Sunday, September 27, 2015

Planning Priorities

     Who isn't busy at the beginning of the school year? Or the middle? Or the end? Seriously, as a teacher, I feel as though there's always something challenging me for my time. If you're like me, the word, "No" is not an oft used word in your vocabulary. But this year, I decided to try to prioritize school. Could I adequately teach all the standards? What was imperative for me to teach students? What could be taught if time allowed and what had no chance of being taught? Sound harsh? Maybe, but my goal this year is to teach some depth rather than breadth in my classes.
       I'm still working toward these goals and have made changes on the fly to force students to dig a bit deeper and really think about things. However, it's not just my classroom planning I had to prioritize. I had to realign my professional life as well. How many committees can one be on before reaching committee comatose? How many pots can my hands touch without really delving into them? How much extra work did I want to take on?
     Most teachers are lifelong learners and willing to take on anything that is beneficial to their students. That's why in August, when a fellow teacher turned to me at an edcamp-like event and wondered aloud why we couldn't' do something edcampesque-like for students,  I replied we could. And we are (more about the conference in later posts).
     That simple little conversation has launched me into prioritizing my life in spades. And for me, that's a good thing. Because of this endeavor, I have limited time for other things. What's important to me professionally? We can't do everything, despite our best efforts. So maybe it's time to prioritize.
      What does that look like for you? Can you bow out of some organizations or committees or meetings? What energizes and motivates you? Those are the things to keep. Going to "have-to" meetings benefit no one--not the other members of the committee and not you.
       I've said the magic word this year, more than once. "Can you do this?" "No." "Are you interested in that?" "No." It's not because the committee or activity lacks merit, it's just that it doesn't fit my priorities.
      The result? I'm not less busy. If you ask my husband, he'd probably say I'm busier than ever. But I'm not drained by what I'm doing. It's not laborious to go to my ELA book study meeting. I enjoy the activities I'm involved in and the challenge they hold for me professionally.  I'm not run down or tapped out because of the passion I have for everything I'm doing.
     So take a step forward, be bold, and graciously decline involvement in something that doesn't fit with your professional priorities. The first "no" may be tough to say, but it gets easier after the first few times. Go ahead, practice saying it. Then use that word in real life. You'll be glad you did. In spades.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Group Gripes

     I enjoy having my students do projects. Really. I do. My students are currently immersed in a project right now. Well, some of them are. A number of students are totally engaged and then there are other members of the group doing A LOT of talking but little action. So how can we counter this and make engagement something that happens with all students? Is it even possible to get all group members fully active in the project?
     Some teachers, many teachers, shy away from projects because of management challenges. How large are the groups? What's the number of the groups? Are they too big? Too small? Do the personalities mix? Will they produce results? Do all students have to be doing something at all times?
      All of these are valid questions, deserving answers which I don't have. What I do have are observations I've made these past 20+ years of teaching. Observations that I wish I always remembered!

     One thing I've learned, at least with my students, is smaller is better when it comes to group size. If I could get by with a two-person group, I would as I think they are more conducive to higher engagement. Since there are only two people there to work on the project, they'll have more than enough to keep their hands busy and the learning active.
     Sometimes, however, a two-person group isn't feasible. Sometimes you need more people. With a larger group comes the chance that some students will have inactive moments. But just because they aren't doing a task, doesn't mean they can't contribute ideas or suggestions.
      Do I let me students choose their own groups? This usually depends upon the class dynamics. Most of the time I try to give students that option. It's rare I have to reapportion students or re-design the group.
     In the end, most students who aren't initially engaged become so during the course of this journey. They unearth facts, create artifacts, write copy and learn. Often they learn more, or at least, seem to be more vocal about their learning than their fellow classmates.
     Right now in the project my students are doing, I have a rather verbose individual. Left to his own devices, he would control not just his group, but every group with his loud exchanges and interest in everyone else's progress. To combat this, I pulled the individual aside and enlisted his help. I asked him to help draw another student into the project and make a point of listening to her suggestions, noting how everyone looked to him as the leader. When given that moniker of leader, he responded in kind. He mellowed out, focused on his group mates and worked toward inclusion. In a nutshell, it worked.
     We can only hope everything will be that easy...but it's often not. Reigning in and engaging students are two challenges of having group work. At least for me. Yet we shouldn't shy away from utilizing projects because management can be problematic. Most of the time, when immersed in projects my students claim to have learned more from that type of work than they did from studying literature or reading books by dead white guys.
      There's a place for both type of learning in school today. As teachers we can't be swayed by our gripes with groups and allow that to dissuade us from project-based learning. What about you? What have you found most challenging about utilizing groups to engage learners? Any tips?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Know Yourself

      Great ideas energize us. Or they do some of us. Some people get jazzed dreaming "What if..." while others like to work to make the "What ifs" become a reality. Others like to wait for the fruition of the plan and then join the team to help implement it. Whatever the case, knowing where you fit on that spectrum and then operating in it can lead to less stress and more fulfillment in our lives.
      Some people are big picture people. They love to come up with ideas, start projects, and then watch as others take those visions and make them realities. These people are essential to teaching and the classroom because they are innovators and creators. I have colleagues who have great ideas. When I'm around them, I feel energized by their thoughts and get inspired with ideas of my own. We build off each other and they charge me up.
       Other colleagues take those ideas and implement them. They are the "doers." Action people who like to take a project and see it to completion. I often end up in this role, not necessarily because that's who I am, but because I get so geared up about something and become passionate about an idea that I want to see it come to pass. However, I know me. I can do the "doer" thing, but I'm more of a big picture person.
        Still others with whom we collaborate are background people who come out during the implementation process. They are on the ground, "doing" the dreams in real time. A vital part of the process, that's for sure.
       So why is this topic worthy of a blog post? Am I that desperate for topics? Well...no comment.
       Actually, I'm working with some colleagues on a project that I am passionate about. Yet I have to watch myself, making sure I don't burn out, lose interest in this event, or want to quit. I can see it happening. Especially when I look at my calendar!
       As you enter into projects and events with coworkers, know yourself and the place you fit best. You'll feel more fulfilled and energized operating in the area; your project will operate more smoothly and everyone will avoid that stressed out feeling.
       So my words for this week? Know yourself, and you'll be happier for it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Be a Donor

      As a teacher, how many amazing ideas whiz through your brain weekly or even daily only to be dismissed because you know funding is as rare as a 20 degree day in January in North Dakota? I wallowed with this problem for years until I took advantage of a site called DonorsChoose.org.
      I actually came upon this site a few years ago and contributed to a few projects. But this year, my second year in my new classroom, I was ready to build my classroom library and start a book club for my students. The problem? No funds. Or limited funds. Ask my husband? No funds.
      Once again I happened upon DonorsChoose.org and decided to sign up to get my projects funded. And they did. Three of them. My classroom bookshelves are no longer meagerly stocked and I've started a book club at lunch time with some students in my school. Sure there's some work involved in writing the request form and in sending thank yous and pictures, but the payoff is so much bigger.  They also offer matching funds within the first week of your project (up to $100) and companies can match employees giving (this alone funded one of my projects, thanks to my brother's company).
       Maybe you don't have a project that needs funding, but other teachers do. I've invested hard-earned dollars in other educators because I believe in them and what they are trying to do to better their classroom.
         Check out DonorsChoose.org and impact someone's classroom. What goes around, comes around.

From DonorsChoose.org website

Friday, September 4, 2015

Mini-Melties

     I made it four days before my first student had a panicked melt down. Four days. That may seem kind of quick but not in my world. Through the years, these mini-melties erupt occasionally but don't need to become a full-blown Vesuvius.  There are practical steps to help a student avoid the melties and feel a release of the anxiety that often accompanies this emotional situation.
     Students are stressed. In my world, I see this stress more often than not. These kids have multiple pressures tugging at them. One boy in my class was accused by his mom (off her meds) of trying to kill her so she kicked him out of the house. He's currently working full time, and doing a terrific job there, while sofa surfing at night. School? He came the first day...
     Other students work full time, pay their own bills, are trying to graduate, help support their families and have little to no down time. This was the case of my first meltdown student. She stayed after to talk to me and slowly her poise evaporated and the situation escalated as she talked about not understanding the reading material, not being able to do the paper, not following all the characters, not happy at all at where she was at.
flickr.com
     So how do you handle a kid in crisis? The first thing is try to de-escalate the situation. In a calm, soothing voice I told her I understood how she was feeling and how frustrating that must be. Then I asked her some questions/offered some options. This girl was feeling trapped by an assignment she felt overwhelmed by--it's important to offer options so kids feel there are escape routes.
     We went through a myriad of choices, each one being defeated or deflected by this student. Her anxiety level was rising again so I told her we could talk about it tomorrow. I told her I'd work on something that would lead to her success, some options she'd be able to understand and experience success with. In the meantime, I suggested she talk to the counselor to solidify her credit count and ease her fears that she may not graduate this year.
      De-escalating a situation and calming the student down are imperative in keeping a relationship with the student. There's no room for territorial behavior (hey, I like that assignment--it's not too hard--you just need to work harder). This type of attitude merely exacerbates the situation. The focus should be the student, not a kingdom of work.
      So today I'll be talking with this student and making a plan that fits her abilities while still challenging her academically. Do I expect dramatic growth in her? Not dramatic, but growth, yes.
 It's my job to see how she can achieve that growth in the least threatening setting.
     I'm no psychologist, nor are most educators. However, without some common sense approaches to stressed out kids, we can alienate them forever and they will shut you down and out as a teacher. I'll make concessions. I'll encourage her and give her assignments on a scale where she can feel success.
     We all have mini-melties at times. But how those emotional outbursts are handled can determine the atmosphere in your class for the coming year. If other students see you take a teacher-centric approach, this will damage your relationship with students. "Oh, typical teacher." will be their attitudes. But if you actively work with a student to find alternative material while assuaging that student's fears about the class, well, other students will see that and feel safe in your room. They'll know that people matter more than material.
       Melties happen. Just make sure you have the right extinguisher to put out the fire. How you handle it will impact not just you and the student but your whole class. So check your Super Teacher tool belt and look for the gadget labeled "Soft Voice" and "Soothing Talk." Use these on the melties and it will make all the difference.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

And They're Off

      Successful first days like the one I had yesterday don't come around too often. Although a bit disjointed in my first period, I was much smoother in the first day spiel my second period. The big surprise for me was the willingness in which my students engaged in the activities I planned.
      Not too many at-risk teens mess with Play Dough. But they did in my room yesterday. We watched a bit of Jim Gaffigan as the students molded the clay into something that revealed who they were or what they did this summer. And then they talked about their creations with me and others in the class. Usually my room is a tomb on the first day as most kids are new and few know each other. Yesterday's work with Play Dough smashed down the silence.
      We also participated in a speed dating activity...with books. Another surprise. Students couldn't decide what they wanted to read in a good way. One told me I had given them too many sick choices. I knew I had them.
      Once we had the books, we went back to class and they actually asked if they could read. "Sure, knock yourself out," I told them. So we all read for twenty minutes. Later, when it was time to start getting into coursework, some kids surreptitiously opened their books and kept reading, hoping I wouldn't see them.
       Because kids are in class for three hours daily, I don't ask them to take work home. Yet, I had students begging me to please let them do school work at home. Okay, seriously, when does that happen? I'm saying, it was a surreal sight I should have recorded for later doses of needed encouragement.
       All this to say teaching never gets old. Students never stop surprising me. And preparation helps. But mostly kids respond to teachers. How do I approach the first day? How do I approach them? What kind of vibe do I give off to my kids? All of these are great influences in forming students' reactions to the teacher. To me.  IF I have my stuff together, chances are my kids will respond positively. They can tell I put time and effort into them, into preparing for them.
      Well, today is Day 2. Will the honeymoon continue? I'd like to think so. Talking to students and showing you're interested in them goes a long way toward extending the honeymoon. I can't wait to get to school today and watch my students engage themselves in my classes. I' fairly confident it will happen.
      There will be set backs during the block, but I know one thing for sure today. My students got out of the gate well and are off and running. That's all I can ask...for now.