Why was today good?

The Friday before February break I had the best day I’ve had since the first month of school. I have a difficult class. The school clerk greets me in the morning with a cheerful “Thank you for coming to school today,” because she knows both how difficult it is to come to school everyday and how difficult her job is when there is a substitute teacher in who will constantly call the office for support.

I don’t want to go into the details of why my class is so difficult – it requires a heart-wrenching examination of poverty, a culture of violence, and my own failings as a teacher. What I’ve been thinking about ever since Friday afternoon is, what did I do to help it to be a good day? And, can I do it again?

Friday is a changed schedule for us in the fourth grade. The teaching team has a morning Common Planning Time, so we leave work for the students that they can manage with a substitute, usually a paraprofessional who knows them and their work. The morning block is usually Science, but on Fridays we switch to writing and give kids an opportunity to finish whatever writing project they need to get done from the week. This week, I was trying to have kids practice writing on a keyboard, using the space bar and shift key to reinforce conventions around sentence construction. On Tuesday mornings we have access to the laptop cart so we all got to start a persuasive letter at the same time. In our class on Friday morning, we have access to only 11 ChromeBooks, so I randomly divided the class in two with the plan that one group would spend 20 minutes typing while the other group finished up Math work and then they would switch. Twenty minutes should have been enough time for most students to put the finishing touches on their letters.

Our Common Planning time was canceled because there were not enough substitutes to cover for the whole team, but when a sub arrived at my classroom nonetheless, I took the opportunity to finish some one-on-one reading evaluations that are coming due. I got everyone started on their assignment, grabbed two reading folders and called my first students to join me at a table in the hallway.

And then I saw Michael.

Michael has trouble at school. He always has had trouble at school. He was one of the boys that teachers told me about when I was starting the year at my new school. And he has met or exceeded all of their descriptions, both positive and negative. He is a complicated boy who never sits still. And he takes it as his personal responsibility to misbehave for substitute teachers.

And he had been randomly placed into the Math group for that first block of time.

“Michael, grab you paper and pencil and come out with me. You’re not in trouble, I just think the hallway will be more quiet and a better place to work.”

And, instead of grabbing my next student for testing while my first reader was doing the independent part of the evaluation, I helped Michael with a problem on the worksheet that helped him complete the rest of the math on his own.

I walked my two students back to class in time for the switch, which put Michael safely (more safely, anyway) on a computer writing and put Junior in the more precarious position of working independently on his Math. “Come sit with me while I read with Max.” I told him. And he did and I replayed the balance of evaluating my reader and encouraging my mathematician.

So, by the time I finished my two reading tests, it was time for the sub to move on and for us to sum up the morning and prepare to go to Art class. And no one had gotten into trouble.

Not gona lie, the walk to Art had a few chaotic moments. Pete and Joseph were beginning to relive yesterday’s fistfight but I was able to separate them and to give the Art teacher a heads up to keep them apart. Junior wanted to run and dance through the halls, but agreed to stand by me and even let me hold his hand to help keep him steady.

We got back to class after Art and they quickly settled in with their snacks to listen to our read a loud. We have been reading a few chapters a day of Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot and were at the part (spoiler alert) where a fire burns down one of the lodges. We got through the tragedy, and snack time, and got ourselves ready for Science.

This is where it could all fall apart.

I had told them earlier in the week that if they were able to focus on the Science Reading and note taking projects we needed to gain an understanding of how light reflects and refracts they would have time for an Engineering Design Challenge on Friday. Thanks to another day when they needed a sub and a great idea from another teacher of letting them use the ChromeBooks to watch a video on the subject with a partner as a way to practice taking notes, they had been exposed to all of the vocabulary and scientific concepts they needed.

I took a deep breath.

“OK, you will work on teams of no more than 4 people.” Kids immediately start turning in their seats to point at potential teammates. “I will set the timer for 2 minutes and let you choose your team. Here are some things to consider. Choose a team that will help you get your work done, people you get along with but will not fool around with. And, if in that 2 minutes I see running or pushing, or hear insults, then I will choose the teams for you. If you have any trouble choosing your team, I can certainly help. Ready?” They took the threat of possibly being teamed with an unwanted partner to heart and quickly formed teams and stood together in their designated corners. Joseph, who had been having trouble getting along with others this week, came right over to me saying he didn’t know what team to join. Lilly and Devon saw him talking to me and invited him to work with them. I couldn’t have chosen a better team for him myself. I looked around the room and saw only one team that made me cringe a little. They had done a responsible job and had set themselves up nicely for the work.

The challenge today was to design a device that would allow them to see what was happening on top of a desk from a seat under the desk. The test was that one student would hold up some random number of fingers above the desk while the student using the device would be sitting on the floor. Each team got a small packet of identical materials (mirrors, cardstock, masking tape) and they also had access to our box of building supplies filled with cereal boxes, plastic pieces, string, etc. Before they could build, they had to sketch out, and agree upon, a design.

Everybody got to work.

Let me say that again. Everybody got to work.

You just don’t know how rarely that happens in my classroom this year. I was walking on eggshells, trying to monitor progress and learning while not interfering with this magic.

Here’s what the magic looked like:

  • One team disagreed on their design and instead of yelling at each other agreed to sketch out both and “eeny-meeny-miny-mo” to decide which they would build first.
  • One team floundered from the get-go, not knowing where to begin. After a quick series of questions form me about their past observations and experiments, their reading and video work, they all seemed to have that ah-ha moment in unison and started talking at the same time about their ideas.
  • Several teams built what they thought would be great designs, only to fail when they tested them. Instead of giving up, which is often the go-to reaction to failure in our room, they excitedly shared ideas for improvements and got back to work.
  • One team’s device kept falling apart, and they kept reflecting on the source of the weakness in the design and trying new fixes until they had a sturdy prototype to test.
  • When Joseph’s team finished before everyone else, they gladly showed their design to a struggling team.

Before it was time to clean up and get ready for lunch, everyone had shared a design and was able to say why it worked. Most even explained why they thought their first attempts would work and why they in fact did not. Every team showed an understanding of the concepts and ability to use their knowledge from reading and watching science videos in the practical work of constructing a device. Every team encountered some sort of roadblock – a design that didn’t work, a disagreement over construction, a mistaken idea of how the scientific concepts would play out in real life – and they all made it through.

I’m not gonna lie, I was beaming.

And then I left them for indoor recess (because of the wind-chill and snowdrifts) in the care of our principal (who does recess duty with my class for what, to everyone in our school, are obvious reasons) and I went to lunch with a bounce in my step that my colleagues mistook for joyful anticipation of the coming February break.

After lunch and a short independent reading time, which we use after lunch as a way to help the class settle back into the classroom, we skipped the usual literacy lesson and center rotations to continue with some of the science concepts. On Fridays our school allows for what we call Fun Friday at the end of the day, so our learning time was shortened anyway. It was a good time to fit in some work with solar cells that we didn’t get to earlier in the week. Because of the limited time, this would be more of an observation than the exploration I had originally wanted, but still allowed them to get a little hands-on. I demonstrated how the little motor worked when I attached it to a battery and challenged them to make it work when attached to a solar cell. They scrambled to find a patch of sunlight in the windows, stood on chairs to hold it close to the ceiling lights and even took the flashlights out of our Science Box, all trying to give the solar panels enough light to make the motor turn. We had mixed success, but were able to share ideals about why each attempt worked, or not.

Clean up, pack backpacks, and off to fun Friday.

At the end of the day, walking back to the empty classroom after walking my line to the bus, I kept thinking, what did I do today? Why did it work? How did so much learning happen today when the past 100+ days seemed so wasted?

Here are my ideas:

  • I recognized the trouble Michael and Junior might have sitting still with a substitute who did not know they can’t sit still and do a Math paper and I took them out with me. Michael stood while he did his math and Junior laid himself across the table to do his. Both positions would have unnerved a sub who knows part of her duty is to keep order, but reprimanding these boys for their posture even though they were doing work would have ruined their entire day. The simple act of taking them with me in the morning when I left the room to test, helped them get a good start.
  • I gave choice to the kids. There were parameters to their choices, but ultimately I think they felt like they were getting to do what they wanted to and the Engineering challenge was itself interesting and engaging and felt doable.
  • I didn’t but in. I monitored the room to maintain order and made notes about the academics, but I didn’t address any of the kids unless they asked me a question. And I almost never answered questions directly. I was a coach, in the background, trusting that their previous practice sufficiently readied them for the challenge. I’m still not sure how they adopted the assurance they could handle this challenge so I don’t know how to replicate that confidence for the next one. But I myself have more confidence that they can handle the next one, and maybe that’s the key after all.
  • I had told them what to expect from this day in my summary the day before. And at each step, I reminded them of the day’s plan. Knowing the plan, and having the plan followed, feels important. I post a schedule on the board but I think a more detailed plan than “11:40 – Math” is needed. I’ve been toying around with a combination objectives/schedule board that might help recreate some of this confidence in the day that I think helped out on Friday.

Today is Monday, the first day of our February break. And I do plan a break. My stack of fiction is ready and the coffee is hot. I have both quiet relaxing planned and extra time spent with my girls. But I can’t leave this fabulous Friday alone. I’ll be doing plenty of planning to help recreate this good day.

And, I’ll head to the drug store to get some purple hair dye. Oh, did I mention that I told the kids that if they each had a good day, with the whole class going up to the purple level on our clip chart, that I would come in on Monday with purple hair?

 

Classroom Library

img_4288As I was helping Harper locate a graphic novel to add to his book box, I kept fishing books out of boxes where they did not belong. Geronimo Stilton in a nonfiction box reserved for books on energy? What was the problem? Didn’t we spread the books all over the classroom and look at them and think about what genre they were and decide which books belonged where together?

No. We didn’t. Not really.

That was the plan, and the books were certainly in a mess everywhere. But I have several children with some pretty difficult to manage behaviors so our work dissolved into chaos and most children missed the point. The days started to get away from me and I made different decisions than intended. And so, with the help of only a few students, the library was put together. And I learned some tough lessons. Here’s my thinking for next year:

1.) Put some of the library together before the kids arrive. I realized I was feeling rushed since, without the library put together, we couldn’t work on choosing good books for ourselves. I hurried through the organization and the kids didn’t have time to think through their choices or try things out and then change their minds. So, I’ll pull out some basic categories and have those bins already set up. Animal books, graphic novels, poetry, biography – we can pretty much rely on these groups so it won’t stifle student thinking. And besides, they can always refine those categories – ocean animals, sport biographies. Before we tackle the library, we’ll think about how to choose a good book, what we need to work on as readers, and then what we want and need for the work.

2.) We’ll learn about different genres before we put books out. When they came up with the category “animal books” they lumped in books on the life cycle of frogs with books from the Humphrey series about a mischievous hamster. We had to back track and talk about the difference that I thought we had settled already. Quick reviews aren’t quite enough on the hot and humid first days back at school.

One half of the room is now settled as the nonfiction side, with Science, Math, and Social Studies books grouped together in their own areas. Next year, we can spend some time talking about each area of the room and what sorts of books would fit there, before we start putting books away.

3.) I’ll keep the boxes of unshelved books out of the classroom and bring in only one at a time. The mess of too many unorganized things in the room was a jarring beginning, and combined with troubling behaviors created an atmosphere of unsettledness that has been hard to overcome.

Monday will be our 12th day of school and we’ll go in with a library  sorted into categories the students created – for the most part. I’ve created a Library Scavenger Hunt to start off a conversation about how we find and return library books that I hope will be a useful review of the organization.

It’s a work in progress.

 

Using Math to solve problems

Friday’s Math lesson was an exercise in application. We had a problem in our class and we used Math to figure it out. It took a while. Students struggled, and argued, and, yes, whined a little. And then, we solved our problem.

It started with testing the week we returned from Christmas break. For two days in a row, the kids all had to take a mock standardized test so that we could collect some data and plan instruction. (No, we do not explicitly teach to the test, but I can explain that in a different post.) Then this past week we had three days of testing for our ELL students which meant that the majority of my class went to work in different classrooms for half of the day and other students filled the room to take the tests. What all of this meant was that every day our desks were moved into rows, then shifted back into groups or small clusters. To the kids it felt like they had to hunt for their seats every time they walked into Room 309. It was getting annoying. I didn’t want to just push they desks into a shape and call it done. The constant flux in the room had an impact and the kids needed to feel like they had a little control over the situation.

I paced out the center of the room to measure the area in the center that we use for desks. The edges of the room are filled with bookshelves, counters, worktables, and my desk and I didn’t think we should really tackle those messes at the same time. I marked off the space on grid paper, so they could clearly see the size and shape of the area we had to deal with. When I passed out the grids while describing the project, the kids surprised me with their exclamations. “This is gonna be so cool!” “Whoa, this sounds like fun Math.” Hooray for me – I planned a lesson they actually wanted to participate in!

We had 198 square feet of space to work with, conveniently marked for us by the square foot floor tiles, and figured out that each desk needed 8 square feet of space (which included room for the student to get in and out of her chair). When one student noted that our 20 desks only needed 160 square feet, the kids all said this challenge was going to be easier than they thought. But then they started drawing, and then erasing, and then begging for another piece of grid paper. “This can’t be done!” they wailed. I reminded them that our desks have always been in the center of the room so it must be possible. After about 15 minutes I stopped and shared a few design beginnings. We talked about what we liked about each one. Kids mentioned they liked that some desks got to be by themselves in one design since not everyone likes to be in a group. Others mentioned that one design left hardly any space for kids to move around, and how annoying it would be to be at a desk in the middle and have to maneuver through an obstacle course just to get a tissue. One design got them thinking of how I would need space to move around and help when they were working on Math.

Back to the drawing board, with this conversation in mind, they started using not only their understanding of area but also their understanding of the room. By the time we shared final designs, the kids had already debated the necessary characteristics of a good classroom design. Six students thought they had met the requirements of both space and use so we posted those, sorted them into groups with similar characteristics (horseshoe shapes, clustered rows, desk “islands”) and called kids up to vote. The “primary election” narrowed it down to two finalists. We discussed the merits of each and voted again. The clear winner had a few desk islands and four small rows of connected desks with a cross of aisles in between.

“OK guys, we have just enough time left in the day to put our design into practice. Let’s start moving the desks.”

“We get to make the design?” They all seemed surprised, which surprised me. Hmmm, I guess I didn’t introduce the purpose of the lesson well enough. I brought them back to the day’s objective, which I had read and talked about at the start of class. “We can use our understanding of area and perimeter to design our classroom and decide where desks will go.” I reminded them that people use Math every day to help them solve problems, just as they had just done. We moved the desks, then packed up to go home.

So, as I write this I have no proof that their design will work (other than that it is a pretty straightforward design that has been used in countless classrooms – don’t tell them). But I do know what did work: the struggle. I’ve been talking with my Math coach a lot lately about the value of struggle. We agree that kids need lots of opportunity to work out a problem that they’ve never seen before but that they can solve using the knowledge and skills they have learned. She had given me a few problem ideas that were fun in class. Though the content of this desk design problem was my own, my Math coach was really the inspiration. I felt safe leaving the Module for the day and knew she would support me. I can’t wait to tell her how it all worked out.

review (and review, and review)

In order to tackle the Science curriculum, my second graders have needed to build some basic skills. First, we spent a lot of time carefully observing and describing things, both living and non-living. It took a lot of prompting and practice to help them develop observation skills, but now, for the most part, they can look at any given object or creature with an eye to being able to describe it. They look for color, pattern, size, shape, and texture. We practiced drawing and labeling and writing descriptive sentences in order to share our observations.

So, when it was time to make groups based on some similar property, I thought they were ready to explore on their own.

I thought wrong.

I asked the kids to look at a few objects and describe each one individually. Then, I separated out two objects at a time and asked which properties were the same. Sometimes there was only one similar property, sometimes several. Then I stated our goal: Scientists make categories to sort matter into groups with similar properties. Today, our goal is to make groups of these objects based on some properties that we have been using to describe solid matter. I decided to have the students sort the supplies on their desks both because there were a few different properties by which they could organize categories and because the chaos of the morning interrupted my prep time to gather other materials (the honest description of an urban teacher’s day). We reviewed some properties that might make good groups and then I set them to work. I was disheartened to see every table begin sorting strictly by color. I interrupted the work, made note of the good sense of cooperation in the groups, had some groups share how they decided to sort, and challenged a group to come up with some other property to base their categories on. I thought most groups would want to change tack to avoid being the same as everyone else. Only one team rose to the challenge. They made two big groups on their desks: cylinders and non-cylinders. Well, it was something we could work with.

After this lesson, I looked back at the old Math curriculum and dug out some cards used to help students see different ways to sort a group. The cards have creature faces, some with antennae, some without, some with rectangle faces, some with oval, some with triangle noses, some with circle noses. Depending on the property by which you decided to sort, a face card could go in many different groups. I added these cards to my Science box, with a note to use them before we jump into the unit on matter next year. I’m hoping that they can see that each object has many different properties so a yellow marker can be in a group called “yellow” or a group called “cylinders” or a group called “long and thin” or even a group called “can be used to write with”. The possibilities are many.

This lesson was a reminder to slow down and make time in each day to back up and review basic concepts as needed.

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in the corner

When I started this blog a few years ago, I was writing from the perspective of a teacher outside the main classroom, as the teacher who “pulls” kids. The name “Corner Classroom” was less a geographic description and more of a way to try to convey the sense of being separate, in the corner, apart from the action.

Well, since then, I’ve joined the fray and taken on a teaching position in a “regular” classroom. I still work with mostly ELL students (I’m the designated ELL teacher for my grade, so all of the lowest level English speakers are assigned to me) but now I’m labeled a 2nd grade teacher rather than a specialist. And while you might think the label “specialist” would make you feel, well, special, in reality it makes you feel apart. We should be called “separatists”.

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The house my father built, every corner doing it’s part.

But now that I’m “mainstream” I’m starting to look at the metaphor of the corner a little differently. My dad was a bricklayer and he told me that they always put the best craftsman in the corner because without a strong corner, the whole building would fail. I’m so lucky to be working with a team of teachers who can all take responsibility for a corner. I’m going to take a careful look at my corner of the team. Am I helping to build a solid foundation?

Looking forward, I’m going to spend some time building my corner so the whole foundation is stronger, thinking about what that might look like, what responsibilities I should take on and what guilt I should let go. I’m going to try to look at my classroom as one of the crucial corners of the school, strengthening my students not just for improved test scores (perhaps least of all for that) but to build a solid community of learners.

because they’re kids

There was a question on the most recent Math test that really annoyed me. We have been working on story problems and I do like the emphasis on problem solving this offers. It’s important to help kids learn skills to figure things out. We have been using drawing and charting strategies to answer the question “What’s the situation?” then we’ve been asking ourselves what a “reasonable answer” might look like. Will the answer be bigger or smaller than this number? How do you know? A big pink sign hangs at the front of the classroom reminding students that “We are problem solvers!” and I’ve been trying to instill in them the belief that they can figure out a problem, even if it takes a few tries.

But, this question was annoying. The circumstances of the story problem were not familiar enough. The wording was convoluted and required a grasp of the language that the majority of my students do not yet have; that, I’d argue, the majority of second graders do not have. Knowing the question was there, I tried to frame some similar questions for our practice together. We applied our strategies – drew pictures, labeled the beginning, middle and end, and wrote an equation to help us find the answer. When we walked through it together, they did OK, but if I gave them a problem to struggle with on their own, less than a handful were able to get it. I was banging my head against the wall. So were the other members of my teaching team.

a smart answer

a smart answer

Then, in an unrelated project of looking back through some papers in preparation for a meeting, I found my answer. Why didn’t they get it? Because they’re second graders.
I’m all for high standards. I fully believe in helping our kids become critical thinkers who can tackle tough problems. But I also believe that timing is a factor. Let’s give the kids the gift of time for their brains to develop. Let’s stop asking 2nd graders to act like 4th graders. Let’s recognize that they are kids.

distracted reading

The Boston Globe offered a brief article this Sunday on our changing reading brains. As we adapt to the skimming of online reading – reading the first few sentences, scrolling down in search of keywords and interesting phrases, clicking on to new links – many of us find that we can no longer sit and read through a novel or scholarly journal. My husband has already been monitoring this decline in his own reading habits, forcing himself to sit with a novel for half-hour stretches to try to re-train his brain.

Researchers are now looking into what this adaptation will mean for critical reading necessary to process information at school and work. “There is concern that young children’s affinity and often mastery of their parents’ devices could stunt the development of deep reading skills.” And I’m thinking, if my husband – life-long lover of good books, university trained in how to read them – can begin to lose his ability to read deeply, what does this mean for my second graders? After all, the students I teach are already on the “watch list” of those who may need extra support to develop strong academic skills. They are predominantly from low-income families, more than half of them are English language learners, hardly any of their parents have more than a high school education (and some, not even that), and several are transients who move from school to school each year. They are already disadvantaged readers.

As a school, we address these issues as best we can. We support families in finding stable housing, we connect them with services to balance out the lack of income, and we structure our curriculum to fill in the language and literacy gaps traditionally connected with these social and economic groups. But, we have done little, or nothing, to address this new threat to literacy. Quite the opposite, in fact. In an effort to provide students with more reading material outside of school, we help set families up with online reading material.

Certainly, keeping students off the internet is not the answer. What we need is to adjust our reading instruction to the reality of reading in 2014 and beyond.

But I don’t know how to do that yet. In fact, while writing this rather short post, I stopped once to check email, another time to refill my coffee cup, and then clicked on to a teacher bog recommended by a colleague that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Who am I to instruct students on how to read through distractions?

All I can do right now is begin to look closely at how my students tackle a reading project. During Independent Reading (20 minutes of our day) do they stick to a book or continually sift through their bag? Is their Response to Reading reflective of critical thought about the book or distracted rambling? Do they know enough about books and what they like to make a good choice in the classroom library? And, when they have some online reading time, how many clicks away from the text do they make?

Once I get a better feel for my students’ reading habits . . . well, I don’t know yet what I’ll do. But I know I’d like to be a part of this conversation. I know that the ability to read critically is key to learning, a key they’ll need to hold on to through school and their careers.

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Reading a book of her own creation – a good sign

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Stuffed “Reading Buddies” help keep us focused.