Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Stop Talking

     The first day of the next chapter in my journey to becoming a changed teacher was a definite revelation for me.  My learning can be stated in two words: STOP TALKING.  I'm referring to my own internal monologue during our first half-day of school together.
     Instead of me droning on and laying out all the rules, I asked my students a series of questions.  What I noticed even in this process is that I can't seem to shut up.  I always felt the need to comment or parrot back what the student had already stated as another student recorded the answer.  I knew that this change process would be difficult, but I am quickly realizing that I have challenged myself in a significant way.
     As I listened to the students respond with possibilities about how our class could be organized, I hoped that they would give me some honest responses.  I believe that the students were honest, though most certainly they are used to the "teacher-in-control" that is so common and that I had previously practiced for the past dozen year. Today's interaction was a tiny, but small step in creating an "nontraditional" classroom. 
      I'll return eagerly tomorrow for another day.  I'm definitely aware that this year will be a challenge for me and the habits that I want to change.  This should be an interesting year in our classroom.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Day 28 - Creating a Classroom that Values Each Individual

Q:  How do I create a classroom that values and includes each and every individual student?
A:  This area has been one of my greatest weaknesses over the years of my teaching career.  I often made an effort to not single out any students for negative attention.  But with my previous efforts in the classroom being focused on me doing the vast majority of guiding, planning, and "controlling" all the learning, instruction, and interaction that happened in my classroom, I struggled to truly value each individual student like they should be.  I'm looking forward with anticipation and some fright to this upcoming year.  While I am leaving behind many of my previous methods of "running" my classroom, I am looking forward to working WITH my students, not DOING things to them. (I'm borrowing an Alfie Kohn phrase there.)  My anticipation for this year focuses on my desire to discover each student's strengths, areas for growth, and ways that we can together learn from each other and improve together throughout this year.  Will everything flow smoothly with no problems?  Highly unlikely...  But I'm sure that giving each student a voice in how they learn and how they treat each other will be more productive than my previously controlling efforts.  So stay tuned to updates on how this new school year proceeds.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Day 27 - Accomplish Before I'm Done Teaching

Q:  What is one thing I would like to accomplish before I'm done teaching?
A:  I don't think that I can narrow my thoughts done to one particular thing, so I'll go with a mindset change.  If I can change my formerly teacher-centric style to one in which I consider the students and their viewpoint in each decision that I make, I would consider that my greatest accomplishment.  This drastic personal change will not be a single accomplishment, but much more of a process type of change.  Considering a change like this might be out of the ordinary but I have been doing a great deal of reflection throughout this summer.  I have thought about how I have typically taught my students and whether I would want to be a student in my classroom.  I have also been reflecting on whether I would want my principal to regard me in the same fashion that I have often regarded my students.  The answer to both questions has been a resounding NO.  So, due to these considerations, I have embarked and will be continuing on a long journey to alter how I go about guiding my students' learning.  From an increase in my use of technology to offering students the option to direct our learning, I am trying to rewire my thinking of how I go about each aspect of my teaching.

Day 26 - Most Important Professional Development Tools

Q:  What do I think are my most important professional development tools?
A:  This question is probably the easiest for me in this whole challenge.  The answer: Twitter.  This probably won't seem like a strange answer to anyone who uses Twitter a regular basis.  The change in my thinking and the books that I read this earlier this summer can all be attributed to the connections that I made on Twitter.  In connecting with numerous educators from around the world, I have learned and will be applying several concepts in my classroom that I had no previous contact with before this March when I joined Twitter.  I have made contact with many educators willing to help and encourage me.  I have to give special thanks to one in particular.  Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripp) has exhibited a tremendous willingness to communicate and share not only her experiences, but informational letters that I will be using to communicate with my students' families this year.  She is just one example of how Twitter can benefit an educator.  Due to my Twitter connections, I will be attending my first TeachMeet, an informal day-long professional development experience, in a nearby city in October.  I used to ignore Twitter, mostly because I didn't understand its usefulness.  So, if anyone reading this doesn't take part in Twitter at all or only rarely, I would encourage you to consider taking part in this social media environment. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Day 25 - Taught in School?

Q:  How was I taught in school?
A:  I was taught in the traditional, teacher-centric model.  Teacher imparts knowledge, students practice, and then students demonstrate "learning".  This was pretty much how I was taught throughout the 80's and early 90's.  I can't remember a single instructor who departed from this form of education.  With this description I don't mean to imply that my teachers didn't care about me or my learning.  On the contrary, I remember several with affection and true joy for their desire to help me and others become the best students and individuals possible.  Each of these instructors may have had no knowledge of different approaches to encourage student learning, just as I hadn't during my first 12 years of teaching.  My lack of knowledge regarding different methods of instructing has been wiped away through my interactions with other educators on Twitter.  So as I began my thirteenth year as an educator next week, I will encouraging my students to learn in vastly different ways than I was ever guided.  I believe this is an excellent situation.  For the past several years, I have felt a vague unease with how I have been teaching, but couldn't ever find a personally workable solution.  The new direction our classroom will be taking is the beginning of  a journey that will hopefully lead to greater student learning and satisfaction with their school experience.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Faculty Retreat

I'm off this morning to an overnight retreat with my teaching colleagues.  These yearly retreats have huge amounts of pros and only one or two cons.  First of all, as a staff, we are rarely altogether in one space at the same point in time.  Due to varying schedules and family demands, there are some colleagues that I rarely get the chance to talk with.  Another positive is that all the beginning of the year plans and preparations are dealt with in a concentrated amount of time.  The biggest personal advantage for me is that I get to spend time with my fellow educators just to have fun.  In the one evening we are away from home, we have the opportunity to talk, laugh, play games, in short, just relax with each other.  A rare chance indeed.  Sure, there is the downside of my wife and I having to find someone (usually her parents) to come and stay with our sons while I am away and my wife is working.  I don't like being gone overnight from my family.  I personally wouldn't do well in a job that required me to travel a lot.  But the overall benefit to me, especially as an educator and member of our teaching staff, is tremendously positive.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Day 24 - Easiest Part of Teaching

Q:  What is the easiest part of teaching for me?
A:  For me, the easiest part is coming to school each day.  I've had conversations with other family members and friends who don't really like their jobs.  That thought really has never come into my mind.  Certainly, there are moments in my job as a teacher that I haven't enjoyed.  The difficult conversation with a parent about their child's progress in learning.  Speaking with a student who is hurting another classmate.  Those moments are not some of my fondest, and yet even in those difficult moments I wouldn't want to give up my role as a guider and facilitator of learning for my students.  In some of those stressful moments, I have seen growth, in myself or other people, take place.  So each day I come to school, not with the sense that I MUST come because I have a job to do, but because I KNOW that I can learn from the students even when I am challenged by them or their parents.  Upon reflection, I have learned my most valuable lessons from difficult moments when I haven't met the needs of my students or parents.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Day 23 - Excited About?

Q:  What aspects of education am I excited about?
A:  The biggest area of education that I am excited about revolves around giving my students choices in their learning.  Whether these choices come in the form of deciding what novels we will study or how each student will demonstrate their learning, I shiver with enthusiasm as I picture this year.  I know that there will be challenges for the students and me as we chart a new course on how to go about learning.  There are so many aspects of my new plans for teaching that I am still considering, but evaluating how I have taught in the past and what methods haven't seemed to work has been a valuable tool in my preparation for this upcoming school year.
      These preparations have provided a huge challenge to me.  In my past summers, I might tweak a few ideas here or there, but I never made any significant changes.  This year I have embarked on a complete overhaul of how I go about encouraging my students to learn.  I'll have to admit that committing to changing my teaching framework from the "traditional" teacher-on-stage mode to a facilitator of student choice in their learning made me confront some of my long-held practices and beliefs about learning.  A lurking uncertainty and discomfort often existed in my thinking about whether my teaching methods were sufficient.  I frequently found myself blaming others for difficulties within our classroom, but doing so often seemed like I was making excuses.  The one question I have been asking myself throughout this summer is:  Would I like to have a certain method or action used on me as a teacher?  If the answer is no (which has occurred the majority of the time in my pondering), then I feel compelled to design a different manner for encouraging the learning to go forward.  While these considerations have created a great deal of work for me this summer that will surely continue throughout the year, I have been convinced by other people's experience through my reading books and blogs that this type of meaningful change will lead to greater learning for the students and myself.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Meeting My New Students and Families

     At my school, I am required to meet individually with each student and their family.  Sometimes we meet at school and sometimes in their home.  I anticipate all those meetings with a tiny bit of dread each year.  But as I get on a roll of sharing what fourth grade will be like and how we will be learning together, I become excited about our new journey together. This year in particular, I am excited to share the changes that I am making to my approach to guiding students' learning.  I have been able to share my research into homework and grading policies and the knowledge that I have gained during this summer.  Not surprisingly, most families have responded enthusiastically to reduced homework loads, more narrative information about their student's learning, and increased skill in technological tool use.  As I make each visit I become a little more excited about this upcoming year and the new opportunities that the students and I will have to learn with and from each other.  So as I complete these visits in the next week, I look forward to partnering with parents and their students as we embark on another year of learning.

Day 22 - Unexpected Encounters

Q:  What did I encounter in my teaching career that I did not expect?
A:  I was the most surprised during my first year of teaching and  what still occasionally surprises me is how strongly two people can disagree about what is best in a child's learning.  This aspect of my career probably had to do with my background and personality.  I grew up in a family that for the most part didn't have huge, loud disagreements.  We were by no means perfect, but strong, passionate arguments just weren't in my experience.  As a child and young adult, I also hated conflict and would avoid it as much as possible.
       When I entered my first year of teaching, I encountered some of the strongest and most frequent criticism of my entire 12 years of teaching.  My lack of comfort with conflict as well as communication mistakes contributed to this situation.  I would still attribute most of my serious conflicts with students or parents with a lack of communication.  When I didn't consider and communicate all aspects of a situation or I didn't ask for frequent feedback, these small problems or annoyances gradually grew into large, sometimes irreparable, conflicts within my relationship with a parent or student. 
         Thankfully, I have learned the lesson, a few times the hard way, that dealing with a problem immediately often helps a relationship grow stronger not weaker.  While not all conflicts have a positive resolution, my experience shows that the majority of conflicts are resolved with helpful results when I clearly explain the situation to the involved parties and collaborate on a solution.  This plan is by no means the fastest or seemingly "easiest", but often produces the greatest long-term gains in the relationship.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Day 21 - Most Enjoyable Moment In Teaching

Q: What is my most enjoyable moment in teaching?

A: I can't say that I have one particular moment. For me the most enjoyable times are when I witness growth in a person. Whether this person is mastering an academic concept or demonstrating increased confidence in a social relationship, I am pleased to see this change in action. Often times, my actual contribution to this change in a student or family is small or negligible. But the fact that I have the opportunity each and every day of a school year to observe the effort, struggle, and growth emerge in another human being is an aspect of being a teacher that I truly treasure. These seemingly small moments in time offer me the ability to watch change occur. I hope that I never lose sight of these changes' importance for each student and their family.

Day 20 - First Year Teaching and Beyond

Q: Describe myself during my first year of teaching and how I have changed.
A: My only response to this query is that I was completely clueless. I often felt unsure of how to proceed within the classroom, especially in the area of "classroom management" (even though I hate that term). My teacher training did basically nothing to prepare me for this aspect of teaching. Let's face it, if my students and I can't come to an agreement on how to proceed through each day of school, then none of us will learn much throughout the year. Over the years, I'm now beginning my 13th year of teaching, I became far too good at the traditional model of teacher in control, students following the teacher's cues. Those days are ending. My first day of school plans are so radically different from the past that it hardly seems like I will be teaching the same grade. While I'm a little nervous about how the students and I will collaborate in this new environment, I haven't been this excited about a new school in quite awhile. I feel fresher and more ready to learn with and from my students and help to direct their learning than in many years. So I will continue to share and reflect on my journey. In my ways, I feel like I am beginning my teaching career all over again. I am more comfortable with children and their parents than my first year of teaching. I also know how I have been teaching in the classroom is not how I want my teaching to continue.