Something’s Old, Something’s New

I am at a new school this year and so I am once again learning new routines of the collective culture of the school community as well as the various cultures of the individual students. We have a big crop of Junior Kindergarten students and a handful of Seniors. So far, it is rolling merrily along. Yes, some little ones have had tears, especially a few of the ESL students whose separation anxiety is immense, and a few 3 year olds who are understandably confused about just how long they will be away from their families, but all in all, I think our crews are really coming together in a very happy way.

Last year, in the French Immersion senior kindergarten program at my previous school, the students alternated between a day of English with my colleague and a day of French with me. We were the ones who switched classrooms while the students remained in the familiar setting of their own classroom. We felt that the transition each day was far easier for us than for a whole group of 5 year olds, especially since the classrooms were down the hall from each other. It may have been easier on the students, but there were many times I was in room 3 and something key to the lesson I was teaching was down the hall in room 2…I have a hard time keeping track of my stuff as it is without constantly being on the move! Nonetheless, it worked rather well and it certainly cut down on the organization of the students’ belongings.

This year, in a different setting, my English colleague is right across the hall from me – in 2 giant steps I can knock on her door. Like last year, we, too, alternate a day of French Immersion with a day of English. We have named our two groups of students after trees – birch and maple – and on the bulletin board between our doors (we are at the end of a hallway) there are 2 arrows – one pointing to my room and the other pointing to hers. We switch the pictures of the trees each day so that students and their families know which classroom to go to, should they arrive late and miss our entry from the school yard.

I love having my own classroom again. I am able to concentrate on the one language in the signage and messages I post, and I am able to use all of the (limited) wall space for a French word wall, student work and our inquiry board (“Mur des merveilles”). Also, any resources in the room are mine or the school’s to be used for the French Immersion classroom. Perhaps the biggest improvement is the fact that I don’t lose stuff (as easily…). While there are the many positives, there is still the fact that the students can find such daily transitions very confusing – “Is my hat in this classroom or the other one?”, however we anticipate that that will improve as time goes by and the routine becomes more fluid.

At my previous school, only the teachers moved each day while the ECEs stayed with the students. This year, our principal has set up our program so that the teacher and ECE stay together while the students switch classrooms each day. His belief is that the ECE/teacher team is the most important relationship, and can only properly develop when both individuals are working side-by-side each day. I am very lucky in that I have a great relationship with my ECE – we have similar philosophies regarding every aspect of the program and we share a respect for each other’s knowledge and experience. I know it is not always the case and have heard of some extremely challenging relationships in the kinder program that would understandably make for a difficult year, but I can see myself learning a great deal working with my new teaching partner.

One thing we are still trying to hammer out is regular planning time involving all the kinder colleagues; teachers together, ECEs together, teacher and ECE together, and finally, both teachers and ECEs together. Not an easy thing to coordinate, but an important one. At the moment, we do what we can and we actually make it work, catching a few moments to chat, or grabbing opportunities to stay a little longer after school from time to time. The close proximity of the classrooms helps considerably, as well as the fact that, although the activities, projects and teaching style may be unique to each educator, we still work within the framework of the curriculum. There is always room for improvement, of course, and I expect that things will change down the road as the need arises, but at the moment, I feel as if it has been a pretty smooth start to the year.

The First 20 Days of School – Connecting with Students is a Great Place to Start

Teaching is always new! With a new group of students, fresh reflections on practice and the opportunity to start from scratch, as it were, the start of the school year provides teachers and students alike the opportunity to create new beginnings every year. Knowing this, what might some important considerations be to make it a great start? Chapter One of The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning: Practical Ideas and Resources for Beginning Teachers highlights four important themes for success: connecting with students, passion for teaching, attributes-based approach and importance of school culture. I would like to focus this reflection on the importance of connecting with students within the first 20 days of school as a means to establish an authentic relationship with students that fosters trust and inspires a willingness to take risks within a safe learning environment.

Renowned poet and author Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This profound sentiment holds true for teachers and their relationship with students in that when students feel respected, safe and cared for, the experience of learning is enriched. The following are five practical ways for teachers to build authentic connections with their students at the start of the school year:

1. Be authentic. When teachers model what it means to be an authentic learner – mistakes and all, students are then encouraged to take risks without fear of reprisal. Let your model of authentic learning influence students to do the same. This form of transparency sets the tone for fostering meaningful connections between teachers and students.

2. Ask students about their needs and listen. Validate student voice by positioning them as the experts on themselves. Invite students to share their learning needs and the things that you could do as their teachers that would support their success and commit to doing them. Conducting multiple intelligence and attitudes and dispositions surveys are great ways to begin the dialogue for students to articulate how you can support their learning and their level of self-efficacy.

3. Explore student interests. As teachers we all need to cover the curriculum but viewing the curriculum as a launching pad as opposed to a landing pad can invite student’s interests to take centre stage in the teaching and learning process. Ask students about their interests and find creative ways to invite further inquiry into them while exploring the curriculum at the same time.

4. Learn the students. In addition to the information that can be found in student records (i.e. OSRs), commit to learning more about your students in meaningful ways. Pronouncing student names correctly is important way to let students know that they are valued. Challenge yourself to learn at least five non-school related facts about each of your students. This can help to build a positive relationship and validate their experiences outside of the domain of the classroom. Finally, being aware of students personalities (i.e. introverts, extroverts, etc.) will inform how to relate to them as well as setting the conditions of the classroom experience.

5. Invite to student voice by fostering a reciprocal relationship with your students. Nurturing a collaborative learning environment for students does not merely mean giving students the opportunity to collaborate with each other, but it also means positioning students as collaborators with you. Partner with your students to design the learning space and learning opportunities. This fosters student ownership in the teaching and learning experience and empowers students to be meaningful contributors to the class. When you invite their voice in classroom decisions, ensure that it is validated by action on your part. Leveraging positional power in the classroom creates space for a more meaningful connection between students and teacher.

As teachers we are in the business of supporting students success. Fostering meaningful connections with students goes along way in promoting both student achievement and well-being. When students know that their teachers authentically care about them, their willingness to learn will support their ability to do well. Starting the school year with students in mind will set you on a solid foundation for building upward. Make it a great start.

This is not a drill. We are live.

Dawn of new year.
Dawn of new year.

It’s the first day.
I’m alone in my classroom.
Wow! It’s so calm in here.
And why not? It is nearly 2 hours before the first bell of the new year.

Why do I feel so excited? Yet, at the same time like butterflies are barfing in my stomach? 

We’ve all thought about it, dreamt about it, and for many, myself included, stayed awake the night before thinking about it. Our first day. Albeit,  only for a moment, or as part of lifelong “professional reflection”, the first day of school evokes feelings of anticipation, excitement, fear, or fearcitement (my word).

Did I set my alarm? Am I dreaming? What will my students be like? What about the parents? Will admin be stopping by our class? Is everything organized? Did I pack a lunch? Where’s my coffee? What if they don’t like me?

If you’re experiencing anything from self-doubt to euphoria to start the year, take heart; you’re not alone. Whether this thought life is old hat or brand new for you; congratulations you’re a teacher. For many entering the classroom for the very first time, it is the culmination of many years of hard work and dedication to our profession.

In this new era, just landing a job is worthy of celebration in Ontario. So when you get a moment, set aside some time to take it all in.

It seems like only yesterday. I recall being there 2 hours before the first bell. I recall the faces of students and parents meeting the “new” teacher outside. I recall the first big breath taken before entering the classroom. I recall the sense of accomplishment knowing I survived. Moreover, I recall this where I began to thrive.

Thinking back on the excitement from my first days of school; I  appreciate how they have led to personal growth, professional friendships and constant learning.

So take some time and enjoy the moments that can only happen on a first day of school. Take time to watch the parents who are seeing their child off for the first time. Take time to notice the student who is standing off to the side trying not to make eye contact. Take time to be still and appreciate the world of difference you are about to make in the lives of your learners. Take time to get caught up in the excitement, and let it carry you through that first day.

Enjoy every moment. I know I will too.

Will

To the Outdoors!!

The students and I often have a similar struggle when we return to school in September. After a whole summer of biking, running around and enjoying the great outdoors, we come back to school and spend a large portion of 8 hours a day inside. It can make you crave the sunlight, fresh air and make one or two of us a little restless.

To help with the transition, I try to do a few music lessons outdoors in September and October. It is amazing what you can do with instruments and sidewalk chalk.
If you have any kind of concrete outside your building, the possibilities are endless for using chalk instead of a pencil for a period. Early in September, I have my students simply start by drawing any musical symbols that they know. For some students, this requires a bit of prompting or visual cuing but others come up with a plethora of symbols. After doing this simple activity, I can begin to gather information on which students will need support and others who will require challenges when writing and reading music. I also like to go outside to review the musical staff with my junior students. We practice drawing a staff and placing all the notes they know on it. I also draw a giant staff outside and we do relay races to remind us of the placement of the pitches on the staff.

For the younger students, this is the time to let them experiment with a variety of instruments outdoors. The kindergarten and grade one students can make all the noise that they want without making the volume unbearable, as it would be indoors. I encourage my students to create as many sounds as possible with something like a rhythm stick, tambourine or found objects outside. The students begin to realize how to create different timbres of sounds which will come in handy for their future musical journeys.

Before you head for the outdoors, remember to:
Inform the office of where you are going to be. I e-mail my head secretary at the beginning of the week to let her know which classes I will be taking outside.
Take some sort of communication tool with you outside. Either a cell phone or a walkie talkie will work. That way, if a parent unexpectedly shows up to pick up their child, the office is able to reach you.
Finally, inform the classroom teacher of your intentions, so that they can have the students ready with jackets and outdoor shoes.

Overheard in my Ontario Classroom…
The creative process includes the very important element of sharing one’s work. Therefore, my classroom constantly has groups or individuals sharing their creations. In week two of my class, my grade two students had the assignment of sharing a poem using different kinds of voices. As one group of 4 began to recite their poem, one of the boys let out a very large fart. Shockingly, the class and the boys managed to keep it together and finish their poem very successfully. After the class applauded, the boys began to walk back to their seats. As they did, I overheard one boy say to the other: “I wish you would have waited until the end to fart. It would have been a really great finale.”

Adjustments in September

 

With all the plans we make for those first days and weeks in September, it is worth being open to making adjustments, for your benefit and the benefit of the students. Here are some examples of how I have adjusted the environment and the program in the first few weeks:

  • I have changed the layout twice. We were pleased to get 6 rectangular tables and 1 round table in the second week, but have rearranged them twice to suit the needs of the students. This means that there are two sets of tables put together seating groups of up to 12 students who like to work together, and one table seats only 4 students who require more personal space. I planned for an even distribution of students per table, but am responsive to their different requests regarding space and collaboration.
  • The area carpet was originally placed in one corner of the room for community discussions and knowledge building sessions. The students enjoyed these talks, but found it hard to get close when we are limited with only two accessible sides to the carpet for rows of chairs behind those who are seated on the carpet. So, I moved the carpet to the centre of the room and it connects to the small carpet area of our class library. Now there is less movement of chairs as students turn to the centre of the room for discussions and use the extended space of the class library to sit.
  • We took a Multiple Intelligence survey to get to know our own learning strengths and the strengths of all the students in the class. We continue to consider these and reflect on them by referring to graph compiled in the class to remind us.
  • I finally typed out my schedule last Thursday. It took me that long to juggle our literacy block and periods for Science and Social Studies with withdrawal for ESL and special education support. I have added 15 minutes of literacy to the end of our day when we review our agendas with a poetry cafe allowing dedicated time for the reading, sharing, and writing of poetry.
  • We introduced “Minutes for Mindfulness” each afternoon. After lunch and a transition for French class, some of the students had difficulty settling for a full-class discussion regarding our inquiry topic. I asked if they wanted to try some mindfulness techniques, and a new student shared a website/app called www.calm.com that his teacher used last year. This adjustment not only helps the students, but I benefit from the 2 minute relaxation exercises as well!
I am sure our class will continue to grow and change. Allowing for adjustments to your best made plans is necessary to be responsive in your teaching practice – and everyone will benefit.
Mike Beetham

The Power of Believing

It is not found in a curriculum, at an educational supply store or in a university course outline. But yet it is one of the most powerful tools that a teacher has. It is the belief in yourself to handle the varying demands of the teaching role, to have confidence in your professional expertise to help students and to instill that belief in each and every one of your students. As my students arrive in my classroom in September the one common element they have (besides a multitude of at risk behaviours) is the belief that they are not smart and that school is not a setting where they will do well. My target priority becomes the mission of helping my students be successful and to believe that school is a place where they will thrive and be triumphant.  This is easy said,  but experience has taught me that it does not occur in a few lessons or a unit of study but rather exists in my teaching philosophy and must be embedded in my talk, my instructional practices and my way of life in the school. I have developed a set of teaching eyes that focus on what students can do rather than what they can’t do. That is a contagious approach that will spread quickly from adults to children.

I would like to introduce you to J who arrived in my classroom with a very closed attitude toward school despite not knowing me, the school or the classroom he has been forced to attend. Before I could begin to help him I had to get to know him as a person and not a student. What are his interests, his talents and his challenges? Our journey of learning is now underway and it will have its ups and downs, joyous moments and sad times but we are coming together with the understanding that he will be successful, he is smart and that school is a not so bad place to be. I will keep you updated on our progress.

Let’s Get This Learning Started

This year I begin a new journey as I welcome the opportunity to teach Grade 4.  For the record, I must admit that I was a bit nervous simply because I’ve been teaching Grade 6 and above for the past five years.  However, the first week has proven that if we enjoy getting to know our students and work to create engaging opportunities for them to learn about each other, the classroom environment becomes a comfortable place to be, no matter which grade we’re teaching.

Although I’ve had to be more mindful of the way I communicate by constantly keeping in mind that the students in front of me just left Grade 3, I continue to be amazed at how capable children can be when they’re given guidelines for learning and are then left to explore and build on their understanding of the world around them.

This year, my goal is to be very intentional about the feedback I provide, the conversations I have, and how I approach character education.  This goal stems out of the learning I experienced (and continue to do so) with some very powerful books I decided to read this summer.  “How Children Succeed,” by Paul Tough and “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” by Carol S. Dweck, really got me thinking about the way I approach conversations, feedback, and teaching in my classroom.  The books focus on the power of building a strong character based on resilience in children and how to help them understand that more than our talents or abilities, it is our mindset that influences our learning.

If you want to start off your year by exploring how a simple idea about the brain can create a love of learning and a resilience that is the basis of great success in every area of a child’s life, I recommend you take some time this year to read the books I’ve mentioned.

For a quick overview, I’ve provided an article by Carol S. Dweck below where she explains the growth mindset and how it can positively affect and change the way students learn, think, and perform.

Dweck: MiindSets and Equitable Education

What a Difference A Year Makes

This time last year I had just returned from a seven-year absence from the classroom.  During the seven years I was working in various centrally assigned positions, I had many opportunities to visit K-12 classrooms across the Greater Toronto Area.  You could imagine my excitement!  I observed many effective lessons and teaching strategies, classroom set-ups and routines.  I couldn’t wait to adopt some of them for my own program.  As well, I felt my literacy and numeracy program in my last school and teaching assignment was effective and I planned on resurrecting many of those strategies and routines with my new group of students in my new school.

September 2011, I was teaching a new grade (grade 3) in a new school community. I expected my classroom management to be a tad rusty and it was, but there were many initial problems that I could have avoided had I not taken some things for granted.

Prior to leaving the classroom for central positions I taught grades 4 and 5 for more than half my teaching career.  I provided prep coverage to grade 3 students over the years, but I never had a third grade teaching assignment.  I expected grade threes to be similar to my grade fours in terms of social emotional development and their ability to work independently.  After all, it’s only a year difference…what a difference a year makes!    The students were so “little” compared to my grade 4s at the beginning of the year.  I started the year with the mind-set of a junior teacher. I didn’t expect that I would have to model routines such as using the pencil sharpener!  This year, I began the year thinking like a primary teacher.  I take time to model the simplest routines, over and over and over again.   My expectations are more realistic.

I believe in collaborative knowledge building.  My classroom set up has always reflected my beliefs about teaching and learning.  In my last school, I didn’t have desks in my classroom.  I had 6-8 tables and I never seemed to have a problem getting students to work both collaboratively and independently in this setting.  Naturally, when I was setting up my classroom last summer I immediately placed the individual student desks into groups of 4.  The fact that most, if not all, of the grade 2-7 teachers in the school arranged their desks in pairs didn’t register.  Sometimes I need to be hit with a brick to get a message.  My students were not ready to work in groups.  By the end of week two, my classroom looked like all the other classrooms in the school, with students sitting in pairs in long rows.  I hated it, but the students were more settled and were better able to focus.  I managed to finally get them into groups of four when we returned from March Break.

On the first day of school, I did my usual spiel about making smart choices.  I told the students that they could sit wherever they wished as long as they were responsible in the choice they made.  I warned students that if I felt their choice was interfering with our learning I would move students.  This always worked for me in the past. Of course I had to move students around, but it never was a disaster.

This year, I started the year with the students sitting in rows of two per group. I purchased three sets of calendar numbers and taped them to student desks, coat hooks and cubbies.  When we entered the classroom on the first day of school, I invited all students to stand at the front of the classroom.  I quickly reviewed odd and even numbers with the students.  I then invited the boys to hang their bags on an odd numbered hook, pick up their name card, and sit at the desk with the same number as their coat hook.  Next, I invited the girls to find an even numbered hook, pick up their name card and sit at the desk with the same number as their coat hook.  There were no problems at all.  I have groups of two, boy-girl groups.  I have shuffled a few students around, but it really made the first day, first week, first-month of school more structured and settled.  I think it is a bit of a compromise on my part.  I want to keep to my belief that students should have choice and control in the classroom, but at the same time, taking the pressure off of the students who are not ready to make those types of choices right now.  What a difference a year makes! 

This number system really makes planning for supply teachers and lining up so much easier as well.  Instead of having a floor plan prepared for supply teachers. All I need to do is leave a list, 1-22 with each student’s name beside a desk number. I can move the furniture around and not have to worry about updating my floor plan, just as long as I update my class list with desk assignments.  Students also know they must line up in their numbered order.  All their teachers have a copy of our class list with their desk assignments.  It has made transitions so much easier on teachers and students.  What a difference a year makes!

In the years I was out of the classroom, I guess I took for granted all the structure, the little details, that did exist in my past classrooms and the classrooms I visited that would go unnoticed by visitors.  Structure doesn’t necessarily mean that we are taking choice and control away from the students.

Talking and Listening Chairs

As I look back on this past week, I realize that I spent very little time teaching curriculum and more time working on life skills. I have two choices at this point. I could think, “Oh wow, I’m really far behind!” or “I’ve made a huge investment that I hope will pay off in the future.” I choose the latter.

My students have been coming to with me problems that happen at recess: someone left them out of a game, two friends were whispering something not-so-nice about them or they saw someone being treated badly and didn’t know what to do.

When we talk through these problems, it’s obvious to me that they have the answers on how to solve their issues, but they need a tool to help them do so.

So, I introduce the talking and listening chairs. One chair is marked “T”, the other “L”.

We use one of the problems that happened to illustrate how to use the chairs. For example, “Bill” was upset that “Megan” was not listening to his ideas when they were trying to solve a math problem together. So, Bill sat in the “T” chair and Megan sat in the “L” chair and each had opportunities to talk about what was bothering them and listen to how the other person was feeling. It quickly became evident that they was room for compromise on both ends and they seemed relieved to be able to move on from this problem.

Like most tools, the talking and listening chairs also have boundaries, which I discuss with my students:

* If the person you want to take to the chairs is not ready, you may need to wait.

* If you go out to talk, you will need to attentively listen as well.

* If the problem takes longer than 10 minutes to solve, you may need some help.

* When classmates are using the chairs, we can show respect by giving them some privacy.

* If there are many students involved in the problem, we may need to discuss it as a whole class.

When students ask to use the chairs, I keep track of what time they step out in the hallway and occasionally walk by the door, so the talking and listening remains positive and focused.

As a tool, it can be very successful at helping students who lack confidence to speak up when something is bothering them. I especially enjoy watching, when some of my students who are still learning English approach a classmate to say, “I need to talk to you.”

I have yet to teach a curriculum subject that is more rewarding than that moment.

Keeping It All in Perspective – Teaching Really is a Far-Reaching Profession

As teachers and former students ourselves, we know the impact that we can have on students. One just has to think about “rateyourteacher.com” or think back to our impressions of our own past teachers to realize how distinct and ingrained our memories really are. As we embark on another (or perhaps the first) year in the most “noblest of professions”, it seems like a good time to psych ourselves up with such inspirational thoughts before we are rendered irate and exasperated by that particular student who drives us nuts. I originally planned to address one of the suggested topics of discussion regarding your “most remarkable student” and how you were able to make a difference. In the process of reviewing the legions of young adults I’ve come into contact with in the past 10 years of teaching, I digressed and instead became sidetracked with the notion of time. Nothing brings home the quick passing of years like bumping into a former student who is now teaching your own children. For those of you who have also taught for a while, I’m sure you can relate. Mentally flipping through the faces of all my former students in search of the most remarkable brought to mind many who stand out for their compassion, their funny jokes, their temperamental nature, etc. There are also those who are memorable not only for who they were, but also for what they became – the suicide, the innovative scientist, the high school dropout, the successful entrepreneur, the teenage mother, the infamous actor, the murder victim, the accidental death. What struck me as interesting was that for both of us, we remain frozen in time and are lastingly perceived as a grade 8 teacher and a boy/girl of fourteen. All of which made me appreciate the fact that each year with every new batch of students, relationships, interactions and impressions are formed and will mutually impact us in a way that is more profound and enduring than we realize.