Saturday, January 28, 2012

When You Follow Your Students

How often do students have ideas for something fun they want to do, and we gently push those ideas away, for fear that steering off our planned path would get us behind in the skills we must teach? What would happen if instead we say, "Yes! What a splendid idea! How should we go about doing it?" Would it be such a waste of time to listen to and follow our students' ideas, even if they don't align with what our grade level is supposed to be doing?

Three of my girls came to school excited with such an idea one morning. "Mrs. Pilver, can we do a science fair?" they ask, looking at me with their fresh open faces. "Look at this book that Anna has found! It is all about how to do a science fair! The whole 4th grade could do it! What do you think?"

How would you respond? What goes through your head at a time like this? That science fairs are done at the middle school and not something 4th graders do? We have to do water cycle, ecosystems, electricity, forces and motion units! We have test prep and grammar lessons and so many math skills to cover, how could we possibly fit in a science fair? Or, oh no, this sounds messy and unmanageable, how could I ever do this!

Or do you think, this is an opportunity for my students to engage in something they are interested in and take ownership for the process and the learning. How exciting! Now, how can I align this to my goals?

"Of course we can!" I responded. "Put yourself on the meeting agenda and talk to the class about your ideas."

Our class did the science fair. (The rest of the 4th grade teachers said, "No.") We figured it out together. It was a mini 4th grade version of a science fair. And it was wonderful! I used it as an opportunity to teach the scientific method. Students learned how to ask questions, make hypothesis and draw conclusions. They learned how to find experiments to do and how to ask their parents for help to gather the materials. They learned how to use materials carefully and respect each others experiments. They learned how to make attractive display boards that would teach judges what their science fair project involved and what they learned from doing it. All students were engaged, on task, and successful. And when I asked them how they liked doing the science fair, their response was, "It was the best day ever!"

Teachers complain about students being disengaged or misbehaved. Is that partly because students have figured out that school is about following teachers? What magic could happen if we follow our students instead?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is balance and health possible to achieve when you teach?

I left teaching 13 years ago because I was getting burned out. Burned out and sick. I could not see myself staying in the teaching profession for the rest of my career. I got so overwhelmed and behind in paperwork, that I missed the renewal notice for my teaching certification. I lost my job which forced me to find a new one. It was a blessing in disguise.

I got a new job working for a regional education service center as a literacy and technology specialist. During my time off from teaching in the classroom, I became the healthiest I had ever been in my adulthood. I found time to learn about good nutrition and health, slowly incorporating healthy food, exercise and balance into my life.

As I spent time in schools all across Connecticut, I noticed so many of the teachers I met seemed to sacrifice their own health needs for their teaching career.  Many teachers were not eating well, they were gaining weight in their hips and bellies and getting sick often. They were stressed, out of balance and overwhelmed. They ignored the signals that their bodies are giving them  which can eventually lead to illness. It seemed that teachers just accept that fact that during the school year they will give up healthy habits and make up for it in the summer.

After 10 years of working for the educational service center, I came to realize that I needed to return to the classroom. Although I was really good at nurturing my health, I was no longer serving my spirit. I was being asked to provide training and support for state mandates, and I did not want to be an advocate of practices that I did not believe served our students. I knew in my heart that teaching kids was where I was meant to be. I needed to be true to my beliefs about teaching and learning, and the only place I felt I could truly do that, was in the classroom. I promised myself that when I went back to teaching, I would find balance between teaching and my life, keeping my optimal health a priority.

My first year back was extremely stressful and hard on my health. I realized that it was the first year, and it would get better as I learned about the new school, the curriculum and got myself organized. The second year was better, but bad health habits were starting to creep in. I often stayed late even though I was exhausted at the end of the day. I nibbled on chocolate provided at meetings, grabbed treats left in the staff room and rewarded myself with candy at the end of the day. I cut down on exercise, making deals with myself that I'd catch up on the weekends. My home life suffered because I was either too busy preparing for school or too tired. I told myself that it was the second year and it would get better.

The third year I became chronically ill. I had come down with a virus in the spring that led to laryngitis. The cough that followed the virus never left me. I had it all summer and still had it when I returned to school. After seeing a pulmonologist, an allergist, and a gastroenterologist and going on inhalers, allergy meds, and acid reducers, I decided I needed to take a good look at my own health habits. I knew that I was never going to get well if I could not achieve balance in all aspects of my life.

So, is balance and health possible to achieve when you are a dedicated teacher? I believe it is. And I am going to work to achieve it. It will take a conscious effort to look carefully at the things that bring me stress and work at ways to eliminate those stress-ers. It will mean carefully noticing how I respond to stress and make changes that help me deal with it in a healthier way. Most of all, achieving health will mean adding healthy habits to all aspects of my life; at home and at school.

What do you do to stay healthy and balanced during the school year?

Stop Correcting All of Those Papers!

I hate correcting papers. It is one of those mundane tasks that I procrastinate doing until I have a huge pile of papers, causing me to feel overwhelmed and stressed.  I've been working on ways to reduce the amount of correcting in order to eliminate this stress-er from my life.

Student Self-Correcting
When I sit home correcting papers, what is it really doing for kids? Even spending time writing detailed feedback on their papers isn't a guarantee that they will read it. As much as I can, I am building time into the day for students to correct their own work. This provides them with immediate feedback instead of waiting until I get around to checking their work. We often correct papers together and although it takes time, the children enjoy the feedback and I enjoy the one less paper to correct.

I often provide copies of answers, which students use to correct their work. I usually do this for AM work. Students know to show their self-corrected paper to me before they put it in their mailbox to go home. That way I can do a quick check and reteach if needed, as well as give them a positive comment for what they have done well. Again, instant feedback and one less paper to correct!

Less Worksheets and More Meaningful Activities
It is so easy to get seduced by an attractive worksheet. But if I was a student would I be thinking to myself, "I can't wait to get to school! We are going to be doing worksheets today!" Before making copies of that worksheet, I've been trying to think about other ways that the concepts on the worksheets could be taught. With worksheets, who is doing most of the work? I am! I copy them, I organize them,  and I correct them. I am trying to instead think about how I can put the bulk of the work into the students' hands so that they produce something that is more relevant to their lives rather than do isolated worksheet practice items.

Correct the Paper While Students Work on It
I often do this during math. As I walk around to check in and help students, I also correct the items that they have done so far. Even if I don't get all of the papers corrected, I am reducing the number of items that I will later have to correct AND students are getting immediate feedback as they work.

Correct Tests and Quizzes As They Finish
When my students complete a test or quiz they know to do only one thing, read! When I see a student reading, I take their test and correct it. I keep correcting until all of the papers are done. Students are busy reading and that is never a waste of time. Once again, I can show them immediately how they did and help them with areas they struggled with on the spot.

These are strategies I've tried so far and I will continue to experiment with ways to reduce my correcting time. What strategies do you use?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I Stopped Policing My Class as They Walk Down the Hallway

I stopped owning my students' behavior as they walk down the hallway. They know what the expectations are and why it is important to use whisper voices. Reminding them, pulling them out of line if they talk too loud, having them go back and try it again...none of that works. Maybe it does for that moment, but it all begins again the next time we walk down the hall. So I asked students what they think we should do. How could we solve this problem of talking too loud in the hallways? Their solution was to play the "1,2,3 Quiet Game" and as soon as I said those words, they'd be quiet. If they made it the entire way, they could get a marble in a jar. We tried that. But, it really didn't work. I still had to monitor, manage, and police their behavior.

I decided that they needed to own this line behavior. They needed to monitor themselves. So I told the class that whoever was the line leader that week would be the person in charge. That person will determine how the class did and if he or she felt the line was marble worthy, he or she would give them a marble.

I no longer police my class line. I step right in line with them. If I hear someone talking loud, I don't say a word. The Line Leader stops at a few stopping points along the way so the class can catch up and monitor themselves. Once the line is quiet again, the Line Leader begins again. When we get back to the class, the Line Leader either gives a marble or not.

Walking down the hall has become a pleasant time for me. I always start out with "Okay, Abby (or whoever the line leader is that day) is ready to do her job! She is in charge. One, two, three, quiet game!" Then off we go. Their line behavior was never this good when I did the reminding, warning, and policing.  What other things can could my students be in charge of?