Sharing Expertise; AKA, How I Got Out of Teaching Dance

First, a brief introduction: I am a Grade 4 Middle French Immersion teacher in Ottawa. This is my fourth year as a homeroom teacher, third year as a permanent teacher. My entire (short) career has been spent at one lovely school in the heart of Westboro. I’ve never actually taught the same assignment two years in a row, but one thing has been constant since my first year at my school: I have never taught dance.

I started at this school in November of 2011. At the time, I was covering for another teacher who had taken parental leave. That year, dance had already been taught before I arrived, which suited me fine. I am not, you see, what one would call coordinated. At school dances, I was the type to stand around at the wall and pretend I was too “goth” for the dance and was only there to be snippy in the dark corner. At my wedding, I danced twice: once with my husband, then once again with family and friends.

Twice in my life, I’ve shown what I would consider minor, and I stress minor, proficiency in dance: Irish hard-shoe step dance (AKA have some rhythm and stomp your feet, no grace required) and Dance Dance Revolution (AKA understand video games and timing).

At the end of my first year of teaching, my principal revealed to the teachers at my school that she had purchased a class set of ukuleles for use in our (admittedly lacking) music program. None of us had the slightest clue how to play ukulele, but we were all pretty excited about the prospect of listening to a class full of miniature guitars (note: ukuleles are not, in fact, miniature guitars in any way) instead of a class full of recorders.

I took one home for the summer, watched a bunch of Youtube videos, more or less figured out how to play the ukulele, and was determined to have a successful second year.

Going into my second year of teaching, I was just so excited to have a contract, my own classroom, and a bunch of new kids that I didn’t stop to think about how I would, at some point, have to figure out how to teach dance to 27 Grade 5 students. It didn’t hit me, in fact, until I was sitting in the staff room one day at lunch listening to someone else talk about starting dance with their class that I realized (aloud, because that’s my style): “Oh god, I have to teach dance.”

Fortunately for me, I have a Grade 5 colleague who LOVES teaching dance. He has a knack for getting kids to buy into dancing – boys and girls, coordinated and uncoordinated, trained and untrained. It’s amazing! He happened to be in the staff room. He happened to hear the dread in my voice as I came to my realization only moments before. Without hesitation, he said, “I could teach your class dance.”

Wait, what? Can– can we DO that? Are we allowed? How does it work? All of these thoughts ran through my head, but the one that actually came out was, “YES, PLEASE.”

He explained, politely ignoring my desperation in favour of professionalism, that he had noticed my students playing ukulele in the hallways and would be interested in doing a class exchange so that I could teach his students how to play the ukulele.

Thus began our yearly autumn tradition of swapping classes one hour a week so that we could fill the hallways with awkward dancing and fumbling ukulele strumming without stressing either of ourselves out. He teaches my class dance, I teach his class ukulele, we report on these subjects for one another on the first report card, and the world continues turning. As an added bonus, I sleep better at night knowing that a bunch of ten year olds aren’t laughing at my remarkable lack of coordination.

I have since explored many other opportunities to trade classes with other colleagues so that we can benefit from one another’s expertise. It doesn’t always amount to reporting on another class full of students; sometimes we trade places just for a 40 minute block so that we can run an activity with a fresh group of faces and share some of our passion with them. What I’ve found, over four years, is that my students benefit from being exposed not only to other teachers and their unique teaching styles, but also from being taught a new skill by someone who really, honestly enjoys it.

I would strongly urge you to reach out to your colleagues and find opportunities to co-teach, trade places, or even swap classes regularly so that you can share some of your passions with them. There is room in the curriculum to connect your hobbies – and your life – with the students in your school, even if they aren’t “your” students. Their lives are richer for it, and so is yours!

Making Adjustments

As I read the previous additions by fellow bloggers, I look for connections to my own classroom, and what I see is the constant of change. We are all working with different age groups, but consider similar topics, such as adjustments to integrate technology, outdoor education, or making learning meaningful. Like others, I am continuously reflecting on my practice and making adjustments. As I am teaching in a new Full-Day Kindergarten classroom, there are many changes that the ECE and I have made in the last 8 weeks.

In September, our days were focused on establishing routines and building a community with our 27 children. The biggest routines were entry and dismissals, learning centres, and independent reading/quiet time. Then, as the children settled into these routines, we constantly re-assessed our schedule. We found that our children are so social, that independent reading is more like a book club with sharing and discussions. So, we now lead meditation and quiet breathing and stretching exercises after our reading block. Some of the children struggle with stilling their minds, while others have embraced it and look forward to this part of our day.

Adjustments to the classroom are also a constant in FDK. As interests in certain areas increase or wain, I change the spaces to accommodate the children’s interests and needs. I also change the materials. The basics in each learning centre remain the same, such as the blocks in the building centre, however, I may add recycled materials, clipboards and paper, or figures to encourage new relationships with the materials.

The planning has become one of the most challenging aspects of the FDK program, as there is no time for the ECE and I to sit down and exchange ideas. I continue to plan weekly with my Kindergarten teacher partners, then I convey ideas to my ECE while we are in the classroom together. I started off the year with my weekly plans in a binder on my desk (as I always previously used them). Then, I realized that it was more beneficial to enlarge them on an 11 x 17 inch page and hang them in the centre of the room where the ECE, and the Special Education Assistant can access the daily plans with ease. We are also using a web diagram to document the big ideas that are emerging in the classroom and the connections to the curriculum, which is visible to all.

Every day at our gathering circle, I start by asking the children, “How do you feel today?” As the children share their responses, I get a better understanding of what adjustments I can make to ensure it is a successful day for all of us. Making adjustments is just another way of being a reflective and responsive teacher.

The Power of Co Teaching

I have heard about the power of co teaching for some time now, but I have only had the opportunity to experience co teaching first hand in recent weeks.  I am sold!  Co teaching mathematics with my teaching partner and Family of Schools Math Coach challenges me and engages me in authentic context based professional learning.   For those who are not familiar with co teaching, co teaching is not synonymous with team teaching. In team teaching, the students basically have two teachers teaching them a lesson.  Each teacher takes a turn leading a specific part of the lesson.  When co teaching, one teacher is the Lead Teacher and the other is the Co-teacher.  The Lead Teacher teaches all parts of the lesson and the co-teacher is the “kid watcher” as well as “teacher watcher”.  For example, today I was the co teacher for a third grade number sense lesson.  In addition to paying close attention to the strategies my students were using to solve an addition word problem that required them to add two large numbers, I was also paying close attention to the probing questions the Lead Teacher asked the students.

Valuable learning occurs at a number of levels.  First, I value the opportunity to observe my students closely, recording every noteworthy observation, what challenged them, student “aha” moments, and evidence of understanding or confusion.  I am free to concentrate fully on my formative assessment.  On another level, I am also gathering data on the questions and instructional strategies the Lead Teacher used while teaching the lesson.  During the debrief (which usually occurs during lunch or a common planning time) we first focus on what the students were doing.  We assess the problem we presented to students, analyze the different types of responses students provided and we determine where we are going to go next.  For example today, we concluded that our students are ready to move on to adding and subtracting larger numbers.  We also noticed that many students use place value algorithms to solve addition math problems, but they don’t understand why they are “carrying a 1 over.”  We decide that we need to review grouping and tens and ones with my class.

After we have decided on our next instructional steps.  We then reflect on the Lead Teacher’s instruction.  How were the questions?   Is there a different way we could ask students a particular question?  How might we phrase questions in our next lesson?  On the days that I am part of a co teaching experience, I leave for home feeling confident about where I am headed in my math instruction and committed to following through on the next steps that were collaboratively planned.  For the next co teaching lesson, teaching roles will be reversed and I will be the Lead Teacher.

My teaching partner and I both value this professional learning and instructional strategy.  We are now looking for creative timetabling ways to make co teaching part of our literacy program as well. If you have an opportunity to participate in a co teaching experience, I strongly encourage you to go for it!