The Simple Move That Has Transformed Classroom Afternoons

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.

Advertisements

A New Classroom Addition: The Peace Corner

In my classroom this year, I have several students who struggle with regulating strong emotional feelings. (Don’t we all, from time to time?) Last week, after attending a training on restorative practices (a Restorative Justice-esque framework), I resolved to try to continue to avoid using traditional discipline methods. This approach aligns with my personal beliefs about how to best develop character and positive habits in young people, but, too often, I find myself slipping into more traditional approaches when a youngster gets the whole class whipped up into a flurry that seems to call for a quick solution that recognizes that wrong has been done. The amount of patience and composure required to uphold the pathway that I’m trying to choose in m classroom is often daunting, especially when I’m tired or frustrated, but, on the days when I can pull it off, things feel so much healthier and so much happier.

One tool that I have implemented in my classroom this week to aid me on my quest to stick to this path of alternative “discipline” is a “Peace Corner.” One thing that I want to move away from is sending students out of my classroom when they are being “disciplined,” and the Peace Corner is a way to recognize the validity of student feelings and the right to have some time to process feelings independently, without having to send a message that there isn’t a place for that in the classroom. The Peace Corner is a small area in our classroom that I have set up with a soft pillow, a desk with a fabric covering that can offer privacy or a place to write or draw. There are also a variety of items in the Peace Corner that can help students to feel calmer — shells, little games that require lots of focus and concentration, a glitter jar that they can shake and observe, and lots of coloring and writing materials.

photo 4

photo 1At this point, I’m experimenting with implementation of the Peace Corner. My students were instantly curious about it and have been, for the most part, very respectful of the fact that it is a special place in our classroom for thinking and processing, and not a place to go and play or avoid work.

Students can either elect to go the Peace Corner by coming and speaking to me about how they are feeling and what has triggered it, or they can be encouraged to go there to gather their composure when a flare-up or incident seems imminent or has already occurred. In the latter case, the visit to the Peace Corner is followed with a conversation with me where I ask them to respond to several questions, which were presented to us at the training last week. I have these questions as posters in the Peace Corner, so that students will be able to read and consider their answers to them while they are processing their feelings and emotions.

photo 2photo 3

I really like the questions bring the behavior, rather than the person to the forefront; rather than saying, “You are a bully” or “You are a cheater,” the conversation focuses on how they are a “person who has been unkind to others” or you are a “person who has made a poor decision which impacts your learning.” Additionally, there is also a turn towards thinking about how the behavior impacts others, with a special emphasis on how to make things right.

I’m really excited to see how this change works out over the next few weeks — hopefully it will send the powerful message that I want to convey that we all make mistakes and feel intense feelings, but that we do have a responsibility to be able to work on taking responsibility for what we do with those feelings and/or how we repair the potential damage we may have done when we do let our feelings get the best of us.

 

Curious Questioner Character Strengths

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.

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 3.16.59 PM

After devising the overview sheet, I also developed a more detailed version that describes how I’m defining each of the nine character strengths.

Screen Shot 2015-01-18 at 3.17.15 PM

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.

Peanuts - pe_c120704.tif

I’m excited to start making good on my commitment to elevate character skills to the same level of importance as academic skills!

Draw a Scientist 2014

photo 1 photo 1_1 photo 2 photo 2_1

One of the primary  goals that I have for my second graders in rural Maine is to become more aware of the world around them. As someone who is interested in social justice, I also aspire to have them recognize injustices and to envision a different world than the one that we currently inhabit.

I try to educate my second graders about stereotypes throughout the duration of the school year. The first lesson that I do on this topic coincides with our study of science beginning in earnest. Prior to beginning our first science project, I ask my students to pause and to picture what they think a scientist looks like and does in their heads. I then ask them to draw that image and collect and display their images in a “scientist gallery” for everyone to see.

Once the images are hanging, we have a discussion about what we notice about our images — how they are similar to and how they might be different from one another. This leads into a discussion about how the stereotyped image of a scientist — of a crazy-haired, older male chemist is, in fact, just one narrow version of what scientists actually do.

This is the second time that I’ve done this lesson and I was pleased when I saw that this year’s bunch had much less stereotyped versions of scientists, at least around gender. In a class with more boys than girls, there were 7 pictures featuring female scientists and 7 pictures with male scientists. This was significantly different than last year, when only my drawing and two others featured females, even in a class heavily dominated by girls.

In terms of what the scientists were doing, however, “potions” continues to rule the day. My students had 9 scientists using potions and 6 doing “something else,” with some of those something elses being awfully close to the lab scientist image. Hopefully we will expand on these notions of “what scientists do” by the end of the year.

I follow up this activity by reading aloud “Me…Jane” by Patrick McDonnell. The students are always captivated by this charming text and it really helps to affirm that stereotypes are narrow and often limit our thinking about what the possibilities are for ourselves and those around us.

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?

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?

Place-Based Education

Despite the busy-ness that comes with the end of the school year, I have still been working my way through my reading list. I haven’t given much though to the order in which I read the books, but the pairing of the last two that I read was just perfect.

I had read Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch earlier in the year and recently read her very famous and influential work — The Death and of the American School System. This book details the many problematic components of school reform in the United States, including standardized testing, an increased emphasis on accountability, vouchers and school choice, and the influence of wealthy private sector managers into schools. As we discussed in my teacher leadership course last year, Ravitch also bravely details how she was seduced by some of the components of school reform — which do sound promising in theory — and what caused her to change her mind. I really appreciated reading a book on education written by someone who could admit to being human and to having opinions that change over time in response to evidence and contemporary situations.

I sometimes find that reading about the current state of school reform in the United States makes it feel like resisting and fighting back is becoming more challenging by the day, as policies become more entrenched and accepted as “the way things have to be.” So, it was wonderfully refreshing that I followed up Life and Death with Place-Based Education by David Sobel. This brief book got me so excited because I could feel the lightbulbs going off in my head on each page. I had heard a little about place-based education before, but reading more about the approach whetted my appetite to learn much more and to think about how I could apply place-based education in my own classroom. Essentially, place-based education is about providing students with meaningful, authentic activities that help them actively practice being citizens. The projects usually have an environmental emphasis that helps students consider how the place where they live shapes them and to cultivate a sense of responsibility for caring about the place in which they live.

It was really the emphasis on citizenship that made so much sense to me — I have been trying so hard to cultivate a sense of good citizenship in my students this year, but it really can’t be something that they just passively absorb from a few read-alouds and discussions. Just like any other subject, if we want students to acquire a skill, we need to teach it and give them authentic opportunities to practice that skill.

The book discusses a “pedagogy of place” where there is a “necessary interpenetration of school, community, and environment.” I find this concept so beautiful and so directly in contrast to the school-reform approaches currently proliferating in the US. Those who read my blog regularly know that I am also deeply interested in community engagement, which is an essential component of the place-based approach.

Needless to say, I will be learning more (and probably writing more) about this approach in the future. It gave me hope after reading about the failure of many school reform tactics. As I was reading about place-based education, I kept thinking, “This is how education ought to be.”