Do You Love Where You Work?

I came across this blog post on Twitter the other day: Making Your School a Place Where People Want To Work.

As I read through the suggestions, I realized just how wonderful the school I teach in is.  One idea was to play together.  Our staff definitely does that!  Lunch time in the teacher’s lounge is frequently filled with laughter.  I teach across the hall, so during other lunches, I can hear the laughter ringing out.  For me, lunch is a time I look forward to, because we get silly, spunky and generally have a good time.  It’s an energizing time for all of us.

We also take part in a healthy competition each winter.  Called Dump Your Rump, we all throw in $10, are randomly assigned to teams and start trying to drink more water and eat more fruits and veggies.  While we are all understanding about the increased need for bathroom breaks (stopping by other teacher’s rooms to see if a quick bathroom run is needed), we also have a tendency to bring in sweet treats in an effort to cause other teams to lose points.  During this competition, you might see our Facebook posts showing how much exercise we’re getting, but you also might see one directed at the competition suggesting that he or she skip the workout tonight.  It’s all in fun and everyone is incredibly supportive of everyone else’s efforts.

Learning together is another ideas in the article.  Our principal has started book clubs for the staff.  We were given a choice of books, which she purchased for us, and assigned to groups to discuss what we are reading.  It’s been exciting learning new ideas and ways of doing things with my colleagues.

Our staff is truly a family.  Sadly, we’ve had teachers pass away during the school year, requiring us to grieve for our friend, while comforting our students.  We’ve also celebrated with teachers who met, got engaged, got married and started a family.  Bridal showers and baby showers are a regular occurrence in our library.  We also celebrate or mourn staff who are retiring or leaving for other parts.  Our staff can be counted on to come together to grieve or celebrate, support or admire anyone else.

You might have noticed I say “staff” instead of “teachers”.  That’s because we truly include every adult in the building in our activities.  From interns to support staff to teachers to administrators, we are all in this together.

Take a look at that post – do you work with a phenomenal staff?  If not, can you change it into one?  If so, have you let them know?

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Giving Students Leadership Opportunities Part 1

This last week, my class began a spontaneous experiment in leadership.  My current curriculum is 90% direct instruction, which I follow “with fidelity” by using powerpoint slides to lead the discussions.  As we got started, I made an offhand comment that they could do this class without me.  At that point, several of them excitedly offered to be the teacher.

I agreed, pulled a stick for our first teacher, and so began a class period with more students engaged than ever before!

It was pretty powerful.  Each student “taught” one slide, then pulled a stick to choose the next teacher.  Since the information was on the slide, they could handle presenting it.  I sat at the back of the room, available to answer questions (although there wasn’t much need).

The students did a great job.  They kept the students on task, at times calling on raised hands, at times drawing random names.  They even counted down from 5 to get the class’ attention and took points when things got a little noisy.  The class was engaged and on task nearly the entire time.  The students helped the teacher pronounce unfamiliar words, assisted with figuring out what the assignment should be and generally were very understanding about the teachers.

The next day, they eagerly asked if they could do it again.  I agreed and they were off.  I was even able to joke that I could get them into trouble by talking in the back of the room!  Some of the students asked, nervously, if they would have to do it when they didn’t want to.  My answer was yes.  I explained that part of our requirement is speaking in front of a group and this would help meet that part of the curriculum.  While they weren’t thrilled, even the quiet ones got up and did it, without argument.

The students, as a whole, see this a fun.  As we all know, fun can go a long way toward engaging our students!

As we go forward, I’m hoping to give them a larger role – not just reading what I put on the slide, but actually preparing something to teach.  The challenge is that I am required to teach Reading Street as handed to me.  This means the powerpoint slides come from the teacher’s edition.  Having them create the slides wouldn’t really give them an authentic teaching opportunity.

For the moment, we’ll continue with allowing the students to present information and see how things go.  It’s only been 2 days, so the whole thing could go off the rails on Tuesday.  Let’s hope it continues to work!

Challenging Gifted Students While Teaching From a Scripted Curriculum

This year, I have two gifted students in my classes, as well as another 10 high achieving students.  In the past, I had more freedom in my curriculum to try to meet the high level students’ needs.  However, this year, I am required to follow a scripted reading curriculum with fidelity, so it has been more of a challenge.

The first thing I have done is begun pre-testing the high achievers and gifted students each Monday.  If they can pass the weekly test before instruction, they are free to work on a separate project during the week.  If they don’t pass, they can work through the assignments and readings at their own speed and re-test when they are ready.  If they pass at that point, they can move on to working on a different project.

This has worked out well, mostly.  I have a few students who, after working through the week’s assignments, still don’t pass the test.  Still figuring out what to do about that.

The projects I have assigned started out more demonstrating the week’s topic on a poster or in a piece of writing.  However, this time, the first half of our unit is focused on various types of survival, so for three weeks, they have been reading other books about survival and will create a diagram showing the parallels of survival in different environments.

In addition, I discovered http://www.byrdseed.com which has wonderful ideas for challenging students to think more deeply.  He sends out a list of idioms each week with ideas for how to use them.  So, my advanced students are also learning idioms and working on projects related to them.

Is Merit Pay Demoralizing Teachers?

I’ve been listening to Drive, by Daniel Pink while I run.  I started out listening to it to find out how I can better motivate my students.  His book is very interesting – plenty of scientific studies to back up his statements.  However, while the information can help me motivate my students, I started realizing it also speaks to what is happening in education today.

You can see Daniel Pink’s The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us here:

Here in Michigan, the legislature has decided that schools should follow a business model.  Toward that end, they have imposed certain rules on educators and districts.  The idea that my classroom is a factory, and if I simply do X, Y and Z in the right order, I will create a perfect learning machine seems to be the order of the day.   This is not a new idea – schools were originally designed, during the industrial revolution, to generate workers for the factories.  The schedule, the rows of desks, the idea of putting students in grades according to their ages, all date back to those days.

However, now the legislature has attempted to impose a new business idea onto schools: merit pay.  Each district was tasked with figuring out both how to find money for merit pay in the budget and how to award that merit pay.

My district set out guidelines and handed them out last fall.  They are well meaning and hope to get at what makes a good teacher.  However, according to Daniel Pink, this will do exactly the opposite.

If I understand his book correctly, offering an “if, then” reward to teachers for their art will actually cause them to do less.  The extrinsic/intrinsic motivation question is one that is being looked at more seriously.

According to Pink, by offering these rewards, those “good teachers” will now see what they were doing for enjoyment as work.  This will cause them to put less time into it and want to do less of it in the future.

Looking at the list of merit pay options in my district has made me feel like it’s not worth it.  In order to gain the merit pay, I have to reach a certain level before any of it kicks in.  I’m not one to be willing to jump through hoops and the amount of money being offered feels less than worth the effort.

I plan to continue doing what I know to be best for my students, because that is what I do.  I will continue to work for hours on the weekends, come in early, stay late, and think about my students while I’m grocery shopping, running, cleaning my house, driving to and from school, and so on.  I love my job and don’t plan to stop any time soon.

But shouldn’t the powers that be consider the science behind what they are doing?

The Widening Technology Gap Between Districts?

So, February 6 is Digital Learning Day.  That sounds like a great idea for educators.  However, it raises an important question:  what about the gap between the haves and the have nots?  I have noticed, on various social media sites, that there is a distinct difference between my district’s finances, along with the families’ abilities to fund technology within those districts and other, neighboring districts.

Often, I see suggestions for the newest iPad apps to use in your classroom to support learning.  Our district can’t afford to purchase iPads for the students.  Then, I see suggestions for “if you only have one iPad in your classroom”.  That ignores the fact that many districts don’t have wifi available.

I also hear suggestions for groups of students to use the several computers I have in my classroom to access the internet.  What if there is only one computer – a teacher computer that students are not allowed to use?

Next comes the suggestions to use the computer lab (apparently some buildings have multiple labs for their classes to use).  Our building has one lab for 4 grades to share (400 students using one lab!) and that one had a water main break over Christmas and we’re still waiting for the insurance to help us purchase new computers for it.

Of course, many will tell me that the school district could purchase a laptop cart, iPods for the students to use, the list goes on and on.  While I appreciate the well meaning ideas, our district and our students can’t use them.

Finally, there’s the idea of writing grants.  Unfortunately, most corporate grants are for towns which include a storefront for that business.  What if your town is made up of small hometown businesses without corporate grants?

Here’s what I deal with on a daily basis:

one computer in my classroom – hooked up to a projector and interactive whiteboard.  (The projector is dying and there are no plans to replace it)

my own personal iPad, but no wifi and no plans to put it in the building

A VERY old iPod nano that used to belong to my daughter (10 years or so – the old silver rectangular version – Apple employees were shocked when I brought it in for some work to be done)

An oldish iPod touch – also abandoned by my daughter when she bought her own iPhone

one computer lab, used to teach computer class (not every year, though – it depends on where we need to place teachers and school board members’ whims)

Students whose families can’t afford smartphones and tablets and all the other electronic wonders of the 21st century

households which have no internet access, or only dial up (yes, dial up!)  Here in rural America, not everyone has access to multiple high speed internet providers

My worry is that teachers in these other districts can’t seem to conceive of a school which has such limited technology.  It’s hard for them to believe we could have this sort of limited internet access, when we are only 30 minutes from the state capitol.

When our country has some students working with iPods, iPhones, iPads, laptops, wifi, etc and others who aren’t even able to open a Google page, what will the future bring?  Is it okay for us to continue merrily on our way, leaving a large portion of our students in the dust, assuming they will “catch up” some day?

When will these students catch up?  How will this happen?  How are they to compete for jobs with technology savvy students from other districts?  How are they to succeed in college, in an ever advancing digital society?

What are we doing to these hard working students and families?  Are we dooming them to a life of minimum wage jobs?  Are we creating a new class of people who can never hope to achieve the American dream?

It’s a question worth asking.

How Do We Convince Students to Learn?

How do we convince our students to learn the content?  This is a question that has plagued teachers since time began.  It seems like no matter what we do, some of our students will be fully engaged (can’t wait to learn), some will be compliant (but can take it or leave it) and some will be fighting us every step of the way.

The students who are excited, either about learning, in general, or about the particular content you have to teach are easy.  It would take real work to turn them off.  For them, the learning is like ice cream – who doesn’t want more?  The students who are compliant are a little harder, but they have reasons for learning which make the teacher’s job easier.  Perhaps they want the good grade, or they understand that your content is a stepping stone to what they really want, but either way, they will take in what you have to offer without too much fuss.

It’s the last group that we really struggle to reach.  These students have many reasons for not wanting to learn the content.  Some come from a rough home life, some come from a supportive home life.  Some of them have goals for their future and some don’t.  Many of them picture themselves in college some day, even though they’re not passing middle school.

One thing that can help to reach these students is to explain what the content can do for them.  Giving them a clear reason for learning this information can give them a reason to study.  All of us want to know “what’s in it for me?” I tell students that learning this will make them smarter.  Often that can make them sit up and take notice.  I see the look in their eyes when I say that.  While they will deny it with their last breath, they all want to be smarter.  Knowing that I’m trying to help them get there often brings them to my side.

Another way to reach them is to show them how this content connects to the real world.  Telling my students that they will need this in college (or even in high school) is meaningless to them.  They have a hard time seeing past the weekend, let alone years in the future.  To them, there’s always time to learn this in the future, when they need it.  Instead, I try to help them see what it will do for them now.

I have discovered that telling them they will see literary references in cartoons, video games, etc often grabs their attention.  Once they start listening, I’ve got them.

However we do it, convincing students to learn the material is one of the most important tasks we have.  How do you engage your students?