#knowledgeis…

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Hard to believe the start of another school year (both of the grad school and elementary persuasion) is here. When I left my blog in April, I had visions of grandeur of blogs I would write over the summer, professional development books I would read, and the growth I would make as a teacher. In reality, I attended a conference, read some professional books, and… didn’t blog about any of it.

Which brings us to here, currently, the night of the first day of a new school year. This school year, I will be sporadically posting updates on my blog for my UNC classes, with perhaps a few personal ones thrown in for good measure. We can use our blogs to track progress and developments throughout our course, but I also hope to have some additional posts and insights included along the way… time will tell.

The title of this particular blog post is “#knowledgeis…” as a follow up to a Twitter chat (hence the hashtag) I was unable to participate in due to attending Open House at my school. I went back and reread the transcript from the discussion and really enjoyed seeing what other members of my cohort had to say about knowledge. As per usual, several good points were made, and I found myself nodding along as I read. Originally, I was planning to highlight some of the specific quotes / tweets and offer my own thoughts but, after today, that path has changed.

Today began my fourth year of teaching and my third year at my current school. This year I’ll be teaching Reading and Social Studies to two groups of third grade students as my school progresses towards a blocking model. I’m going to be honest and say that today was not my greatest first day back. That’s not to say that all of my days this year won’t be the greatest, but  I think it’s important to be honest as a teacher about both good days and bad days, to learn from the highs and the lows. Today was a challenge as I had several talkative students, a few disruptions, and a transportation mix-up at the end of the day that served as the icing on the cake. Yet, as I thought back on the events of the day, I was struck with how differently I approached them now in my fourth year of teaching as compared to my first year. I still woke up with the same butterflies in my stomach, but how I handled each situation was drastically different – which brings me to my point about knowledge as a teacher.

Over the past three years, I have had experiences that have shaped me as a person and an educator. Through those experiences, I have developed my knowledge about students, discipline, parents, and a plethora of other topics. Though I have gained knowledge through these experiences, I would also venture to say that my definition of knowledge as a teacher is constantly growing and changing. In other professions and hobbies, there are levels and promotions you can achieve over time; teaching starts fresh every August – clean slate.

I point this out to say that there are many important definitions and understandings of knowledge but, when it comes to teaching, I don’t think you’ll truly ever have it all figured out. No matter the amount of years under your belt or the number of students that have walked through your door, there will always be curveballs in teaching, just as there will always be new ways to grow your knowledge. While this may seem like a simplistic thought process, I felt much better reminding myself of how much I’ve grown my knowledge over the past few years.

If you were to ask me to define what #knowledgeis, I would simply tell you that, with regards to teaching, the answer is that, if anything, it’s ever-changing.

So, where am I now? I am…

  • on the cusp of starting a new round of grad school courses
    • (and very excited to see where this semester takes me!)
  • working with a very different group of students than last year
    • (hello, chatty class!)
  • beginning my journey with block teaching, focusing on literacy and social studies
    • (no pressure, right?)
  • excited, tired, slightly overwhelmed, and hopeful
    • (that alarm sure does come early, huh?)

Be sure to check back in for updates and musings – if today is any indication, it’s going to be a very interesting year 🙂

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A Reflection on Reflective Literacy Teaching

As the semester draws to a close, January feels as though it happened years ago. When I initially started this reflective literacy course at the beginning of the semester, I assumed it would be like many of the other courses, undergraduate and graduate, that I’ve taken – we would read articles, discuss a few topics, and share our learning with one another. All of these things happened, yes, but much more happened this semester than I initially anticipated.

Much of my blog has been spent reflecting on Johnston’s “Choice Words” and “Opening Minds” texts. These two books were small but powerful, causing me to grapple with many of my current practices as a teacher. Many of my previous blog posts were spent analyzing Johnston’s language and strategies, which carried over into my classroom practices as well. I was directly faced with the idea that there were aspects of my teaching that could certainly be improved; the Johnston texts were excellent resources to assist in doing so.

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The tutoring component has been one of the most powerful facets of the reflective literacy process. Working with a student one-on-one on a regular basis has allowed me to develop a deeper and more meaningful relationship with that student, while also fostering the growth of academic skills and self-confidence in this student as well.

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Moving forward, one of the most significant takeaways for me is the idea of reframing the language and way in which we speak to students. I realize that while praising students is an integral part of my classroom, it is also one that can be significantly strengthened with some small tweaks and word choice alterations. I find myself speaking more purposefully to my students, providing feedback based on the process and not reliant on the person.

Tonight, we met as a cohort to have our semester wrap-up. We met for dinner at a delicious nearby restaurant and spent the evening laughing and talking under perfect Carolina blue skies. As we exchanged stories about students and life in a school, as teachers are bound to do, I was struck by how much we have grown and learned together over the past semester and the past (almost) year in grad school. Sharing stories – funny or serious – with this group of educators is one of my favorite components of being in a cohort.

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As we wrap up this semester (and finish slogging through some research along the way) I know we will continue to promote, practice, and reflect on reflective literacy teaching. Working with such a phenomenal group of educators has been a true privilege and I am excited to see where our literacy journey takes us.

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.”

More Than Just the Curriculum

As a third grade teacher, I spend most of my daily life surrounded by 23 third grade students. While I have been teaching for several years, this year in particular is one where I have felt successful in creating a strong classroom community, where my students and I engage in meaningful conversations beyond curriculum requirements. Before I go any further, let me clarify and say that I certainly believe the content I am teaching is important; I merely mean that this particular class has lent itself to a deeper sense of community building as well. The title of this particular post, “More Than Just the Curriculum,” could very well summarize Chapters 6 and 7 of Johnston’s “Opening Minds” text. The two chapters focus primarily on social imagination and moral agency, two concepts I myself have promoted this year within my third grade class. For this week’s blog post, I wanted to take a closer look at the implications of both, as well as how these practices look in my own classroom.

Social Imagination:
Focusing on the socialization aspect of my students’ development is a crucial part of my responsibility as a teacher. Johnston states that social development is “the foundation for intellectual, emotional, and physical health, even in adulthood,” (p. 67) and I must say, I agree. Promoting social imagination and the complexities within it is certainly no small task, but remains one of great importance. Johnston explains that there are two main dimensions to social imagination: mind reading and social reasoning. When he says ‘mind reading,’ he is alluding to the subtle nuances that we as humans communicate in an unspoken way – facial expression, making sense of unknown words, etc. The social reasoning is a bit clearer cut, defined as “the ability to imagine and reason about other’s actions, intentions, feelings, and beliefs from multiple perspectives” (p. 71).

Within my own classroom, I promote social imagination within our class discussions, interactions with one another, and the way in which I present new information to my students. We dissect concepts we don’t understand, and work together to make sense of unknown information. I also promote social imagination practices in the ways we interact with one another. I strive to moderate conversations with students to further develop their social imagination, shaping and molding them into the people they will become as adults. This powerful responsibility of working with impressionable minds is one of the most incredible and terrifying aspects of being a teacher; I take great care and consideration in how I talk with my students.

To summarize, social imagination “enables social decision making, and since learning, literacy, and inquiry are fundamentally social, we should approach teaching in ways that foster it” (p. 80).

Moral Agency:
Between the two concepts Johnston addresses in these chapters, the idea of moral agency was the one that piqued my curiosity more. As Johnston states, whether we “like it or not, children are acquiring ‘character’ and dispositions towards civic engagement (or not) as we teach them about history, literacy, math, and science” (p. 81). Similar to the idea of social imagination, moral agency is an ever-present unwritten part of my everyday instruction, which “doesn’t stop because we choose not to think about it” (p. 81). The idea of moral agency encompasses moral actions, fairness, and the way we choose to conduct ourselves. Making discussions of moral reasoning part of a classroom community is establishes that it is a worthwhile concept, and one that we take seriously within our classroom community (p. 83).

Using the curriculum as a foundation, I actively look for ways to broach topics of gender, race, equality, and fairness with my students. Doing so provides me with an opportunity to engage in relatable conversations with my students that allow for them to make personal connections with their own lives or within our classroom community as well. My own classroom community has a diverse mix of age, background, socioeconomic status, and race, so the conversations are always interesting.

Both concepts of social imagination and moral agency have their place in the classroom, and both are concepts I strive to uphold within my own classroom. Having learned a bit more about each idea, do you agree with Johnston? Are these important ideas to uphold? What do these concepts look like within your own classroom?

Process vs. Person

Reading Chapters 4 and 5 of “Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives,” I can only describe my feeling as ‘convicted.’ The title of Chapter 4 is ‘“Good Job!” Feedback, Praise, and Other Responses.’ Chapter 4 particularly made me stop and think about the way in which I interact with my students on a day-to-day basis. As mentioned in some of my previous blog posts, Johnston also addressed the power of language in our last text; however, this particular chapter delved much more deeply into the ramifications of using certain types of language with students and the effects that language can have on them. One of the main distinctions Johnston makes is outlining the difference between person-oriented praise and process-oriented feedback; I have chosen to focus this blog post primarily on these two concepts. Johnston provides several examples of both methods of input, giving examples from research with children along the way. Reading this chapter made me much more aware of the way I speak to my students, even when doing so in a positive manner.

Person-oriented feedback:
As I read, I realized that while I have given both person-oriented praise and process-oriented feedback, I have a tendency to give more person-oriented praise, which Johnston warns against. By giving students a majority of person-oriented feedback (“I’m proud of you,” “You’re very good at this”), I am further perpetuating the notion of a fixed-performance world. When we, as adults, “make personal judgments of children, whether through praise or criticism, we teach them to do the same” (p. 39). This person-oriented feedback feeds the idea that students are “only able, good, and worthy when they are successful” (p. 39). Person-oriented feedback, even when given in a positive manner, connects to person-oriented criticism; if we, as students’ teachers say “I’m proud of you” when they do well, they will “fill in the other end of the conversation and infer our disappointment when they are unsuccessful” (p. 38).

Process-oriented feedback:
The more appropriate and effective form of feedback is process-oriented feedback, which provides students with positive reinforcements that “focus on different aspects of the process – effort and strategy – and not on the person” (p. 38). This form of feedback encourages positivity coupled with thorough thinking, encouraging students to consider how and why they were successful at something, not just the fact that they were successful. Johnston encourages teachers to have students share their successes with other students, promoting an environment of positive and helpful feedback. When discussing the process itself, it is also important to remember to “focus on the process and possibility” when offering critique, as this maintains the positive feeling overall. Johnston argues, “the more process talk becomes part of classroom conversations, the more strategy instruction will be occurring incidentally, without the teacher having to do it” (p. 40).

One of the aspects I appreciated the most about this chapter was how candid Johnston was with the reality of using these types of feedback in the classroom. While I initially felt as though I was falling into the traps of all the things NOT to do in language, Johnston notes that realistically, the first step towards breaking down a fixed-mindset classroom is making small steps towards changing it. Providing positive feedback for students “is not really for establishing self esteem […] it is particularly for establishing the foundation on which to build” (p. 47).

In reflecting on this chapter, I have examined the way I speak to my students thoroughly, and find myself much more aware of not only what I say to my students, but how I say it as well. Moving forward, I am interested to see the effects this has on student talk among peers, hopefully fostering the conversations in a more positive and productive manner.

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!

Taking Classroom Community to the Next Level

As I sit writing this blog, I have to say that I have an overwhelming feeling of excitement at the thought of going back to school tomorrow! Since my last blog post, we have continued to be bombarded with weather and school closings! Don’t get me wrong, I think the snow is beautiful, but when we have had school ONE out of the past TEN school days, one can start to get a bit restless. As a teacher, I am more than ready to welcome back my 23 3rd graders – as parents, I’m sure the families are ready to send their students back!

My cohort recently finished reading the 7th and 8th chapters of Peter Johnston’s text “Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning,” bringing us to the end of this short (but powerful!) book. The last two chapters were natural outgrowths of the first few chapters, flowing seamlessly into one another. For this blog post, I’ve chosen to focus more on Chapter 7, as I found it to be simultaneously convicting and engaging. The chapter, titled “An Evolutionary, Democratic Learning Community” took what I thought I knew about classroom community and kicked it into overdrive! Allow me to explain…

Since I began my teaching career a few years ago, one of the things I have prided myself on was my building classroom community. I have mentioned this concept in previous posts, explaining that this year I have felt particularly successful in building my third grade community. After reading this chapter, I certainly believe that I have made progress, but I also believe that there is much more room for growth! Johnston centers the chapter around phrases and interactions with the students, providing poignant vignettes of how the scenarios have played out. I wanted to showcase three of my favorite suggestions that Johnston provides for teachers to consider when building a sense of classroom community:

1. “We”
Seems simple, doesn’t it? While this is a practice I have personally practiced using this year, it is one that took me a few years to happen across. When considering your impact on the classroom (echoing, perhaps, John Hattie’s ideology) you must consider the perception your students (no matter what age) have of you. It is imperative to establish a rapport with students; often times teachers are too quick to assume that means a sense of authority over a sense of respect. When I use the word “we” with my third grade students, I let them know that I, their teacher, am right there with them, in the trenches, fighting towards a good education. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but the sentiment remains – I want my children to know that I am on their team, in their corner, working WITH them!

2. “Any compliments?”
I’ll be honest – when I initially read that, I was prepared for Johnston to launch into a fluffy ‘feel-good’ paragraph about the wonders of speaking gently and filling your classroom with sunshine and rainbows. However, I was pleasantly surprised to read a very ‘real’ example about the benefits of speaking in such a manner. Johnston mentions a teacher that does this in a 4th grade classroom, describing this type of discussion as “part of a larger conversation she [the teacher] naturalizes in her classroom about personal goals and ways of relating to others” (p. 68). Using such language invites the other students to adopt an attitude of positivity and mutual respect for each others’ ideas.

3. “You managed to figure that out with each other’s help. How did you do that?”
Of the phrases I chose to highlight, this may be my favorite. I love that this verbiage puts the power in the hands of the students as opposed to the teacher. Credit is given where credit is deserved, and the simple phrase opens a conversation for a discussion of problem-solving, teamwork, and learning from peers. I was particularly impressed by the way Johnston points out the benefit for the teacher as well, reminding the readers that the teacher can review the nature of the group’s answers at a later time. Beginning a narrative in this way is the “narrative of democratic living” (p. 71).

From only those three selected phrases, it is my hope that you have gotten a glimpse into just how powerful the chapter as a whole was! It was difficult to choose which parts to highlight specifically – what a testament to the whole chapter. So whether you’ve read “Choice Words” or not, what are some of your first impressions? Do you agree with the way Johnston is striving to take classroom community to the next level? What are some ways that YOU work to build a community of respect and understanding in your own classroom? I’d love to hear!