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?

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Parent-Teacher Conferences and Parental Expectations for Children

This past week, I had my very first experience with parent-teacher conferences. I am so fortunate that I only have 13 students, because orchestrating the schedule was such a challenge! The parental relationships in my school are sometimes complicated, so I had to arrange things so that families who shouldn’t run into each other wouldn’t run into each other.

At my school, our conferences are student-led, meaning that the student, and not the teacher, is really the director of the show. During class, I explained the format to my students and we brainstormed a list of things that they could share with their parents — their autobiography projects, their Mad Minute folders with data charts, their spelling word folders, their “Good Learner Goal Sheets,” their portfolios, and their independent math learning rubrics. I left this list up on the white board so that when my students arrived, they would know exactly what to do.

During the conferences, I had two families come for each 30-minute time slot. They each spent 20 minutes having their student share work with them and then 10 minutes talking with me and their student. It is was interesting to watch my students interact with their parents — and to see how their parents interacted with them. In many ways, it explained an awful lot. It was so fascinating to watch kids become more shy or more outgoing or less focused than they are in class. I almost wished that I could have just observed them rather than having to talk with the families — I probably would have learned more than I did during our conversations.

The overall reaction amongst the parents seemed to be “holy cow, you’ve been doing a lot of serious work in here!” Many of the parents seem to have come around to the idea that the high expectations in my classroom are a good thing. They seemed really impressed by how articulate their children were in their explanations of what we do in class. Others, however, seemed dismayed that the conferences were student-led at all and seemed to think that it was all too much. I’ve heard that there is talk in the community at the moment about whether the expectations in my second-grade room are too-high. (Frankly, I am pretty excited that they are talking about this!) It seems that I’ve got some great advocates amongst my parents — and I think that all of my kids rising to the challenge is the best evidence for which I could ask!

Have you ever had a situation where parents think that the work in your classroom is too demanding? How did you handle it? I personally find that we often underestimate what kids can do, but this can be a hard message to transmit to parents who don’t buy into that philosophy.

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!

Welcome to My Blog!

Meet “Q,” my classroom mascot.

Welcome to cultivatingquestioners.com! I am a first-year educator about to begin teaching second grade in rural Maine.

I’ve decided to keep this blog as a way to keep my critical lenses active as I move away from the realm of being a student to being the individual facilitating instruction in the classroom. In this blog, I hope to post weekly reflections on my own practice, my experiences implementing curriculum with my students, my thoughts about developments in education, and tips and tricks for educators also trying to break through the status quo in classroom practice. Through an assortment of different types of posts, I hope to engage in a dialogue about all aspects of the field of education.

The image accompanying this post is of “Q,” my classroom mascot. I plan to call my students “The Curious Questioners” this year, in hopes of encouraging them to keep asking questions, as I believe it is learning to interrogate that will aid my students in becoming critical thinkers and lifelong learners. Similarly, “Q” is also designed to embody this value in a tangible way. He will be posted on my classroom door and students, parents, and other visitors will see him every time they walk in the door. I hope that these simple, yet intentional practices will help remind my second graders to channel their natural curiosity into questions for their peers to explore.

With my very first “first day of school” less than three weeks away, I am working hard on developing curriculum and on setting up my classroom. Stay tuned for future posts that will feature a tour my classroom and an introduction to my September unit of study: Biographies and You!