September 21, 2014

Teaching is Hard

We are 4 weeks into the school year.  It hasn't been the easiest four weeks of my teaching career.  In fact, I've been feeling a little like I'm back in my first year when it seemed like a couple of kiddos were running the show.  It didn't seem to matter how much I planned, or how exciting our monthly theme was, or how I set up the classroom, these little guys had other ideas.  During that first year, I didn't have many tools in my toolbox for teaching an ordinary class of 4-year-olds, and even fewer skills to manage the extreme behaviors of a few students.

I hadn't yet read Gartrell's Power of Guidance, or Positive Discipline, or Teach Like a Champion.  I hadn't learned how to practice procedures until we got them right, or how to call kiddos back to the carpet when things go out of hand.  I hadn't figured out that a "teacher look" or a silent signal could refocus students during a lesson.  As a result, I spent most of that year in tears, feeling pretty hopeless about how each day would go.

But it's not my first year -- far from it -- and the difference is tangible as I look around my classroom.  I've set up clear expectations for entering the classroom, transitioning, working with partners, and reading independently.   I've taught the silent signals for "SHINE," "track the speaker," and "wait your turn," so I rarely need to interrupt my instruction for minor misbehavior.  I've created charts to show how I expect the kiddos to keep their seat pockets, book bins, and writing folders neat.

I now have a much larger arsenal of teaching tools, including the experience to know that some years are just like this.  During my first year, when it felt like nothing was going right, my roommate would insist that I find out at least 3 positive things that had happened each day.  I learned to focus on them, articulate them to myself, and try to foster more of them.  I know now that I won't always have to search for the good things, but I also know that there will always be at least a few good things even in the worst days.  The majority of my kiddos are falling into the procedures easily and getting used to the routines of the day, even though I am constantly on my toes to ensure that that the distracting and disruptive behavior of a couple of kiddos doesn't throw off an entire day.  I now know that, beyond a point, another hour of lesson planning at 11pm, or spending another weekend rearranging the classroom yet again, or reading another article on behavior management techniques, won't  "solve everything."

Because teaching is hard. It just is. It's like no other job in the world, and also a little like every job.  As a teacher, I often feel like part doctor, part lawyer, part parent, part police officer, part minister, part manager.  I don't think teaching ever gets "easier," but we become more comfortable with not knowing everything, not doing everything, and not being everything.

Sometimes on my worst days, I still get notes like this: "The Best Day of School" 

Rules in School

"Rule Creation" is one of the primary Classroom Practices within the Responsive Classroom Approach.  I've created class rules with almost all of my classes, but this year I took a slightly different approach.  Instead of jumping right into "what rules do we need?" I began by asking the kiddos to think about why we come to school and what we want to accomplish together.  We went through this process as adult learners at the Responsive Classroom Course this summer, and I found that it gave more purpose to the rule creation routine that I had had before.

I started on Day 2 by asking the firsties, "Why do we come to School?"  Their answers cracked me up; things like "to become a good adult," "to do plusses," and "to teach kids." After we had established our purpose for being at school in general, we thought about what types of school work we might do in First Grade. We made a list (I forgot to take a picture) of things like subtraction, art, field trips, and writing stories.  The kiddos created individual "hopes and dreams" for their first grade year based off of this list.

Then we got to the step of thinking about rules.  I reminded the kiddos about all of their goals and all the things that we hoped we would get to do together in first grade.  I asked them to think about how we would need to work together to reach those goals -- what rules would we need to be successful?  They came up with a very comprehensive list ;)

After we had a complete list we went through my favorite task of grouping the possible rules together.  I circled each of the topics in a different color and we came up with an all-encompassing rule to describe the topic.  For instance, "never hit," "tie your shoe laces," and "don't run" became "Keep Yourself and Others Safe."  "Don't lie," "don't bully" and "talk nicely" became "Use Kind Words."

During this process, I always guide the kiddos toward the rules that I want our class to use. For the last 3 years, I have ended up with the same 5 rules.  This year, we decided to make our 5th rule "Work Hard."  I'm still not sure if I'm thrilled with the switch because the "take care of your classroom and school" rule was so helpful in the past; however I like that now we have a rule that directs our cognitive work.  By now, the kiddos are getting comfortable with the language of the rules and I just love hearing them remind each other to "use kind words" and "follow directions." 

Charting the Course

Over the summer, I attended the Teachers College Reading Workshop Institute at Columbia University in NYC.  This week-long training was packed with book suggestions, sample lessons, planning resources, and encouraging discussions.  I walked away with tons of great ideas to improve the reading instruction in my classroom this year.

One idea I am trying to implement right away is making my reading charts more purposeful -- creating charts "with and for" my students.  Our first unit is all about how Readers Build Good Habits.  In other words, teaching children to choose appropriate books, read for a sustained amount of time, read the words carefully, and pay attentions to the plot and details.

In the past, I've relied on one "anchor chart" -- the Readers are Like Runner Chart (below) -- to structure my lessons in those first few weeks.  We have discussed how readers warm-up, set goals, and focus on reading.  However, this year, I pushed myself to create more charts that students could rely on to really understand each objective.

We started by creating a chart for HOW Readers Warm-up (above).   I added each of the large sticky-notes after I introduced the skill and had the kiddos practice during Workshop.  Our Warm-up includes looking at the cover (reading the title and determining possible main characters), looking at the back (reading the blurb), and taking a picture walk (making predictions).   We spent at least one lesson during the first two weeks on each of these skills.  We also timed our reading stamina (how long the class could read quietly) each day and kept track of our progress. 

Then we created a chart for things to do when we finish reading. My goal is for the kiddos to be able to hold on to a book in their head, and often that means that they need to re-read or retell.  Especially when young readers are spending most of their first read-through focusing on decoding or sounding-out the words, they miss essential plot pieces.  I encourage them to go back and find their favorite parts or try to read again using the character's voices to improve their fluency before moving on to another book.

Finally, I created this "We Are Readers Who" chart to capture all of the reading habits that we've put in place.  Although this chart has a lot going on, it is really just a condensed version of the other charts we've been using so the kiddos have been able to refer to it independently.  I'm so excited about the strong foundation we have laid in just the first 4 weeks!