Connecting with Students

Connecting with StudentsIt’s that time of year when teachers are thinking about how they want their next school year to go.   One thing I really like about teaching is that I get a new start each fall.  Even if it’s students I’ve worked with before (in the after school program, etc), it’s still a fresh year, fresh class, and all of that.  This is when I like to ponder how I am going to connect with my students.

To me, it’s the most important part of my job.  When my students feel like they are a part of a team, with me, instead of against me, my whole year goes more smoothly.  They are more willing to listen, to learn, to try, if they feel a connection to me.

I have a confession to make: I’m VERY lazy.  I like nothing more than to sit on the couch and read a book. watch TV or scroll through  Hard work is not my friend.  Therefore, I look for ways to do more with less effort.

Here are the things I do to try to connect with my students the lazy girl’s way:

1) I send a postcard to all of my students the week before school starts.  Our students don’t find out who their teacher is until that time, so I can’t send them earlier in the summer.  It’s just a simple postcard welcoming them to my classroom (or my team if I’m working with a team teacher) and letting them know when Back to School Night is.

2) I greet each student at the door each morning.  I’m expected to be supervising the hallway, anyway, so as students are walking past to go to lockers, or entering my room, I say good morning and try to make some sort of comment unique to them.

3) I pay attention to their interests,  If I can, I try to gear the lessons toward their interests.  I also bring in newspaper clippings about these interests if I come across anything.

4) I suggest books for them when we go to the library.  I try, again, to keep their interests in mind when I make suggestions.  I also talk to them about the books they are checking out.  I ask them to give me their opinion, offer similar titles, that sort of thing.

5) I ask the class to “try out” new ideas that I have.  Whenever I want to try something new, I tell the class that I’d like to try it and I need their feedback.  I always ask them what they think as we work through my new idea and when we finish.  I always preface it with the fact that I may need to overrule them, but I want to hear what they think.

6) If I’m going to do something that might seem like a trick I’m playing on them, I warn them that I’m going to play a trick on them.  It helps them feel better when we get to the “trick” and they trust me the rest of the time.  For instance, sometimes I’ll have them list all the terms they can think of related to a subject (like a football game) and then ask them to write about it without using any of those words.  Giving them a heads up keeps them from being angry at me about the writing assignment.

7) I laugh at myself.  I often tell them stories about silly things I’ve done, mistakes I’ve made, foolish situations I’ve gotten into.  By sharing these stories, they feel better when they run into some sort of embarrassing situation.  They also feel as if they know me, which helps them to connect.

8) I start off the year with a letter to the class.  I write about my interests, my daughters, my life and then ask them to write a letter to me.  It’s always fun to see what they write back to me.

What do you do to connect with your students?

Reading Material for the Teacher!

When Kids Can't ReadI started reading a book over the weekend and I have to share it!  It’s called When Kids Can’t Read by Kylene Beers (awesome last name, huh?)  You can find it on amazon here:

I’ve only gotten through chapter 4, but I think it will make a huge difference in my teaching for next year.

As I’ve written about before, my district has directed me to use Reading Street for my reading/writing/grammar instruction.  It’s not a terrible textbook, but since the idea is that students use this text from kindergarten through 6th grade, the 6th grade text seems to gloss over some things.  My students last year had used it in 4th and 5th grades.  Not enough time to have gotten all of the skills from the years prior to that.

What I really like about this book is that it is written by a teacher who has been there, done that.  She’s not standing in her ivory tower telling all teachers how rotten and lazy they are.  She’s not coming in from the outside saying she has all the answers.  Instead, she uses her prior experience and her copious research and study to guide the reader through how best to help our students.

I’ve noticed, having interns, that it’s tough to explain why you do what you do.  I have gotten better over the years, but this book gives me much more to pull from.  I can see using the information from this book to better interpret the reams of data that we generate on each student.  By being able to give concrete diagnoses for the parents (not just, your child doesn’t understand what he or she is reading), and then being able to give specific, parent-friendly suggestions, I look forward to helping my students and their parents.

As I read, I keep picturing how I can make this work, using the scripted curriculum that I have been given.  I think it will go a long way toward making the weekly skill and strategy more concrete and visible for my students.

As you can see, I’m very excited about starting the school year, using what I’ve learned from this book.  What books are you reading this summer?  What do you hope to accomplish in the fall?

Genius Hour 2

geniusWe tried Genius Hour again before the end of the year.  The change we made this time was to give the students 45 minutes daily rather than one whole day to work on their project.

On the plus side, if a student needed more time to allow a project to dry or harden, etc, this allowed them that opportunity.  It also gave them a chance to change their project more easily than the one full day kind of plan, as well as giving them more chances to bring in materials they discover they need as they work on the project.

Unfortunately, since it was the end of the year, we ran into a few glitches.  We had to find time to do a pilot standardized testing in the computer lab for a week.  Add that to no school on Memorial Day, our field day, and other assorted issues,and the Genius Hour time got squeezed in where we could fit it.  We also had a hard time signing up for the computer lab, since other teachers were trying to do end of the year projects there, as well as exams.

In addition, we needed time to do all of our end of the year assessing, which involved a large test in each of the disciplines.  That definitely cut into our time to work on the Genius Hour projects.

The students seemed to take it less seriously this time than they did the first time.  That could be due to the time of year, the fact that we were squeezing in time where we could or that the newness of the idea.

For this Genius Hour, we invited the 4th graders, which we really liked, since it gave them a chance to be in the building again (as fifth graders, they are in the middle school and there is always a bit of anxiety when moving to a new building).  Since they had come up for a tour and orientation earlier in the spring, this was one more opportunity to be in the building.

I would definitely expect that we will do Genius Hour again.  We’re kind of thinking once per trimester.  The students definitely enjoyed it and anything that will make them look forward to school is worth trying.

It will be interesting, going forward, to see which version works best: one full day, or a number of days with an hour or so.


Fluency With Poetry

poetryHow to help students develop fluency in reading – that has been a huge focus for me this year.  The text that I am using includes a short paragraph or two each day for students to practice reading out loud.  However, as I looked into fluency practice (6 Minute Solution, Readers’ Theater, etc) it seemed as if it was more important for students to read the same passage several days in a row to improve, not a new passage each time.

I also noticed my students weren’t truly practicing reading together with their group when we did the fluency practice.  They didn’t see a purpose to it, so they just pretended (or refused).

I tried to explain the purpose behind the practice.  They were unimpressed with the need to read faster.  The teacher pleasers nodded and smiled as I talked, but the others, the ones who don’t see a need to practice what the teacher says they should, just sat quietly.  I could tell I hadn’t reached them.

To combat these problems, I tried having them read poetry out loud.  Bingo! I typed up some fun poems (Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, Dr Seuss) and had each group practice a different verse.  At the end of the week, I had each group stand and read their verse in order.  Then, I awarded a prize to the group that I felt did the “best”.  I didn’t ever tell them what constituted the best, just picked a group that seemed to stand out to me.  Sometimes the group would read with lots of expression, sometimes it seemed as if they really read in unison, other times the group included movements to go with the verse.  I just picked whatever moved me that day.

This had an immediate and dramatic effect on the fluency practice.  The groups were suddenly rehearsing the verse over and over.  Desperate to be the “chosen group”, they worked hard to pronounce each of the words, add expression and read in unison.  They also told me they really enjoyed the fluency practice (something they never said earlier in the year!)

The only downside to this method is typing up the poems.  A new poem for each week is a lot of poems!  However, it is definitely worth the time.

How do you help your students gain fluency in their reading?