Monday, September 29, 2014

New Experiences, New Lessons

I remember walking down the hall to my first classroom as a teacher. Based on some of the research I did on the school, I knew which classroom I would be receiving, but the principal walked past it. There was also another opening that was next to the office. "Please don't give me the room next to the office," I thought to myself. "Oops, we went too far," she said. I was about ready to start celebrating until she unlocked my room. "Here's your new room. Aren't you excited?!"

To be honest, looking at the room, I was far from excited. Desks were piled in a heap in the center of the room. There was stuff on the counters that belonged to multiple teachers that may never be claimed or used. Then there was the shape of the room. I was accustomed to rooms that had four walls and tended to be some sort of quadrilateral. This room, however, had five walls, none of which were the same size. A decent size island in the "kitchen" (sink area) served as a base for a massive CRT television and home to a laser-disc player.

Although I was a bit disappointed by the shape, a small and silly thing to be bothered by, I did have a feeling of excitement. I didn't know how everything would work out, but I knew that there would be adventures to be had, lessons to be learned, and a year full of new experiences.

Throughout those first two weeks, before most teachers had even started setting up their rooms, I rearranged the desks at least two to three times a day. It was impossible to get them to fit correctly, unless I put them in rows, which I was not about to do. So I talked with my principal and received permission to do away with the teacher's desk and television. Now there would be more room for learning.

But things still weren't right. I had trouble walking around and would be challenged to reach every student. Imagine students trying to sit in chairs at their desks; they would be nearly on top of each other and unable to move around without hitting. This wouldn't do. So back to my principal I went.

Talking with her, I was able to express some of my concerns and we arrived at an idea. I would start switching the desks out of my room for round tables. These would allow more people to sit in a smaller area and work in groups, but paradoxically have more space. So as the year started, I began moving desks out and tables in.

Some of the students loved the tables. They quickly saw advantages of them and enjoyed the new adventure. However, some students missed their desks. They wanted a space that was immediately defined as their own, with all of their belongings right there with them, and what they had known in the past. To top this off, I wasn't able to obtain as many tables as I had needed for everyone to sit at, so some students were at desks and others at tables.

This forced me to learn new behavior management strategies as the students were constantly right next to each other, looking at each other. At times, it was a challenge, but I learned a lot because of it. However, because of the lessons I learned last year, starting this year with all tables and no desks went significantly smoother.

There were a few parents last year, and a few this year, who were uneasy about the tables. After some experience with them, they eased in to them and saw many of the benefits.

This past week, I started giving a few students stability balls to replace their chairs. A few students seem apathetic about them, but overall the class, and a number of parents, are excited to have them.

I was talking with one of our custodians the other day and he made the comment that my room kept changing. Thinking about it, I had to respond to him that my room should look different every year.

As teachers, we have very different groups of students coming into our rooms each year, sometimes each period. Additionally, the world around us is constantly changing and traditional paradigms of education may not be as efficient. We need to constantly be trying new things, having new experiences, and learning from those to make our classrooms an effective environment for learning. I am fortunate in that my principal allows, and encourages, me to try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them. Isn't that the sort of modeling that the students benefit from? When I show them that it is alright to take a chance, fail, and recover from it, they learn that process and can begin to reciprocate it in their own lives.

What have you been wanting to try? What is holding you back?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Drawing Laughter

Walking into the room, I can only assume what she saw, what she heard. Her reaction is easily justified when you think about it. The students laughing, not little giggles, but noisy and disruptive laughter. The substitute teacher standing silently before the class, whiteboard marker in hand.

"Hey! Be quiet!" she bellowed. "What would your normal teacher think?!"

What had started as a normal, boring vocabulary lesson would turn out to be much more.

The students at this school had been taught to sit quietly in their seats, aligned in rows, and absorb the content that the teacher presented. It was very similar to what most of us were taught, if not identical. (Which is apparently the same as Sumerian classrooms c. 2000 BC.)

I had started the vocabulary lesson as I knew how - having experience being a student, but no formal training in pedagogy or behavior management - and I was bored. I can only imagine how the students felt. So I decided I was going to do the lesson a bit differently. There were a number of nautical terms, so what better way to illustrate the concept for them than to actually illustrate it?

The problem with that is that I am a terrible illustrator. (By which I mean that I have not invested the time in lessons or practice to improve my skill and have little interest in doing so.) So I did what any person would do; I made my sketches even worse, intentionally, and made up a story that slowly introduced each vocabulary word.

The students could tell that the illustration and story were intentionally silly, but they were humored. They laughed and wrote what they needed. They were engaged.

Then another adult walked in, not knowing what was going on, just that the class' behavior was very unusual. She wanted to do her part to help with what was seen as an out of control class. After a few minutes, I assume she saw what was going on.

Looking back, I wouldn't change the story. I would rather try something new, look silly, and have my students engaged than fit a traditional mold of education. This can be at conflict with parent or administrative demands, but I think that the results prove it worthwhile. Never be afraid to learn, try new things, and engage your students.

What have you tried in your class that is unorthodox? How did it work? What did you learn?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Like A Lightbulb

Over the summer it was one of my goals to get out of the house. I remember many summers sitting around doing nothing, complaining about being bored, and this was not going to be one of them. When I was given the opportunity to go to a family friend's lake house, I did not pass up the opportunity.

This is a place that I have enjoyed going since I was little. The water is usually a murky green and filled with algae and all sorts of other living things. (I've been told that the algae is great for your hair and skin.) When I am there, we usually embark upon some sort of project to improve the house or maintain it. You see, our family friend is blind, so he has trouble doing some of the work on his own. (He has great stories of his visits to hardware stores asking for help picking chainsaws and other large tools.)

On this trip, we would spend some time working on a project that I had never done before: the community pump house. In order to supply the neighborhood with clean water, they draw water from a pipe from a pipe running into the lake. The water was then run through a state-approved filtration system before being distributed to the homes. We would be installing and wiring some components to help automate the process. Although I had very little wiring experience, I did have some and we were expecting it to take two or three hours to finish the project. Opening the wiring box and removing the covers revealed this adventure.

There is another wiring terminal on the right not in the picture.
I'll admit I was a bit overwhelmed at first, but willing to take on the new challenge. I began determining where the new wires were coming from and was able to label them and connect a few to the correct places before running into trouble. One of the switches would need to be wired to a power source in order to work, but my instructor had never seen the panel before and wouldn't be able to help me, so we had to call the person who designed it...and lives in another state with (apparently) incorrect wiring diagrams. Working through it, I had to decipher engineering jargon and new concepts. After a few hours of playing with wires, testing switches, and being told "It should be just like wiring a light socket for a light bulb." we decided that time would be best spent moving on to another project. (There may have been a loud "POP!" in there, too.)

This experience made me think back to my own classroom. Some of my students enter knowing exactly what to do and can do well from the first instruction. Others, however, lack the necessary foundation and need extra support before they can be set free. These students will be frustrated and challenged and may be ready to give up before achieving their goal. Sometimes we plan great activities that should work out a certain way but do not end up going as we have planned. Are we going to get frustrated and discourage the students or will we take a few steps back and provide them with a stronger foundation to help them learn more effectively? I've learned that, no matter how great the activity, if they are not ready for it, they are not likely to benefit from it. As teachers, we need to know our students' abilities and help them thrive from there. Just because we are ready does not mean that our students are. This does become challenging with such diverse groups of students, but I believe it is possible to find a way for collaborative exploration that fosters learning and challenge for each of the students.

Do you have ideas for differentiation or stories of times that you have learned from? Share them below!

Oh, and for those who are curious, the reason that we were having such great difficulties was because of a blown fuse hidden behind a section of one of the terminals. That may or may not have been my fault...

Monday, August 25, 2014

I Will

Today was the first day of school and with everything going on I forgot to write and schedule a post. However, if I want this to continue, it needs to happen.

This year I am entering the classroom with more confidence, more excitement, and more hope. I will make mistakes, some great and some small, but I will learn from them. Some of those mistakes will directly impact students and I will need to apologize. I will try new things, fail, and try again. When parents approach, angry or upset, I will try to keep in mind that they want the best for their child and are doing what they think is right. When children approach, we will celebrate victories, empathize in sorrows, persevere through challenges, and learn tough lessons together. I will be more than a dispenser of information, rather a caring person, striving to encourage and promote children to be their best. I will be a teacher.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Impress or Success?

This summer was filled with many adventures for me. One of them was attending a two-week technology program with 40 other teachers. While there we learned about different technology tools and how to integrate them into our teaching, helping students take more responsibility for their learning and permitting individual interests and creativity to be shared more easily.

Surrounded by many great teachers, it was difficult not to be inspired by them. Initially, I struggled to come up with some ideas for projects that I wanted to do in my class. Then, as I was talking with a few teachers from my district, it hit me. I had my project.

The funny thing is, although the idea came to me while talking with them, I didn't want to share it. With anyone. I was going to make it amazing on my own; the kids would love it and produce amazing creative projects; my principal and other teachers would see the final projects at the end of each trimester and be in awe of the results from lessons that they never knew were happening.

Then another idea came to my mind. Am I trying to impress people or am I trying to foster student learning and help them be successful? I quickly realized that I was in the mindset of the former, focusing on myself and how I would look - when my students had amazing successes of course, but without any help or input from other teachers, administrators, or really any adults in general.

But does that really help my students become successful in their attempts and learning?

I do believe that individuals need to be responsible for their actions and learning. At the same time, it is important to be able to work with others and learn from them. However great my idea may have been, I wouldn't have been able to develop it without the help of others. I am fortunate to have a great PLN, both at my school and outside, so why should I restrict myself to my own thoughts? I want my students to be collaborative and help each other reach their full potential and this is a great opportunity for me to model that for them.

Fast forward a couple weeks after the class. My principal has been informed of my intents and she not only provided some ideas but thanked me for bringing it into my class. There are a couple teachers that I am talking with to link our classes to help each other grow and provide real world application. Stay tuned and I may have you involved as we continue forward.

What about you? Are you more concerned with impressing others or helping foster success? Where do you think the line is drawn between personal responsibility and collaborative effort?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Impact of a Laugh

We were all seated at the tables and dinner had just begun. I was still a bit uncomfortable, being a first year teacher and the only staff member on a three-day outdoor education adventure. There were eight parents with me to chaperon and two or three program employees, so I was far from the only adult. Although this was my ninth trip as an adult chaperon, I was now the teacher of record and wanted to make sure that everything over these days went perfectly. While the parents I brought on the trip were great, there is still the nagging thought in the back of your mind that they are watching you, too, judging how you interact with your students.

There were eight or ten students sitting at my table, and one who snuck over whenever she could. Conversations continued on as you might expect: how was your day? what was your favorite part? what are you looking forward to for the remainder of our trip? One of the girls got up to refill her lemonade without noticing that one of the boys was walking by to do the same. He walked up to the cooler and said, "Wait a minute. Sorry. Go ahead." He then moved out of the way and signaled for her to go ahead of him. To which she responded, "No, it's OK. You go ahead. You were there first." This back and forth continued for five or ten seconds before she finally filled her glass and said thank you.

Observing this from my seat, I couldn't help but smile. I was impressed at his gesture, knowing that at this point many of my students are very self-centered. And I was glad that she offered to let him take his place, as he was in line first. And their interaction gave me hope and helped me relax some of my concerns from the trip. So when one of the other students at my table made a comment shortly after, I couldn't help but laugh.

After I started laughing, other kids at my table also did. Our table would settle down, but something would set us off again. I'll admit, we did receive looks from every parent in the room, and one or two kids rushed over, "What's going on?!" but we enjoyed that dinner. I cannot tell you what we ate, or even what we talked about that made everyone laugh, but for those of us at the table, it was one of the best moments on the trip. There were even a few parents, not chaperons, that asked about the dinner a few days later, but all we could do was smile. Whenever any of us think about it now, it still brings a smile to our faces. "Remember the time..."

I recently read a blog written by a principal challenging his readers to think about the last time that they laughed aloud uncontrollably, lost track of time because it wasn't the most important concern, or simply enjoyed an activity.

His blog challenged me, perhaps a bit more than it should have. As a first year teacher, there are a significant number of difficulties, but also a number of victories. I find that it is all too easy to focus on the negative, even while encouraging my students to focus on the positive and work to overcome adversity. Sometimes patience is in short supply or some students are acting out and attempted redirections are not working. In those moments, I find it easy to forget that my students are children and that there is more to them being there than imparting some of my knowledge.

Sometimes, I need to remember to step back. What is the real purpose of being here with these children? How do I make them feel? Yes, they are there to learn, but there is so much more to it than core academics. There needs to be a balance of what I am required by the state or school district to include and that which will build up my students and encourage positive character development. They need to know that they are cared for and have a safe environment.

On the last day of school, I asked my class to share what some of their favorite memories were from the year. One of my students raised her hand and said the night at dinner when we made you cry - and all the students at the table agreed.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Value of Mistakes

There are many things that you do not learn in your credential program or through student teaching. If you're reading this, chances are that you're already creating a list in your head of different things that you wish you had known before you started. (Feel free to leave that list in the comments below!) For me, one of those things was how to start the school year. Sure, I was told not to smile until December, make sure I had plenty of structure, but also make the kids feel welcome and create a caring environment. Great! How?

Thinking back, I don't remember the first day of school when I was student teaching. It wasn't that long ago and I'm sure that I have notes about it somewhere, but that's not my class. Can I really start a very different group of students the same way? We did some ice breakers and other collaborative games, but I wanted something more meaningful than that, something that would stick with them - I'd wish for the rest of their lives, but settle for the rest of the school year. I decided to share a story with them about myself:

While I was working on my credential, or shortly after, I attended a math conference on campus. In one of the sessions, they provided us with a prompt. Teacher A is planning a field trip for X students. If a small bus costs R amount of money and fits Y students and a large bus costs S amount of money and fits Z students, what combination of small and large buses will be the least expensive for X students?
 We were told to work in pairs to solve the problem and were given 10-15 minutes. My partner and I decided to quickly talk through our ideas and then work independently - solving the problem on our own, and then defending our solution to each other. I quickly worked through it, started to explain it to her, and realized I was wrong. She explained her idea and we saw that her solution was also wrong. So we got back to work. Then I had it! I calculated the price per seat and determined the best combination. My partner did not agree with my idea at first, but explaining it I was able to convince her. The presenter came by, we explained it, and he said he liked it and asked if we would be willing to share it with the class. We had no problem with that and quickly agreed. He went on his way and we started discussing other things - like finding a job. It was only a few minutes before he returned to say, "By the way, your solution is incorrect, would you still be willing to share it with the class?"
In a few minutes, I was sharing my errant idea with the class and letting them all know the wrong way to solve it. Although we were the only pair to solve it this way, a few others said that it made sense to them. Then someone asked a question and was able to identify our error and point us in the right direction.
I shared this with my students for a few reasons. First, I wanted them to know that I make mistakes, too. (I try not to very often, but it does happen.) Second, I wanted them to see that because I was willing to share my ideas, even if they were incorrect, I was able to learn a correct solution and adjust my method so that I could reach that solution. Third, I thought that by sharing my mistakes, they might be more willing to share their mistakes. I want a classroom environment where my students are willing to share their ideas, even if they are "wrong" and think critically while problem solving. I do not want my students to equate "different" with "wrong".

There were some rewards for me from this - a few students took it to heart. I had a parent warn me at the beginning of the year that their child did not like sharing ideas and was uncomfortable making mistakes in front of the class. Shortly after I was able to tell this parent that the student was regularly sharing solutions and ideas with the class, even if they were incorrect. At the end of the school year, one of the students wrote that she was more comfortable with us knowing that it was a "class that made mistakes" and learned from them.

Even though it may have only made a difference for a few students, I will share this with my next class. I want my students comfortable with making mistakes and learning from them and sharing with their peers. We all make mistakes, why not encourage it before our students are conditioned against it?

Monday, July 28, 2014


There once was a young, first year teacher. He scoured the internet for blogs by first year teachers and found none. (OK, he maybe spent two or three minutes on Google. Max.) That was when he said to himself, "Self!" and decided to be a first year teacher writing a blog during the first year.

Absent would be apologies about missing a weekly post. Everything would be done on schedule and entertain an audience across the country and spectrum of interests. Each week something new, something exciting, would be shared with readers eager to read the next account in his saga. His adventures, challenges, and brilliant ideas would be shared and he would read and be challenged (in a positive manner) by the comments his pensive readers would put forth.

Little did he remember of the beginning of his student teaching, where he so arrogantly entered the classroom with years of experience with children, but little in the classroom. Where it only took a few months for him to be humbled (and a bit frustrated). "This time will be different!" He assured himself.

Fast-forward a few months and where do we find our protagonist? He is finding himself humbled again. Though a full year (a full year!) of student teaching has been completed, he finds the profession to be more time consuming than he had expected. A wonderful group of over thirty children has been assigned to him and he wants to do his best for them, and hopes they give him their best.

Gone are the days where he thought that he would have the time to write at all, let alone time to craft something thought provoking or interesting. No. He would be spending his time working on lessons, learning (and designing) curriculum, responding to emails from parents and students, and doing quite a bit of learning himself.

As the year carried on, and eventually led to a bittersweet end, the thought of writing completely disappeared. But wait! This end would lead to a new beginning. The beginning of a recovery phase!

Yes, he would take the break to recover from his first year's adventures. Perhaps not recover...reflect. Yes, reflect. There were many wonderful things that happened throughout this first year, many lessons learned, many mistakes made, and many stories that deserve reflection and revisiting. His recovery would be that of his blog, from its woeful beginning. Absent would be apologies about missing a weekly post; instead, it would be clearly stated as a potential reality at the beginning of the recovery.

Welcome to the second attempt.