Thursday, September 12, 2013

By The Numbers

It's a new beginning, of the 2013-2014 school year.

There's been a lot of changes taking place. First off, my son is now a Kindergartner at another school. I couldn't be prouder of him, but have been struggling a bit with him shedding his "baby blanket."  There's been staffing changes, good friends moving to new buildings or new grades, and then there's the numbers...

I have a high enrollment of 29 students in my class.  But I felt like this was the first year I was ready for it.  Seeing that I have enough Kindergartners to field two classes, my district has been looking for class-size relief.  In the interim a wonderful retired Kindergarten teacher / sub rose to the challenge of the first days of school to come in and help with all the bloody noses, the kid who bonked his head falling off the monkey bars and ended up needing stitches, sick kids in the office and the morning task of emptying ALL the take-home folders (and so much more).  She has all the qualities I would like to have more of: nurturing with the children where I can be a bit punitive, organized where I am flighty, and optimistic where I am cynical. But with her support I've been able to actually teach lessons and do plans.

The kids have also been great.  It never ceases to amaze me how quickly they just start to "get it" despite all the commotion going on around them. To minimize the commotion I have pared down my room to about as minimal as I can get it...and it looks and FEELS so much better to be in there.

Before our open house next week, we were asked to do a photo collage of ourselves "by the numbers" meaning we had to make big numbers and say why those numbers were significant. The only number I kept coming up with was 1... I have 1 son, I have 1 job. I am 1 teacher... it really didn't say much about myself or what I had to offer the kids, so I went with prose.  Plus, I felt like it minimized what I have to offer. I'd like to think I am a little bit more than the sum of my parts.

I think part of the reason I've been feel so positive, despite the giant challenge of teaching nearly 30 kids to read and write, is that this is the first year we haven't dedicated the first week or two to baseline testing.  I've been getting to know my students, ironing out behavioral problems, and letting the students play to get to know each other and observing them.  I feel so much calmer not trying to rush through 30 alphabet assessments just to count letters and crunch data on a rubric.

However, we haven't tossed the data piece overboard.  Next week my Kindergartners will have a computer program measuring their early literacy skills while I troubleshoot and try to make sure they have enough technology skills to operate a mouse to click on the answer they want.  Since this data piece is still something that is being required, I'm happy to let a computer do it so I can use classroom time to interact with the children and planning time to plan lessons instead of crunching numbers.  I think that is one of the main reasons I feel like I am finally getting a grasp of what is happening in my classroom.

I have finally been able to assess my students qualities before their quantitive data.  I am quickly learning what makes them tick, relax, excited or just plain happy to be at school.  And if they are happy to be there, they will be learning.  Our students, however many in a classroom, are so much greater than the sum of their assessments.  In Kindergarten I have the opportunity to see struggling learners grow into curious, creative, studious minds all as they develop from barely 5 years old to 6.

All of these thoughts were swimming through my mind (like fish on bicycles) until I found this online, and it really sums (pun intended) it all up...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Home and Community

After our staff meeting the other day about huge demographic swings and our "school's report card," I got to thinking about my school and the students there.  I was thinking that most of our students don't know a single thing about the man our school was named after.  There is very little history in the school about the students who were there in the past. In fact, the most historical evidence of who we are as a school community comes only from the teachers who have been there for the last twenty years.  They understand who we are as a community, and they come through whenever there is a family in need or with a sick relative, or a baby is born with special medical needs.  Teachers understand this sense, but what about the students ? How can we teach them about what community means?  How can we foster a sense of unity and unified identity as "tigers."  What does it mean to be a "tiger?"  What are our strongest attributes and accomplishments?  We do address this by displaying student work.  Truly I enjoy walking down our halls and seeing what all the 4 to 11 year olds are doing.

Students spend the majority of their waking hours at school.  They need to feel valued as a student and community member to find purpose and meaning in the work they are doing there. They need to feel encouraged by their peers and teachers, to meet the high expectations that we have met before and will continue to pass with flying colors in the future.  There is a storyline to this.  We all have a story, and our collective students have a story about where they have come from and what great things they have done, and this is not accounted for in the "school's report card."

I came back to this theme thinking about my own personal life.  I have been living in Green Bay now for seven years. I don't have family there, but I do feel like I belong.  I feel like I have community.  Being a single parent, I have constraints to ensure my son spends his placement time with both his parents.  I came to think that home truly is where the people you love are, and when my son is away it doesn't feel much like home.  I have community but a shaky home.  I have grown to love my students and the people I work with much like family, and I feel very much at home where I work.  I want my students to feel that "homeyness" too.  Not all children go home to a place where they are cherished, but I hope that if they feel that way at school they will be glad to be there and do whatever it is we're doing.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Less is More

I recently finished the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.    To understand the premise of the book, I couldn't explain it better than the author.  Here is a snippet of Gladwell's summary, but you can read it in its entirety at .

"It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good."

From this book I took two lessons that apply to my teaching.
1.  When I come to a conclusion that resonates as illogical or untrue, I need to step back and reflect if I reached this conclusion due to biases or my own preconceptions.

I have gotten frustrated and impatient with students who are distracting in the classroom.  However, there isn't a single Kindergartner who simply lives to make my job difficult.  I have found the kids who are distracting in the classroom to either: crave attention, have a hearing deficit, unable to control their own impulses, or just want to make friends. This is something it has taken 6 years as a teacher to learn.  By finally realizing it isn't the students are against me, I have been able to deal with the distracting students much more effectively.  This preconception of naughty kids was impeding my classroom management.

2. In order to make better decisions, it isn't necessary to weigh ALL the variables, but only the ones that are key.  Relatedly, to make better decisions it is important to cut out the extraneous distractions and focus on what is truly making the difference.  The bare objective is the hinge on which differentiation hangs.

In the classroom I translate this into what are the objectives.  It is very easy as teachers to get wrapped up in the end product, or the project, or additional skills, when for many students these are distracting or too difficult. When students aren't meeting standards or expectations I have to do less, not more. I have to resurface the objective is and determine if the child understands what is being taught, and what skill is this child lacking.

 I have found that many of the kinder students who don't always look very successful on paper are quite bright.   In my memory I was one of these students: young with a summer birthday. I could imagine my drawings but they came out looking like I had sausage links for curls on my self-portraits.  People laughed, I withdrew.

I have one little student who cannot write.  Simply grabbing the pencil and forming letters or numbers is too hard for him.  He doesn't have the strength in his hands yet, but cognitively he is extremely bright.  For math, the spaces that are in the math book to write the numbers are too small. Already he is embarrassed and feels incapable.  What do I do? I have sent him to make a big copy of the page.  I let him work with a partner who invariably takes over and does it for him (I really need to train those Kinders better to be helpful, but not OVERLY so). Unfortunately with the insistence on testing and uniformity, we are cajoled into using the math program as it was written.  This little boy looks at those math pages and recoils.

There is a lot of print on the pages in the math book.  To some of the children it looks intimidating and "noisy." I would like to boil it down to the objectives, and make accessing those objectives engaging and appealing.  Can he add blocks? Can he add matchbox cars to his parking garage? Yes.

The other side of this coin is that students need to understand what the objective is and what information is extra.  My students are beginning to understand that, as evidenced in the following conversation,
Student - "Ms. Broo-ooo-wwwwn, he didn't finish writing his story."
Me - "Oh? Did he tell you what his story is about?"
Student - "Yes, he is just coloring his picture."
Me - "Pictures are important parts of stories. I'm glad he is working hard on it and that he has a good story that he shared with you."
Student walks away satisfied with response and leaves the other student to draw.
Here the objective is whether students students can represent a personal narrative in age-appropriate writing.  For this student, writing is centered around his picture.  His ability to write words is still in a very early stage of development, but age appropriate.

I have found that in cutting out what isn't necessary I have become much more focused, goal-oriented, and less stressed out.  Even physically, I have emptied storage and filing cabinets of materials that are obsolete, and in turn have made much more room for my students and their need to move.  To do more with my students I am doing less with them.  Fewer lessons, but more meaningful.  Fewer topics, but more deeply.  

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Difference

This year I am enjoying having my own classroom with 25 delightful students.  My class is composed of 17 boys and 8 girls.  When I learned this is the beginning of the year, I was slightly put on edge with the thought of having so many little active 5 year old boys, but they have turned out to be remarkably well-behaved with a great deal of self-control. My class is also reading at a higher level than my previous students.  Of course there are a few outlier students: the young girl recently immigrated from Mexico who turned 5 at the end of August, the boy whose dad is incarcerated and that is all he can think about, and students with special needs.

What I have found with my students is that their parents this year are stepping up and making the difference.  Where before parents were hard to reach, I have parents consistently checking their child's backpack, sending notes with questions, and reading to their children at home.  In some of the single-parent households, I have moms and dads stepping up to do double duty, never faltering to be there for their child, and especially never making up excuses for their child or parenting.  On the other hand, I have one student whose parents make excuses for their parenting and for his behavior.  His mother is a cancer survivor, but the illness has seemed to cripple her spirit as much or more than her body.

The difference made in a child's life lies first and foremost with the person or people who love and care for them the most.  As a teacher, as much as I care for that child, I can never replace what a parent has done or failed to provide for their child.  The parents and children in my classroom this year have taught me that all students truly are capable of achieving great things when no one makes excuses for them.  Empathy shouldn't be construed into excuses or enabling.   Our students are capable of achieving greatness.