July 29, 2017

Departmentalization in Upper Elementary: Drawbacks

In my last post, I shared some of the benefits of departmentalization, but during my brief foray into this instructional model there were also a few significant drawbacks.

Drawback #1: Relationships

One of the hardest parts of departmentalizing, for me, was the lack of continuity with my students. We switched to this model toward the end of the school year, and I found it challenging to stay connected to the students in the my original homeroom. It was hard to maintain a community-building Morning Meeting when we only had 15 minutes before the kiddos left for their first class. It was hard to support all aspects of their education when I was only teaching them math, when I didn't assign the Social Studies projects, or grade any literacy assignments. It was hard to sustain and strengthen communication with families when I was not with their children all day.
In addition to feeling disconnected from the students in my original homeroom, it was also hard to get to know the kiddos and families in my other classes. Despite already knowing some of them, I did not feel like I had same connection with everyone. A benefit of departmentalization is that it allows teachers to focus on only one subject area, but the downside is that it increases the number of students who we interact with daily; it's not easy to manage individual relationships with 60+ students and their families and develop strong communities with multiple classes!

Drawback #2: Transitions

We read everywhere!
Before we departmentalized one of my primary concerns was how the kiddos would handle all the transitions. Nine- and ten-year-olds are still young and I questioned whether they were developmentally ready to move classes. In my school, we used a three-way rotation so students started in their homeroom, moved to another classroom for their first subject, returned to their homeroom for their second class, went to lunch and recess, then returned to homeroom, went to another classroom for their last subject, came back to homeroom to pack up, and finally went to special class -- that's 7 moves between spaces!  The kiddos had to carry their homework folders and independent reading books with them to each class, and often needed to bring their own pen or pencil as well (that was whole other issue with supplies!)  While some of the kiddos felt capable, and even confident, keeping their materials organized and moving from class to class, for others it was a significant challenge.  In addition to managing their materials, students also had to negotiate new expectations and personalities with each transition. My clever kiddos quickly recognized that one teacher was more strict, one was more permissive, and I was somewhere in the middle! Yet again, some of the kiddos could take these differences in stride, while others really struggled to manage all the rules and routines. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, most of the kiddos who had the hardest time with the transitions during the school day were the ones who were dealing with transitions in their home lives as well (moving, divorce, food insecurity). With students moving from room to room, it also became harder for any one teacher to respond to a student who was having a hard time; we were making multiple transitions too -- resetting materials, reviewing expectations, and managing additional procedures -- and now our time with each class was limited.  Although there were great things about seeing more students and changing things up, I was constantly worried about students falling through the cracks (not literally) with all the movement in the schedule.

Drawback #3: Communication

There are so many areas where communication is essential in a departmentalized model -- communicating expectations to students, communicating with co-teachers about curriculum and students' behavior and progress, communicating with families about all aspects of their children. Regrettably, this was not a strength of our fourth grade team. It's hard not to place blame when it comes to poor communication, so I won't say I did everything I could to improve the situation. Frankly, we didn't have the best systems in place for communicating before we departmentalized, and I think these problems were simply exacerbated once we were sharing students.  Disagreements about classroom procedures, instructional priorities, or when and how to communicate with families became much bigger issues once we were departmentalized. Conflicts between teachers, kiddos, parents, and administrators created more friction for our team when we couldn't handle everything in our own classrooms. Obviously, systems and strategies could have prevented some of these issues, but, candidly, strong communication also requires a level of trust and confidence that we were lacking as well.  Working closely with co-workers could certainly be a benefit of departmentalization, but it can quickly become a drawback when communication suffers.

It looks like I'm going to be in fourth grade again this year, and we're likely going to be departmentalized from the beginning, so I'm starting to think about solutions to some of these stumbling blocks.  Hopefully I can find some tricks and tools to minimize these departmentalization drawbacks! Stay tuned.


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?!

June 26, 2017

Catching Up

When I started this blog, I'd only been teaching for a few years and I wanted a way to capture the things that were working well for me and and reflect on the things that were not. I thought the blog would be a place I to keep my immediate thoughts on the day's events and record my classroom activities in nearly real-time.

That turned out to be harder than I'd thought.  After a rough day, I didn't always feel like writing down what had happened and reflecting about why.  Even after great days, I just wanted to bask in the glory of my own productivity, rather than write it all down. Of course, as one could have predicted, I now regret that I didn't keep more in-the-moment recollections of our daily goings-on.

Fortunately, though, I did take lots of pictures, lots and lots of pictures. So, since it's now summer and I have some extra time on my hands, I'm going back through my albums of photos to recall the best (and maybe some worst) moments over the past couple of months (okay, years).


More posts coming soon...


June 25, 2017

I Love Them All

I've taught in three different grades, over the past ten years, and I'm frequently asked which grade I like best.  While my standard response is that I love them all, of course, there are some things that I love more and less about each.

So what are my favorite things about each grade that I've taught? Here you go:

PRE-K:
I started my teaching career as a Pre-K teacher.  I can always tell when someone is an educator (or the parent of a preschooler) by how they respond to this information -- if you say "aw, so cute!" then you're not a teacher. If you say, "woah, you must have endless patience," then you get it. 😁

Everything is new for preschoolers!  This means that anything can be educational and exciting... and exhausting.  I've taken field trips to the grocery story and the post office with Pre-Kers (activities that we grown-ups find tedious and mundane) and watched their little eyes light up with wonder... and endless questions. It doesn't take much to be a four-year-old's "favorite teacher" (this is great for ego building!) Despite the tears and tantrums (and accidents) that inevitably come with teaching Pre-K, there are days when I really miss the easy hugs and simple joys of playing in the water table.

FIRST GRADE:
I think 1st grade is where some of the most significant learning happens, maybe in all of elementary school. They come in just putting sounds together, and skipping the number 13 when they count, and a few months later they are reading picture books and subtracting back from 20.  First graders are just starting to learn what learning feels like -- for some, it's the first time they realize they are "learning" anything at all. And all that learning is not easy. Every kiddo needs every lesson at least 15 times, with manipulatives and visual cues and physical movements and sing-song steps. And lots and lots, and lots, of encouragement. As frustrating and tiring as all that can be, there is nothing like the first time a kiddo reads, like really reads. I don't think being part of that moment could ever get old.

FOURTH GRADE:
Moving to fourth grade was an unexpected and challenging jump for me, and I wasn't sure what to expect.  When your kiddos start to approach your height and have their own opinions, it can be intimidating. Ten-year-olds don't love just anybody or anything, some of them are already a little jaded about school, and some just want to pretend they're tough, so getting them interested and engaged isn't always easy.  It takes a lot of energy to show you care about them and the subject matter. But once you're in, it matters that much more.  As foundational as early childhood and lower elementary are, this is the age when kiddos develop the beliefs and passions that will truly shape their lives.  They learn that girls can do math and boys can love history. They learn those skills -- like multiplication, essay writing, nonfiction note-taking -- that they really will use when they grown up. No pressure, right?

I don't actually know what I will be teaching next year, and that uncertainty has me a little frantic. How will I sufficiently reflect and plan and prep?  Now that I think about it, though, maybe it's not so much about what grade I will be teaching, or even what students I will be teaching, maybe it's really about what I will be teaching. In every grade, there is the opportunity to make something as mundane as the grocery store, or as foundational as reading, or as inspiring as the American Revolution into something that kids really care about, something that will shape the course of their life. I just need to find the patience, energy, and enthusiasm to teach it to them. No pressure -- I've got all summer.

June 23, 2017

Answering Their Questions

"What will happen if Donald Trump starts a war with the Mexicans?"

This question was left on a Post-it on my desk by two fourth graders back in October, following a discussion about the impending presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Although it was easy, among my liberal friends, to bemoan the fact that ten-year-olds were worrying about such a thing as a war with Mexico, I recognize now that this was an incredibly important question for them to be asking -- regardless of the specifics around this particularly polarizing election.

Being a citizen, we teach young people, means questioning our leaders, and considering the ramifications of policy decisions, and making choices. Yet too often, I think, we shut down exactly these types of questions from our students because they make us, the adults, uncomfortable. We don't want to upset parents or administrators; we don't want to get stuck in a political debate; we don't really know the answer ourselves.

Or we answer glibly or sarcastically, or with forced reassurance that everything will be okay. The danger of this is that our kiddos can't always tell the difference between sarcasm and honesty.  They learn that these questions have fast, firm answers --

"What will happen if...?"
"Nothing."
"It can't really happen."
"We won't let it happen."
"Don't worry."

The truth is there are no simple answers to this type of deep question. The truth is, also, that it's not a simple question. When I answered this specific question, in a conversation with my class later, I tried to explain that there is a process for declaring war -- that our military would take action and other countries would respond, that it could be scary and dangerous and people would die. I also explained that while our country has been in wars in the past, it's hard to know how another war would go, which is why it is a big deal to suggest that any country take this route to solve the problems it has with other countries.

It is difficult to find answers to questions about public policy without layering on my own political views and values -- and admittedly, I'm not always successful -- but I try. I try because I think my students deserve to hear an answer, even if it's imperfect. I try because I want them to know that I'm thinking about these things too. I try because if they never get an answer, they may stop asking. And we need our kids to keep asking questions.

We need to raise children who want to know what will happen if -- if we start a war, or if we cut healthcare, or if we raise taxes. We also need to raise children who aren't quick to decide if war is right or wrong, or healthcare is all or nothing, or taxes are fair or unfair. We need to raise the next generation to ask difficult questions of themselves and of their leaders. Then we need them to be able to ponder and petition, to concede and to compromise, to conclude and resolve, and then to reconsider.

And it starts with answering their questions.

January 5, 2017

Teaching On Stage

Teaching is often compared to other service professions -- like nurses and clergy -- and there are certainly similarities there.  Teachers work for the public (i.e. our students and their families). The results of our work are largely intangible, and while it can be very rewarding, it's often thankless work as well.  I've been thinking recently, though, about a different comparison I heard a few years ago. In many ways, the career most similar to teaching is acting.

Fourth grader teaching her Pre-K Book Buddy!
The preparation teachers go through before a lesson is similar to actors learning their lines.  We study and rehearse to ensure that we can deliver a teaching point precisely or present a math skill clearly.  We then perform our lessons for a critical audience and have to be ready to accept their feedback and tweak our performance for future lessons, innovating while teaching the same standard.  Like actors, we are often seen only as our final performance -- and most people never even know about the the hours of research for the role, the rehearsals, the costume adjustments, the staging, or the last minute script changes.

Like an actor in a play, teachers try to build a genuine connection with our audience while portraying a character. Stage actors, like teachers, have families, histories, and issues that they bring into their role. While this background makes us into the performers that we are, sometimes our personal lives don't mesh with our role.  I have days when I'm emotional or exhausted, yet when I step in front of my kiddos, I'm "on stage" -- I need to smile, speak calmly, and focus on the content I'm teaching, regardless of what's been happening behind the scenes.

I'm often reminded of this comparison when I'm overwhelmed by working late, stressful morning meetings, or personal issues.  The reality is that all teachers have good days and bad days, and children they click with and those they don't.  Being a "responsive teacher" means knowing that my students and I will all have days we don't feel like working our hardest or doing our best. It means knowing that my students' families and experiences are as important and inextricable from them, as mine are from me. I hope that, like a stage performer, my vulnerability, honesty, and life experience shine through in my performance and ultimately make me someone who my audience (students and parents) trusts, appreciates, and supports.

January 3, 2017

Eureka Math Myths

Student work from an Investigations lesson
For the past five years, I've been using the Investigations Math curriculum, both in first grade and in fourth.  So when my school district announced this year that we would be switching to Eureka math, I was a little apprehensive. Fortunately, our team was allowed to take this year to get to get familiar with new curriculum and make a gradual changeover.  As the math planner for fourth grade, it was my job to figure out to make this transition smooth.

My initial plan was to teach Investigations for the first part of the year, going at slightly accelerated pace and skipping one or two units, but mostly teaching each Investigation with fidelity. However, as I got to know Eureka more, I realized that pulling in pieces from this new curriculum early on would benefit our mathematicians. We quickly incorporated some of the fluency pieces, including "Sprints" and "Application Problems."  As we have moved further in to the year, I've included a few whole Eureka lessons, and even entire Module (unit) in between our Investigations lessons. The results have been impressive: my kiddos are doing better, faster math than they were before and they are able to explain their thinking more clearly -- both verbally and visually!

Student work from a Eureka Math Problem Set
I've heard a lot of criticism about Eureka, especially about the level of rigor it demands, but from the training I've received and my own experiences, I think a lot of it is unsubstantiated.  Eureka is definitely an accelerated program compared to Investigations (and most math other curricula I'm familiar with), but this is a result of the curriculum's tight alignment to the Common Core standards (read more about this here: http://www.edreports.org/math/reports/series/eureka-math.html).  While I have had had to go back to second- and third-grade lessons to fill in gaps and meet the current understanding of my fourth graders, I've still found that the majority of my kiddos have been thriving with the structure of the Eureka lessons and the methods of instruction. Of course, it's hard to know whether they would have been prepared for the level of math was have undertaken this year without the strong background that I believe they acquired from Investigations in Kindergarten-3rd grade, but nevertheless, I think that Eureka has some really smart ways of teaching number concepts that will benefit all young mathematicians.

So, what are the myths about this new curricula?  How does it really play out in my classroom?
Here we go:

 (Disclaimer: This is just my understanding from the instructors I've spoken to and my own interpretations of what I've read.)

Myth #1: It's a script.

As the professional developer who led my first training about Eureka put it: "If you try to follow the Eureka Teacher's Guide like a script, you'll find that your students have not been studying their lines."  Just like other curricula, the Eureka Teacher's Guide provides a sample conversation between a teacher and students -- the text is not intended to be the exact or only words that teachers use when explaining concepts to students. The dialogue can be a guide for how to explain new concepts and the types of questions to ask, but may include more language than needed or may not be sufficient for any given lesson.


Myth #2: You have to do every part of every lesson / assessment.

The Eureka Math lessons are packed -- most include multiple fluency exercises, sample problems, and discussion questions. There are also times associated with each component of the lesson. Just like with the "script," most of these components are suggested to support the skills and strategies that are being taught in the lesson/module. According to the professional developers and planners I've talked with, the times are guidelines to prevent students from spending too long on any one component, rather than a mandate to fit as much as possible into one lesson.  I've also been advised that the bulk of the lesson should be in the Concept Development, with enough independent practice for students to try out new skills but not so long that they get frustrated or bored.

Even the assessments are designed to give teachers choices. Our district has been told that the Mid-Module and End-of-Module Assessments were actually designed to be used a test bank for word problems and multi-step computation problems. Teachers are encouraged to select only the problems they think will best assess their students' skill and understanding, and also to add additional basic computation or simple identification problems as needed.


Myth #3: You can't differentiate.

Yes, there is a reason that the Eureka designers laid out certain lessons the way they did and that they chose to develop concepts across grades and modules, but that doesn't mean that each class and every student will master those lessons and concepts in the same way and in the same amount of time. Of course, some differentiation will always be needed.  In fact, one of the great things about using a well-aligned curriculum is that teachers can go back to previous grades or Modules to see how skills were initially taught or practiced.  Especially in our first year of using Eureka in fourth grade, I've gone back to second- and third-grade lessons to see how concepts like fractions, standard algorithms, and place value develop. I've taught some of these earlier lessons to my whole class and others to a sub-set of students who needed more background.


Myth #4: You can't use hands-on, interactive or investigative approaches.

It's true that Eureka relies more on direct instruction than more constructivist math programs, but I've still found plenty of opportunities for my kiddos to use manipulatives and investigate concepts.  Again, sometimes these experiences are built into lessons from previous grades that can easily be brought up or revisited with older students; other times I've incorporated the manipulatives and games that I used with Investigations. If kids need to build, bundle, balance, or bisect... then by all means, they should!  Eureka does provide tools for students to visualize concepts, including individual white board templates, cut outs, place value cards, etc.. In addition, I've found that the Application Problems work really well for partners or small groups, while many of the Concept Development problems lend themselves to being "investigated" using a constructivist approach. Plus, online resources like Zearn.org can give students additional blended-learning practice with skills directly from Eureka.

So there is it ... my assessment of Eureka Math. All in all, I'm enjoying getting to know this new curriculum and seeing how it supports my kiddos' math learning.