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 Ideal Learning Environment?

One of the final assignments for the Leaders of Learning course that I have been taking this summer was to devise and explain a design for our “ideal learning environment.” In my experience as an educator, this has never been a question put in front of me — too often, we are expected to respond or to “fit” into the existing learning environments, not to devise creations of our own. Completing this task, though, was a really thought-provoking experience because it really forced me to consider and articulate my own theory of learning (and to see the mismatch between my vision and the traditional educational paradigms.)

Below you can see the design that I submitted for my ideal learning environment.

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My design attempts to leverage both the physical and digital dimensions of learning to create a learning environment that supports the distributed collective mode of learning. In the physical space, I envision having a central learning lab/student center/library that would serve as a “hub” where learners could gather together and where the digital servers and employees would be housed. The sites for learning in the physical domain could include virtually any spaces or places in the community, which would emphasize that learning can truly happen anywhere and at any time.

In the digital domain, I envision there being a website that would contain information about courses in the physical domain but also have offerings for classes that met only in cyberspace.

Hopefully, this set up would allow people to form flexible networks to support their learning and to begin to see learning as something that can truly happen at any place and at any time. One challenge to this model is ensuring that a strong culture of learning would be able to develop — that’s something that I’m going to need to think more about as I keep considering this learning design.

After completing this exercise, I am really thinking hard about what I can do within my own classroom to try to bring some of the components of my model to fruition. I am particularly interested in forging partnerships with the community this year, as it is a central part of what I think makes for effective learning and taking this course this summer has reaffirmed how important that is to me.

What would your ideal environment for learning look like?

School in the Summer?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ll be working at an Upward Bound program in Maine for the next six weeks. If you want to learn more about Upward Bound, here’s a link to the official government site about it. (http://www2.ed.gov/programs/trioupbound/index.html). And this is my program: http://www2.umf.maine.edu/upwardbound/. Essentially, my summer program is designed to giving rising sophomores, juniors, seniors, and college freshmen an academic boost heading into the next school year and to help connect them to resources and people who can support them in their efforts to become first generation college students.

My role in the program is primarily as an English teacher. I teach four sections of students (the rising sophomores and juniors) three times each week. In addition to my classroom responsibilities, I am also in charge of an “advisory group” — a small group of students that functions as sort of a “family” while we’re here, am involved in evening study sessions and “free time,” get to plan and organize activities for evening events, and live in the dorm on the girls’ floor. The amount of time that I can spend interacting with these adolescents over the next six weeks is truly boundless!

We started our classes on Monday and I was feeling quite nervous about making the transition from teaching second graders to teaching high schoolers. But, so far, things have been wonderful! The depth of our discussions and their engagement in my English class has been unbelievable so far. It is blissful to not have all of the (charming) interruptions of the younger set and to be able get through everything that I have planned without getting sidetracked by behavior or other issues. I’m sort of spoiled, because these students applied to be here and are highly motivated, but it is just so fantastic to work with them. They talk with me about what we’re doing in class in the lunch line (really!) and are thinking hard about the issues that we’re discussing around the media and technology — even outside of class. It’s been really invigorating — even more so than I could have possibly imagined!

While I’m loving the program and feeling great about being part of such a grand vision for supporting these students who will really benefit from the hard work all of the staff is doing, I can’t help thinking from time to time about how there were students who applied to be here who didn’t get accepted. I hate that programs that do such good can’t take on all students. Everyone who wants an opportunity to pursue an education ought to have that chance — it really frustrates me that the deck is stacked against so many students and that for each student who does get to engage with a program like Upward Bound, there are others who get left behind. I’m trying hard to stay upbeat and focus on doing everything that I can for the wonderful students who are here, but I can’t help but think about the other kids at their schools who were not as fortunate as they were in the application process.

Of course, it’s not the job of one program to solve all of the problems relating to inequality of educational opportunity, but I think it’s worth thinking about what we, as educators and citizens, might do to help make sure that no one falls through the cracks, that all students get a chance to feel like they can realize their dreams and live the life that they’ve imagined. It’s something I know that I’ll keep thinking about in the weeks ahead, while I spend time with students that may not appear to be obvious college-material on paper, but who are flourishing in the rich environment here at Upward Bound.

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?