year. We’ll start by putting the birth dates of my students and their parents and grandparents and then we’ll add on key dates and events as we learn throughout the year.

book_nook_corner

This is a view of our book nook, our center station, and our Morning Message Board.

book_nook

This is what the book nook looks like. The cubbies are being used by each “team” of students to hold their academic materials.

book_shelf_mm_shelf

Here’s our Morning Meeting/game station, our “caught being kind” apple, and our book display. The start of school theme for the book display is books that reflect curiosity, questioners, and wonder — a perfect initiation for my new group of Curious Questioners!

clipboards

This is the “Where?” team table. Behind it on the wall are the clipboards that I will be using to display work that my students choose as their favorite tasks and “best effort work.” Right now it has things they wonder about, an activity that we did together during step-up day last June.

wonderment

This is a work-in-progress, but it will be our “wonderment station,” a place where I exhibit things that are interesting in order to invoke my students’ curiosity. Right now, there is a globe, a coconut from Hawaii, and some magnetic rocks.

front_board

At the front and center of the room is the white board and our rug area, where we gather for all sorts of learning activities.

jobs_schedule

This is where I post the groups for Morning Work Centers, where we’ll have our class jobs once my students brainstorm what they should be, and where I display our daily schedule. (Day 1 is already up there!)

learning_days_countdown

Instead of counting up the school days, I am going to have my students count down.

library_close_up

This is a close-up of just one part of our classroom library. I have way too many books in my classroom (though I doubt that’s actually possible!) — so many of my bins are nearly overflowing now.

4444 00000

Two more shots of the classroom library — the bins have taken over all of the nice built-in shelving unit in my room! But, honestly, what’s more important than books?

corner from hexagon table corner from door corner from book nook corner from bathroom

Here are some more-zoomed out pictures of the room. You can see the “What?” and “Who?” student work areas and get a sense of how the classroom is laid out.

past_curious_questioners

And one of my favorite parts of the room — the “Past Curious Questioners” gallery that shows all of my former students!

School starts on Tuesday — I can’t wait to start filling this space with my students’ creative thinking!