Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reflecting on Change - Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of posts I started for Middleweb. You can read the first parts of our story herehere and here. This fourth post is being published here on Teach 'n' Life for the first time.

Brighter Skies

In some ways the middle point of the school year can seem very much like the beginning of the new year. While the floors aren’t sparkling and you already have a tremendous amount of knowledge about your kids, there’s still something special. Maybe it’s that the kids have finally started to trust us, maybe it’s the fact that things are finally starting to “click” for them. Whatever the reason, I find the middle of the year to be a really exciting time because I’m anticipating all of the growth that can happen and the goals that can be achieved over the next 4.5 months.

Even as we’ve been teaching, the three of us have each spent a great deal of time researching ideas about how we could do things differently in our classrooms and what we could do to transform learning for our students. Some of these ideas have been tremendously successful, and some have been epic failures. But even in those failures we’ve been able to pick up the pieces, learn from what didn’t work, and prepare even better ideas for “the next time we try this” whether that’s this year or during the 2013-2014 school year.

And yet, even with all of the successes we’ve had this year and even though so much time has passed, the clouds are still here, and the thunder still rumbles.

We’ve been labeled by some. You’re “the low team” and “nothing good is going to happen when parents figure that out,” they say. They can talk all they want. My teammates and I took on this issue head on at our Parent Night in August. We explained why our team looked different, and our feelings about why the other type of team set-up didn’t work well for all students. One point that we made is that our team was not just about academic levels; students were also placed on our team because their third grade teachers felt they could benefit from fewer transitions or opportunities to be positive leaders. We tried to fight fire with fire, and by being open and honest with the parents about our team and the many reasons students were on it, we took the rumor-mongering power away from the nay-sayers.

There’s anger from those who teaching assignments were changed and disdain from individuals who wanted to stay in the same place but now have to work with “those people.” This can be especially frustrating, because as you’ve read, we wanted teachers to have a voice. Our co-workers chose not to speak up and left the assignments to the administrators. We’ve grown to accept their anger and unkind words. We’ve found our own spot to each lunch, we spend time with those who are positive and avoid those who are negative, and most importantly, we focus on the kids. Truly these angry people are simply looking for attention and by not giving it to them, we come out on top.

In addition to the clouds and the thunder, there is some rain. We’re officially on school improvement due to the scores of our subgroups, and this label coupled with our district’s stated focus on having a growth mindset has presented presents numerous challenges in terms of instruction, intervention, and reporting.
  • Here - look at the test results from last year’s state tests, see what areas your kids need to work on, and create an instructional growth plan to meet those areas of weakness.
  • But here’s the new progress report with the skills greyed out in certain marking period. So no matter what your instructional growth plan said, here’s what you’ll be teaching each marking period.
  • This year we’re all going to have a growth mindset about our students and our learning. We’re going to focus on student strengths and how we can help them be successful.
  • But wait, your students will be grouped based on single sets of test scores. And here are the tests that your students won’t pass, but they need to take them anyway even if it makes them cry. Oh, and they’re required to graph their scores so they can see how they do. Don’t worry if they only get 7 or 8 right and that upsets them. If their scores go up 4 points total on reading and math, we’ll give them a pencil and that will make everything all better.

While there is a tremendous focus on test scores and our hands are seemingly tied, we have chosen to continue to make our priority the emotional well-being and growth of our kids. It can be fairly risky to fly in the face of guidelines to use specific scripted programs for guided reading groups, but we have the data to show that our students’ needs are beyond the needs of those scripted programs. And we also have the data to show what we are doing, strategy and skill based groups, is allowing our students to make progress with both their fluency, decoding, and comprehension.

In addition to all of the outside storms we are weathering, we’re creating a few of our own clouds. Because we know people are waiting (hoping?) for us to fail, we realize that we are putting a lot of pressure on our own shoulders. The realization that you’ve asked to work with the most struggling learners during these times of warning lists and evaluation by student achievement is a scary prospect. But scarier than that is knowing the situations from which these kids come from. Some sad, sad situations. The thought of creating a loving, caring, growth focused environment for a student who has never known one is far more daunting than making sure they pass the test. We want to do what’s best for the kids, and we want to show all of those people who’ve doubted us that they were wrong. That our kids CAN be successful when given the opportunity to do so. Using a strength based approach to planning has really helped the three of us share those pressures, and since “All of us are always better than one of us,” we have been able to share insight about the kids so we can come up with plans that will meet all of our students’ needs.

Despite the fact that I seem to be sharing a lot of challenges, there is blue sky filled with white, puffy, fair-weather clouds. And sunlight. These are our kids. Kids who refused to try at the beginning of the year are running up to the board to solve problems, even if they aren’t sure they actually have the right answer. These are the kids who are raising their hands, sharing their thoughts, and taking risks even when their ideas are different from others. And these are the families. Consistent, open lines of communication have allowed us to develop relationships with parents and guardians to help the kids complete homework, address concerns, and talk through problems. We’ve also got several parents coming in and volunteering their time in the classroom to make the students’ learning experiences even better.

And it’s the three of us becoming better teachers. We are constantly questioning what we are doing, why we are doing it, and if there’s a different strategy or tool we could us to help our students make connections and apply the information they’re learning.

I think this meme I found on Facebook really sums up the crazy “weather” we’ve had these last 5 months:

Just like the actual weather, we know there will be bright beautiful days, and there will be challenging stormy days as the year goes on. In the end, if we continue to focus on the kids, work with their parents as partners in learning, and continue to be open and honest with our communication with our team we will be able to hold our heads high and be proud of what we have accomplished for our kids.

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