July 24, 2017

Departmentalization in Upper Elementary: Benefits

This past year, my school decided to departmentalize 4th grade for the last quarter of the year.  We made this decision for a variety of reasons, one of which was that our district has really pushed departmentalization for upper elementary.  While I have mixed feelings about this new trend, I'm glad that I experienced it for myself. Departmentalization can take many forms: we used a three-way rotation where students rotated to different classrooms for Math, Reading, and Writing/Social Studies. Although we were only departmentalized for about 9 weeks, I discovered some unexpected benefits, as well as drawbacks, for both myself and my students.

Starting with the positive, here are some clear benefits of using a departmentalized, subject-area teaching model.

Benefit #1: Focus

It's undeniable that teaching only one subject allows teachers to focus on that particular subject, in a way that you can't when you teach 5 or 6 subjects throughout the day. As the Math Teacher, I could suddenly spend all of my prep and planning time thinking about just math! I could hone my lessons more, organize more small groups, plan further in advance, grade and return assignments more quickly, etc.. It makes sense that focusing on one subject at a time, especially for new teachers -- who need more time for prepping and planning everything -- would lead to much stronger instruction. Even with a number of teaching years behind me, though, the ability to focus on math while we were transitioning to a new curriculum was definitely helpful (read about our Eureka Math transition here).

Benefit #2: Growth
In addition to focusing more on one subject-area, in a departmentalized model where teachers teach the same lesson multiple times it's much easier to incorporate feedback and improve more quickly.  The caveat is that teachers still need to get high-quality feedback and they need to be reflective enough to incorporate that feedback in order to actually get better faster. For me, I appreciated getting more attention from my Math Coach (who no longer had to divide her time between three 4th grade math teachers), and I could see my lessons improve as I tweaked instructions, re-ordered examples, and anticipated pitfalls during my second and third classes. Overall, I think I grew more quickly as a math teacher when I only taught math, compared to when I was teaching multiple subjects.

Benefit #3: Fit
"Fit" is an often overlooked, but important quality in education -- both how teachers fit with the grade and subject they are teaching, and how students and teachers fit with each other. A benefit of departmentalization is that it can be easier to find the right fit for both kids and teachers. Ideally, teachers are matched with a subject-area where they feel more confident and comfortable. Hopefully, students can also find a good fit with at least one of their teachers. While I work hard to connect with all of my students, I know I'm not always the best teacher for every student in my class. With departmentalization, I recognized that it was sometimes helpful for my students and I to get a break from each other, and for them to have different experiences with the other teachers. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that Math was the best fit for me (I have much more experience and natural passion/interest for Literacy), but I did enjoy getting to bring some of my strengths to a subject that is often challenging for students -- I was able to break down concepts, build students' confidence in math, and communicate with parents about math, which felt great.

We only had a few weeks to figure out departmentalization this past year, so there are many things I realize now would have made the transition even easier for both the kiddos and myself. Nevertheless, I did get instructional support from my administration, received a lot of positive feedback from kiddos and families, and saw growth in myself -- all great things! 🙌 

Of course, no model is perfect, and there were certainly some drawbacks to this instructional model as well.  Next up... Drawbacks.

July 11, 2017

New Year...Same Goals?

It's hard to believe that I'm approaching my eleventh year of teaching, but here we are...

More things have changed than stayed the same across those years, but there are few things that have remained consistent. For one, I'm still at the same school!  For another, each year I have created a "School Year __ IDEAS" document for the next year. This is where I collect all the great ideas I have after I finish a unit (you know the ones: the things I don't get to or realize too late or attempt unsuccessfully). I usually include ideas for read-aloud books, new classroom activities, improved procedures, and other small things that just might make the next year run more smoothly than the last.

Over the summer and throughout the school year, I check my "IDEAS" document and incorporate those ideas in to my planning and teaching. Ideally, each year I have new ideas and set new goals... but, unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way...

Firsties greeting each other with the "Butterfly Greeting"
A few years ago, when I was teaching first grade, I committed to maintaining consistency in my Morning Meeting.  I was coming off a year where I had strayed from the by-the-book RC (Responsive Classroom) Morning Meeting, opting instead for fewer community-building group activities, and more Calendar Math routines. While nothing huge was missing, I did feel like my classroom community was lacking something without the RC songs and games.  So that year I kept my commitment; we had a "true" Morning Meeting every single day, without exception.  Even when we had field trips, assemblies, or special events, we managed to do a quick greeting and read a short Morning Message. My focus on implementing Morning Meeting paid off; despite some very challenging behaviors that year, my kiddos could count on starting our day together every day.

As I'm looking at my "Next Year IDEAS" doc for this coming year, I find myself once again setting a goal to execute Morning Meeting with fidelity every day. How did this happen?  Frankly, we had Morning Meeting most days this past year... but, especially toward the end, I got lax. Some days we had a longer Morning Work, some days we jumped right into content, sometimes we came to the carpet just for announcements.  Sometimes I wasn't prepared and needed those extra ten minutes to set up the SMART board or organize some copies. Other times, the kiddos were calm and quiet, and I didn't want to upset the balance. Whatever the reasons, it didn't always happen, and I think our community felt the repercussions.

Of course, I'm well aware that Morning Meeting won't solve all the inevitable classroom challenges I'll face this year.  But I do know that being prepared for each day and maintaining consistency can truly change how a classroom operates.  We all reap the benefits when I'm ready to go for the day, there is a predictable routine from the moment students walk into the classroom, and we can make smooth transitions from one activity to the next. So this year, I'm re-committing to holding Morning Meeting, day-in and day-out.

Fourth Graders doing the "Hand Stack" greeting!

Now, I just need to figure out what grade I'm going to be teaching... 😁

June 27, 2017

Book Buddies

When I was in fourth grade, my class was "Book Buddies" with my brother's Kindergarten class. Reading with our Book Buddies was one my favorite activities!  I still remember how exciting it was to go down to the Kindergarten room, picture books in hand, and get to be the "big kid" reading to the "little kids."  My brother and one of his friends would sit on either side of me as I read to them.  I remember practicing how to remind them to sit quietly, listen, look at the pictures, point to sight words on the page... I guess I was a teacher even back then. 😂

Book Buddies is still one my favorite activities and now my fourth graders are the "big kids." Every other week, or so, we traipse down three flights of stairs to our little Book Buddies' classroom.  My wonderful colleague typically has her little guys spread out around the room so that it's easy for the buddies to find each other. Then the magic begins!

It's so fun to watch the kiddos bond over books; see the little kids look up to the bigger ones, and watch the big ones practice all their best reading and teaching skills. As the year progresses, we add other activities to our Book Buddy time, like reading outside, making crafts, Book Buddy Morning Meetings, picnics, and even field trips to the park.

Not every Book Buddy match is an ideal one, but it's been surprising how many of our Buddy pairs turn out to be perfect for each other -- patient, understanding, similarly quirky, and adorable. Taking advantage of these strong bonds, I frequently remind my fourth graders that the younger students are looking up to them and their choices.  When one of my kiddos is having a tough time, visiting their Book Buddy can be the best motivator. And for the younger set, they always have great cheerleaders in their Big Buddies -- whether they are sharing their newest drawing or showing off a new skill on the playground.

I'm so glad that my school encourages this type of cross-grade-level interaction. Through Book Buddies, I've seen some of my most reluctant readers gain confidence as they read to a younger student; and I know that even my most impulsive kiddos can show great empathy and tolerance when working with a struggling Pre-Ker. Year and year, I know that Book Buddies is one our kiddos' favorite activities. We may even have some future teachers in this group...

How cute are they?!