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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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.

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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The First Days of School–a shift

http://bit.ly/1stdays
http://bit.ly/1stdays

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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