“Where’s your teacher?” On the floor with her students!

Teaching both High School and Elementary in the same day opens your eyes to a lot of things. Teaching in your own room and teaching in a room you share with others opens your eyes even more.

My classrooms have always had more of a home-like vibe to them. There are comfy armchairs, couches, pillows and different types of tables. There is a choice for every student. Students quickly figure out what works best for them and become comfortable where they are. The classroom gets split into zones of learning – those working through something hands-on, those working on basic skills, those working with others, and those who just need a bit of quiet or independent space to work. It is a busy place but everyone finds their place.

I personally don’t have a desk. I hated my desk in my office and got rid of it to replace it with a large table and a couch so I can move based on my needs. I also generally end up in walking around the school with my phone or iPad (or sometimes my computer) to find a space that works for me at that time. What this means is my kids and I often end up sitting on the floor, on the couch or sometimes walking around the hall together when I have an EA to supervise the rest of the happenings in the class.

When I had my own homeroom/learning community, my students had slippers they could put on in case they didn’t want to wear shoes. They had blankets they could wrap up in to keep them warm and focused. Sometimes they would sit under tables or on tables (against the wall) to give them a place to focus that suited their needs. I simply met them where they were.

This year my high school kids moved into a room with desks because we needed more space with almost 30 of us. That feeling of comfort and choice is gone. I no longer feel like I have the same connection with them because I am always standing next to their desks.

My elementary kids no longer have any cozy furniture either because my classroom is being shared with another class and we were borrowing our furniture from another teacher. We still have zones in our classroom but we no longer have the same vibe. The learning is more formal. I miss it and they do too. Time to get back at least a little bit of comfort in the room.

Finding my way

A lot has changed for me this year. I used to blog to sort my thoughts out, to share my ideas, to use this space for documenting my professional growth. This year, I don’t feel the same as I used to.

I am no longer the new teacher. I am no longer inexperienced. Most importantly, I am in a very different role.  That doesn’t mean that my need to sort out my thoughts or documenting my personal growth isn’t the same anymore, it has just shifted to a new form. I see my growth through the work I accomplish. I sort out my thoughts through conversation with staff members I would never have sought out previously.  Most importantly, the majority of my day revolves around confidential information so I don’t have the luxury of necessarily publishing all of my thoughts.

As I shift my perspective and look back, this is still a very valuable tool for myself, however, it has simply become less visible to the public the growth I make.

First couple days of school – reflection

This week was a very new experience for me. I am only teaching two classes – my ESL class and my English class for Grade 5; however, I am busier than I was last year. My new role has me walking many kilometers a day and thinking about things on a different level than before. I am mentally exhausted but at the same time, I am excited. I see teachers who are excited about making new lessons and activities to engage their students and fit the competencies handed down from a ministerial order now three years ago.

I also moved into a new house. I don’t love the layout or certain things about it, however, every time I get to add something new, change something or by painting something, I make it my space. One of our teachers was locked out of the school this year and had her students set up her classroom. The students decorated the room and moved things around to make it their classroom. She was so excited to share and express the change in their attitudes and the ownership the students showed. I am so excited to see how this class grows as a learning community, and I am excited to see how this teacher fosters their voice.

This is just one of the examples that I saw this week of things that made me happy to take on this job.  Seeing the circles that teacher were holding with their students, seeing our teachers look for exciting ways to make connections with their students and their curriculum and having the opportunity to talk to our all our teachers, I am excited for this year and very proud to be a part of the growth our school is going through this year.

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!

 

What does learning and teaching look like in your school?

 

This weekend I was faced with the question of what should learning and teaching look like. While this will depend on the context of the school itself, we are given a mandate through our curriculum, the inspiring education document and a ministerial order that drives our teaching practice. We also have our own expectations placed upon us by the union through the teaching knowledges, skills and attributes.

In the grand scheme of things, we want to see kids who are:

  • engaged in meaningful learning,
  • developing skills through their learning and a classroom activities that will support them in their future lives, education, and careers,
  • able to express their knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways,
  • getting a say in their learning,
  • enjoy learning, and
  • wanting to come to school each day

The real question lies in how we get there. I have been fortunate to have been given many opportunities to look at all aspects of education from inclusion to teaching to support and even at resources. It is important that all of these areas work cohesively together and are well supported.

We also need teachers who are willing to be risk takers, allow themselves to be vulnerable and are passionate about student success. You need to love what you do and realize that the kids come first. You need to strive to make yourself uncomfortable because it is my strong belief that innovative learning begins at the end of your comfort zone. You can be a good teacher but it is that burning desire to grown and share. Ones who are willing to ensure that each student has access to what they need to succeed while being included in all that we are doing in class. The ones who see their job as more than a job. How do we get teachers to jump in with both feet?

What does learning and teaching look like in your school? It is what you think it should look like?

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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.

The Un-Classroom – Leaving the Formal Setting Behind

Recently I had a chance to really reflect on my  physical classroom and the learning that happens in my classroom. Everything I like about how things are run in the classroom are the things that aren’t “mine” or aren’t a “classroom”. This will likely be the last time this blog post that I refer to it as “my classroom”

The class itself is a group of students, each with a different story, home, journey, and path.  Each one faces a different challenge: be it academic, social, family, and/or systemic. The thing that they all have in common is that they all have the ability to learn and be successful – they just need the tools and supports to do so. For me, the most important aspect is to know that it is my job as the teacher of the room to ensure that this is possible.

When I walked into the  classroom this summer to set up, the room was very traditional and structured as a classroom. There is a whiteboard, chalkboard, SMARTboard, shelves and cupboards, a TV and VCR, a supply closet. There was a teacher’s desk and a file cabinet as well. It was a stuffy and sterile room. This was the first thing that had to go.  I have a strong belief that individual desks create barriers in learning and force students into their own spaces. My first goal was to create a warm and welcoming space that would be conducive to creating and sustaining a community of learners with ties to their community and world. Through out the year, the desks have gone along with many of the chairs and in has come various tables different sizes, shapes and heights, pillows, a couch, comfortable lounge chairs, yoga balls, wobble stools,  and a yoga mat. Each student has choice in what will open it up for what will help them learn.  I have a student desk in the corner by the SMART board for my laptop dock and document camera – though I often squish onto the couch with the students to work alongside with them if they haven’t pulled me into a learning circle they have created on the floor. The students move the furniture around to support their needs as they learn.

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A recent classroom arrangement of the students to facilitate a Socratic Circle on a new classroom schedule

That is just the physical classroom. To quote a student describing our class to our deputy superintendent, “Our class isn’t run the way a normal class is. We do things differently around here”. That is quite true. Paper helps guide the general direction of our learning but our curiosity, exploration and passions ultimately drive our learning forward.  We look for ways to makes sense of what we are learning and why we are learning it. The point is to have an educational journey that meets the individual needs of everyone. One of the things I have tried to pass on to my students is the importance of growth based on reflection, feedback from our community and refinement of skills. We share responsibility for our learning by making the learning student-centered and striving for a deeper understanding of the knowledge and skills we are learning.

Many students come to school each day and this is their safe place to be. The lives of the students reflect the impact of their reality. The students live with and through mental health challenges, poverty, social exclusion, amongst many other challenges. They may not have supportive families, positive support systems or stable living environments to give them the same opportunities as others may have but each student who comes into the classroom has made the choice to be there that day. My job is to help them gain the skills, knowledge and values that will allow them to find success and thrive in our society.

As I wrote the last paragraph, I realize how important it is to have a well rounded and focused support team in place to give these students the greatest chance at success. I am also reminded that despite the fact I am teaching grade 5, these students face increasing challenges as their reality begins to solidify around them. A formal learning environment is not what students need. Students need to see value in themselves before they can see value in their learning. That is what my goal is – to educate the whole child and give them the best support system to allow them to develop the skills and knowledge they require.

In someways, there will always be a degree of formality that is expected of myself and our class – we are in the school system after all. However, if I can minimize the formality and give students the opportunity to show their knowledge, understanding and value of what they are learning in their own way while ensuring they are physically, emotional and mentally safe and comfortable – that is my goal.