Becoming un-Difficult

A parent recently texted me about their child. To be clear, parents don’t usually communicate with me via this method. I just happen to know this parent outside of school, and honestly, it was quite nice to hear positive feedback. She wanted to let me know that her son had been raving about me all weekend. One of his comments to his mother was the most striking to me: “She never gets mad at me. I don’t get in trouble in her class.” When his mom asked how that was possible (he is notoriously ALWAYS in trouble), he replied, “She used to teach special ed.” That last comment made me chuckle, but his first comment made me think. Why is it that a student can be “difficult” for one teacher, but completely NOT difficult for another. In truth, I don’t have a coherent answer for that one just yet, but I do have a few ideas.

First, I believe in building relationships with my students. I am fortunate enough to teach in a small school (small in comparison to a public school). I have fewer students than a public school teacher. I have times in which I can engage with students outside of the classroom whether that is at my door before class, in the halls between class times, during sporting events, or in the lunchroom. I make it my business to know my students. I observe them. I listen to them.

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Five more minutes

Inspiration comes from the most unlikely places. I read a lot of blogs for my personal edification. Sometimes, I find that a blog post about a personal matter can sometimes relate to how we approach educating our students.

This article on spending five more minutes on those things that are important in life resonated with me. I was thinking about how five extra minutes a day for a single student could make the difference in that child’s day, week or school year. Or, how five extra minutes could turn that “difficult to love” student on a different trajectory in our classes.

Just a thought.

Grading tools and feedback

Working in a 1:1 laptop school has its advantages and disadvantages. Of course, one of the biggest issues is how technology changes so quickly. Also, there are a lot of tech that is gimmicky. It might be flashy or fun, but it rarely moves learning forward in a meaningful way.

But, I love when I find a tool that is useful and practical. An add-on to Google Drive called Doctopus is very helpful. It allows you to distribute files to students, automatically shared with you and the student(s), organized into folders. With another add-on called Goobric, you can attach a rubric of your creation or one made through rubistar. This tool can be used on any platform as long as you are using Google Drive.

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Thinking Routines

I have had a lot of ideas floating through my head. I have lists of things to write about. LISTS is not an exaggeration either. I have lists on my computer; lists on my phone; lists on post-its in my paper planner. I seem to have more ideas than I have time to flesh out. Now that comment writing season is behind me, I hope that I will have more time to write.

In the meantime, I have two small personal goals for my classroom: get the kids to think for themselves, and get them out of their seats and moving. In the last few years, I have faced a conundrum. It seemed like any time I asked students to think and make connections they fight me. I can’t even tell you how many times I have had my classroom fall quiet for a few seconds after I pose a question only to have a student abruptly say, “Oh, Mrs. Lindsay, just tell us what to write down.” Even years after attending Project Zero, participating in workshops with Grant Wiggins, and facilitating numerous other professional development opportunities; I would feel like I had run out of ideas to get kids to look at the subject differently. I struggled with how to go deeper, yet “teach” all of the content with our rushed schedule. Defeated, I would do what many teachers had clearly done before me. I would give them the answer. I felt and still feel that this was not the purpose of education at all.

For me, there was another underlying concern as well. Because my students were constantly taking notes or “doing” a project, they rarely moved. While I rarely have behavior issues in my class, I knew this was not appropriate for this age group. I have a hard time sitting still for an hour myself. So, as a result, I have been trying to find opportunities to get the kids thinking more and moving more. Sometimes the solutions are simple and low-tech.

For this thinking routine, I wanted kids to make connections between one idea and another regarding the fall of Rome. The idea was for the students to realize that there wasn’t just ONE cause for the fall of Rome in the Western Empire. So, I had the students use post-it notes to attach to the white board in the classroom. They were constantly moving between their seats to review their notes, consult with a friend and read other students’ post-its. Then, they would add their own. For an hour, every student was engaged. They consulted with one another, and I rarely saw any students off-task. I moved about with them as well. The solution was simple and effective. Students raved about the class time and felt they understood the idea more easily because as one student said, “they interacted with the information instead of being told what to think.” Funny how the tides have turned.

Teaming without a Team

One of the challenges we face at my school is that our teachers crossover grade levels and teach multiple preps. I personally enjoy teaching two grade levels because I get to see children at different developmental levels. Sometimes, I am able to teach kids two years in a row, which allows me to develop great long-term relationships with my students. So, while teaching this way is personally rewarding, it can make it difficult to lead a “team”.

Currently, we have 23 teachers who teach seventh grade. That becomes an unwieldy number when trying to plan and work together. It is no surprise that we seemed to have many obstacles to creating a team approach, but with careful planning, it wasn’t impossible. Here are a few things I learned in developing a team without an actual team:

  1. Using the word “team”. We tell our students that words have power. It is no different for adults. One of the biggest obstacles to creating a team was overcoming the inertia of teacher autonomy. Many teachers become teachers because they really enjoy working with kids, not necessarily adults. When I first started working in an independent school, teachers often bragged about their degree of autonomy. By using the term “team”, we created an environment where faculty feel as if they are all in the same boat, and we entered into a more collegial relationship with one another.
  2. Do what you can. This may seem obvious, but when we first began implementing a “team” approach, we couldn’t start too big. The first thing that we could do was create a time and space for faculty to be together. Since our schedule couldn’t be adjusted to accommodate shared planning, we had to make the time. A core group of teachers committed to meeting after school one day a week in the beginning. Our focus was always on how we could improve our teaching for our students. We evaluated what we could and could not do with the time we had, within our current curricular standards, and with the busy schedule of our students. We started with the simplest tasks first such as just sharing what we were doing in our classes. Eventually, we were able to create a daily schedule that allowed us to meet during the school day.
  3. Set goals and expectations. We set two goals right away in our work: 1. Create a student community, 2. Generate themes that can be woven into all of our curricula. By setting goals early on, we were able to always have a focus when designing curriculum. Often, we focused primarily on core content first–math, English, social studies, and science. Whenever we had a new idea, we used those two goals as our “litmus” tests. If it didn’t fall under those criteria, we were able to make a quick decision to either table the idea, or expand our goals.

These simple ideas are not all that different from what teachers do in a traditional team setting. However, we had to take these baby steps in order to create a more team-like approach with such a large team. Every year it gets a little bit easier.

Erasing Doubt

“And though she be but little, she is fierce.” –A Midsummer Night’s Dream 

Recently, I was watching the regional competitions for American Ninja Warrior.  I’m obsessed with the level of fitness people must have to compete in this obstacle course. However, I was watching this particular Regional for one purpose—to watch Kacy Catanzaro. She was the first woman to complete the qualifying course and to complete the full course on American Ninja Warrior to qualify for nationals. I wanted to see her run for myself. The question in my head was why did it take six seasons for a woman to get this far in this competition.

In an interview following her successful run, Catanzaro explained why she thought no other woman had made it that far yet, “It’s just because there was always that doubt in the back of their minds, that no girl’s ever done it, or that some people might say no girl can do it, or girls aren’t as fast, girls aren’t as strong—all of these things that women are used to hearing.” She refused to listen to the negative thoughts, and she succeeded.

So, what does this have to do with education? Reading Catanzaro’s interview, made me think of my students. Those students that say they just aren’t good at _______.  By the time students reach middle school, they have a lot of preconceived notions about what they can and cannot do. Perhaps, their well-intentioned parents tell them that it was okay that their grades were lower in one subject. It must not have been their strength. Perhaps, a teacher told them they were good at math, but writing just isn’t their thing. Perhaps, a content area takes a bit more work for them, so they convince themselves that they will never be successful. Whatever the cause, I feel that teachers can work to erase these doubts. However, it is the “how” of erasing these doubts that can be harder to articulate.

While I am not always successful, here are a few ways that I feel I have helped students erase doubt over the years:

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Overcoming burnout

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I remember very clearly a conversation that I had with my school’s former Headmaster. He asked me, “What do you think would surprise most people about teaching?” Without blinking an eye, I responded, “The level of energy it requires.”

When that conversation occurred several years ago, I was at the height of my game. My classes were fun, exciting, innovative. I spent a considerable amount of time revamping every lesson. I tweaked everything. I added meaningful uses of new technology as they became available. I attended training classes to learn new skills. I led training classes for other teachers to hone their skills. I led clubs and activities. I gave presentations. I organized field trips. I graded papers quickly, efficiently, yet with thoughtful feedback included on every page. I did it all with a smile. I was on fire.

I also went home everyday exhausted. Sometimes, I came home and continued to work. Lessons were always in need of tweaking. Papers were always needing to be graded. Often, that meant late nights for me. Despite the exhaustion, I loved my job. I woke up ready to face every new school day. I felt like I was living up to my calling. I was giving my all to my students.

Unfortunately, this kind of energy is not sustainable. I had little to give my family in the evenings. I also began to resent the amount of time it took to tweak and grade. Over time, my health began to suffer. However, it wasn’t until this last school year when I experienced some very significant medical issues that I realized I was burned out.

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The First Days of School–a shift

When I was in graduate school, one of my textbooks was The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong. Interestingly enough, it was also given to me on my first day of employment at my current school. Wong’s book is intended for new teachers to help create proper classroom management procedures and routines early in the school year, especially on the first day of school and within the first week.

I loved Wong’s book. It spoke to my need for order in chaos. However, as I began to develop my own understanding of how middle school classrooms should be. I found I preferred to create an environment of controlled chaos. As a result, I began to move away from Wong’s methodology in a few ways. I value the principle of creating routines early in the school, but I chose to do it in a more age appropriate fashion.

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UPDATE: I had a hard time getting great images of this activity to share. In my opinion, the process went very well. Some students loved it. Others didn’t care at all. In general, students learned yet another way to improve their comprehension. Those students who embraced it continued to use this methodology throughout the school year even when it was assigned.

I will be introducing formal sketchnoting to my seventh-grade classes this week.

According to Kathy Schrock:

Sketchnoting, in its purest form, is creating a personal visual story as one is listening to a speaker or reading a text. I also believe the interactive notebook, which includes the process of taking “regular” notes” while listening to a speaker and later creating a sketchnote of the text notes, would also be considered sketchnoting. This page will provide links, ideas, tips,and research evidence dealing with the power of sketchnoting.

I will give more details about how we accomplish this task. For older students, I would give less guidelines. However, given the age of these students and that this is a newer concept, I will give more framework for the concept. Students will have the choice of device and/or app. All finished products will be uploaded to their Google Drive to be shared with me and fellow classmates.

Intro presentation:
Sketchnoting – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires