I remember my feelings from last September like they were yesterday. I was told that I had a challenging class with some students that had given my colleagues a run for their money. Coworkers warned that the parents in my community have very high standards for their child’s teachers and that I must be prepared and on my toes to stay afloat. All last summer I prepared, well really prepared for the worse. I went over my routines and rules with a fine-tooth comb. Everything from how they ask to go the washroom, to how they store their books, get pencils, and even the most efficient place to store the tissues. I agonized about the desk placement and the location of specific students within the classroom.
On the first day of September I was so nervous; I wasn’t sure what was in store for me! I walked in with my coffee in the morning sure that everything was as ready as it was going to be, checked in with my new colleagues as it was my first year at the school, and waited impatiently for the bell. The announcement came on requesting that we go outside to meet our new students. Out we went with our clipboards and class lists and met the swarm of parents and children all swarming the teachers, in the brand new outfits, to find out who their new teacher was. So many introductions were made between myself and parents that I would soon forget their faces.
Knowing that now was the time to make first impressions with a tough crowd. I remember a few comments throughout the whirlwind “So is this your first year teaching” my first reaction panic at this one thinking: oh no they are going to see that I don’t know what I am doing….”no” I respond “I have been teaching for five years”…phew hopefully I dodged that bullet no one needed to know that I hadn’t been a traditional classroom teacher for 4 out of those 5 years! “Can we set up a time to meet to discuss my child’s learning needs?”…really? I am thinking the bell hasn’t even gone yet…”Oh course if you would like to call in a few days we can set up a time to meet”….ok I can do this.
The bell rings the students line up with their parents saying goodbye to their children and one mother looks at me and says “good luck this year you are going to need it with this group”…. well if I wasn’t freaking out before I came outside I am now….let me just bring these hellions inside where they will wreak havoc on my shiny new, perfectly organized and labeled classroom. AHHHH!!! and so my year began.
And really that was the worst of it. I had an amazing year! I spent September building processes and routines. and I used and loved whole brain teaching and the consistency that if brought to my room. My students started the year in groups and finished in groups too. I firmly believe that any child can work in a group. (Even if it means that they need an island in the middle of the ocean to go to every now and again). We worked on Daily 5, CAFE (CRAFT) for the entire year. I saw tremendous growth in the students’ ability to read and think as a result. I watched these hellions turn into a class that was praised for their ability to listen attentively during assemblies, walk down the hall quietly and treat each other with respect. (well most of the time).
I made gains with some of the students who had rough histories in their schooling career. Watched as they became student leaders within the classroom and on the playground. I revelled in the comments other teachers gave me about the difference that they saw in these students. I had learning goals and success criteria up on the walls for every subject that we were learning and referred to it frequently.
Students are made aware of what they are learning and what they are being assessed on. They are given frequent feedback as to these goals and criteria and a path to follow to become more successful. Most followed this path and attempted to improve their work. Some of my most resistant students at the beginning of the year were my most on the ball students at the end of the year. They all had goals and knew what they needed to do in order to meet these goals.
Was it perfect? No, I think far from it! But with high standards, the belief that everyone can and should achieve, consistency, differentiation, and determination we all had a great year. I learned so many things this year that I will carry with me into this new year.
1) Have High Standards
This is often said too much in education but it is true. Having high standards is important. But it must be combined with the idea that every child is on a path to meet that standard, and you must meet them where they are. Then, give them the support they need to meet you at the top. It’s not about tearing down the students when they don’t meet your standards its about building them up to it. It’s like climbing a mountain. I am the Sherpa that helps guide you to the peak, not the one standing at the top yelling down at you wondering why you haven’t made it to the top yet.
2) Use the Cycle of Assessment
Share with students what the goals of their learning is and what they need to do to meet this goal. Provide timely feedback so that they can improve the quality of their work. Allow them to self and peer assess so that they can gain some understanding of what it is they are trying to do. Have them make goals with you and for themselves so that they can improve their work and abilities.
3) Use Technology
What an amazing tool to have at our fingertips and accessible in the classroom for students to learn with. I was able to use a variety of tools this year with my class that enhanced their learning and skills. Some of the tools that really engaged my students were blogging, quad blogging, Glogster, Bitstrips, Google drive etc. In addition to student laptops, smartboard, document camera, iPods and iPads students were frequently engaged in a variety of web 2.0 tools. Additionally, through a classroom blog, I was able to open up our classroom to others. Including parents who provided very positive feedback about using it as a tool for communication. A warning, however. Using technology means that you are connected all of the time. The onus is on you to set boundaries and limits as to what you will and will not do. If you want to learn more about how I use technology in the classroom, check out my post here!
4) Secretly Differentiate
No matter how this is done you must differentiate. Personally, prefer to differentiate in secret; I don’t want students to ‘feel dumb’ (their words not mine), because they are in grade 4 and working in a lower-level textbook. I would rather give them the same work and modify the process or the expectations on output. This is much easier in a split as everyone is doing something different anyway so no one really notices.
5) Just Let ’em Work
So my students have desks but very rarely do they use them to work in unless that is their preference. Often if you had walked into my room you would have seen students standing, sitting, or lying down all over the room. This was okay with me as long as they were working. We spent a lot of time talking about making smart choices. This included choosing where you were sitting and who you were sitting near. I did have a standing rule: you had to be an arm’s length away from someone else when working. If you continued to be distracted, you would be asked to make a smart choice and move to a different location.