“You are a wonder.”

Not writing for 3+ months has been trying to my soul. A lot of professional writing went into my first trimester report card narratives and the creation of my digital portfolio in the late fall. I think I felt as if I had no words left inside me. Then the holidays. Then a month of illness and a winter slump. With spring awakening outside, I find myself compelled to write this evening, so I am taking advantage of the inspiration while it strikes.IMG_8283

What triggered it? The crocuses in my garden. The amazingness of my fourth graders. Finishing our read aloud novel this afternoon. The title of this blog post is the last line of our book, Wonder by R. J. Palacio, and the words have been tumbling in my head all afternoon. What follows is effectively a love letter to my students.

I absolutely delight in the crazy chaos that is fourth grade. At the moment, I think I’m noticing a “Storm” phase, a term that comes from adventure experience. I was trained in the past year to facilitate groups on our campus Challenge Course, which I wrote about last August. While I don’t actually take fourth graders on the course, I DO use my facilitator training every single day in the classroom. And right now, the kids are a bit squirrelly and their social relationships are fraught with challenges. It’s the very beginning of the emotional disequilibrium that many people associate with middle school and the tween/early teen years.

Yesterday, I decided to try something different with the kids. The day before had come with multiple reports of unkindness or lack of inclusion, and I thought about our next steps. I offered my idea to my teaching partners with the caveat that it might fall flat and be an utter failure. “Okay. Fail forward.” Bless them! That is the kind of support for innovation that I love about my school in general and specifically our fourth grade team. I corralled some early arriving fourth graders, and we set up for a sounding.

A sounding? I learned about this in my facilitator training and have experienced powerful listening and sense of community through it. We made a circle of chairs and created a safe space to speak. I won’t go into the details of the process or the directions, but it was amazingly beautiful. The kids just blew me away with the way that they listened to classmates and created a safe container for each other to speak or stay silent as they chose. I couldn’t stop talking about them yesterday and singing their praises. Our Challenge Course Manager (and one of my CC mentors) was astounded to hear that fourth graders had held a sounding. (If you’re curious to learn more about soundings, see the PDFs below by Thomas Leahy, who originated the model and is another of my CC mentors.)

Is it THE answer to our social challenges? Probably not. Part of the answer is also work, by the students themselves and with teacher support, to create lasting change. This sounding was an important step for students to feel heard by their peers, no matter their point of view, and to strengthen our class community.

Then today happened. We finished Wonder. I laughed internally at one point because someone noticed a squirrel outside the window and had to bring it to the attention of the class. Yes- “Squirrel!” They were like little puppy dogs, momentarily distracted by the outside world. We all came back to the magic of the story and soon reached the end of the book. One student said that she was sad because it was one of those books that she just didn’t want to end. Yes. I agree completely. Another student coined the word “hassy” to describe how he felt – a combination of Happy and Sad.

I love the way that read aloud helps to build our classroom community while we share the magic of a great story. There are good cognitive reasons to read aloud, and it is a key component of our reading curriculum. But the magic of the group… That’s what hooks me. And soothes me. And knits us together. There is one point in Wonder that is incredibly sad. (If you’ve read it, you can probably guess exactly which part I’m talking about, but if you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it. I’ll just strongly suggest that you read the book soon.) I was tearing up and knew that I would soon be bawling while reading out loud. Not an easy feat. I asked a student to get tissues for the small table in our reading corner for anyone who needed one. Instead, she walked around to each student, offering the box. Sweet, thoughtful kindness. And we needed tissues. Some students were even holding each other and hugging through the sadness. Magical indeed.

So, to my fourth graders, you are a wonder. You are the reason I love my job. You are the reason why I continue to stick with the hard job of teaching. You are a wonder.

Sounding (c) Thomas M Leahy

Sounding Model (c) Thomas Leahy

Advertisements

Musings on NCTE 2016

I was fortunate to be able to attend the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference “Faces of Advocacy” earlier this month. For years, I had the misconception that NCTE was for secondary teachers. Then, as I began immersing myself in multiple blogs, I discovered that many elementary level teachers attended and loved NCTE conferences. My school sponsored my attendance this year, for which I am grateful and honored. I have attended many national conferences of various types, often as the sole teacher from my school, not knowing other people there. In spite of that being true again, I was surprised by how “at home” I felt at this conference – that I had found my tribe. img_7530

One highlight for me was the sheer number of authors who I was able to meet and/or listen to speak. It was inspiring to be with so many of them. I discovered new authors whose books I hadn’t read yet. I learned about new books that are forthcoming and sound marvelous. I heard origin stories for stories as well as circuitous revision routes. I scribbled furiously to catch words of wisdom from many:

“It is through books that we have the opportunity to meet people different from us and realize how alike we are.” Nikki Grimes (italics added by me)

Ami Polonski (Gracefully Grayson) talked about the power and responsibility that adults – teachers and parents – have as gatekeepers of middle grade fiction. We tend to buy the books, not the kids, so it is our duty to have a variety of books available and to teach them. This, and everything else I heard about the importance of diversity within our classroom libraries, has inspired me to set a goal for next summer: to look critically at my classroom library to see what “holes” I have in terms of various identifiers to make sure that I truly have opportunities for all kids to find books that are mirrors and windows. This research will inform my book purchases in August for the new school year. Of course, I’ll keep this in mind as I acquire books between now and then as well! But I look forward to a careful, critical examination of my library.

Many authors spoke of how they hear from readers and learn that their books truly save lives. Sharon Draper, an award-winning author as well as former teacher (and 1997 National Teacher of the Year – cool, fun fact to learn!), stressed how important it is to find THAT book for kids who don’t read, THAT book that finally turns them on to reading. Combined with another presentation on the Heartwork of Teaching, I was reminded again and again how the connection with our students is at the heart of any meaningful teaching. I know this, I believe this, and I value being reminded of this truth. It’s easy for teachers to get caught up in the day-to-day mundane details. This conference was a fantastic affirmation for me of what is most important.

Many authors also spoke about themselves as students, and many of them were not great students. Many struggled in school. It was inspiring to see how they overcame their challenges and became creators who impact children’s lives. Kwame Alexander said it well, “Sometimes we have to teach the kid, and not the curriculum.”

I shared with author, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, how her book Fish in a Tree impacted one of my students a couple of years ago. Reading the novel as a class read aloud was a catalyst for this fourth grader to publicly own who she was as a learner to her peers. The strength and pride I saw in that student made my heart swell, and Lynda’s gracious and generous response to my story actually brings tears to my eyes when I tell others. Later this week I have the privilege of closing the gap and sharing her response with my former student.

One of my favorite sessions was about thinking of reading as revision. We talk all the time about revision when we write, but we also revise when we read. Our ideas of what is happening in a book are constantly changing as we learn more of the story. I gleaned so many ideas for conferring with kids about the reading that they do as well as resources for my future reference. Ellin Keene shared a powerful metaphor created by a first grader (I believe that’s the correct age) – that it’s like throwing a rock in a pond. The first time you read something, it makes a big splash. The ripples are your thinking getting bigger and bigger. The rock, your first thought, is still there though, underneath the water. I love it! As I thought about this metaphor, I realized that the edges of the pond are like the text of the story – our ideas and thinking are contained within the boundaries of the text evidence. I can’t wait to share this with my students.

Even in my final session when I, like everybody around me, was exhausted, and I felt like I had been drinking from a fire hose, I still gleaned valuable nuggets. One question by Jen Vincent has stayed with me, “Are we creating classrooms worthy of our children’s intellect?” That is a useful question to ponder and a critical lens to turn on my classroom and my teaching as I reflect throughout the year.

I’m grateful to have gone to this conference. I’ve returned with many books to share with my students and colleagues. I have pages of inspiring notes to return to and reflect on all that I absorbed. Thank you, NCTE, for a fantastic conference. Thank you, Dawson School, for the ongoing support that you provide for our professional development.

Relationships are Key

fullsizerender-10October is a great month to reflect on relationships. Developing a community of learners requires that we focus on building relationships with students, and it’s a large part of what we do in the fall. I’m also reminded how important it is that put energy into building relationships with our students’ parents. We value a team approach to education, and our parents are an important piece of that equation.
Earlier this month we had our Parent Teacher Conferences. Based on the time that we commit to this endeavor, we clearly value them. My co-teachers and I made sure to follow up with every family who hadn’t initiated a conference so that we could meet with each one. Most of them we conducted in the day and half that our schedule allocated for conferences. The rest we scheduled during our shared prep time while students are at specials. We have one last conference to conduct … and now we are beginning to write report cards.

I was struck by how much we learned from parents. We gleaned history about last school year that helped us better understand the behavior that we’re seeing this year with some students. We’ve already used that knowledge to guide us both in how we talk with those students and what kind of follow up we provide to parents. We’ve learned with some parents that we need to be in close contact to best support a child through a challenging emotional situation. We’ve learned communication preferences for certain families. While many are happy to share thoughts through email, there are some for whom a phone call is the first choice. We’ve learned about family dynamics and learning history that shed new light on students. We’ve even explored the possibility of doing further diagnostic testing to give us more information about a student’s learning needs.

All of this is only possible because we make time to talk with parents. We enjoy meeting with them informally at our back to school grade level parent party as well as at school events. It is also crucial that we listen with open ears. We went into conferences with specific schemas about kids; that makes sense because we’re trying to construct a picture of who they are as learners. Parents’ insights and observations expand our ideas if we listen and make room for their thoughts. It’s gratifying when our hunches and observations match up with home experiences. When it doesn’t, I’m motivated to dig deeper and explore why it’s different.

Now as I begin writing report card narratives, I’m confident that there will be no surprises. We discussed challenges that students may be having with behavior, friendships, and academics, and we celebrated growth and learning that has already occurred. I find that the preparation that I do to get ready for conferences actually lays the groundwork for report card narratives. I celebrate developing strong relationships with students and parents!

(A note about the image – My students create Heart Maps in the fall to represent the people, places, and things that are important to them. I love how this shows the connected people in a child’s family. It’s how I envision our team of support for every student, a team that includes parents.)

Thoughts on GRIT

fullsizerender-7Last weekend, while traveling to visit with my college-aged daughter, I had a little bubble of extra time to read. Air travel and hotel stays without school homework opened up hours of time to lose myself in books. One title that has been on my To Read pile since this summer is GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. I decided to take it with me, and I ended up reading the entire book. As I finished reading, it was clear to me that I needed to wrestle with some of the ideas, reflect on them, process my thoughts through writing, and summarize my big takeaways so that I can easily revisit the ideas. Duckworth explains the idea of grit and the research behind her work quite well in her book. What I want to examine is how to take her ideas and bring them into my classroom.

Duckworth notes that suggestions and advice for parents are often appropriate for teachers and coaches as well. She points out that parent comes from a Latin root that means “to bring forth” and likens the work of teachers to bring forth characteristics of grit to that of parents. She takes the term “authoritative parenting” and changes it to “wise parenting” because of how authoritative is often confused with authoritarian. Essentially, wise parenting looks to balance one’s support for and demand of the child with his/her needs, adjusting as is necessary for development, environment, and circumstance. Reading more about the nuances of “wise teaching” in a classroom setting and the research to support it, I realize that it would be beneficial to more explicitly tell my students that I have high expectations and that I believe they can achieve at that level. It seems like a small thing, but I know that little things can make a difference.

What leads to grit? Interest. Practice. Purpose. Hope. She writes about her challenges with the popular charge to “follow your passion.” Even though I frequently talk about helping students find their passions, I also have mixed feelings about that overused phrase, particularly as I’ve talked with and encouraged my own children as they applied for college and contemplated majors. So I love what Duckworth has to say about it: “…passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development, and a lifetime of deepening.” (p. 103) While reading the chapter on interest, I felt a lot of affirmation for what we do in our class with Passion Projects. I’ve had to develop a good way to talk about them with students, as a student once asked me, “But I’m passionate about Katy Perry, why can’t I study her?” Parents recognize that we’re asking students to explore different topics in increasing depth across the year to see what might become a later passion in life. Our expectations are clearly defined in a rubric, and most students strive to meet those expectations and even exceed them

Duckworth explored the role of practice in developing grit, and she found a difference between run-of-the-mill practice (just going for a run) and deliberate practice (setting a goal, seeking feedback on performance, disciplined habit). I immediately thought about how my school developed a mindfulness initiative last year. Mindfulness for myself and within my class is something that I’m working on, and it comes in fits and spurts. For my students (and myself) to truly benefit from mindfulness, having a daily, deliberate practice is a key component.

Reading about purpose reminded me of the value of a back-to-school exercise our K-8 team experienced a year ago. Our division director guided us through a reflection of what significant life events made us who we were at that point in time. That led to each teacher crafting a personal mission statement. I’m grateful for that mission statement because it serves as a touchstone for me whenever I feel discouraged; I can remember what is truly important to me as an educator.

The chapter about hope is really about mindset. Having a growth mindset leads to optimism – believing that you can find a solution to your challenge helps you continue to look for them which makes it more likely that you will find one. Mindset is something that I continually bring up in my classroom. We’ve read picture books that embody growth mindset. They tend to have characters who show grit as well, so we talk about what grit looks like in different situations. We use multiple words to talk about grit – stamina – perseverance – building vocabulary and expanding student understanding. Students will even praise one another, “Hey, you used growth mindset when you got stuck with that problem.” They hear us praise their classmates for sticking with a tough challenge, and they’re learning that they each have strengths and weaknesses.

The final chapter in the book tackles a valuable concept – the culture that we live and work in can significantly influence our own grittiness. It’s staggering to think that my classroom culture has the potential to impact every single student and their families. That becomes magnified when my fourth grade team has a strong culture, when our Lower School has a strong culture, and even more so when the entire campus embodies and encourages grit. Reading this chapter made me both grateful to be working where I do and curious about what more I can do to promote a culture of grit. I come back to what I wrote earlier about being more explicit about high expectations and will add that saying it often, saying all that I believe often, will reinforce the culture that I want to create. In addition to having high expectations, it’s important to support learners who fall short. Creating scaffolds is a key component of wise teaching.

Personally, I want to continue to develop my own grit. Duckworth describes how that can be done through the Hard Thing Rule. What it takes is committing to something of your own choice that requires daily deliberate practice. Quitting or changing is allowed, but only if it’s at a natural point, such as the end of a sports season or class session. While I wish I had known of this when parenting through the teenage years, I can apply it to myself, encourage my family, and share it with families of my students.

I happened upon the following tweet in my feed this evening, before starting to write this blog post. How perfect it felt for what I was about to do!we-write-to-know

 

With Eyes of Wonder

Earlier this month, while walking back from PE class, some of my homeroom students excitedly pulled me over to a small pumpkin patch that was growing beside the path in a raised bed. “Look through here!” they exclaimed, pulling back some of the vines. It was like a small green cave and inside were a pair of small, orange pumpkins. I loved it and noted to myself that I wanted to stop some day and take a photo of it.

Photography is an amateur hobby of mine, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting shots. I trace it back to the day many years ago, when a dear friend pointed out my son reflected in the airport window as he watched planes on the runway. She is a professional photographer, and something must have clicked for me that day, because I’m more aware of framing than I used to be. Digital photography is a blessing as it gives me immediate feedback on my results and it allows me nearly unlimited attempts to get a shot right.

img_6889A week or so after seeing the magical green cave, I thought to take my phone with me on the way to PE. (There’s another photography blessing – cell phones with outstanding camera capability.) I knelt down to pull back the vines and took the shot. Now it was my turn to excitedly show the fourth graders how they had inspired me, and they loved it. “It’s beautiful!” “It’s like a fairy cave!” “Where did you see that?” Other students wanted to see the hidden pumpkins that they had walked past every day. As I showed my division director the photo later and described the exchange, I referred to it as “looking with the eyes of a fourth grader.”

That phrase has turned over inside my mind frequently in the past weeks as I watch my students and get to know them. After a month of school, I’m seeing multiple sides of my students, and I’m curious. How does that behavior that annoys other people help that child? Because there has to be something that feels beneficial to the child, even if it’s short term and doesn’t make sense to us as adults. What is s/he thinking while making this computational error?  If I understand the thought process, I can tweak my instruction or assistance. Does the child who seems impulsive all the time have moments of focus? – When? – Under what circumstances? Knowing this may help me channel this child’s focus. Fortunately, I work with a team that is in close communication. We share our observations with one another and our suspicions. We brainstorm ways to support individual students while being mindful of the whole group’s needs, including teachers. We communicate closely with parents trying to forge a partnership, always being mindful that each person wants the best for the child.

In addition to having a sense of wonder about children, I try to bring that to the world, especially nature. I’m aware of the different experiences this generation of children is having compared to mine growing up. There’s more digital distraction and scheduled activity and less free exploration of the world. Fewer opportunities to find fairy caves or to see what happens when you throw a rock in a pond. When I slow down to show them beauty or wonder around us, I hope it has an impact. To open some eyes that might not have seen. To reinforce that it is good to slow down and look for interesting phenomena wherever you are. To inspire a story or a drawing or a poem. One of my online newsletters this week had a great article about nature-deficit disorder and an interview with Richard Louv. He wrote Last Child in the Woods, which I read and enjoyed many years ago.

img_7074As I was hiking this morning, I came across a small tree that had fallen. It must have grown within a fissure among granite rocks and dislodged one of them, because elevated above ground was a small rock, enveloped by tree. I snapped a photo, thinking how cool this was and how some of my fourth graders would love it. Then I realized it would be a perfect illustration for some of our work in erosion later this winter. My slowing down and noticing today will have a direct impact on a future lesson, something I wasn’t looking for on my hike.

I celebrate that I still see the world with “the eyes of a fourth grader,” and that I slow down to see nature and children. Who knows what an observation will lead me to discover!

Problem Solving through Group Initiatives

k4-flower-of-handsI’ve been trying to incorporate elements from my challenge course training earlier this summer by using what are known as “group initiatives.” In a nutshell, a facilitator provides a problem or challenge to be solved by the group. It can be made as silly or serious as desired – silly will often engage the kids well. The facilitator has to read the group to determine what level of challenge they can handle while pushing them to improve their skills, and the key component of a challenge is the debrief time afterward. We did two challenges on Friday, and they went well … and  I see things to do differently. Right now, I recognize the similarity of our group debrief and this written reflection. I get to notice what went well in addition to what I still need to work on.

I gave the kids a challenge that stepped up the difficulty level from our first week’s introduction. They had to put themselves in a line based on the number of letters in each student’s first name  WITHOUT talking. There were clarifying questions, of course: What if I have a nickname? Can I use the name my mom calls me at home? Who decides which name to use?

They got to work, and I watched. I noticed things that went well and things that did not. After their completion, we circled up and I asked the key question, “What did you notice?” Open-ended intentionally to see what THEY noticed. They noticed what I noticed: Kids got in a line. Kids argued without using words. Kids disagreed. Kids helped point others to the right place in line. They assessed that they succeeded at solving the challenge and failed in the process.

I loved the next challenge … mostly. I let everyone know that there was a secret ingredient in our lunch that day which “glued” our hands together. We had to interlace our two hands together and could not use the fingers separately. (That was fun, and the kids enjoyed the silliness.) I challenged them to make groups based on their family size, without talking or using their hands at all. Of course, we had questions to clarify before getting to work!

It was fascinating to watch! Students tried a variety of methods to communicate family size – bending one leg to make the body look like a 4, stomping feet for family size, swinging arms up and down to count, and more. There were a lot of families with four members, and initially students created two separate groups. Someone in the group figured it out and led the way to bring them together. The kids had learned from their experience, and I was so proud of them. Once they were done, we circled up. What did they notice? For one thing, stomping slowly worked better than stomping quickly – it was easier to count. They shared their observations. The group assessed that they succeeded at the challenge and did better in the process.

While they were at recess, I discovered a place where I failed. One of the kids was triggered and left to have private time with one of our teachers. It was something that I should have thought of ahead of time because I knew backstory. I got the scoop from my colleague, and I immediately went to this student and apologized for letting him down. I had to take ownership for an oversight on my part. And I praised him for taking care of his heart. He did the right thing that he needed to do in the situation.

I know that we all make mistakes, and while this impacted his emotions in a big way, I also know that he will continue to be triggered from time to time in ways I can’t protect him from. I’m not beating myself up about it, but I took ownership and I will think a bit more carefully in the future for prevention.

I noticed more. Things that I can do to improve my facilitation skills. Part of our “5-finger agreement” that I taught the class includes not pointing fingers or blaming others. Their debrief comments in circle were sometimes finger-pointing. I’d like to avoid that. I wonder if I can get at it with more specific questions. “What did you notice that was helpful for you?” “What did you notice that YOU did?” A gentle reframing could be – it was helpful when people accepted my number of letters without arguing with me. Fourth graders can do that. And some of these kiddos need more support in looking for the positives. That will carry over in valuable ways into their lives.

I also need to create more dialogue around volunteering and self-care. A good tool for that will be to play “Have You Ever?” Students can learn that it’s okay to keep things private, one doesn’t have to share information if they don’t feel safe in the group. It’s an individual’s choice to share or not.

Overall, I think I succeeded at both the task and the process. I still have a lot to learn to be even better.

Self-Care

K4 sample hands

What an intense start to the school year! It’s not anyone one thing, but an accumulation that leads me to already feel I’ve been back for months. That sounds ambiguous (and possible negative!) as I write it…What I mean is that I already feel in the groove after 8 days of student time, in the groove with our new schedule and knowing the kids. I know I’m not the only one to feel it; I’ve heard it from administrators and faculty in both the Lower School and other divisions. I’m curious that it feels stronger to me than it has other years.

I’d like to think that it’s partially related to my focus on individual children. I am grateful to work at a school and directly with a team that prioritizes knowing kids. My co-teachers and I are also flexible. We overplanned for our first week, which is not surprising given that we didn’t know what we could do with our new community of fourth graders. What was great is that we quickly reassessed the time we had and our priorities, and we made changes to reflect our students’ needs.

I know it is easy for me to lose sight of self-care, and I wonder if that contributes to my sense of already being back for a long time. It has been easy for me the past couple of weeks to overlook my own needs, stay late at school, and get things done. I found myself grateful for this three-day weekend, and I spent the first day reading. Blissful heaven! Now as I sit reflecting, I realize that this is a good opportunity for me to strengthen my planning skills and build in the time that I need for myself, to set appropriate boundaries, and to better recognize when something can wait or needs immediate attention.

I feel a difference in myself since I started a regular gratitude journal 14 months ago. Even when I am overwhelmed or distressed, I can find things in my life for which to be grateful. My journal includes a daily photo, which pushes me to look for visual reminders in my day. This focus on gratitudes helps me acknowledge that while I can improve in my self-care skills, I am significantly more aware of it than I used to be.

This photo shows the community that we are building, not only in the fourth grade, but also with our kindergarten buddies. It reminds me of how I need to provide a variety of experiences for students to learn multiple aspects of who they are. One student, who tends to be impulsive, sat carefully designing and coloring his hand while conversing with a classmate … for more than 30 minutes. What an incredible insight that gave me, and now I’m curious to see when else it occurs.

This photo reminds me of the uniqueness of my students and the responsibility I have to be respectful of their gentle souls. I am honored by the trust placed in me by students and their parents. I recognize their willingness to be vulnerable in the conversations that we have. I strive to be vulnerable with them and to be present in every moment. I am grateful for all of these opportunities to grow as a person and as a teacher, and I appreciate the written reflection time I’ve committed to this school year.

Math – It’s not always about numbers!

Last Friday we engaged in a fascinating math lesson in the fourth grade. Students used a math manipulative/construction tool called INTOOBA. They each had a turn to build a structure and then gave directions to their partner to build it without using any visual cues. It was so interesting to watch this learning unfold.

IMG_6814_mod

One of my co-teachers and I modeled how it would work. At times I would step outside my role with my partner and share my thinking and my process out loud. “Do you notice how I’m touching the structure as I go? It’s helping me keep track of what I’ve told Ms. Rogers to do since I can’t see her progress.” “Watch my hand. I’m putting it on top of this connector to help me figure out what direction to tell her to turn and how far.” Demonstrating also gave me empathy what my students would experience as they did it. I could refer back to my modeling if I needed to when I talked with partners.

I saw students adeptly give directions, and I saw students be less specific, for example, saying that it should “look like a laser.” Sometimes the errors came from the way the direction was given, and other times one occurred because of the way that the listener interpreted the directions. I got insight into who has a visual thinking strength and how students communicate their spatial sense. I could see how students handled frustration and who had persistence to push through their challenges. I also noted students who needed a little scaffolding in this lesson and gave it to them as needed. I watched fascinating strategies unfold, for example, one student figured out which direction in the classroom was north and directed her partner to make the rod point north.

Additionally, one of my goals was to provide a different sort of math experience. Unfortunately, it’s true that by 4th grade some students have already decided that they don’t like math. I feel a deep responsibility to show students the many faces of math. It was gratifying to hear students exclaim that this math was actually fun. When students wrote in their math journals to respond to the reflection questions, many replied that they learned that math was also about communicating or that math didn’t always have to be about numbers. This feels like a good first step on our 4th grade journey into math explorations.

I love having the opportunity to sit back and watch how students tackle a task. I think it’s important to be a “watcher of learners” and to carefully observe what tools students are using and which ones they’re ready for next. I need to remember to create multiple  opportunities to informally assess their skills in this way throughout the entire school year.

Back to School Organizing

It never fails. A new school year approaches, and I am overcome with the NEED to organize my environment. Of course that includes my classroom environment, but often it carries over to my home life as well. I wonder if it felt a little more intense this year because my youngest child went off to college this month. All I know is that I have been consumed with organizing and RE-organizing my environments for the past five weeks.

It started simply – this summer, my son added electrical wiring to the walls of my home office so that we could install better lighting. Once he finished, I needed to tidy up the construction mess. Somehow, the chaos of the space inspired me to rethink how I use it. My desk moved out, I consolidated paper files into nearly half the space (while recycling a lot of paper!), and I’m moving in a comfy chair for reading. My own cozy retreat for reading – something that I’ve dreamed about. I credit the change to technology upgrades. I no longer need a desk to house my computer as a laptop is far more streamlined and portable than a desktop PC.

Then my classroom. I wondered last spring if I could possibly rearrange furniture and like it anywhere near as much as it was configured at the time. I loved the cozy “living room” feel of our classroom library, and I definitely didn’t want to lose that. That wondering must have percolated in my brain’s subconscious all summer long for after our first day of meetings, I started emptying bookcases and moving furniture around. I knew that I would have to live in it for a bit before I could commit to it with kids, and I wanted time to work in the room. Turns out, I love it and I can’t wait to see how we actually use our new classroom configuration. I kept my flexible work spaces and seating options because I think that control and choice is important for students. Registration is tomorrow, and I’m so curious to see what my former students think of the rearrangement.

Next? Our schedule and our curriculum! Our school adopted a new schedule for this school year. It seems to have a minimal impact on the Lower School, but to my everlasting gratitude, both fourth grade homerooms have identical specials schedules. That means that our fourth grade team has maximum planning time in our week. Thank goodness! While we see the good in it, it meant we needed to reexamine how we allocate our teaching time across the week within the larger schedule’s structure. I may also make a change in our Social Studies units later this school year. I’m letting those ideas stew in my brain, and I’ll be talking with the 5th grade team and department chair to flesh out the plan further. My co-teacher and I also want to improve what we’ve done with reading and writing instruction. I focused on reading this summer, and she contemplated writing. I’m excited to add Notice and Note signposts to our reading work this fall.

Whew, is there more?! Yep. I spent much time today cleaning and organizing in my house. I’d gotten sloppy about putting things away this summer, and I had piles of items to put into their “homes.” I now have a couple of boxes to donate to the thrift store down the street, I reorganized cleaning materials into baskets, I emptied my ironing board that I’d been using as a horizontal catch-all surface, and I returned books that had piled up to their rightful shelves or baskets. Definitely, whew!

And … I feel mostly ready for the new school year. “Mostly” because I’m never fully ready. There is always something else that I could do or change or make. I’m not trying to achieve perfection. Learning is messy, and I’m excited to start finding out about these individuals that will make up our new fourth grade community.

It’s Not About the Climbing!

My school has the good fortune to have built a challenge course on our campus. It was completed last winter and this summer training was offered to any interested faculty to become a facilitator with the course. I decided to participate in part because I was directly approached and invited by our challenge course manager. (What a good reminder about personal investment and direct asking.) I also knew that my students would be thrilled! I went into it thinking that I would become more comfortable at heights and learn more about all the elements and how they can be used with students.

Wow, was I wrong! Yes, there were practical skills involved. I learned how to self-belay up a pole and safely set a pulley system for a dynamic belay. I learned how to tie specific knots. I learned how belay a person traversing a high element and on a climbing wall. How high? 35 feet off the ground! I even got to play on the elements where I felt comfortable pushing myself. I learned about a couple of the low elements, options for use with my fourth graders. But the key takeaway for  me was that our challenge course is simply a tool. A tool much like a classroom, a whiteboard, books, science equipment, maps, everything that we use to guide our students to access the curriculum. It’s an exciting tool for sure, and I have a responsibility to keep the focus on the learning.

What I learned has so much carryover into academic areas and especially into the social-emotional learning that we do. As a facilitator on the challenge course, I must create an environment of emotional and physical safety so that students can thrive. That’s what I do as a classroom teacher. If I don’t enable a student to feel safe, especially emotionally safe, it doesn’t matter how dynamic and exciting my teaching is – little learning will happen.

Choice and Voice are two other key components that work together to help learners develop self-efficacy. I feel strongly about giving kids choices in the classroom and making sure that they have input whenever possible.This isn’t new to me. Somehow, seeing it in this context and experiencing it as a learner this past week, helped me own the understanding in a deeper way than I had before.

I learned about the difference between encouragement and coercion, and how the words can sound EXACTLY THE SAME, depending on who made the choice. That was mind-blowing to think about, especially in connection with how I present and guide our Reading Challenge. I will be spending time in the next couple of weeks before kids arrive thinking about how to better present the Challenge and engage kids in making real-to-them choices so that I can encourage them throughout the year, not make them feel coerced to meet a goal that I set for them. So much of the language that I learned last week around identifying a person’s chosen challenge on the course is directly applicable to goal-setting with kids. I’m excited to use it and increase how much goal-setting and reflection we do as a learning community.

There was so much that I learned, and so much that I still have to digest. I can’t possibly represent it here in a single reflection. I imagine that my learning will be pondered frequently in this blog over the coming year, and I know that the facilitation learning I gained will play a role in my professional goals for this coming year. I’m still churning ideas in my head for how to craft the wording of my goal.

The icing on the cake is the stronger connection that I feel with the nine other faculty members who were in the training with me. I got to know teachers who I rarely see because of the different ages of learners that we teach. We decided to make our group an ongoing Professional Learning Community (PLC) for this school year. We’ll create times to practice our practical skills and talk about how to implement these ideas into our everyday teaching. We’ll celebrate success that happens. We’ll invite each other into our classrooms so that we can refine our skills. We’ll collaborate in ways that we don’t even know right now. It’s exciting, and I’m so glad that I took this class. It was definitely NOT about the climbing!

catwalk

Self-chosen element + self-chosen goal + personal challenge = celebration!