Friday, October 5, 2012

Lost At Sea

These days I often find myself comparing my job as a teacher to the popular show Deadliest Catch. If you've never seen the show before, it follows the captains and crews of crab fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. How I can compare life as a teacher with life on a crab vessel? Some days you sail along on a beautifully calm sea, everything going your way and then BAM! There are stormy waters, you're being tossed about in the gigantic waves, and you're wondering if you'll ever be able to right your ship and sail on to your intended destination.

I'm currently in the tossed about / lost as sea part of this comparison, and I'm hoping some of the wonderfully knowledgable members of my PLN will be able to help.

There are several different things that have me floundering and adrift. The first is the fact that we are just about 6 weeks into the school year, and my kids are still struggling to get into the routine of doing school. We have seven specific jobs they're responsible for as they come in each morning, and most of them are just your general, be ready for the day type things that take all of a minute or two to finish up: attendance, unpacking, stashing stuff in lockers, bathroom breaks, sharpening pencils, picking new Read to Self books and a quick 5 question morning assignment. Everybody has at least 15 minutes to finish this and some have 30. These jobs are listed on a reminder chart we made and hung on the wall, each student has their own checklist on their desk, and as I'm greeting my kids at the door I'm giving verbal reminders. Even with these reminders in place and the relative ease of the tasks, my kids just aren't getting them done. It may not seem like a big deal, but each day as soon as I start teaching, kids are trying to get up to sharpen pencils, asking to go to the bathroom, and asking to get something out of their locker. As we're getting ready to do our Read to Self, they are trying to pick new books. I say now when I can, but whether I say no or they need to do it, all of these things steal learning time.

Am I missing something? It's not like these are assignments the kids can't connect to - they are just the jobs we need to do to be ready for the day.  Even so, I feel like I have done something wrong, like I have made a mistake. I feel like my extended absence due to pneumonia may have created this problem  and my trip to Philly to participate in PLP Live made it worse. I blame myself for not providing the consistency they needed to get into this routine. And now I'm not sure how to turn them around.

The other thing that has me floundering is that many of my kids struggle with focusing issues. Please don't think that I mean I expect my kids to be sitting in their seats, hands folded neatly and listening quietly to me for 6.5 hours a day. I really do understand that these are 9 and 10 year olds. We transition often, as in every 10 - 15 minutes, from chairs to the floor, from teacher directed class lesson, to group work to independent work. We face the front of the room, we face the back of the room. Kids can choose where to work. They can sit or stand at their desks, sit or lie on the floor. There is a lot of movement in my room to give my kids breaks, and we do lots and lots of different activities. I'm also making a conscious effort to tie my students' interests into the work that we are doing in class.

It almost seems like since I have taken them out of their seated in rows, be quiet except at recess scenarios, that they have lost all control. They're constantly trying to make faces at each other, to whisper *loudly* to each other across the room, to do silly things to get under each other's skin. We review our routines - they know what to do, yet they struggle to actually do it. I feel like I have failed them because I can't plan activities to engage them, and I can't give them the strategies they need to stay focused, work together, and complete their tasks.

I'm making it seem like these storms are happening all the time, and I know that's not true. I've seen discussions between partners and groups in science, math, social studies and language arts that make my heart pitter patter from happiness. But it's hard to remember those placid days when so many 60 foot waves are whipping up and slamming your boat from every side.

We sat down as a class today, and we talked about it. I explained how I was feeling (figured it would be a great idea to model the I Statements I'd like them to use), and I asked the kids what suggestions they had to solve these problems. I think this may have made me the saddest of all. The only suggestions I got? Punishments:

  • pull cards
  • names on the board with checkmarks
  • taking away recess
  • taking away tickets or chips
  • moving sticks
I jumped in after these suggestions and many more and talked about the fact that these were all punishments, things I would do AFTER they made the wrong choice. I shared that I'm more interested in strategies that would help kids do the right thing in the first place. Did the kids have any ideas of strategies we could use that wouldn't be punishments? They didn't, but at least they could chime in with a, "Oh, that's a punishment." I lie. There was one that wasn't a punishment: getting a prize for earning all the marbles in a marble jar. 

So I'm not sure where to go from here. My kids are good kids; their behaviors are not mean or spiteful, but dealing with the behaviors is costing me a lot of instructional time. I really do not want to have to start an antiquated, punishment based, embarrassment... I mean management system, but I'm not sure what else to do. I want to continue to try and implement student focused lessons and choices throughout my day, but I feel like maybe that freedom is causing the problem. Or maybe something else I'm doing is causing the problem. Is it just growing pains? Will we eventually get there? Is there something I'm missing? Is it me?

Help me out friends. Talk to me about what you're thinking after reading from an outsider's perspective. I'm seriously drifting this Friday evening.


Tammy (@tammytherosoto) said...

Hi Becky,
Even though your journey seems rocky right now, you're truly doing a lot of good things with your class to keep the ship afloat. Just writing about your frustrations in your blog shows you care about your kids. Your reflections may have even brought up some solutions to you! Here are some other ideas to help you. Take what you can. 1)Up the praise to kids who are following the morning routine. Point them out to the class, "Eg. Thank you Becky for putting on your shoes so quickly. Oh and look, Jordan has his shoes on too. Great job. Do this everyday. Pick different kids- really pay attention and take the time to acknowledge them. This way, they know how important the routine is. In grade one, we make a sticker book for each student and we reward with little stickers whenver kids are on the right track with following routines. They love collecting stickers. It sounds like you have your own reward system too. 2) Bathroom. Review the procedure and tell them why (time away from the classroom is missed learning).Perhaps for the first bit, tell them there will be no bathroom breaks until recess, beause you're so worried about them missing learning. If they come early in the morning, remind them to use the bathroom. Then make sure before you dismiss for recess you tell them to use the bathroom. Of course there will be exceptions for bad bathroom but generally, kids this age should be able to do it. 3) Pencils - have a sharpened basket and a dull basket. When kids need to sharpen their pencil they simply put it in the dull basket and take a pencil from the sharp basket. No more pencil sharpener. You can have a student sharpen pencils for you as a special job at the end or beginning of each day. 4) Kudos to you for changing up the classroom environment. What choice kids have! Remind students that it is a privilege to be able to sit on a couch or on the floor or beside their friends. For those who really can't handle it, pull out a desk and have them have permanent spots until they can show you they can handle it. Even kids who sit on the floor, some may need masking tape put on the floor with their name on it so that they always sit up close or away from someone else. This is not permanent but only until they can show you they can handle the different structure. You want kids to be in charge of their learning and to make independent choices about their learning but they are still young, and have to be guided. You are there to guide them. 5)Reading - give kids 2-3 minutes to choose their reading book for self-reading. Put the timer on. When the timer goes, they should have 1-2 books and take to their reading place. Now, during self-reading time, no one is to get up and change books. Practice for 5 minutes. Even tell them you're going to be watching them for this time. Stop them after 5 min and praise them. Tell them next time we're going to try for 10 min (or whatever time you feel they can aim for). You are teaching them how to build their reading stamina. If kids are reading chapter books they can always keep in their desks for next day so that they don't always have to go choose a new book everytime it's self-reading time. Becky, you're a chosen captain and no one ever said being a captain was easy. We all experience what you're experiencing. Our challenges make our job enjoyable. Remember,it's okay to send out an SOS signal for help. Good luck and keep blogging!

Patti Grayson said...

Oh my gosh, Becky, you could be talking about my 4th grade classroom... Next week is the end of our first term, and I am STILL fighting to get these kids to come in and do what they need to do!

I've been brainstorming here for both of us... What if we recognized the students who complete morning assignments in a timely fashion on the board or on a sheet in the hall?? Could there be a reward/recognition for kids who do it for the whole week on Friday? I need to remember to try to use positive reinforcement first...

That said, sometimes I think until you make it uncomfortable for them, they don't get that you are serious. The first time I kept a handful of students with me to finish morning work while the rest of the class went to P.E., it made a real impression. The rule is simple... If you play when you should be working, then you will work while everyone else is playing. I can be so mean...

Your second issue sounded pretty familiar too... The first year I took my desks out of rows and held mini-workshop type lessons on the carpet and instituted more collaborative work was an unholy disaster. The kids on the carpet couldn't keep their hands to themselves, and groups couldn't stay focused! It seemed that the desk was somehow tied to "work time" and once I pulled them out of it, they were out of control. It's hard for these kids to switch to a less structured environment. I have some that ask if they can sit at their desks! It's what they know. This is an adjustment at the beginning of every year...

So I wonder what we can do at the beginning of the year to help kids acclimate to a different style of teaching and a different classroom atmosphere. How can we give them a bit of freedom and still maintain some order??? I'd love suggestions on this as well.

Becky Bair said...

Tammy, thank you so much for all of your wonderful suggestions. Many of them I already do, but it was nice to hear you suggest them to reinforce what I am already trying with the kids.

Patti, your question at the end I think hits the nail on the head. What can we do to help them acclimate to a different atmosphere? And the flip side of that, are we doing our kids a disservice by setting up our classrooms like this and then sending them on to a more traditional classroom in 5th grade? So many things to think about!

Heidi Hutchison said...

Hi, Becky!
It is so hard to establish routines and get started. I often feel like that in my math class when I do what is supposed to be a five minute warm-up that turns into 15 minutes because of transitioning issues. I really began thinking, what if I didn't get paid for my job, would I still come in and do it? I struggled with what I thought students should just do and what they need a little help being motivated to do. This is what I came up with...I pay my students "Hutch Bucks" for jobs around the classroom. Our jobs range from Plant Feeder to Line Leader to Homework Checker. Every person has a job in my classroom and they can only have the privilege of doing that job if they do what is expected of them. So, if they don't do their homework repeatedly, or write their homework down and sharpen pencils and are prepared for the day, they do not get paid for doing their classroom job. We had a discussion of how much each job should be paid which was awesome! It led to a pretty in depth discussion of why people make more money than others. They also wanted a salary even if they were absent. This led to a discussion about what led to getting paid a salary which was a college degree most of the time. I explained they didn't have that so there would be no salary. They also chose their rewards which had to be non-material. They came up with "Cloud Time" (they go outside and lay down and look at what the clouds look like), "Brain Breaks" (short little video clips I have collected which are on my Pinterest Board), "Extra Recess", "Lunch with the teacher", etc. I can send them if you wish. Anyway, at the end of every week, I get on my computer, type their name in and now they are writing their own checks in which I sign. Low management and extremely motivating! I am teaching financial literacy and they are feeling independence and motivation at the same time. Hope this helps!
Heidi Hutchison

Lani said...

Kudos for the changes you have made in your classroom.

Even at 9 and 10, kids have become "schooled" and all they know is punishments.

My guess is it is going to take a while, it will take instructional time, but in the end it is worth it.

Thinking back on my years with identified kids, many of them thrive on structure- they're getting that from you in the AM.

Tammy keyed in on 3rd person cues-- and I've found them really effective-- the "It's really good to see Steve getting his pencil sharpened before we begin."

I also found, that instead of reminding, I'd ask what should you be doing now? and if they were bewildered and often some of my kids were, I'd ask them to look at their checklist. Where were they on the list? what had they checked off? And, of course, then some couldn't find the check list. :-)

When they get really silly, or whisper loud across the room, I used a lot of proximity-- was next to them using a 3 person cue for somebody else doing the right thing.

The last thing that seemed to work for me was personal comments, while I was teaching or when kids were supposed to be working in groups and someone was not doing what they were supposed to, I'd walk over and whisper in their ear, a conversation between just them and me and remind them what they should be doing and give them an option-- you can do this or ----, what do you choose to do

I'm sure you're doing these already, don't give up on them.

Hope you don't mind my 2 cents worth--

Becky Bair said...

Heidi, that is a really creative idea. I need to think about that! Thanks so much for sharing.

And Lani, your 2 cents is always worth at least $5! You're right - I'm doing a lot of that, but like I told Tammy, it sure is nice to hear it from somebody as knowledgable as you... confirms that I'm on the right track and shouldn't give up.