Snow, Snow, Snow, and a Peace Corner Update

Well, today is the second snow day in a row for me. I was probably one of the few teachers hoping that we would get to go into school today! With these two days gone and more snow predicted for Friday and possibly Monday, too, my chances of completing of my current unit (engineering — one of my favorites!) seem to be dwindling. I’m going to have to make some creative cuts, as it is usually pretty fruitless to try to pick something back up after a weeklong vacation, which we have coming in just two weeks.

In better news, however, my Peace Corner experiment is going well thus far. My students have reached the point where they respect the space and aren’t asking to go unless they have a genuine need to do so. In fact, one of my most challenging students, who I had in mind when creating the Peace Corner, has been telling other teachers in our school about it and informed me that she’s also created one at home!

The lack of defiance that I have gotten from students that I’ve asked to go to the Peace Corner has also been shocking. I have several students who, when they get embroiled in emotion, tend to adamantly refuse to do of anything that any adult (and often, peer) might ask them to do. However, in the past week or so, these students have been responsive to me telling them, “I want to talk to you about this, but I think it will be easier once you’ve had some time to think about what you’re feeling” and then handing them either the 5- or 10-minute sand timers that I got for the Peace Corner. Once they return from their cooling-off time, the students are in such a noticeably improved state of mind and are much more capable of having a reasonable discussion about what is going on. I feel like I’ve been able to hear them more clearly and also that they are more receptive to the advice that I might offer them about handling emotions.

I’m really excited to see what impacts this approach starts to have on student self-control and self-regulation. I’d love to see my students work up to the point where they could ask to go to the Peace Corner proactively, rather than after they’ve done something they probably won’t feel so great about later on. I’m also interested in seeing if the Peace Corner will be durable as is, or if I will have to continue to make tweaks to maintain its relevancy. Only time will tell!

Poverty and Education

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.

Nancy Lett’s 2013 piece in the Huffington Post speaks to this issue. You can read her thoughts here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nancy-letts/its-time-to-change-the-conversation-about-public-education_b_3112801.html

School, Costumes, and Halloween

Here in the US, Halloween is nearly upon us. My students have been excited about their costumes and the whole event for weeks — ever since they remembered that Halloween is in October!

This has meant, predictably, that it has been increasingly difficult to get my students to focus this week — something that I completely understand, because Halloween is a really exciting holiday for kids.

Last year, my school did several Halloween events — we had a costume parade, a small party in our classroom, and I also did a lengthy Halloween logic puzzle on the day of Halloween where my students had to use deductive reasoning to figure out who had “stolen” our candy.

This year, Halloween falls on a Friday and on a day when my district has a half day. So, as a staff, we made the tough decision to not have the kids wear their costumes to school, because we won’t have time to do any of the events that we did last year because of the crazy schedule we have here on Fridays.

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t doing any holiday events. Tomorrow afternoon, my students are involved in a Halloween concert, where they will be singing spooky songs for the younger students. They will get to dress up for this event, but most likely not in the costumes that they have been preparing for the actual holiday. Then on Halloween, there will be a PTO (parent-teacher organization) event that the students can come to for a small fee — which will involve, of course, a costume contest. I am traveling this weekend, however, so I unfortunately have to miss that event. I do plan to do the sprawling logic puzzle again this year, but it will be missing some its magic, I think, if my students aren’t in their Halloween finery.

I am feeling a little disheartened that I won’t get to see my students’ costumes this year. While I am not a huge fan of Halloween, it does seem like a great opportunity to see my students in a different light and to get to be a part of something that they are so jazzed up about. I dressed up with them last year, and it was one of the best days of the entire year. I remember, in particular, having a great conversation about gender stereotypes and Halloween costumes. It was an opportunity for students who didn’t have costumes to spend some time making them at school, which absolutely delighted them.

I sometimes worry that as schools become hyper-focused on test scores, standards, and achievement, some of the events that lead to happy memories and good times are being pushed to the wayside. My students will only get so many times to revel in the pure joy of being children at Halloween and I wonder how many of them will get to have a Halloween celebration or have the chance to attend the event here at school. Kids do need to be kids sometimes!

That said, I’m certainly not advocating for “cute” curriculum, for spending huge chunks of time doing holiday-related stuff, but I do think it’s important for students to have a space to think about and participate in these traditions in an educational environment. I plan to spend the month of December, as I did last year, doing a “Holiday and Traditions” unit, where my students will learn about what holidays and traditions really are, why we have them, and how widely they vary around the world.

What do you think? Should holidays come to school?

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?