Monday, May 14, 2012

What Would You Do?

I currently have the great honor of participating in an online community of educators from Alberta, Canada. This community is working on improving education for all students with a focus on inclusive environments. While I am part of the community to model how an active community member participates, I am learning so much. And since inclusion is something very near and dear to my heart, I am trying to learn as possible from these dedicated educators while I am with them for four short weeks.

Today I clicked on a discussion thread titled, "What would you do?" The full question is "What would you do if you knew you would not fail?" and there is a wonderful TED talk to go with it. Even if you can't take the 25 minutes to watch the whole talk, I hope you can take a few minutes just to watch the beginning.

Oh! The possibilities! Sadly, it seems like people in my neck of the woods actually want you to fail. A new idea is a foreign, incomprehensible thought, and most people would rather wait patiently for you to fail and say, "I told you it wouldn't work!" rather that asking, "What can we do to make this happen?"

I, for one, want to think about what I could do if I couldn't fail. Here was my response on the discussion thread:

I will tell you what I would do. I would start my own elementary school. It would have a ratio of 10 students for every teacher, and each student would have their own individualized education plan. They would progress through the state standards not by grade level, but as they were ready to progress through them. And all of our learning would be project and passion based. Parents would volunteer a certain amount of hours per month, as their work permitted, and we would be a school where people would not say no. People would say, "How can we make that work?"
Enough of the, "It can't be done." Enough of the, "I told you it wouldn't work!" What would YOU do for kids if you knew you could not fail? 

A Little Disappointing

I was a little bit disappointed today. It was our culminating event for PLP, and I wasn't there. The thing is - I could have been there to share all the amazing work my Whole Teacher / Whole Child team did making connections. But I wasn't. And that's what has me so disappointed.

Let's go back a few weeks, shall we? In looking ahead to my May calendar I realized that our fourth grade Field Day was scheduled for the same day as our PLP culminating event. Field Day is a unique day for our students to put into practice all of the Phys Ed skills they have been learning throughout the year. Picture a high school track. Scatter 300 fourth graders and many parent volunteers around the track and surrounding fields. Now make some announcements calling students to their various events like the 400, potato sack races, hurdles, the basketball shoot, the 4x100 relay and long jump (this is just a few - I think there are over 20 different events running throughout the day for both boys and girls). Now, imagine those 300 students basically getting themselves to every single event without help from their teachers. It truly is an amazing sight - the kids love it, and I love being there to help out. I also recognize that my students who struggle is less-structured environments need support on Field Day, and having a substitute there was not going to cut it. With a heavy heart I knew that my PLP event was not in the cards - I had to be at Field Day with my kids so they could have the best day possible.

The decision was made, and I really didn't give it two thoughts. Until yesterday around 2 PM.

The weather, while beautiful on Mother's Day, was forecasted to be a downpouring nightmare today. The weather on Wednesday, our raindate, is forecasted to be BEAUTIFUL - 80 degrees F and sunny skies. So without further ado the PE teachers postponed Field Day to Wednesday. "Perfect!" I thought to myself. "I can still go to the PLP culminating event!" I quickly sent off an email to the appropriate people to see if I could re-request my substitute and started preparing sub plans for today.

And I waited. And I waited some more.

I sent another email including more people to see if I could go.

I pondered whether or not I should just request the sub and go anyway.

I waited. And pondered. And waited. And went to bed.

The response I was waiting for came around 8:15 this morning, and it basically said that we had made the decision to go to Field Day rather than the culminating event, and that decision was final. Done.

I was disappointed. My teammate who was supposed to represent our team was called for jury duty could not be there to share and get feedback on our project. We knew well in advance that the day was postponed so subs easily could have been secured, and we could have attended and represented not only our year 2 team but also our school and our district. Instead the decision was made, and it was final.

This is not the first time in the recent weeks that I have seen such inflexibility in education. It comes from all levels, it comes from many different people, and it always involves, "No."

"The decision is final."
"You can't do that."
"That will never work."
"What were you thinking?"
"I'm not doing anything different."
"Why do we have to change? It works just fine."
"Is this really THAT bad for the kids?"
"We just need to give it some more time."

When are we going to see that this type of inflexibility and unwillingness to try different things is what is killing education? We have got to be willing to try new things when the kids' best interests are at hand. We have to be willing to change our minds when teachers have the opportunity to learn. We have to be more willing to say, "Yes!" or, "Sure, let's give it a try and see what happens!" instead of always assuming that new ideas will never work.

The problem with education is not the tests. Or the lack of funding. (Okay, they're big problems, but I'm trying to make a point here!) People in education who are unwilling to look at things from a different perspective and handle every situation in exactly the same way are a huge part of the reason why public education can't keep up. With a, "No," or a, "That can't be done," we are certainly going to leave every child and every teacher far, far behind.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Perfect Timing

I suppose things just have a way of balancing themselves out when given a little time. As you could probably tell from my last post, going to work has not been at the top of my "Fun Things to Do List" for the last month or so. Perhaps at some point I can explain a little bit more about why that has happened, but for now I just need to leave it at that.

One thing will never change, though, no matter how frustrated I get with all the extra stuff: I love ALL my kids and cannot wait to see what they accomplish every day. Today the kids, the NUMBER ONE REASON I teach, reminded me how lucky I am to go to school each day.

Right now we are studying about the regions of the United States. Each student in my class and my partner's class were assigned a state (or Washington, D.C. because we have 51 kids in our afternoon class), and the kids spent two weeks becoming experts on their state. They learned about the climate, landforms, natural resources, animals, plants, tourist attractions... you name it, somebody probably discovered in in their research. The kids did have a graphic organizer to guide them to find our curriculum requirements and to serve as a place to record their thoughts so they were not completely independent for this piece. We worked on higher level reading skills like summarizing, main ideas and details, determining importance, and the basic, vital skills of accuracy, vocabulary and rereading for understanding. The students' learning contract stated that they must complete this portion of the research by April 27, and everybody did that!

After becoming experts on their state the kids joined together with students from both classrooms to synthesize their information. The students' goal was to find exactly how the states in their regions were similar. In most region groups students worked in partners to summarize and synthesize information about:

  • climate
  • landforms
  • industries & products
  • natural resources
  • wildlife
  • history
  • location
  • entertainment & attractions
  • culture

Our friends who learned about the states in the Southwest region, however, had quite the challenge ahead of them! They only had 4 people in their group so they had to work together and stay focused to meet their learning contract.

I never said that students could not help out others so immediately after finishing their assigned tasks, several groups went back to the others and asked how they could help. Some groups were eager to finish their work on their own, and they politely declined the help. Others, like our friends in the Southwest group, gratefully accepted the help and quickly filled their new assistants in on what needed done.

Today was the last day of working for our one group of students (we have two: an am class and a pm class), and the other group will finish tomorrow. But in both groups the same thing happened during our last two work days. I passed out the folders containing the groups' important work, and the kids immediately got to it. They were focused, they were on task, they were working to complete their jobs.

They didn't need me. At all.

Now, I'll be honest. I'm still not comfortable letting go 100%. I invited students to sign up when they felt they needed to meet with me, and if some didn't sign up, I still asked partners to come and meet with me periodically. I needed to make sure that they were on track to meet the deadline in their learning contract and to see if they needed any reteaching about their topic. Some students watched BrainPop videos on Landforms to help them review what we had talked about earlier in the year. Others watched a Brainpop about Westward Expansion to explain how the history of the West and Midwest is connected. We talked about ways to organize data from 12 or 13 states to summarize and synthesize more easily. The kids were eager to ask me questions and show me what they had done, and I was just as eager to say, "That's great! Show me what else you know!"

So they were not completely on their own - but they are 9 and 10. They haven't had much experience with student directed projects prior to this year. I see myself helping them develop good organization and work skills. I still see the need for reteaching and reviewing the content required by my curriculum. But I also saw four amazing classes of students who didn't really need their teachers the last two days. That is pretty amazing!

I can't wait to see what the groups decide to do with their projects, and I cannot wait to share them with you!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wrinkles and Holes

At my old school our guidance counselor would come in and do a few different lessons for the class. They ranged from helping with test taking anxiety, to being a good friend, to understanding the impact of bullying. One of them was always very meaningful to me, and I want to share it tonight.

Our counselor would bring in either a piece of paper or a board, hammer and some nails. As she told a story of a child being bullied she would crumple the paper or nail the nails into the board. In the usual manner of many kids' stories students would come to the aid of the the student being bullied, and everybody lived happily ever after.

Or so you thought.

After finishing the story, the counselor would uncrumple the paper or pull the nails out of the board. Think about that in your mind. What do you see? If you're picturing the paper, you see a piece of paper that was crumpled up. You can smooth it, rub it, iron it even. But the faint signs of those wrinkles will always be there. And what if you pictured the board? You saw all the holes left behind by the nails. Sure, you can fill them with putty. You can sand and paint. But really, truly, deep down, that board will always have holes in it.

I was reminded about this story today because I got lots of positive messages throughout the day - thank you messages for teacher appreciate day, funny comments and compliments and hugs from the kids. So many positives. And yet one hurtful comment, and all I'm left with is a hole. Some wrinkles.

I'm 37. If this is how I feel after one hurtful comment from an adult, how must our students feel when they are barraged with negative messages from teachers throughout the day? I can't even imagine.

I hope you did not create any holes or wrinkles for anybody today. And if you did, they'll never go away. But I hope you'll try the best you can to mend them.

No, Really

Just because the students were in the classroom doesn't actually mean they learned anything. It requires a little more than that.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

It's Not About the Grown-Ups

Teaching isn't about the grown-ups. It's about the kids. It's about making kids feel as though anything is possible and they can accomplish everything they want. It's about making sure that all of our students feel like rock stars.

The last few weeks I have been reading The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco to my class and using it as a mentor text for a variety of skills and strategies. If you've ever wondered about the impact one teacher can have, I highly recommend you read this story. Bring your tissues, my friends.

I also read something on my cousin's Facebook wall today. It said:

Fair isn't everybody getting the same thing. Fair is everybody getting what the need in order to be successful.

This is what we all need to remember. It's not about the adults. It's about the kids. What have YOU done to make things fair for your students today? What have you done to make them all feel like rock stars?