Reflection

Testing season is in full swing. These are stressful times. We hope students remember all they’ve learned, that they read the questions carefully, and that they answer completely. We cross our fingers and hope we don’t encounter any technological glitches. Once the tests are finished, there is the long wait for results. I was reflecting on all of this when I glanced upon a letter I keep in my office.

Among the photos of my children, post-it note reminders, and office supplies, is a framed letter from a former student. It reminds me why I teach & of the far-reaching impact of the work we do. Part of the letter reads:

“I am reaching out to you because out of all my years in school, 2nd grade is my fondest memory. It was one of the more frustrating years I had due to my minimal understanding of the language, but you were patient with me and helped me grow. I realized that this is the kind of impact I want to have on others as well because I do not see a more rewarding feeling than helping someone grow.”

This letter, received so many years after the student left my classroom, was a bolt out of the blue. It is a testament that the work we do day in and day out has an impact beyond what any standardized testing will ever show.

Lessons from the Ski Trail

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This winter I’ve taken up cross country skiing.  It’s an activity the rest of my family enjoys, and encourages me to leave the coziness of the house to get some fresh air and physical activity.  As I embark upon this new adventure, I can’t help but draw comparisons between my experiences to those of our students.  Here is what I’ve observed:

  • Materials matter.  Having the right gear ensures I’ll be warm, safe, & dry on the trail.  Skiing would also be far more difficult if my boots pinched my feet or my skis were too long.
  • Teachers/Guides/Proficient Practitioners are vital.  My teachers (husband, son, & daughter) are supportive of my efforts, providing scaffolding and a positive learning environment.
  • Concise, just-in-time teaching makes all the difference.  At the trailhead the first time out, I received a few basic instructions to get me going.  My son skied by my side for the first stretch, providing a flow of timely feedback as I took those first strides.
  • Apprentices need masters.  It helps to have a model to emulate.  In my case, that means mimicking posture and other movements of my husband and kids.  Apprentices benefit from following in someone else’s trail before blazing their own.  It is far easier for me to follow the smooth tracks left by others than it is to plow through the powder to make my own trail.
  • Guided & independent practice are essential.  After making sure I got started that first time out, my son put some distance between us. This allowed me the opportunity to practice independently.  He, my husband, and daughter checked in frequently, but allowed some space for me to work on the skills they’d taught.
  • Learners need to feel supported.  When I fell, which I did with distressing regularity in the beginning, my teachers were there to (literally) get me back up again.  They also provided additional teaching so that I could avoid making the same mistake again (I found a great variety of ways to end up lying in the snow that first time out, so they had many opportunities for teaching/feedback!).  After repeated practice, I now fall less, have discovered some pitfalls to avoid (for example, I’ve learned that leaning back practically guarantees I’ll end up lying flat in a snow bank), and can pick myself up out of the snow after a fall.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  Getting out on the trail with regularity helps ensure I won’t forget what I’ve learned.  It also helps me improve.  I’m now gliding more than stomping.  I still fall, but less often – and I can get back up on my own.  Best of all, I now sometimes remember to take my eyes off my skis, pick my head up, and take in the beautiful landscape.

Learning how to cross country ski has put me back in touch with what it feels like to be a student.  As teachers, we help our students reach their goals through providing supportive environments, thoughtful lesson planning, scaffolding, feedback, and opportunities for practice.  With support, our students can pick up their heads to see the beauty in their own journeys!

Championing Conferring

Conferring is powerful.  I would go so far as to say that one-on-one conferences are the most powerful teaching tool in my repertoire.  In the span of a few minutes I can gauge the level of a student’s work, reinforce what s/he is doing well, and provide a focused, individualized lesson to lift the level of the student’s work going forward.  Conferring is differentiation.

Often, conferring is brought up in conversations about reading or writing workshops.  Conferring is an essential element in these workshops.  But conferring has a place in any content area.  Crouching next to a student during math, science, or social studies, in music or PE, is just as important.  The message is, “I recognize the work you are doing.  Here is something you can use to help you on your journey as a learner.”

I love conferring because it allows me to focus on just one student at a time.  Often, I learn more about the student, their knowledge, and their skills through conferring than I do any other way.  Students love conferring because they are the recipient of their teacher’s undivided attention for a few precious moments.  When we compliment, or recognize, what the student is doing well, that student feels validated. When we lean in and ask, “Can I teach you something?” the student feels like they’re about to be let in on a treasured secret.

A conference begins when the teacher sidles up alongside the learner and takes a few moments to observe.  What is the student doing well?  What skills are emerging?  Where could the student use an instructional boost?  After observing briefly, the teacher interrupts the student’s work & begins a conversation.  The teacher asks the student to articulate what they’re working on.  Next, the teacher compliments the the student.  This compliment should be specific.  Moving into the teaching phase of the conference, the teacher lets the student know you’d like to teach them something that will further their work.  The teaching point should be focused (conferences are brief) and something the student can attempt immediately.  Lastly, the teacher wraps up the conference by asking the student to articulate what they’ve learned.  That’s it.  Conference complete.  In 3 -5 minutes you’ve gotten an up close view of the student’s current skills, provided individualized individualized instruction, and left the student with a way to lift the level of their work.

Conferring can feel awkward in the beginning.  Sometimes we have to look hard to find something to compliment.  Sometimes it’s difficult to choose from the variety of teaching points from which the student could benefit.  It takes practice for students to understand what’s required of them during a conference.  The teacher needs to find a system of record keeping that is both efficient and useful.  But the work is worth it.  Over time, the conferring we engage in with our students will yield results.  We will know our students more deeply.  We will become more adept at choosing a good teaching point.  Students will become better at articulating the work they are doing, and taking on the new work we ask of them.  We will have a wealth of data to inform large group instruction and the formation of strategy groups.

Conferring is worth every bit of time and effort involved.  Carl Anderson’s book, How’s it Going?  A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers is the penultimate guide to conferring with students.  While the guide is specifically aimed at conferring during writing workshop, the information and techniques are easily applied across the curriculum. Whether you’re new to conferring or looking to improve your conferring skills, How’s it Going? is a terrific resource.

Happy conferring!

Setting the Pace

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In my last post, I mentioned that our district has embarked upon several new curricular  paths this year.  Those changes include a new math curriculum.  I’m co-teaching math in a third grade classroom, and my biggest challenge is pacing.  The minutes march by at an alarming speed while I struggle to teach all the pieces of a coherent lesson.  Feel familiar?  The first thing I needed to do was step back, reflect, and breathe . . .

This curriculum isn’t just new for students, it’s also new to us as teachers.  And no matter how much time I spend reviewing the lesson and prepping materials, there is no substitute for experience.  As the weeks roll along, I’m becoming more comfortable with lesson components, vocabulary, and tasks.  This familiarity is beginning to express itself in smoother lesson delivery.  This, in turn, is beginning to help improve pacing.

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Another tool my co-teacher and I are using to improve our pacing is a timer.  We set a timer for each lesson component.  After several weeks of use, the timer still usually goes off before we’ve finished with the lesson segment, but it’s helped us reflect upon which parts of the lesson are proving most problematic.  Our pacing is improving, and are now more aware of where we’re getting hung up, and how to make adjustments when time is running out.  I’m beginning to mark the problems & discussion points that are essential, and those to include if time is on our side.  The timer hasn’t proven itself to be a distraction for students, either.  In fact, they’ve seemed quite interested in the fact that teachers have to work to learn & improve, too.

Learning with and from my fellow teachers has been an invaluable resource.  There has been much math talk & collegial support in our school hallways, the lunch room, and at the copier.  We’ve shared challenges, successes and helpful tips.  Everyone benefits when we share in this way.  It lifts the level of our teaching, and, therefore, the level of learning for our students.

My lesson pacing still isn’t where I’d like it to be.  But it’s better than it was a few weeks ago.  My teaching partner & I are making incremental progress toward consistently delivering smooth, effective, well-paced lessons to our students.  By continuing to engage in reflective teaching practices, we will reach our goal.

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Put One Foot in Front of the Other

For the last week or so, this song, “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” from the animated classic, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, has been looping through my head.  Now, I’m not anxious to rush this nascent (not quite) autumn into winter, nor am I breathlessly anticipating Black Friday sales.  Rather, this year my school district has embraced multiple new curricular initiatives, which can prove daunting to even the most experienced, skilled teachers.  This song reminds me that whenever we’re presented with a challenge, we can take a deep breath, and put one foot in front of the other.  While each single step may be small, taken together, those baby steps add up to significant growth, change, and progress.

Where to begin?

A great place to start is by thinking about strengths.  Just as we build from the known with students, we need to begin there when we take on something new.  What do you already feel confident about that will transfer to the new work?  Are routines and procedures already in place that will facilitate the transition for you and your students?  Are the key terms, concepts, pedagogy or the instructional framework familiar?  Build a bridge from areas of expertise into the new.

One Step at a Time

Our district theme at the elementary level this year is “One Step at a Time.”  Attempting to do it all, and all at once, is a recipe for frustration – for students as well as teachers.  Plot a course, focusing on one aspect of the new curriculum.  Perhaps the workshop model of teaching and learning is new.  You might consider beginning by putting the bulk of your efforts into the mini-lesson.  Once that’s firmly under control, move on to another aspect of the workshop, such as one-on-one conferring or small group work.  Zeroing in on one element facilitates a greater sense of progress, and building a stronger foundation upon which new work will stand.

Team Up

Many hands make light work.  Consider forming a working group to learn the curriculum, plan lessons, and score assessments.  Working through issues like pacing, lesson delivery and expectations for mastery are made easier when working collaboratively with peers.

Breathe.

No, really.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Repeat.  Trust that putting one foot in front of the other will move you into the change.  As the saying goes, “the only constant is change,” so we need to find ways to take on new challenges in ways that improve learning for our students while keeping us sane.

Also, if you’re wondering how many days there are until Christmas, click here. . .

Until then, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Lessons from a Surfboard

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This summer I learned to surf.  Actually, if I’m being honest, I learned to kinda-sorta-surf.  I also really learned to appreciate the skill involved in the sport of surfing.  And while I’m not headed for the pro surfing circuit any time soon, learning to surf paralleled the teaching and learning that occurs off the beach, in our classrooms.  Our surf instructors weren’t trained teachers; they were a geologist, a musician, and an environmental studies major.  Their methods, however, reflected much of what we know about best practices.

Direct Instruction:  This part of the lesson was brief, but necessary.  We learned important safety rules, as well as the vocabulary for different parts of the surfboard (deck, rails, fin).

Demonstration/Modeling:  The instructors modeled proper techniques at the beginning of the lesson.  They broke the actions down into discrete steps and explained each part of the process in detail.  They demonstrated what it looked like when all of the pieces were put together.  Then, still on the sand, we engaged in guided practice of paddling and “popping up” onto our surfboards.  Instructors circulated, observing each student and providing feedback.

Differentiation:  Each learner approaches learning tasks with a unique set of skills and background experiences.  That was certainly evident in our group of learners.  My niece, a gymnast, has balance, dexterity, and upper body strength in abundance.  I don’t happen to have that same skill set.  The instructors differentiated my instruction, breaking the one, fluid motion of popping up onto the board into several separate steps.  This met my individual needs, and allowed for success.  My route to success was just different.

Guided Practice:  In the water, the instructor reminded me of what I’d learned on the beach.  He held onto my board until the right wave came along.  As he pushed me off to catch the wave, he called “Paddle!” and “Pop up!” at just the right moment, providing me with the best opportunity to get up on my board and ride the wave all the way into shore.  As I improved, my instructor removed scaffolds, gradually releasing the responsibility of paddling out, catching a wave and knowing when to pop up, to me.

Feedback:  After each wave, my instructor & I would debrief, talking about what I had done well, and where I should work to improve.  Who knew you could confer in the salty waters of the Atlantic?  These conversations, which were positive and encouraging, helped me become a reflective practitioner of surfing.  Through guided practice, I gained skill and confidence.

Independent Practice:  Surfing on our own was more challenging.  There was a lot to remember!  My son & daughter dealt with this by engaging in partnered practice.  They took turns coaching one another as the instructors had.  They held the board in position until the “right wave” came along, and then give their sibling a push to get them going.  After each ride, they talked about what had gone well, and how they could improve.  Their cooperation resulted in greater success for both.

My surfing experience was 100% positive.  I was fortunate to have skilled teachers and a supportive learning community.  We cheered one another on, and helped each other up after inevitable dismounts (That’s another thing I learned; surfers don’t “fall” off their boards; they “dismount.”  I am the queen of spectacular dismounts!).  Everyone left the beach grinning from ear to ear, and tired from our rigorous efforts at learning.  And isn’t that exactly what we want for our students, every single day?  To walk out our doors knowing that their exertions have paid off, knowing they know and can do more today than they did yesterday?

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Building Bridges

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The beginning of the year is the ideal time to forge relationships with students and their families.  Today, we have more options than ever for communicating with members of our learning communities.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • Remind (formerly Remind 101):  Remind is a terrific free tool for sending brief, timely messages to students and families.  Create a class.  Invite families (and students).  Families join, opting to receive either text messages or e-mails.  All messages come through Remind, so phone numbers remain private.  What I love most about Remind is the ability to compose reminders in advance, and schedule them for delivery on specific dates & times.  Use Remind to help families stay on top of everything, including classroom updates, field trips and spirit days.
  • Twitter:  Tweet to share the fantastic learning happening in your classroom!  Maintain an account for professional use only.
  • Blog:  A classroom blog allows you to share a variety of information (long form text, images, video, calendar, links, forms, etc.) all in one place.  You may choose to have students author blog posts; families will enjoy reading their children’s work, and students will hone their writing skills!
  • Class Dojo:  Class Dojo is a management tool that allows you to easily keep track of student points for any goal (e.g., attendance, participation, homework completion).  Students and families can check in to monitor their points.  Students will love customizing their avatars, and you will love how simple it is to track and share classroom management data.
  • YouTube:  Create a class YouTube channel to share special events & projects with the world.  recording special classroom celebrations & activities is also a way for family members who aren’t able to attend feel included.
  • Newsletters: I know, I know, hard copy newsletters are so old school! They are also, however, still a good way to let families know what is going on in the classroom. Especially if not all of your students’ families have access to the internet.  Students can even author some or all of the content, providing them with an authentic writing task and audience.

Communication is a two-way street.  Ensure that communication between school and home flows both ways.  E-mail, blog comments, and home surveys are just a few methods to facilitate dialogue.

When sharing information online, always make sure to follow your school’s acceptable use policies for technology, and make sure to omit any & all student-identifying information.  It’s also important to remember that not all families have access to digital resources; make sure to communicate in ways that include everyone in your learning community.