Encourage Your Students To Pause And Look Within

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Rush, rush, rush.

Did you do what you needed to do and did you do it yesterday? Today’s too late, yesterday was perfect. In fact you really should have foreseen the issue and by the time it was needed, the need should have never occurred because you resolved it.

Really?

Doesn’t that almost sound normal today? Have you heard something similar?

We live in a world in which access to all information is instantaneous. Ask any question, heck, ponder any question and within seconds you’ll have the chance to begin looking through a few million possible answers.

My friends and I were reflecting on years past when one left work on Friday and didn’t need to connect back until Monday morning. Say that out loud now and it sounds like you’re itchin’ to get fired. You must not be interested in keeping that job. So check you email now and respond, yet again, to whatever has just chimed requiring your attention.

Overwhelming.

What we’re not doing is taking some time to think about what’s passed us and what’s ahead. Why did we react a certain way? What worked? What didn’t?

Neither do our students.

They like us, live in a reactive world. Everything around us wants a decision quicker and more definitive than the last time. The bosses boss wanted that answered yesterday. Did their boss want it yesterday too? It’s a cyclical conundrum.

As teachers we are conditioned to deliver instruction our students should be able to internalize within moments. Our day is planned for us, as is our curriculum. Of course when students require to hear it and experience the learning a few times more, we quickly feel as if we’re behind.

In fact now that my SOLs have passed, I find myself at a bit of a loss as to what I should teach these last remaining weeks of school – I started with cursive by the way. I figured they ought to know how to sign their name.

Time has slowed down a bit in my classroom.

Of course about 160 days of instruction has passed since my students arrived on the first day of school.

I’m tired, they’re tired, we’re tired together. Time however is short and we only have so many days left with them in our classroom. A very short time to now lead them to do something that few of us ever do.

Perhaps now it a good time to reflect.

I admit to you that I need to do a better job of building in reflecting time throughout the year, not just at the end. I think I’ll start adding this into my lesson plans now, before the zaniness of next year even begins to overwhelm me.

Until then, here are some activities I’ve had my students do in years past.

  • Write a letter to next year’s class telling them the truth about you as a teacher. I introduce the activity with the promise that no letter shall find itself in the trashcan. All I ask is for honesty.
  • Fold a blank piece of paper into four equal parts. Label each with: what I thought this year would be like, what it really was like, my favorite part of the year, and what I think next year will be like.
  • Write a letter to a favorite teacher they had in the past. Explain what that teacher did to make them a favorite of your student. I then deliver it into that teacher’s mailbox – this always seems to make a teacher’s day.
  • Have your student get in front of the classroom and act out your mannerisms. This is always a lot of fun to see. This one is obviously a reflection activity for the teacher and generates all sorts of stories.
  • Have your students reflect on this past year and what you did as a teacher that was good, negative, and what they would change about the classroom if they could.
  • Similar to the past one, have your students reflect on their own year. What did they like about themselves, what did they do that was something they would rather forget, what did they learn about themselves this year, and what would they like to work on as they enter the next academic year.

So here’s my challenge to you.

When was the last time you took some time to think back on the last few weeks, months, or the year?

Ask yourself. What went well? What didn’t go well?

Now what will you do differently to continue to build on your success?

When you’ve honestly taken some time to think, include your family in the conversation and ask them the same question.

Perhaps this conversation will lead to the exact place you wish you were, before all this reflecting started.

Perhaps the same is true for your students when you ask them to do the same.

We’re Not Making Widgets: Teaching Is Tough

Rubber Ducky

They arrive at 9 a.m. and leave six and a half hours later. Instruction, conversation, art, worksheets, questions, quizzes, homework, assignment pads, tests… what did we accomplish?

Sometimes we teachers drive home at night thinking… “great day! Yes.”

Then there are those other days.

Every new teacher is certainly told about those every experienced teacher has had. There are days when it seems no matter what was attempted, the end of the day brought frustration. All the planning and forethought… all the enlightenment we hoped they’d experienced… all the effort — to no avail. Those are the days we go “well that didn’t work… now what?”

But as a career switcher, I know from first hand experience that other professions have their ups and downs too. No matter what the workplace may look like, sometimes one’s drive home is happy… sometimes depressing. I think it’s fair to say that the difficult days make teachers say… “why do this?”

So I had a student teacher a few years ago now. She did a great job. Finished up her undergraduate experience in my class. What an ending it was for her. Watching from my desk and sitting on my hands, as they say, trying not to interrupt…

I realized all over again – teaching is tough. Why are we expected to do so many things well?

We plan outside of work hours. We grade then too. Teachers are asked to become experts in areas that they teach. In elementary school that’s defined as language arts, science, social studies, and mathematics. If every student doesn’t understand the concept, we’re asked to remediate until they do — regardless if the student even wants to understand. We need to both understand and identify learning disabilities. We are asked to differentiate instruction depending on an individual’s strengths. And of course we need to be sure that everything that occurs in class ties to district goals. And there’s lots more… but there’s one important lesson worth noting more than others.

You know… they don’t teach you how to motivate in teacher preparation courses.

They do mention that how your students do on the state assessments is how you’re evaluated.

Where teacher programs fail is that those assessments don’t have a check off box for that child to check off.

There’s no “I didn’t give it my all” or “I really don’t like math so I don’t care about my score” or “there are so many crazy things going on at home, I really couldn’t concentrate on school”.

Yes I know. Construction is tough. Accounting is tough. Firefighting is tough. Nursing is certainly tough too. I suppose everyone will argue that they’ve decided on a difficult profession.

But I’m molding human beings here. I’m not selling widgets. Determining success can’t always be quantitative. Saving lives as a doctor or rescue worker certainly is important work — rewarding too I’m sure. But for close to a year I not only meet the expectations set forth by the state, I try to also meet those of my parents, colleagues, administrators and… my students. It can be quite the tricky balancing act.

And there is no better feeling than when students return after continuing on to the next grade and they tell you how the zany things you did in class actually made a difference. How my origami lesson that frustrated them so much really showed them importance of details and perseverance. Or how a difficult subject was made easier because of something I said or did.

I don’t think a state assessment score really equates that I’ve been a successful teacher. Sure, seeing those pass advanced scores in print feels good. But after over a decade of doing this teaching thing, I think that’s just the beginning. What about the rest of the student?

Have I successfully encouraged them to go beyond what they thought possible?

Teaching is like overseeing 24 little nations (the current number in my class). Sometimes they get along, sometimes they argue and want nothing to do with one another. Sometimes they just want to be acknowledged. And each day is different.

I hope that when students leave my class after a year. They will remember me as someone who cared enough to be honest. Who was able to challenge them and they in turn met the challenge. Most of all, I hope I taught them that success is not determined by the degree of genius within. It is in fact determined by persistence and a desire to accomplish what they desire.

I call it a life lesson. Something that I think we definitely ought to be teaching. Can we please assess that too? Now how do they put that on a multiple choice form?

3rd Graders’ Test Anxiety: Taking Rigor Beyond Necessity

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Rigor was a word thrown around my district a few years ago as the word or phrase of the year. The phrase that would catapult my district toward greater things — apparently.

Reality?

Well I don’t know the reality of catapulting into greatness, but I can speak toward how it makes teachers feel.

It isn’t reassuring. In fact it comes across to me as prescriptive of issues someone determined to be important because of research found at the top of the latest pile of hot topics.

When your students are already facing the challenges that a Title 1 school experiences, hearing that the bar will be raised yet again is the rug being pulled out from under us.

I’m already counseling my students through family issues that would make you cry. I’m calling up parents whose telephone numbers are no longer in service. I’m feeling like it’s all on my already.

And now you want to raise the bar.

When one already has high expectations of his students, hearing that someone else is going to define the type of rigor that should be introduced is paramount to being told I have no clue. I’ve had parents claim my expectations are too high and get downright upset with me, so I think I’ve got a little clue about expectations.

When someone, somewhere wants to redefine rigor I wonder if they’ve visited the classroom recently – because it isn’t naptime and finger painting. Those options ended with the memory of those of us who were educated well before state assessments. Now it’s test taking strategies and analyzing word problems. It’s determining author’s purpose and having the type of background knowledge often missing from students’ lives in which making ends meet is the priority – they don’t take a trip to the ocean to better understand the ecology of dunes and how seagrasses will disrupt erosion.

That’s a whole different conversation. The same conversation in which students don’t know what you’re talking about when you ask them if they’ve gone downtown to see the skyscrapers – about 20 miles to the North from my school.

So when rigor and relevance was plastered on the subject of welcome back emails some time back, it was one more phrase thrown at us mere days before students arrive in our classroom.

Teachers, and I believe most other humans would also fit into this category, do not enjoy being labeled as experts when they’ve just been trained in a newly acquired skill. The necessity for being the expert was reiterated when we were informed that it would be part of our evaluation criteria for the year.

Each year we’re expected to be experts as a result of the “excellent” training that occurred one quick morning of teacher work week by folks we have often never met. This is the same week when we’re, to be honest, a bit distracted. Teachers are in fact much more interested in knowing our students’ names and getting that very important first week planned just so. We want nothing more than to organize our room to be as welcoming as one can make a sterile classroom that, in my case, had been around for well over half a century.

Every teacher that surrounds me in both my grade or in those that are a year below or above is more interested in understanding their new students’ challenges, any specific disabilities and accompanying Individual Education Plans, and as a result trying to make them comfortable that first day of school. We are already at the copier, creating our databases of home telephone numbers, and labeling folders or assignment pads in hopes of starting the year off on a good note.

Yes, great timing to introduce a buzzword.

Rigor. Perhaps they threw in the alliteration of relevance too because, well, it sounded good. Rigor and relevance. It’s still a blur to me as most back to school weeks are every year.

Fast forward a full half a year later when rigor also became the buzzword the Commonwealth of Virginia used as the new “improved” SOLs were unveiled to us.

Unveiled not a year or two prior so we could prepare our students – way too rationale.

Unveiled instead a few months before my students were to take them. Yes, a few short months. Did I mention that little to no resources accompanied this emphasis on making the assessments more rigorous? More rationality.

I am hoping this begins to describe to you why many teachers are more, not less, anxious as the years pass by. There’s little rhyme or reason except for the reality that there’s almost never any rhyme or reason. Makes sense?

Not to me.

Fast forward to this year.

This year I’m offered a new perspective. One through the eyes of a third grader.

When I thought that the SOLs might be intimidating to 5th graders I failed to realize how they seem to 3rd graders.

My memories of my own 3rd grade year of school are slim, no question.  I remember the halls and I have a brief memory of the nurse’s office when she applied some spray to my skinned knee that felt as if fire was intended to be a healing agent.

What my memories don’t entail are state assessments or the time spent preparing for them. Unfortunately my third graders know all too well about SOLs after today.

Today they took their first SOL. I won’t comment on their performance because I’m not allowed to and, well, I have no idea. We’ve only taken Part One allowing my students to go home and fret about what tomorrow entails. After tomorrow I may know more, I may not. I expect I’ll know immediately if they don’t do as well as I have tried to prepare them.

What I do know is that seeing an eight or nine year old worry about, no, stress about, a state exam is just plain unhealthy. It’s well beyond necessary.

It’s just plain unhealthy.

I know legislators are human beings. I’ve seen them on the news much like you have and I hear that they don’t always play nice with each other.

My father-in-law is constantly involved in local issues in his district that demand constituents’ involvement, so I know that real people are interested in accomplishing real things in our state and national legislative houses.

But they’ve gone terribly wrong on the notion that we have to assess students who are still learning to play nice themselves. Students who worry more and play less. Students who hurt more than most of us can imagine. Now my students have to worry about a state assessment that asks questions that would make adults nervous.

I mentioned that they’re about eight years old right?

The state assessment in which my students achieved high marks for knowing how to read and write was what I considered tough, but fair. They were assessed on mathematical competency and scientific inquiry that required the type of skills necessary for what I envision necessary as they progress into middle school.

This however has changed dramatically.

Rigor was the guise under which reading was intertwined with mathematics and when rewording questions to be answers that demand test-takers to sort through questions has become something downright cruel.

Here’s a great one…

TEI test itemThere are now what’s called TEI (Technology Enhanced Items) questions that ask students to determine when more than one answer might be correct. I’ve included a sample above.
If I remember correctly, my university Math Logic Class (I still believe is quite the odd name for a class) determines that the problem above has 15 possible combinations – there will be at least one so that removes the 16th option which is none are correct. Follow?
Therefore, a student has a one in 15 chance of getting this problem correct, before using strategies to begin eliminating incorrect options.
One in fifteen? Really? Seriously!?
This is rigor. This is third grade.
This, in my opinion, is ridiculous.
I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences on what your state or district is expecting of your students. I’m hopeful someone, somewhere with some clout is asking a legislator to take the same assessment given to a 3rd grader.
I’d be very interested in knowing their final score.

Be Helpful, Be Kind (A Speech to Teenagers)

People rushing on stairs

What follows is a short presentation I gave this week to a group of teenagers. Perhaps spurned on by the sight of too many hand held devices, or my own tendency to rush through conversation, these words came to mind that I wanted to share.


I’d like to start with a quote that I can’t attribute to an author, but one which has been on my mind recently.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

There’s no question, most of us live a hurried, fast-forward, know anything you want because of the Internet and a device we always carry with us… life. We often play the catch-up game without stopping to think about why we’re catching up, or what matters, or what’s important.

You should know that it doesn’t matter if you are short or tall; skinny or not; blond, red or dark haired; clean or dirty; shy or extroverted; athletic or clumsy; full of energy or super relaxed; a hiker or a swimmer; a scholar whose grades some easily or someone who has a tough time doing well in school.

You need to know that you are not unliked, you are not unloved, you are not forgotten, and you are not unwanted.

It is crucial that you recognize that you are liked, you are loved, you are thought of, you play an important part in others’ lives, you will have adventures within the next five years you can’t even imagine right now, and somewhere out there is your future spouse, who wonders what you look like.

But what if you weren’t?

What if you weren’t cared for, weren’t loved and weren’t thought much of? What if you weren’t a part of people’s lives or weren’t a person we are fortunate to know?

How would you feel?

I ask this because there are people around you that feel this exact way. Perhaps at home, at school, in a Scout troop, at your church, or on your sports team.

So I’m asking you to please return the care shown you to those around you.

Be kind… Be helpful

By doing something unexpected for your family; by saying a kind word; by listening to someone who isn’t often heard; or by taking the time to sit and talk… instead of rushing off.

Your kindness might just mean more to that person than you’ll ever know or can begin to imagine.

So what matters? What’s important to us?

You Are.

Again… please take to heart the quote I started tonight with…

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.

Do Your Best & Stop The Stressfest

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Stop beating yourself up. It’s going to be ok.

It’s May and we’re all realizing that the weeks continue to fly by while we center on the state assessments quickly approaching.

Any good teacher out there doesn’t need reminding. We’ve been thinking about it just as much as anyone is going to tell us it’s important.

We know it’s important.

And to add to the mix of stress, anxiety and tension… people are telling us it’s important.

You know often I wonder if there are central office administrators that envision teachers as arriving and departing daily without a clue that state assessments are in fact important.

Yea, I get it.

Yea, I don’t need reminding.

If this post sounds a bit like I’ve begun to reach the edge. Yes, I’m there to

But just like you, I have to have faith that for these past many months, I have been working toward this very time. The time when students prove what they know. We’ve been at this since early September and all that comes with it – frustration, hope, confusion and joy.

I’ve already told my students that I don’t think that the testing that they’re about to undertake is fair. I also told them that they don’t have a choice.

Perhaps there will be a time when legislatures decide on another form of assessment that doesn’t stress out a third grader. A test that doesn’t keep children from wanting to advance to the third grade because they’re afraid of a test that is over a year away from being given. Is it healthy to worry about a test at the age of 9?

It’s sadly amazing what we’ve managed to do to our children.

This is, however, not something you or I can change as educators. As we were probably reminded in our college courses, we don’t get to decide whether to give the assessment – our job is to give it regardless of what we think.

And I do.

I do my best to encourage my students to do their best. I do my best to prepare them and then also remember that they’re children.

They’re going to have bad days that are illogical to you and I. They are, after all, going to do things that don’t make sense to you or I – nor should it, they’re children after all.

So I’m going to take a big, deep, breath and try to relax having faith that my efforts have not been in vain. Join me.

Here’s to you and I… and the last push toward getting our students prepared for that state assessment.

Is it our focus at the moment? Definitely.

Should it be our focus at the moment? Yes, it should.

Do I wish we could instead focus on what I think matters more? Sure.

I’d rather focus on encouraging my students to be better, kinder and more understanding little people. The kind of student that leaves my class better than they arrived.

Please assessment me on those criteria.