I Will Choose to Teach Love.

Dear Students,

Today was tough. Today was a day that was different from the others. Many of you came into class frustrated, angry, listless. Many of you were withdrawn and moody, quiet and defensive. Looking around our circle of learners this morning, I saw a wide range of expressions: fear, anger, sadness. Instead of glossing over this, I made the decision as your teacher instead to listen. To reflect. To spend time with you creating a safe space for contemplation and sharing.

During our Morning Meeting, we went around the circle and shared how we were feeling. No context needed, no responses necessary, just an option to share. “I feel frustrated,” said one of you. “I’m angry,” said another. “I don’t want to share,” said a third. I listened as one by one, you quietly shared your feelings with your fellow community members. I watched as our classroom community listened, related, and nodded.

During writing, I gave you time to do a deeper feelings check-in. I told you that this was a time for self-reflection and to see how you were feeling. I offered for you to share your writing with me or to write anonymously if you preferred. Many of you worked in silence, hunched over your papers, brows furrowed, writing thoughtfully. Many of you chose to share your writing with me, expressing anger, disappointment, and fear about the outcome of the election last night. You wrote down questions and scenarios and wondered about what you thought might happen to your friends, or to your family.

Later in the day, one of you asked to speak with me privately. We stepped into the hall and you began to cry, expressing your worries about the future. “What if I can’t stay here? What if everyone has to go back to where they came from?” I listened to your tearful questions, trying to form answers that were acceptable and appropriate. I did my best to reassure you, to tell you that everything would be alright.

As I watched each of you file out at the end of the day, hugging me as you left, I wondered if you felt any better. I wondered if I had done my part in helping you reflect, in helping you process, in helping you understand. I sat at my desk for awhile, looking around the empty classroom, thinking about what else I could do to help.

My job is to teach you, yes, but my job is also to set an example. We all have different backgrounds, different perceptions, and different opinions. You are already growing so much, seeing so much, and experiencing so much. It amazes me how perceptive you already are in third grade. In light of today, I want to reaffirm my role as your teacher.

So, my students, here are my promises to you.

I promise that when you enter my classroom, you will enter a safe, caring, and warm learning environment that celebrates not only our similarities and connections, but our differences, too.

I promise to ask questions to learn more about the things that matter to you, from the Pokemon cards you covet to the intricate Henna tattoos covering your hands.

I promise to listen as you proudly point on a map what country your mother was born in, or where your grandparents immigrated from.

I promise to see you as more than just the color of your skin, the religion you believe in, or the language you speak.

I promise to do everything in my power to create a safe space for you to share your thinking, your fears, your hopes, and your dreams.

Every day, I will choose you – every one of you.

Every day, I will choose to teach tolerance.

Every day, I will choose to teach acceptance.

Every day, I will choose to teach love.

With you, always,
Your Teacher

 

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Yes, I AM a Teacher.

With a few years of teaching under my belt, I’ve grown accustomed to the responses upon finding out I’m a teacher. Many responses are well-intended – “Oh, that’s so sweet!” many people gush, “you get to spend your day with children!” – others are a bit more abrasive – “Must be nice, having Christmas break and summers off, huh?” I’ve heard a wide array of responses, answers, and opinions given over the past few years, but my answer has remained the same from day one – “Yes, I AM a teacher, but I couldn’t imagine being anything else.”

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When I decided to go into teaching, my path was far from where it is today. I began college as an English major, determined to teach courses similar to the Honors and AP ones I had loved so much. I have always loved to read, to think, to discuss literature and nuances in books. Even now, my apartment is overflowing with books, bursting from the shelves with well-worn spines. To this day, I still cannot fully explain what made me change my major, my grade level focus, my direction in teaching; what I can tell you is from the moment I set foot in my first practicum – a third grade classroom – I never looked back.

I have learned many lessons in my past few years of teaching – I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve set my alarm for 4:30 to finish grading papers, to perfect lesson plans, to get to my classroom as soon as possible. But this post is not about what I’ve done – it’s about what I hope to do. In teaching, it is my most sincere hope that I am doing my part to inspire, to educate, to assist, and to empower the students that walk into my classroom each day. It is my hope that my students will know that they are loved, that they are capable, and that their worth does not rest within a test score.

Currently, I spend most of my days with 23 third graders who challenge me, make me laugh, teach me, and whom I love. I remind them of my expectations daily, encourage them, and greet them with a handshake, hug, or high five each morning. Third grade is a pivotal year for parents and students, rife with pressure, testing stress, and more assessments than you could imagine. Yet, as I sit with parents during conferences, I repeat over and over that their child is more than a test score, more than a state percentile, and more than a number. I strive to teach my students the curriculum, yes, but I also strive to teach them about fairness, responsibility, accountability, and respect.

Today’s educational system has many flaws; we see children as test scores, numbers, labels, and disabilities. We continue to view children “solely in terms of their individual academic development and the individual cognitive processes they will need to succeed on individual tests”(p. 94). While it certainly is important to see learners for their individualities, it is also important to instill a sense of collaboration and community in our students. In order to successfully communicate, students must also learn to listen (p. 100).

Probably my favorite quote from the Johnston text “Opening Minds” comes from Chapter 9; he writes:

We have only taken seriously children’s academic success and that only in the narrowest terms and largely for its economic benefit – also with the narrowest vision. The primary tool for reform has been increased pressure towards performance goals: teach more to get better test scores or be punished. This single-minded and highly controlling view has blinded us to the fact that when children grow up, they are not only going to be wage earners. They are going to be citizens, parents, spouses, teachers, politicians, artists, managers, and so forth (p. 113).

This is the thought I grapple with daily; this is the end result that drives my instruction. When I look at my students, when I see those 23 faces looking at me attentively, I am struck with an overwhelming sense of responsibility, pride, and, most prominently, love. I see them now, as their sweet third grade selves, and I see the hopes I have for their futures – to go on to become whatever they desire.

So, when people ask me why I work for little money, why I spend long hours planning, and why I’m a teacher, my answer has been, and will remain, the same: “Yes, I AM a teacher, but I couldn’t imagine being anything else.”

Pursuing a Dynamic Mindset

With our cohort having finished Peter Johnston’s “Choice Words: How Language Affects Children’s Learning,” we have moved on to a companion Johnston text for the remainder of the semester – “Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives.” As you can probably infer from the name, the content of the book complements the first text we read as a group, exploring the implications and impact language we, as teachers, use in our classrooms, amongst other musings.

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Though steeped in the effects language can have on those (students and peers) around us, Johnston spends a large part of the first three chapters discussing “fixed” theorizing vs. “dynamic” theorizing, concepts I’ve more frequently heard as “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset.” According to Johnston, people of the fixed mindset believe characteristics are permanent and (most likely) cannot be changed. This fixed mindset demonstrates itself in students who, for example, proclaim they will “never be good at ____________,” implying that because they have not presently mastered the skill, they never will. Unfortunately, if this fixed mindset is perpetuated, Johnston states that students will ultimately continue to “make decisions that diminish their likelihood of succeeding in the future” (p. 14).

Alternatively, those people with dynamic mindsets would approach the same situation with a much different outlook, challenging themselves and looking for methods to improve; the dynamic mindset student would be the student who constantly seeks the most efficient and/or effective way of doing something.

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Johnston provides a powerful vignette of fixed mindset vs. growth mindset in the context of students. He references a study in which researchers identified students with fixed or dynamic mindsets, then arranged for both of the groups of students to perform poorly on a test. Afterwards, students were given a chance to review other students’ tests, choosing a student who performed worse or better than their own score. Interestingly, students with dynamic mindsets “chose to look at the work of students who had done better, so they too could learn how to do the problems better” while students with fixed mindsets “chose to view the work of students who did worse so they could feel better about their own performance” (p. 14). Though this is arguably only the outcome of one study, the results speak volumes to the nature of a fixed mindset vs. the nature of a dynamic mindset.

At a recent staff meeting, my principal discussed the implications of students having the two types of mindsets. We began by considering the students in our own classrooms, working to identify who we believed would fall into each category. Our principal then asked us to consider how we would rank ourselves – how we approach adversity, the manner we conduct ourselves, and how we demonstrate positive solution-seeking. As I read Johnston’s thoughts on dynamic and fixed mindsets, I was reminded of the discussions that followed with my grade level and other coworkers. Those discussions, as well as having now read the Johnston chapters, I still find myself grappling with this question: if a student is firmly planted in a fixed mindset, what can I additionally do, as his/her teacher, to help transition to a dynamic mindset?

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As I wrap up, allow me to clarify that I do not simply mean the word choice I use with that type of student; my question delves beyond the power of word choice alone and into the category of action – what else can I be doing to help motivate my students (and myself!) to maintain a dynamic mindset? What have you had success with? Is there hope to bring students from one mindset to the other? Leave a comment this week to let me know your thoughts on fixed vs. dynamic mindsets – as always, I look forward to reading them!

Daily 5 (Part Two)

Last week, I posted my Daily 5 (Part One) blog, detailing some of the aspects relating to using the Daily 5. This week, I want to take a look at some of the more specific components that come with Daily 5 use in your classroom, including working space, and struggle(s) that I’ve encountered along the way. Though I could spend several blogs just detailing some of the ins and outs of the logistics, I thought taking a closer look at just a few of the components would be the most beneficial.

Let’s begin with the environment. I know last week I mentioned that Daily 5 encourages comfortable and inviting workspaces for students – places where they feel they can be successful – in daily practice. This week, I wanted to include a picture of my own classroom to show a variety of clear workspaces for students. Below is a picture of my classroom with each Daily 5 station labeled. I know it may be difficult to see specifically which station is which, so I’ve given a brief description below the photo.

Daily 5

  • Station 1: Blue counter with 5 chairs – this is a good station for my more traditional workers who need structure and a consistent working environment, as it is quite similar to sitting at a desk.
  • Station 2: Reading corner on a carpet – while the throw pillows make this station a class favorite, the pillows are allowed to travel to other stations as well, making it more fair for the other students.
  • Station 3: Along the back cabinets – this spaces is quite popular with the students as well – it gives students a chance to spread out and work with lots of space on the floor. Many students choose to lie on their bellies – they know as long as they are working they are allowed to stay that way.
  • Station 4: A group of desks – as mentioned for space 2, this area caters to my traditional students who prefer to consistently sit at desks to work. Many students who sit in this table group elect to sit there to maintain consisitency.
  • Station 5: A pair of desks – this Daily 5 station is unique in the fact that it only allows two students to work there. This is an excellent station to monitor specific activity, as there are only two students and the station is in close proximity to the guided reading small group area on the front rug.
  • Station 6: Similar to Station 4, this group of desks surrounds the long rectangle table that the students are also allowed to work at. The students have the opportunity to choose a more traditional desk setting while also spreading out away from others.
  • Small Groups: The front carpet is where I meet my students for small group and leveled instruction to help better meet their academic needs. My groups range from 4-6 students and cover a multitude of content.

Though there are student ‘limits’ at each station – a certain number of people that may work in a station at a time – there are still opportunities for people to work with different students each week and to vary partner selection from within their individual stations.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced with the Daily 5 is making sure that my students working independently are performing the tasks correctly and completely. While I am working with groups at the front carpet, it is often hard to monitor the specific inner-workings of the other independent groups. However, with the rigorous introduction of practicing each station as a whole class, the worries can be assuaged with proper implementation and purposeful practice. Working on the front carpet allows for me to have my eyes towards all students working – including the ones in my small group – and to not miss any misbehaviors or slip-ups.

Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed implementing the Daily 5. While each part of my classroom may have a ‘Station’ nearby, the setup does not interfere with my day to day instruction. As I said before, there are several additional bits of information I could pass along about the Daily 5, but for now I’ll simply say this: if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me! I have been working on implementing and improving the procedures within my own classroom and will be happy to offer suggestions. As always, thank you for reading!

– Taylor

Daily 5 (Part One)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! In an effort to get ahead on grad school work, I’m sitting down to write a blog before I enjoy my fill of delicious Thanksgiving food – I hope everyone has had a wonderful day of good food, good drinks, and good company!  As this blog post title indicates, I wanted to talk a little more about my experience with the Daily 5 in my third grade classroom, as well as explain a little bit more what the setup looks like when you put it into practice. This will be the first post of two, as there are many details to cover with regards to the Daily 5 as a whole.

For those unfamiliar with the specifics, Daily 5 (visit the website here for more information) is described as “a framework for structuring literacy time so students develop lifelong habits of reading, writing, and working independently.” As the website definition implies, much of the Daily 5 practices are structured around independent student work. For all my teacher friends reading, you know that independent work can become quite an undertaking, as it requires simultaneous management of rigorous activities, classroom behavior, and student accountability.


The Schedule:

To help understand how the Daily 5 can be structured, here is what my classroom schedule looks like:

Daily 5

During the blocks of time where you see “Daily 5 Rotation,” the students are located in various spots around the room, with roughly 3-5 students in each group. The remainder of students are meeting with an adult in a small guided reading group. My students are sorted into groups based on their reading abilities; the students requiring more support see my teaching assistant and me for leveled group instruction.


The Components:

The Daily 5 is broken into five distinct section, each with their own purpose.

  • Read to Self
  • Read to Someone
  • Work on Writing
  • Word Work
  • Listen to Reading

When introducing Daily 5 practices, we met as a class to discuss expectations and procedures for each rotation. The students worked to create charts to post around the room to remind us about station specifics; I also took pictures of the students modeling appropriate behavior in each station.

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Though the picture above is from a second grade teacher’s blog and not my own classroom, these students were also modeling correct Daily 5 practices; posting pictures and charts around the room have been especially helpful when students begin to lose focus.


Environment:

One of the things that I like most about the Daily 5 is how unique the classroom environment can be; the Daily 5 website devotes an entire series of videos to setting up comfortable and inviting student spaces. One of the most important components of Daily 5 is encouraging students to find space to work where they will be successful, as well as to stress to each student that this may look very different from student to student. Students – yes, even my third graders – are tasked with finding a station where they can stay focused and engaged the entire rotation.

The stations are unique in how they are set up – the use of soft lighting from lamps, comfortable chairs, rugs, and even pillows is encouraged! By using these materials, we are creating space(s) where our students can be more successful, comfortable, and focused. Personally, I have five Daily 5 stations in my room – details and pictures to come next week.


To fully explain the Daily 5, I would also need other aspects, including specific activities, CAFE tie-in, etc. – thus, part two will be coming next week – consider this a ‘to be continued’! 🙂

But, before I leave you – does your school use Daily 5? Have you had success using the practices in your classroom? Is there something specific you would like to hear more about next week? I would love to hear more! Feel free to leave comments or questions – and happy Thanksgiving!

Writing Vertically

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For some of my blog readers who know me in real life, you know that I currently teach third grade on a “vertical team” at my elementary school. This is the first year a ‘vertical team’ has been piloted at our school; being part of the process has been both a learning process and a great experience.

For quick background, the vertical team at our school is comprised of one teacher per grade level (K-5) all physically grouped together on the same hallway. One unique aspect of the vertical team is ‘switching’ kids to better serve their academic needs – i.e. if I have a third grader who is performing far below grade level, he/she may go to the second grade classroom to fill in some of the gaps from the previous year. Similarly, if I have a student excelling above and beyond third grade expectations on a particular standard, he/she may go to the fourth grade classroom for core instruction. We have certainly encountered difficulties along the way, but have made steps in the right direction since the beginning of the year.

Recently, all of the vertical team teachers met with our principal and academic coach to discuss collaboration on a common instructional activity that could be unique to the vertical team. After much deliberation and discussion, we decided to focus on a writing task that would allow us to delve deeper into students’ writing strengths and abilities. We agreed to have the students respond to a common prompt, then come together as vertical team teachers and score the pieces.

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We discussed a variety of prompt ideas, ultimately agreeing on one that the students would have equal exposure to: “Do you think the cafeteria should serve pizza as an option for lunch each day? Why or why not?” Using an opinion prompt would allow us to score each piece of writing on our individual grade level writing rubric, providing a foundation for discussion and comparison. Since we are scoring each student’s piece on a particular grade level prompt, we will be able to see where the students’ skill abilities are currently – on grade level, approaching grade level, above grade level, etc. We are planning to look for commonalities between the pieces K-5 – conventions, common mistakes, sentence structure, etc. – and make groups of students based on their strengths and weaknesses as opposed to their grade levels. Our principal, academic coach, and teacher assistants are working with us, the vertical team teachers, to help facilitate a Writer’s Workshop in mid-December. Students will be sorted into fluid groups based on commonalities in their writing, allowing the leader of the group (principal, academic coach, classroom teacher, etc.) to better cater to the students’ needs in that group.

As I am writing this post, we are currently in the thick of things – right in the process of this writing project, if you will. We are planning to reconvene as a vertical team after the Thanksgiving break to discuss our individual student pieces and sort the students based on their writing skills. As previously mentioned, we will plan and implement an all day Writer’s Workshop to sort the students and provide concise instruction for each group.

Within my own little classroom, this has turned into quite a heated debate! I introduced the topic in guided reading groups, where I could really discuss with each group of students the specifics to their side of the debate. We discussed pros and cons, letting the students form their own opinions on which side they would support. Some of the reasons the students came up with are below:

FOR:

  • Very popular with the students as a lunch choice
  • Cafeteria could make a profit from selling the pizza
  • Pizza is delicious
  • Could encourage students to purchase school lunch

AGAINST:

  • Pizza is not very healthy
  • Cafeteria would have to spend more money buying pizza
  • Limits our other options, students would get tired of it
  • Our school partners with Cici’s Pizza for fundraisers, no one would go!

I was amused and impressed with what my students came up with; it has been so interesting to see them really start to form and support their own opinion about this particular issue. Personally, I’m feeling excited and nervous about this project – how it will go, whether or not it will be successful, what problems we will encounter along the way, etc. I hope to provide an update on how the Writer’s Workshop turns out – for now, I would ask for reader feedback – what are your thoughts on our vertical writing? How can we improve the process? Any suggestions? Please know that my ‘comments’ section is always open!

Hope everyone has a wonderful week – Happy Thanksgiving!

The War on Common Core?

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When I started posting to this blog, I vowed that I would use it as a place to express my ideas and thoughts on relevant issues in education, not as a place for venting frustrations or standing on soapboxes (you can almost hear the “…BUT” coming, can’t you?). Tonight, my post may veer towards venting, it may slide towards soapbox speeches – and you know what? I’m okay with that. Do you know why? Because I, as a third grade teacher in a North Carolina public school, have a question.

Recently, over the past few months, my Facebook Newsfeed / Twitter feed / general social media has had the usual content lineup, ranging from “my baby is ____ months old today!” to “I’m engaged!” to “I had pancakes for breakfast!” and the like. However, there have also been a growing number of videos and articles posted recently condemning Common Core (often in the title alone) as “useless,” “ridiculous,” and “pointless.” Don’t believe me? If you simply search “Common Core” on, let’s say, YouTube, here are the top five (verbatim) video titles the search returns:

  • Arkansas Mother OBLITERATES Common Core in 4 Minutes!
  • Building the Machine: The Common Core Documentary
  • Brilliant Anti-Common Core Speech
  • Proof Common Core is Killing Common Sense
  • Presentation on Common Core

Take a moment to let those sink in.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the Common Core and its adoption, here’s the Cliff Notes version. The Common Core is a set of standards built on best practices for education, meant to prepare our public school students for academic success and life success in the future (if you’re interested in the specifics, check this out).  Here’s how the adoption of the standards happened in North Carolina:

On June 2, 2010, North Carolina adopted the Common Core State Standards in K-12 Mathematics and K-12 English Language Arts released by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. With the adoption of these state-led education standards, North Carolina is in the first group of states to embrace clear and consistent goals for learning to prepare children for success in college and work. The full Common Core standards can be viewed at http://www.corestandards.org. A copy of the slides used at the June 2nd North Carolina Board of Education meeting can be found below.

Let me draw your attention to one particular sentence here: “North Carolina is in the first group of states to embrace clear and consistent goals for learning to prepare children for success in college and work.” So, in the eyes of North Carolina, the Common Core is (or, at the time of its adoption, was) a good thing – something meant to help equip our students for the future, be it college readiness or preparation for the work force. Now, I could go on and on about how it was adopted, what states are using it, etc., but I want to focus back on the social media side of things.

The majority of videos, articles, and angry letters from parents that have come across my various feeds tend to be directed towards mathematics which, for the sake of brevity, I will focus on in this particular post. Many of the videos demonstrate outlandish ways to solve problems, complicating even the simplest of addition or multiplication equations into something much more difficult. Some of the videos claim to “expose” these “crazy methods” that teachers are “polluting young minds” with but, here’s the thing (and, again, take this as my 3rd grade teacher perspective): this isn’t what’s happening.

The videos that I have seen operate one of two ways.

  1. The first approach (let’s call it the “Look, NUMBERS!” method) takes a simple problem, throws all mathematical processes out the window, and then attempts to ‘solve’ the problem. These videos make me the most frustrated because parents are lead to believe that we are confusing their children more than we are teaching them. The videos are often presented in a mocking style, jeering at the way the (presumably uneducated) teachers present the information.
  2. The second type of video (let’s call it the “If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It” method) scorns taking ANY other approach – besides that of the traditional or standard method – to solve a problem. Having talked with parents, I can understand why parents feel frustrated with this – many conversations have included “but I learned it this way, why can’t my son/daughter learn it this way too?” This second type of video is often accompanied with a call to arms of sorts, a “let’s go back to the way things were!” vibe, if you will. Let me be clear here, I’m not saying that the standard way is wrong – what I’m saying (and what I’ve seen in the classroom) is that it doesn’t necessarily ‘work’ for every child.

So, (and if you’re still reading, sweet reader, my appreciation and gratitude for sticking with me!) we’ve seen how North Carolina has adopted the Common Core standards, and we’ve seen (my) generalization of the videos and articles I most commonly see on social media websites. I’d like to wrap up by taking a moment to look at two actual Common Core standards to see what you think. I chose two standards from the 4th grade set of standards, as I taught 4th grade for the past two years and am more familiar with the standards’ implications.

  • Standard 4.NBT.B.4 – Fluently add and subtract multi-digit whole numbers using the standard algorithm.
  • Standard 4.NBT.B.5 – Multiply a whole number of up to four digits by a one-digit whole number, and multiply two two-digit numbers, using strategies based on place value and the properties of operations. Illustrate and explain the calculation by using equations, rectangular arrays, and/or area models.

Both of these standards address number sense and place value within multiplication. Additionally, I will point out that the phrase “standard algorithm” (i.e. the traditional way of doing things) is directly addressed in the first standard; note there is no mention of dishonesty, a hidden agenda, trickery, or witchcraft (I couldn’t resist).

Jokes aside, my question remains: why the war on Common Core? What is it about these standards that have people so fired up? Is it the barrage of videos and misleading information that cause people to form opinions based on misinformation? What are your thoughts on the Common Core? What are your experiences with it? I sincerely would love to hear other experiences and opinions that people of the teaching or non-teaching variety have 🙂

Do I believe the Common Core to be perfect? No. But, before you write an angry letter on your child’s math homework and before you click “Share” on that article or video, I beg of you to do two things: consider the source and take a look at what the Common Core standard itself really says. Chances are, at the core of the standard (pun intended), it’s not truly part of the Common Core – and that, dear readers, is something worth sharing.