I Am From Poems – Building A Positive Classroom Community

I’m hoping that it’s been a great start back for everyone! The month has certainly gone by quickly. Having been out of the classroom for a year and being at a new school community, it was definitely all nerves on the first day. I always try to keep in mind that students might be feeling the same way walking into the new school year. While many of my students have been in the same school together since kindergarten, I have a few students who are new to our school this year and have been thinking of ways to make sure that they feel right at home in our classroom. 

Building a positive classroom community is important starting from day one. As a part of building our classroom community, I often ask students to consider who they are as individuals and what they bring to our classroom space. One activity that I have enjoyed over the years is creating I Am From poems. In the past I’ve jumped right into creating We Are From poems where students work with a partner to find commonalities and differences and share them to the larger group. Once they have created a joint poem, we combine different parts of each poem to create one large classroom poem where everyone is reflected.  This year, instead of creating We Are From poems, we started off instead by creating our own individual poems to share with each other. 

You might be wondering what I Am From Poems are. For years, educators have used George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From poem to inspire students to consider their own narratives. While there are different templates that can be used, I use this template to help guide my students in creating their own. 

On the second day of school, the students in my class were tasked with thinking about who they are and where they are from, learning that our experiences shape who we are as individuals, along with other factors in our lives. By the end of the week, rough copies of amazing poems were complete and students were thinking about the symbols they would use to represent their identities. Just in time for our Curriculum Night, good copies of our poems went up and we had the chance to create continuous line portraits to accompany them. 

Identity work is so important for building a safe and caring classroom community. What ideas do you have for this year? How are students showing who they are and bringing their experiences to the classroom and their learning? If you have great ideas, please share them here!

School year start up

A new school year has begun again and I am once again teaching grade eight, in my opinion, the most exciting and enriching grade I have taught so far.

The first few weeks have been incredible because of the honest conversations we had week one about how great their year can be if they make it that way. We talked about fun trips, ideas and awards that go on during their grade eight year. We talked about what the ideal classroom looks like, sounds like and smells like (ha!) so we made some ideas on how we can achieve those goals. The students have done an amazing job so far on adhering to all of the goals they set out for our own classroom.

A few things have been making this start up so incredible:

  1. There are many student leaders in the classroom who have helped to set the tone for all of the other students in the room. They model positive behaviours and shut down negative ones. There is little to no times where I have interjected to tell them what I expect because another student has already done that for me.
  2. I have already received the help during breaks and afterschool of about 9 or 10 students with teams that go on at our school. These leadership activities have made them stand out in the classroom as well as the extra responsibility has made them thoroughly enjoy each day. That feeling that they are making a difference in their school shows everyday in their mood and behaviours. I am hoping even more students will be interested in these opportunities as only ten of the 26 have stepped up so far. I have awarded these students with small circular stickers that they put on their desk organizers. At the end of the year, we will see who has volunteered the most and those students will be eligible for a token of appreciation (not sure what that will look like yet). It will also help the staff with selecting grade eight awards because they will see who has given up so much of their time for our school community.
  3.  I have offered students homework to complete every night which will help them prepare for grade nine. 19 out of the 26 students have taken this homework and completed it each night. I have three ESL students who I am working on preparing appropriate homework for them so then it will be 22 out of 26. We take up this homework each morning and new homework is given out every night before they go home. The fact that it is optional makes students actively take the initiative to better themselves and their after school time. I am so proud of these students as I mentioned it will help them get ready for grade nine and the few students who took that opportunity last year had the highest marks in the school (they won the principal’s award). It is great hearing groups of students want to hang out after school to work on homework. It is definitely a good after school option for them.
  4. I also have offered students level four or above and beyond opportunities that go with each task we have completed as a class. Seeing those 10-12 students select that option is awesome as they are actively selecting to do better and to challenge themselves each day. I remember being in school not knowing the difference between all of the levels and not knowing how my teacher came up with my mark. I make sure all of my students know how they can excel to the highest level possible.

 

I think all of these things working together have made it impossible for the students in my room to have a negative experience or to make the day negative for someone else. It is incredible to see such focus and leadership day to day and it makes me so proud of my class. I was away last week at a junior baseball tournament (coached by two of my students) and my supply left only this note, “Your class rocks!” This would not have been possible last year as I must have missed many of these steps in the school year start up. I am really hoping the year will continue in this positive manner.

Having faith in your students and challenging them daily is the best way to go 🙂

The Courage to Teach

The Courage to Teach

teaching from the heart

In this very challenging time of education cutbacks, teachers are on the edge. They wonder how long they will keep their jobs and what will classrooms be like in the next school year.

Losing your job as a teacher is not just about losing a job, it is about losing the work that you do to challenge your spirit to make a difference – it is about losing your heart. When teachers teach, they teach through resources no other person possesses, their identity as a teacher and as a learner and as an adult who cares about students. As a teacher of over 19 years, I know that students can tell the difference between teachers who care and teachers who do not care – and this impacts how students learn.

Parker Palmer (2007, p. 11) puts it simply “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

When teachers teach, they are connected to the students, dialed into who the students are and what interests them. Good teachers are always looking for the teachable moment to grab students’ interest and get them excited about learning.  “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectiveness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (Palmer, 2007, p. 11). Methods vary depending on the grade level, subject, and opportunity – lectures, Socratic dialogues of questions and answers, experiments, collaborative problem solving, or one on one discussions. It’s all good teaching when connections are made through “the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self” (Palmer, 2007, p. 11), the heart of a person, a student.

As a teacher I do my best to keep my heart of teaching  strong and pliable. I have learned to roll with the challenges of teaching through dealing with challenging students, challenging parents, and sometimes challenging administrators. It is not an easy job to keep heart.

Why do teachers lose heart?

In the daily “work out” of teaching, we are highly vulnerable as we are the centre of attention in the classroom. This is a highly personal job. Students are watching us for who we are and what we represent. Our public and private lives are on the line in classrooms. We must be ourselves but we also must have a suit of self-protection against high levels of criticism that are meant to break us. Teachers will ultimately make mistakes in their teaching, in their assessment, and sometimes in their judgement but I find that students are usually very forgiving, especially if the teacher owns the mistake.

Another reason why teachers lose heart is that teaching can be very challenging. What makes teaching really hard is in seeing the potential of students and identifying the great barriers students face in fulfilling their best self. The challenge is to face with the barriers that limit students’ potential. Human potential gets sidetracked by disability, culture, identity, family, school culture, community, and economics. In having high expectations for all students, teachers make a grand difference in the students’ future. Teaching students how to get around these barriers is key to their social, emotional, and academic growth. When using intuition and identity, teachers discover ways to reach students’ hearts.

To become a really good teacher, it took me over 8 years of practice. That’s about 10,000 hours – Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour benchmark for achieving success (Gladwell, 2008).  In the VITAE (Variations in Teachers’ Work, Lives, and their Effects on Pupils) study, with 300 teachers in 100 schools, that examined influences in teachers’ identities, Day, Sammons, Stobart, Kingston, and Gu (2007) found that teachers reach their highest level of efficacy between year 7 and 8 in teaching.

In the first couple of years of teaching I went from being totally overwhelmed in the joy of teaching to totally overwhelmed with the disappointment of teaching. Some days I was afraid. I was afraid of not being competent enough, not working hard enough, not meeting students’ needs enough, not connecting with students enough, and sometimes not being quick enough when a student threw a chair in my direction (this happened the second week of my first contract).

Even after 19 years of teaching, I still have fears, but I am not these fears. Instead, I teach with courage and resilience and discovery. I teach from curiosity, honesty, hope, empathy, and conviction. I teach from who I am. I teach with heart.

I implore teachers to have the courage to teach in these challenging times. To never surrender to a person who is trying to trivialize your work as something easy and simple and something that can be done by technology … because computers don’t have heart.

Be brave. Teach from your heart.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston, PhD

References

Day, C., Sammons, P., Stobart, G., Kingston, A., & Gu, Q. (2007). Teachers matter: Connecting lives, work and effectiveness. Maidenhead, UK: Open University.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK.

Palmer, P. J. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. John Wiley & Sons.

 

Why are your eyebrows grumpy?

One of my students asked me the funniest question during our morning meeting this week.  She stopped, looked at me and asked, “Why are your eyebrows grumpy?” It struck me as really funny and I burst out laughing and she did as well. I went home that evening and began to think more about her question. At the time that she asked me the question, I was talking about an exciting trip that was coming up for our class. My voice was animated and I thought I was conveying my excitement through the words that I was choosing but upon deeper reflection I am not sure my facial expression was matching my words.

One of the real gifts that my students bring to the school and the class is their ability to read emotion. Many of the students are very sensitive to the expression on my face, in my voice and in my body. They laugh with me often and can easily tell when I am upset with them by a simple look or a body position. The great thing about this is that I rarely have to use my voice to intervene on unwanted behaviour and I can show someone what a great job they are doing by a simple look. The tricky part of this is that my facial expressions are being analyzed all day long. As a person doing this job for the first time, I am often perplexed or thinking about next steps. When I was talking about the upcoming trip with the class, I was also thinking about all the logistics of how to make this trip successful. I am sure that is why my student thought my eyebrows were grumpy.

Working with this group of students has been a fantastic reminder to slow down, stay in the moment and enjoy the experience. Things will get done. I will make mistakes and learn from them. I will get better at this job every day.

My talented students will forever teach me the skill that the author Toni Morrison spoke about. Toni Morrison explained that children don’t care about weather you help them zip up their jacket or have everything prepared. They care about one thing ….“Does your face light up when a child enters the room?” She also encouraged all of us to “let your face speak what is in your heart.” My students are reminding me of Ms. Morrison’s important lessons everyday. Slow down. Stay present in the moment. Let them see everyday how much you care for them.

Create Success in Intermediate Math through Play….

“What are you doing in Math today?” the VP inquires of my grade 5,6,7 and 8 students.

“We’re playing games.”

“You’re playing games?”

“Yes, we always play in math.”

The assessments gathered from these classes provide me insight of where everyone is in their learning. My experience with assessments are that individual conversations to understand the thinking process provides the most valuable information. The range of each of my classes is from a low elementary level to a low secondary level.  This is quite a span. As a school we have been, “Landscaping” these students using; Fosnots– Landscape of Learning.  http://thelearningexchange.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Creating-Conditions-for-Learning-Math-Viewers-Guide.pdf This provides an great snapshot of where your learners are on a continuum. Our board has developed some very specific assessment questions for all grade levels which include strategic numbers to help determine the strategies individuals use.

How do I managed this?

It took me a while with the continuous disruptions to the daily routine. The way, I have adopted my assessment sessions this year is similar to how a reading group would be managed.  Provide the lesson, give the class expectations, then work with a small group on a rotating basis. The entire class already understands the rules and class expectations which have been familiar routines followed to date.

Now what?

I find creating a growth mindset is most important. This is developed through creating a comfort zone for all, including the teacher. Each year I am challenged to ensure my learners grow and develop forward on the continuum. I use a variety of resources such as Sherry Parrish’s-Number Talks http://www.meaningfulmathmoments.com/number-talks.html This is a great beginning to each class.

I resource Dr. Small’s-Big Ideas https://search.library.utoronto.ca/details?7785153&uuid=5d3e7d21-dfef-4e3a-a3d3-9f33f13418b9 for different activities to compliment the concept of study.

Presently I am using, From Patterns to Algebra, by Dr. Beatty and Dr. Bruce https://school.nelson.com/from-patterns-to-algebra-book/

Play, yes these resources include play which I implement on a regular basis.  The students enjoy learning with and from each other while I guide them. During my classes, Play creates a class dynamic for success.

Gaming…safely?

We have been trained to watch for concerns of a child’s well being. This didn’t include cyber information. As a responsible teacher I’m drawing the attention of students to current events. During this time of sharing, my students have become more relaxed and open about their after school activities which include gaming for many.

When a child discloses information about their safety we are obligated to report this to children’s services. Write down the facts, call and make a statement, fairly straight forward.

When a child shares information about interactions in Gaming, what do you do? I make a judgement based on what the information is, then I write down the facts are that were shared, then what? I’m really not sure where we go from here. I call the family and have a conversation? I chat with the principal? I provide the student with avenues of help, help lines, internet safety….

This is a new world which effects all of our students. Access to our vulnerable young students is wide open on the internet especially with group gaming and social media. Education is a form of protection. When a child is doing something their family may not agree with, they are reluctant to share concerns and can easily become victims of online abuse. How do we help? Keep open communication lines with students and their family. We all want our children to be safe.

Introducing Coding without Robots

A few years ago when I started hearing about teachers doing coding and robotics in the classroom I dismissed it as a fad.  I didn’t understand the value of coding nor could I see how it tied to the curriculum.  However, I recognize as a professional learner my initial reaction to something radically new can sometimes be resistance.  I think that this is because I can’t see myself fitting “one more thing” into my classroom practice. I always have to give myself time to process, research, find the value and then finally accept it.  After I have tried a new practice with students and see the beneficial outcomes, I endorse it and then begin to share it widely with colleagues.

When I began the journey with coding and looked at code.org I tried it on my own and admittedly, understood very little. I went to more workshops and conferences but avoided the coding and robotics thinking that it just wasn’t my bag.  Then I had a colleague that dragged me in to the world of coding and robotics.  We worked together.  I’ve since become convinced that we need to teach all students how to code.  I have also figured out that you don’t need any robots to do it.  In fact, when you start-you don’t even need a computer.

coding 4         coding 2

 

The above picture is a coding game that I used recently with a grade one and two class.  Students placed their obstacles (rocks) on a grid.  They placed their “gemstone” or finish on a spot on the board and their “robot” (animal)  on another spot.  They wrote their code on a sticky note using arrows and then had their partner take their robot through the code to test it for “bugs”.  A big part of coding is knowing your left from your right and being able to write instructions that someone else can follow.  We started out the day coding one another to walk in a square using only: “forward” “turn left” and “turn right”.  It was amazing to see how much problem solving took place.  They were using positional language, procedural writing, clear communication, visualization and proportional reasoning.  Their thinking was exploding! The students were engaged in the learning and well on their way to being able to code something online.  From there we explored the Scratch Jr. app.  After a short look together at what the different “buttons/blocks” meant they were able to code independently.  As teachers we sometimes get bogged down in the fact that we don’t have the money to purchase the technology and shy away from trying things based on the fact that we don’t have “the stuff”.  However, laying the groundwork before introducing the technology piece to students is key.  We need to always consider the pedagogy before the technology.

 

Barriers to Student Learning – An Overview

Priviledge

Education is one of the foundations of Canadian society. If you are wondering why your board is addressing issues of equity and inclusion recently, a policy/program memorandum has impacted the way Ontario public school boards are conducting their business of education.

Through the Policy/Program Memorandum No. 119, Developing and Implementing Equity and Inclusive Education Policies in Ontario Schools, it is stated that there is a need for our “publically funded education system to support and reflect the democratic values of fairness, equity, and respect for all” (Ministry of Education, 2013). The Government of Ontario has established three core priorities in education:

  • high levels of student achievement
  • reduced gaps in student achievement
  • increased public confidence in publically funded education (Ministry of Education, 2013)

In “providing a high-quality education for all is a key means of fostering … diversity is affirmed within a framework of common values that promote the well-being of all citizens” (Ministry of Education, 2013). The Ministry of Education recognizes factors such as race, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, gender, and class can create barriers to learning. There is evident that some groups of students continue to encounter discriminatory barriers to learning. Research shows that when students feel connected to teachers and other students, they do better academically (Goleman, 2006).

Through Policy/Program Memorandum No. 119, all publically funded school boards are required to address equity and inclusive policies covering in three areas of focus including:

  • shared and committed leadership by the ministry, boards, and schools to eliminate discrimination through the identification and removal of biases and barriers
  • equity and inclusive education policies and practices to support positive learning environments that are respectful and welcoming to all
  • accountability and transparency with ongoing progress demonstrated and communicated to the ministry and the community (Ministry of Education, 2013)

The policy further goes on to state that “school board policies must be comprehensive and must cover the prohibited grounds of discrimination set out in the Ontario Human Rights Code. The code prohibits discrimination on any of the following grounds: race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, citizenship, ethnic origin, disability, creed (e.g., religion), sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, family status, and marital status” and the intersectionality that may occur within this list (Ministry of Education, 2013).

So what does this mean to teachers?

School boards must seek out barriers to learning for all students. Teachers therefore must also address barriers to learning due to factors such as race, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, gender, and socioeconomic status.

Through Policy/Program Memorandum No. 119, school boards, and teachers, must address barriers to learning that fall within prohibited grounds of discrimination set out in the Ontario Human Rights Code. This policy will impact all ways Ontario teachers conduct their business of education.

In the next few blogs, I will address some of the barriers to learning that students face based on their race, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and socioeconomic status.

If you would like me to address barriers to learning for a specific student group, please provide a suggestion below.

Collaboratively yours,

Deb Weston

References

Goleman, D. (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.-New York, NY: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). Policy/Program Memorandum No. 119: Developing and Implementing Equity and Inclusive Education Policies in Ontario Schools, Government of Ontario. Toronto. Downloaded from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/119.pdf

School year start up

Well we are already four weeks in and hopefully it has been a great start of the school year for everyone. I am now teaching a grade eight class, teaching math, science, history/geography, language, art and drama. I was overwhelmed at first thinking about all of the subjects I would be responsible for but I have such an amazing grade team so I am truly thankful for all of their support and activities that have been shared.

September is an important month to get to know your students for not only their likes and dislikes but just honestly, do they enjoy school? Every student has their ideas of teachers, rules, subjects, reading, the list goes on and on. Just listening to them talk to other students during class teaches you so much about their interests and about how they have been affected by various things in their past school years. By grade eight students either LOVE or HATE being in a school. I am now faced with the task of continuing to develop that love or trying hard to turn around the hate.

I have been looking at new apps, reading exciting activities for my class to try, looking at fun trips, trying to think of new clubs/teams and I am hoping that I will engage some students who have been disinterested in the past. It is definitely a year long task to try to engage and involve all students so I hope to continue on that journey each day.

On a personal note, as teachers we often feel many emotions at the end of each day. There are questions we ask ourselves and things we always wonder. The one I have been asking myself a lot lately is, “Did I get to everyone?” I feel that is the hardest thing to go home with at the end of each day. That is why I am trying this year to make a few notes on who to go to first the next day and then actually following up on those plans. I am fortunate to finish early at the end of my school day so I can finish all my school work around 3:30/4:00 pm. That gives me roughly six hours of “me” time! That time is so important for our mental health and it is something I am also hoping to focus on this year. Shopping. stair climbing, doing the laundry, making a fun dinner, watching an episode of my favourite show…just a few examples of things I can do each night to stay positive and enjoy each day to the fullest.

I am hoping to talk to my students tomorrow about how to use our after school time wisely to better ourselves and to really add to our day. Our day isn’t over after school and we should really do our best to enjoy the time we have to keep ourselves positive and to make the most of our day.

These are just a few things I have thought about as summer ended and our school year begins. These four works have not been the easiest as being permanent now full time in a very different setting has made me think differently but I am staying positive and really reflecting on the good at the end of each day and looking forward to working on new things the next day.

I am looking forward to posting every few weeks about exciting ideas that occur in my class as well as all the ways I am staying positive and making the most of each day!

 

Building a Community

School begins by building the student community. We invite guardians into the space and include them in building the environment.  Often this is done with a newsletter or email introducing the subjects and the adults whom have contact with each child.  Any special events or classroom supplies are mentioned to assist students with a successful transition into the new year. September is a great time to host a, “Meet the Teacher” event. This is a time when family are invited into the school.  They are able to see where their child is spending 1500 minutes a week. They are able to see what students are doing and where they do it.  Samples of the work students produce are displayed in and around the school. The learning environment set up and seating arrangements are unique to each area. Some educators will include special items to make the space inviting and safe.  These objects, such as specific lighting, and seating will be board approved to meet Health and Safety standards.

Getting to know the students begins the moment your class list is in your hands.  Every educator is responsible for reviewing and updating the IEP’s (Individual Education Plans) of their students.  This can provide valuable information about one’s learning.  A survey or the wonderful, “One Page Profile” is another way students can share more about themselves. This is complimented by a conversation with the individual.  Each board suggests specific assessment in each subject.  As an educator choose the assessment that will be most valuable to your curriculum direction and the individuals you are educating. Ensure it will provide information to direct your year plan and understand your learners.  Continuous contact with guardians is important to help develop the necessary inclusion of those in the student’s community. Some educators will call each home at the beginning of the year to introduce themselves. Some will send home a letter with information about themselves and the class.  Each day includes a variety of interactions.  If you begin slowly with non threatening activities that keep students within their comfort level, they will grow to be more receptive of inclusion and community building. The community circle for these students includes peers, educators, support staff, custodians, administrators, family members and many more. Community involvement helps grow the circle of support.

My year began in a similar way.  As I was gathering information and building the school community I reflected on many of the unique situations our students encounter.

One students’ parent has a brain tumour, another child’s father died in a motorbike accident yesterday. One individual got their first goal in hockey, and another preformed as a main character in the local theater group.  Everyone including your peers bring something different to their day.  It is important that what you see in that individual, may not be what is actually going on. Empathy, patience and a smile every morning can make wonders in a person’s life. The small steps of communication and goal setting will provide the school group with a strength based community who will support each other when they feel others care.

This is a valuable time to build the community in order to provide a safe supportive space for all. Congratulations on setting the stage and tone for the valuable learning that will happen this year.

 

https://www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2012/11/20/10-items-every-special-educator-should-have-in-their-classroom/

http://www.sheffkids.co.uk/adultssite/pages/onepageprofiles-1.html

http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/general/elemsec/speced/individu.html

https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/developing-assignments/group-work/group-work-classroom-types-small-groups