Reflecting on Reflections

Yes, it has been forever since I have posted.  Yes, I am still alive.  And yes, I missed you, too.

This summer, I have begun a master’s program at Vanderbilt University in Independent School Leadership.  This marks the second week of our 6-week summer program, and already I have learned so much.  We are about to finish up our first “theme” of the summer, which discusses leadership, teachers, and curriculum.

Today, we completed a discussion on the importance of evaluating teachers.  Now, when most teachers hear the word “evaluation”, they run for cover.  They generally picture their principal sitting awkwardly at a desk, furiously taking notes while the teacher tries not to say or do anything ridiculous.  Afterwards, the teacher sits down with the principal and listens to all the things they do right and the things they do wrong.  Then, the teacher signs the paper, and everyone moves on.

As we talked about the process of observations and reflections, I could help but notice all of the similarities between teacher evaluation and student evaluation.  As a teacher, I perform assessments and evaluations of my students all the time.  I check their math problems.  I look to see if their homework is done.  I read over their essays.  Throughout their careers, teachers are doing all sorts of evaluations, and we tell students that it’s so they can get better.  We try to make the situation as low pressure as possible, ensuring kids with test anxiety or fear of failure that “everything’s going to be all right.”

If that’s the case, then why do we carry such tension when we go into evaluations?  Often, instead of viewing this as a time to learn and a time to get better, we only think of negative consequences.  Much of this fear could be due to the culture that our school or our previous schools have established.  If evaluations only lead to non-conversations if you’re doing well and long conversations if you’re not, then you may start to dread that time of the year.

Evaluations are an essential part of the process of education.  We must be sure that our teachers are top notch!  And in order for this to happen, leaders MUST create an environment where evaluations aren’t such a horrible thing.  Get the teachers in on it – ask them to do a self-reflection, and then you and the teacher sit down and compare your results.  You’ll be surprised how much you have in common in those evaluations.  Also, let the teachers make the tool.  Why do just the principals and the heads get to decide what makes a good teacher?  We should include the people that are actually in the classroom every day.  And in that process of determining what makes a good teacher, those teachers will be self-evaluating and reflecting.  Always good things.

I’m not an administrator, and I don’t get to create a big, giant evaluation tool for our school.  However, I do know that in the future, I’m going to work to change my view of the evaluation process.  I’m going to make sure I approach it with open arms and encourage my administration and colleagues to do the same.  As the culture begins to change around evaluations, our teachers can only get better.

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Warm Ups: An Update

So several months ago, I mentioned how we had implemented a new warm-up system that included subject-based questions to complete every morning.  We utilized this system for several months, but since January, we have had a change to our approach.  Now, should you walk in our room from 7:45 to 8:30, you would see our students talking with each other, checking in with teachers about homework questions, and getting their stuff together for the day.  Then, at 8:15, the students sit quietly at their seats and work on any incomplete work that they have.

So why have we gone from a very organized, very structured morning routine to what we have now?  I attribute it to the change in the behavior of our class.  Our students have done a better job of focusing in the mornings, probably due to our former strict warm-up routine.  We also as a teaching team realized that the time that we was spent creating grading warm-ups could have been better spent preparing for lessons or working one-on-one with students.

So why mention this in a blog?  I want to illustrate the idea of being flexible with the way you do things.  Now, if you’re the type of teacher that goes out and reads educational blogs, I may be talking to the wrong person.  But I think it’s okay to pass on a reminder that what worked for you in previous years, or even earlier in the same year, may not work for you now.  In the middle grades, I believe this to be especially true.  During this time of physical and social changes, the students can be dynamically different from who they were just a few months ago.  So it is important that my teaching team understands what we are as a collective during the course of the year.

So as you reach the end of the year, where you may be turning on cruise control or have a calendar behind your desk that counts down the number of days until summer, take some time to evaluate your teaching practices.  Are the procedures and habits of your class still meeting a need?  Or could you make some changes that will improve how your classroom operates?  No time like May to try things out.  🙂

Why I’ve Been So Busy

Lately, I haven’t really had much free time.  Generally, I spend most of my free time at the school working on my computer, and my free time at home is spent working on school stuff.  Many teachers have this experience every day, so I’m not saying it’s something special.  I am saying, though, that it’s not my norm.  So what have I been doing?

At my school, our major focus is differentiated instruction.  This idea applies not only to academics, but also to the social and emotional development of the child.  With two teachers and an assistant for 26 children, we have some opportunities to individualize instruction that are not present in other areas.  This is done through various ways, but the way I’m going to highlight today is our writing and assessment process.

I have mentioned our assessment process before, but I want to provide a few more details.  Instead of report cards, we provide our parents with ratings and summaries of performance across academic areas and personal development.  For the classroom teachers, this includes math, language arts, science, social studies, technology, social/emotional, and work habits/study skills.  So as a parent, you are receiving at least 7 different narratives about your child’s performance while at school, not to mention the rankings of excelling (E), progressing well (PW), needs improvement (NI), and below grade level (BG) for certain aspects of each area.  For example, a student in social studies would receive these grades for their research and collaboration skills, while in work habits and study skills they would be assessed on their effort, preparation, and more.

These narratives take a long time.  A LONG time.  I have probably invested upwards of 30 hours being sure that each message conveys to the parent what is happening inside our four walls.  As we submit weekly progress reports to parents, these longer narratives are never conveying new information, but rather give a summary of the changes that we have seen over the 12 week period.

We do not save our individualized process for assessment, though.  Our writing process is also highly customized.  Right now, our students are working on short stories.  During their process, they are given organizers to get all of their ideas ready to put on paper.  Once they start the drafts, we read each piece and provide feedback utilizing Google Docs.  We also have a conversation with each student about their work.  Some students require a quick check-in and they get back to work.  Others need long consultations to make major changes to their writing.  We review at least two drafts each with the students and then grade their story utilizing the rubric they are given at the beginning of the rubric.  For some, this rubric is customized to ensure that the students are growing in their particular area of need.

I know that it is very difficult to apply some of these principles when there are 100+ kids seen by a teacher each day.  However, I believe personal relationships that measure the individual growth in a student are vital to our educational system.  We can’t provide a blanket assessment for a whole country and expect every student to find success.  I find it a little silly when a person who has never met students gets to make the call on whether or not a student has learned, instead of a teacher who sees that child every single day.  Until we think of our children as people that live, breathe, and think, rather than products that are being assessed for quality control, we will continue with the same struggles.

The Ultimate Differentiation: Is It Feasible Every Day?

Yesterday, my students turned in their math workbooks after completing problems from three different sections. This is from our chapter on rational numbers and equations, and the main topics covered included conversion of repeating decimals to fractions, as well as adding and subtracting fractions with variables.

As we had watched the students over the past few lessons, they seemed to be understanding the content well. My expectation, then, was that upon checking the homework, we would be able to move on to the topic. However, that was not the case. In fact, all but 3 of my 26 students had one or more issues with the problems.

I was able to check these workbooks while the students were at Enrichments, and noticed that the issues weren’t universal: not every student struggled with the same topic. Each student needed to be helped in their own unique way. So, I created this:

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I was able to narrow down the areas of need into 9 different categories.  I was then able to assign which questions the students needed to review from their homework.  In addition, I used worksheets from the Internet and from our textbook resources to give students a way to further practice these skills.

Each student received one of these:

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The students were able to know on an individual basis what section of problems they needed to work on, and which worksheets they needed to get to practice.  This way, the students were not “called out” for their lack of knowledge, something our group, and middle schoolers in general, can be very self-conscious about.

So how did it go?  It went pretty well.  Once the students understood the process, they got right to work.  There was also less discussion and grumbling about being in a particular math group or having to do extra work.  The students saw where they had made their mistakes, and they understood why they needed to complete the extra practice.  The students who had successfully completed the assignments were given extension activities from “Palette of Problems”, which can be found in Mathematics Teaching the Middle School every month.  I was able to find a few applicable problems, and they worked together.  This area was where we could use the most improvement, as they were often loud and disrupted the other students.

So is this approach possible in the future?  It’s difficult to say.  I believe that the quick turn-around on homework assignments is difficult, so if we were able to do an extension activity & I could grade them overnight, it would be more feasible.  All in all, getting the process ready took 2 hours, and very rarely do I have that kind of time in class (or at home, for that matter).  It is a good practice, though, and I believe it will pay off in the long run.

While many different articles reference the idea of “best practices”, and we consistently see great lesson plans and big ideas, people often fail to take into account the time needed.  Teaching is beyond a full-time job, yes, and I do spend time at home improving plans, doing research, or grading.  I don’t believe that all the different methods mentioned as “best” can often be executed in all circumstances for all people.  However, I think we do need to be willing to occasionally go the extra mile when our students need it.  I don’t foresee completing this process every time we turn in homework.  However, when I see a similar circumstance and I have the available resources (especially time), it will definitely be at the top of my to-do list.

Improv Teaching: A Naturally Occurring Lesson on Government Representation

For anyone that knows me at work, I am an overplanner. In fact, I sometimes think that I enjoy planning lessons more than I enjoy executing them. I spend a lot of my time trying to research various ways to teach content and the various tools (usually technology-based) that can be used in the process. So, changing up my plans last minute is not always my favorite thing to do. That’s not to say I’m not flexible; I make adjustments based on my students’ needs all the time. What I am saying is that I’m not often one to allow students to go down the rabbit hole, so I’ve been looking for ways to improve in this area.

Last week, we began a discussion on the Roman Senate. We discussed how these men represented only a small portion of the population, yet were in charge. We then did a comparison to our own Senate, doing research on who exactly makes up that governing body. We then discovered that maybe they’re not as representative of our country’s population as we may have thought.

Now according to my lesson plans, we would stop there. However, the kids seemed interested in this idea, and had some great discussions about whether or not we had a representative democracy or not. So, I changed it up. I had the students use the data that they found about our country’s diversity, and had them create their own US Senate on halves of note cards. The students wrote down on all 100 the name, gender, ethnicity, age, and job of their created Senator. They did so in a way that our Senate accurately represented our country statistically. So, there were 51 women and 49 men. We had more people that were in their 30s than were in their 50s.

After we created our Senate, we each picked 3 cards. We then determined if we felt those people would be able to do a good job in the Senate and explained why or why not. Most of our students found that their Senators might not be up to the task, due to their age or their job. We then discussed whether we would want the Senate that exists, the Senate we created, or some sort of mixture of both to be what’s in the Capitol.

This deeper discussion into our democracy and how it works led to some great discussions. We had an especially strong conversation in one group on whether or not they felt more women should be in the government. We also talked about the difficulties of including minority candidates in races, as well as those who may not be as wealthy. In the end, I’m very happy with the results. I think next year, I’ll include it in the plans. 🙂

PBL: Greek Replica Project

This year, I have been trying to focus on more project-based learning assignments in my Social Studies class. So far, we have repeated a bunch of assignments from last year. I have thrown in a few new ideas, though, and last week, we wrapped up our Greek replica project. Not only did this fit my goal of more PBL, but I also got to throw in a little bit of “maker” education, too.

The students were tasked with researching a particular Greek item, such as clothing, weaponry, or a famous landmark. The students then had to compile their research and present it to me. After I checked it off, they were tasked with drawing up blueprints to recreate these items. In their blueprints, the students had to mark at least 5 distinguishing characteristics. Each of these were elements that could be found in the originals that would also be found in their builds.

Once the blueprints were approved, the students got to work. It was very interesting to see the students working together on the builds. Many of the students who are not as comfortable contributing in other settings found their niche, and were taking on leadership roles. The more traditional “leaders” were strong support members, using their strengths as they could to contribute to the project. All in all, I saw more engaged students in this project than I have seen in many others.

At the end of about a week of classtime, the students had to present their creations. They had to include the distinguishing characteristics they used, as well as some history about their items. Some students even got creative and performed a skit to go along with their item. It was quite hilarious to see a student pop out of her Trojan horse and “defeat” her classmates.

All in all, I think the project went very well. It was great to see some of my normally quiet students step up and show off their building skills. It was also great to provide them a process to follow in order to reach a good final product. They easily could have written a paper or even made a PowerPoint, but by actually having to recreate the elements they learn about in the objects, they make a stronger connection to the history. We ended up with some great models, from triremes to armor to the Temple of Zeus.

If I could change anything, I think I would provide the students with a list of ideas and some research to help them get started. Once the students got rolling, they did great, but the initial process of picking a topic and finding the research was difficult for them. I would also probably encourage the students to put more time outside of school into their work, as those who were willing to take their work home finished with a stronger product.

If you would like to know more about my plans or my process, please let me know. This is a great, cheap activity that could be done with any moment in history, and you’ll be surprised at how creative your students can be, as well as how informed they will be when they finish.

I’ve got pictures that I’ll post later. Look for them in a future edit.

Time Management: What’s Best Practice?

I think teachers throughout the country could agree on one issue they face: time management. No matter how many days in the school year, no matter how long the class periods, we always feel like we’re running a little short on time. It’s not always an overabundance of content, though. I know I’ve been in several situations where I’m done discussing a topic, only to look at the clock and find that there are 20 minutes left in class. Often, I tell students to start working on homework, but is that the best use of their time with me?

I have tried to find different methods to solve this dilemma, with some success and some failures. During discussions, I look to have some backup questions ready in case we have more time. Sometimes these questions work and can lead into great discussions, but other times, we get a few answers from a few students, while the others just sit, waiting for the clock to move forward.

In Math, I have often tried challenge problems to get the students thinking beyond the basics of the concepts they are learning. The textbooks we use (Holt McDougal) include a great “One Stop Shop” for additional resources, and these have come in handy several times in the past few years. Many of the more advanced students love these sheets and will often continue working outside of the classroom to complete them. Extra worksheets, though, can’t always be the answer, as they will soon lead students to believe success on practice problems just leads to extra work.

The most success that I have found has been with a different strategy in the Math classroom. When a group of students finishes early, I pull them aside and teach them a more advanced math concept. These concepts range anywhere from squaring numbers in your head to finding derivatives of algebraic functions (much easier than it sounds) to learning about logarithms. While these topics don’t always connect to the task at hand, the students almost always find the material intriguing. They love the feeling of learning something well beyond Pre-Algebra. It’s also not terrible that they go home and tell their parents that they were learning college level stuff in math class.

So what about you? What is it that you do when you’ve got some extra time? How do you differentiate for those students that finish far ahead? Write your responses in the comments. I look forward to hearing from you.