Advice, reflection, and life as the perpetual new teacher.

Originally this was a reflection on my 3rd year of teaching but it turned into more of the to 5 lessons (okay 6) I’ve learned along the way. As I move into my new role (yet again!) and become a high school teacher, I decided to share my learning and realize that I can still be the new teacher, the mentor, and the creative teacher despite the changes and role I’m in (or going into).

  1. Play the new teacher card! Don’t be afraid to ask for help, make mistakes and try new things. Don’t wait to be the veteran teacher to try cool things because often those teachers learn just as much from the support you seek than what you learn from them. My team last year was a place where I could be creative, and they gave me permission to try new things but were there to help guide me how to develop my ideas in ways that would be successful. I thrived off my team’s collaborative moments. The best part was that we were all still able to tweak things the way we needed it to be because we were all different. Speaking of which, Be honest with yourself. Don’t focus on the things like making your classroom look like a Pinterest pin, trying to perfect your classroom management or stick with things that are tried and true because that’s where you’re comfortable and will help you fill your grade book. I honestly believe that classrooms should be a place to learn and experiment together.
  2. Building on that, stand out by taking risks with your students. You don’t need to wait to innovate! Things aren’t always going to work out, but you will help build your students’ growth mindset because they look to you to model what is acceptable in class. Accept the fact you’re not perfect, but you have the opportunity to grow from it. So do your students. Build your ideas around curriculum, have a solid assessment plan. Even if your ideas don’t work out, you did so with the best intentions and chances are, your students learned more than you. Be flexible and adapt on the fly. My biggest project “fail” turned into the coolest inquiry project because students asked “why?” or “how can I?” so I embraced it and went with it! Just take that risk. F is no longer for failure, it is for FLEXIBILITY. Keep experimenting! You might cry in your car one day because nothing went the way you thought it would, but you’re also going to have those moments where you want to take pictures, brag to your colleagues and principal about how amazing it went. Teaching is exhausting. It is kind of like rocking out in a garage band with a group of budding musicians who learn through doing, experimenting and trust it will work out.
  3. Ask your students! Get their input, embrace their opinions, voices, and feedback! What other job gives you a captive and responsive audience. My students loved to reflect on projects, tell me about their learning, their interests, how I could make something better for next year, or even just that they really wish they could have done this on the computer (that were booked for a week solid). I am a huge fan of conferencing throughout projects and giving feedback to students as they go but also love to share their ideas. Reflections, “writers” workshops, and conferencing support you and your students together. Carving out “me time” with them will build relationships that transcend curriculum and the walls of your classroom. To quote a cliche, “they’ll never remember what you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel.”
  4. Your students will make you laugh, they will make you cry, they will break your heart, you will worry about them, care about them and cheer them on but they will be better for it because you cared about them.  Your heat will hurt as much as you feet will hurt, you will rediscover the joy of things like smelly markers and the new rules to “the floor is made of lava” as you connect with your kids. Your students will love you, care about you and drive you up the wall. It is that relationship that will make everything worth it. That relationship also drives teaching. There will always be those kids that you don’t feel you’re connecting with, ones who throw their coat on the ground and refuse to complete their work. Still, they are a person. You aren’t just there to teach a curriculum. You’re their safe place, consistency, their attention they desire. Not every kid is going to be the kid who loves you to pieces, but that one kid who makes you count your blessings and pull your hair is usually the kid you get the most out of. I think of mine in my first 2 years and how much those kids taught me about teaching, myself and the world as a whole. I worry about where they are and what they are doing, even to this day. They taught me the classroom management stuff, and they taught compassion to their peers. Most importantly, they are people with their own story, not a number, letter or percentage.
  5. Find your tribe. Find the people that will build you up when you need it, who will give you a reality check when you need it, and will give you the inspiration you need even if you don’t think you need it. My first year I team taught for the first few months. I had a built-in mentor for teaching, but I needed people to surround me with the things I needed. I found my tribe on Twitter with the #WeirdEd chat on Wednesday nights. I found “master teachers” (I put this term in quotes because these are teachers who don’t claim to have the answers and be masters of their domain but share their advice and experiences to help others grow but also so they can grow) and I read their blogs and books. I participated in EdCamps on my Saturdays to share my ideas. I found the people who made me feel like I could build who I was as a teacher and have people who understood what I was doing and going through. They encouraged me, they validated me, they celebrated my successes. Most importantly, they were right there facing the same things I was. I felt safe. Side note: Students also need to feel safe. Make your classroom a safe space that allows your students to build their community of learners that share and learn together.
  6. Lastly, document everything! Reflect while looking back, celebrate your own successes and share your not so great moments where you learned something new. Blogging, journaling, classroom blogs or twitter, whatever works for you! My students wrote a weekly “This Week at School” letter to their parents, I wrote my own This Week at School (many shared on my blog), but I also tried to reflect and share my own learning on my blog as well. This was my medium of reflection. It also serves as a fantastic tool for interviews, for sharing ideas and connecting with others. Often you forget the little things and the opportunity to look back to your work and growth is invaluable. I am always proud of my kids but most importantly, I can be proud of my own work and ideas this way.

 


Just a few teacher blogs, books, and Twitter chats to inspire:

John Spencer – Not only did he write one of my favourite Read Alouds, he has an inspirational YouTube channel and even inspired some of the things in this post such as your renewed love of smelly markers. He also reminds me that education is a small and connected world. He’s written several books that are well worth the read.

Doug Robertson –  His antics inspired me to take risks, his Twitter chats (#weirdEd) built my confidence, and most importantly, being the weird teacher was now acceptable and cool.  I give his book “He’s the Weird Teacher” to teachers I see who require that bit of a boost and permission to try new things and be “the weird teacher”.

Shauna Pollock – A Disney inspired educator who is just fantastic. As a Canadian, she understands our educational context and is passionate about giving students the tools they need to succeed in the real world. Her book is well worth the read and is well read in my office. She’s even opening her own school!

There are many others and I’ll probably add to this list in a few hours or days – share those who inspire you and I’ll add it to the list!

Getting feedback from your students on your practice as a teacher

I have been meaning to post this for a while but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to summarize my experience for getting feedback on my own practice. I made myself vulnerable to my students. I was worried at first, not what their answers were but if I had missed something that I should have addressed earlier in the year. Alas, other than a student who was having a bad day with their friends, I was impressed with their answers and how much thought went into a lot of the answers.  When I proposed the idea to my students, they were hesitant at first. I explained that to them that it is their chance to give me a report card. They fell in love with the idea. Some took it as an opportunity to complain about things outside of my control, others gave some very valuable feedback. There were also a few “I like grade 5” and “I don’t like writing” type comments but it was great for me to see this range. None of them seemed to care that it was anonymous but I chose to let them say who it was from if they wanted to or if they wanted to talk to me about it. No one wanted to talk to me but a number wrote their name in the box anyways.

The idea came as I was talking to my mom about the course she teaches at the local university, she mentioned her course evaluations and how even though it comes at the end of the year, she loves them. I decided it was time that I gave my students my own course evaluation. I decided to do so digitally because paper is not my friend. The great thing about Google Forms is that it will put the answers into a spreadsheet for you if you want, show all answers to each question, or you can see each individual response. It can be anonymous or you can also require them to be signed in and log their username. I chose anonymous to get some very honest feedback – I was feeling brave.

Here is a link to a copy of the form I used if you’d like to see the questions.

The themes I pulled from their questions didn’t actually surprise me that much because a lot of it are my own personal beliefs about education and how I felt as a student.

The loved the following:

  • Projects (of all sorts)!!! (this came up with very specific examples)
  • Field Trips that related to their learning but also the ones that were just fun!
  • Hands on and building activities
  • Modeling and being allowed to then go and try it
  • Multiple rounds of feedback not only from their teacher but also their peers
  • Having choice in how they showed their knowledge
  • Variety of seating choices in a “soft” classroom.

The would have liked to see:

  • More nature stuff
  • More focus on Skills and Competencies (This one surprised me but made me happy because I wasn’t very explicit with this as I felt I was overwhelming them at times – apparently not so.)
  • More chance to co-create criteria.
  • More mixing of the subjects (cross-curricular projects, YES please!)

Some things they learned about themselves this year:

  • “I learned that every time I try and don’t give up I feel like I want to do it again.”
  • “That working hard will make feel you accomplished something and you will earn something good if you really really worked hard.”
  • “I learned that if i put a lot effort into it and i try to to do good i do good.”
  • “That I am a more you tell me what to do then I will understand better. That is what I figure.”
  • “i usually need music because it helps me concentrate.(better)”
  • “need activity”

What they had to say about me or advice for me for next year:

  • “To always have comfy chairs. But she is not going to be teaching so go teach other teachers. Come to my class!!!”
  • “shes pretty good and knows her stuff”
  • “get a class pet” (sorry, buddy! I’ll get a fish for my office and you can visit)
  • “Make all the work in to projects.”
  • “Music helps people”
  • “This year was really fun. I will miss you Miss.A.”
  • “i wish I could get the same teacher again”
  • “she was tough on me but I need it”
  • “more hugs” (admittedly, I  am not a touchy feely person)
  • “One of the best school years of my life and i learned so much and i had so much fun learning because we had fun activities to help us learn like amazing race and i had an awesome teacher who had things like yoga balls, comfy chairs, couch. thanks”

I am really glad I did this. I was nervous at first but it reallyI’d like to do smaller scale ones each reporting period and at the beginning of the year to really get to know the things my students are thinking so I can make changes along the way.

Would you be willing to let your students give you feedback? How do you think they would feel about your class? Have you ever done so? I’d love to hear!

 

Resource: Teaching Feedback in your Classroom

I have put together a resource for teaching the feedback process to your class thanks to requests of a few friends and colleagues. You can find it over at Ninja Plans by following this link.  Don’t forget it is a process that needs time and practice to develop fully!

Just a note: When using feedback, it is important that the students have the opportunity for receive multiple rounds of feedback from each other and from their teacher, as well as time time to implement it/improve their work before submitting it for assessment (or final feedback as my students used to call it).

Also – check out my past post about building a culture of feedback in my classroom here.

PD reflection: Assessing Competencies

1.  What are you more certain of now after attending this PD?
The importance of ensuring that the competencies are visible and well understood by students. This really made me realize how important inquiry and reflection is for students. It really affirmed my dislike of pre-made resources as a primary mode of instruction instead of using it as a support for students who need that direct instruction and practice to build their skills prior to working on a project.  
2.  What are you less certain of now after attending this PD?
How to make the students understanding of them and how they are using them visible to parents. Should it be in Power School? Should the students be writing reflections that are sent home? Should we be recording/blogging/tweeting? What kind of exciting things can we do to make those connections more visible.
3.  How can you take what you learned at this session to hone your own practice as an elementary teacher?
I would like to continue to use them in the creation of my projects. I would also like to record my students talking about their learning more often. One thing I have committed to is putting the competencies into my project plans/write ups like I do with the outcomes and using them to base my reflection questions around them more explicitly.

From Class Blog: Learning Update Term 2

Each time that I listen to the students talk about their learning, I am amazed and proud at their growth and their ability to explain their learning using the vocabulary that we use in class. Seamus and Cailynne had the opportunity to speak with Mrs. Cameron about feedback and how it helps us grow in our learning. When Mrs. Cameron told me the story, I was so impressed with their description. They described like climbing a staircase and each feedback loop allowed them to move to the next step. It was phenomenal to hear. I have since used that example to explain to teachers in other districts about the work that we do. For this video, the students put together their ideas. My job was simply to hold the camera still and put photos and video together in a format we could share.

LC 5A learning for term 2 from Courtney Albrecht on Vimeo.

I am so proud of the students and can’t wait to see what Term 3 brings in our #bestyearever

Teaching second languages through inquiry and project based learning.

I am given a curriculum to teach French as a Second Language to my grade 5 students that looks something like this:

My Elementary School
Our Friends—The Animals
Clothes
My Home

 

Le Festival du Voyageur*
Four Holidays and Celebrations*

 

and other areas of interest.

 

Now I don’t know about you, but the last time I talked to a 10 year old, they did not consider animals their friends, they do not care about how to count in French and they most definitely do not want to to learn Valentines’ Day vocabulary so that they can do a word puzzle for any other reason than to waste a class period.

I realized this when we started our animal unit and looked at the worksheets I was given by our provincial government that would supposedly teach my kids all about animals. Since I had a sub, they started them and we essentially threw that out the window quickly. I went down to Calgary and walked around their zoo, talking to them about their rebuild after the flood and activities they did with students to help redesign parts of the Zoo. I also learned about why the penguin habitat looked like I was at one of the magnetic poles. This inspired my project to create a Grade 5 redesign of our local and rather boring zoo. Thanks to my amazing team member, she took my idea and helped organize it on paper.

Task:

Redesign the enclosure at the Edmonton Valley Zoo for one of the animal residents. The new enclosure needs to reflect the animal’s natural habitat in the wild. Your newly redesigned enclosure needs to include signs written in French that explain to the zoo visitors the following:

  • the parts of the animal
  • what the animal eats
  • where the animal can be found in the wild
  • what predators the animal has or what animals your animal preys on
  • the size, lifespan (in the wild and in captivity) of your animal, the number of babies it has and how often
  • the other types of animals that can be found in the same area as your animal

You will be presenting to your classmates the newly designed animal enclosure for your animal.

 

My students have never been so excited to learn or work on a project. I loved this quote from one of my girls who will tell it like she sees it:

“French hasn’t been my favorite subject but it is getting fun because we get to choose an animal and label it in French!”

I’ve started working with my French 7s on the vocabulary through using things like sports, designing their own Alberta based ice cream flavour, and soon we will be designing a restaurant, learning to order off a menu and cooking the food. We’ll rotate through the roles so they can all eat, serve and order.

I am starting to love going to French 7 and they are starting to hand in their work a little bit more often. By engaging their interests and giving them something to work towards, both of my grades of French are starting enjoy the class a lot more. Listening to myself and their reactions to things, I find I am going back to my love of the French language and the fun things that I got to do as an Immersion student. Bringing that to my students now makes me love what I do even more.

Building a culture of feedback in my classroom

Feedback is an important part of learning in my classroom. We go through many feedback loops on most tasks. Feedback helps us define the spirit and culture in our classroom. We use it to guide and encourage each other throughout our learning. Peer feedback is a tool for providing suggestions and encouragement to each other on specific tasks or in specific situations. It is not that to replace Teacher feedback, comments or grades. I’ve worked hard with the students to create a culture of fearless feedback culture in our class. I believe that everyone in the room is everyone else’s mentor and support. We use our best efforts to help each other become better at what we do. When each of us contributes our best ideas and efforts, we have a culture in which everyone regularly identifies and investigates how we can all improve and how we can work collaboratively to make improvements in our learning.

I wanted to share some ways to help develop a culture of feedback in their classroom.

1. Start with an activity to find out what they know about feedback. Some questions I asked my students at the beginning of the year in a brainstorm were:

  • What is Feedback?
  • When would we use feedback?
  • Why would we use feedback?

2. Next we moved into looking at Specific vs General feedback as well as Negative vs. Positive feedback.

Specific feedback provides details on what and how a person can improve what the feedback is about. If it is about a task, it points out exactly what the feedback is about and gives detailed reasons for the feedback. It also gives suggestions on how to improve that specific task.

General feedback is often seen as the feel good fuzzies and has little reason as to why it is being given. I think of it like someone sharing candy with me.

Not all feedback has to be positive but it must be constructive. Feedback is designed to motivate and help people not confuse or discourage people.

All feedback falls on a grid of Negative (or constructive) to Positive and Specific to General. I found this chart online and my kids really liked it.

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 9.25.37 PM

 

We then tried to come up with examples of each type of feedback. Here are some samples of student feedback.

Positive Specific – I really like how you used the transition words that we learned in class like ” until” and “finally”. They helped put things in order. 

 

Constructive Specific – When talking about the characters, use their names so that people who aren’t reading the book can tell them apart. That would help your summary make more sense.

 

Positive General –  I really like how much detail you put in your summary. 

 

Negative General – You didn’t write very much.

At first my students struggled with constructive specific feedback. They were very good at the warm fuzzies but it has taken a lot of work for students to be specific. The kids aren’t familiar with the vocabulary as I never really stressed it but I think they could categorize their feedback on this grid if I gave it to them. This was mostly due to the fact I was trying not to overwhelm them as all of this was very new to them.

3. We reflected a while later on how we knew when to use feedback. The kids really struggled with this so we did an activity identifying when and how to give feedback. I gave them a bunch of situations and we realized that feedback can come in many forms. The students prefer giving feedback at specific times and they have found leaving sticky notes on the work the best way to do so as. They do not like comments in Google Docs as much so I tend to print things off for them to use sticky notes if it is typed.

If your students are struggling with this, here are some steps you could use:

  1. Ask how to best give feedback – sticky notes, a conversation, ect.
  2. Share your perspective on the work but try to understand where they may be coming from. Ask for clarification on the person’s work if needed.
  3. Thank them for sharing their work with you
  4. Follow up with them. See if they need any clarification or if they would like more feedback. (My students have to write their name on the sticky notes so that the receiver can ask for clarification)

You may want to do an activity on giving feedback such as printing off writing samples and writing specifically the criteria you are looking for on the board. This will focus the students on one specific thing to look for.

The next thing to work on is how to receive feedback. My students took things very personally at first. They struggled to realize that constructive feedback (or helpful feedback) was there to help them.  I continuously had to tell them to remember feedback is an opportunity to learn from your peers and for them to use it as a chance to improve their work. I also had to ask them to remember how it feels to give feedback and be supportive of the student who gave feedback. It can be really challenging and make the students uncomfortable to give feedback initially. In the beginning, I had the students thank the person for their feedback and reflect on how they might be able to use the feedback. Now they are more comfortable leaving and receiving feedback. I still thank all the students for participating in the giving process.

If you are doing verbal feedback remind students to be present with the person they are getting the feedback from and remember how it feels to give feedback so they should be supportive. They should still thank the person for their feedback and share how they might be able to use the feedback they received.

The biggest thing for my students was the need to realize that the person who is giving feedback was trying to help so them. I needed to teach them to assume positive intent and that if something doesn’t make sense, talk to the person and ask for clarification. This could relate to misunderstanding in the work or feedback.

The next thing I’d like to try is having the students provide with examples.

My next steps with my students will be a reflection or discussion about how they respond to feedback. My plan is to use the following prompts:

  • Am I a good Getter?
  • How do you respond to critical feedback?
  • How do you respond to positive feedback?
  • Describe an experience where you would be uncomfortable to learn something new
  • What is one thing you could do to improve on how you receive feedback?

This is not a quick process. You have to have a very positive classroom environment for this to work. You have to build trust between your students and in the process. The students are quick to accept feedback from myself as a teacher but I see that they are still a bit hesitant with student feedback. I am starting to see improvements. This process is probably one of the things that the kids struggle with talking about to others. This is partially my fault for not pushing them to be very cognizant of the process and vocabulary that goes into it.

When you take this on, make sure you are consistent and continuously engage your students in doing so. I let it go a little bit in December and I found that when we came back to it in mid January, they struggled with specifics. There was improvement last week, when we did it again. We’re going to revisit the whole process again after teacher’s convention as a refresher.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, experiences to share or feedback for me! I always appreciate hearing about other people’s journeys in feedback.

 

 

Edit: This resource was shared with me on Twitter to help students get started with feedback and reflection. Hopefully it will help! Tips for providing Effective Feedback