Our Students Amaze Us

We wanted to start this week by sharing how our students amaze us. We make it our practice to celebrate kids each and every day.  These are some things we observed our students doing today.

  • Yaakov finished his math problems and saw that another classmate was struggling. He quickly scooted over and asked if he could lend a hand.  Sitting side by side, he modeled and prompted ways to try it out. He took on the role of teacher as he taught his classmate how to do the subtraction work and even gave him a tool (number line) to help him out.
  • Olivia was engrossed in writing a letter about her favorite book Ivy and Bean. She wasn’t sure how she wanted to end her letter to get the biggest impact. 

Amalia eagerly offered to listen to her letter and gave her feedback on whether she should end with a question or a sound effect. Together the girls decided that a question at the end was just the thing the letter needed.

  • The children entered the classroom and gathered around the hermit crab. After the crowd dispersed Jake stayed back to talk to Alex who had many questions about what a hermit crab needs to grow bigger and stronger.  Jake has several hermit crabs as pets and spent some time answering Alex’s questions and helping him grow his knowledge about our classroom pet.
  • Kira came skipping down the hallway holding hands with a teary eyed kindergartener. I said, “Good morning” and she told me how she saw this girl crying on her way to class and she told her she would walk her down.  The girl smiled and said, “Kira is my new friend.”

These are just a few highlights of the generous and beautiful things that are happening every day in our classroom.  It would be easy to miss these moments, to get caught up in everything else that is going on around us. We choose to notice and to celebrate.

Sometimes someone else can see things that we take for granted. Having the benefit of a fresh perspective at something that has become an ordinary practice, reminds us of the ongoing importance of making agency a reality. Jill works as an Adjunct Professor at a college on Long Island. As part of this work, she opens up her second grade classroom to both student observers and  student teachers. Today was one of those days, Jill welcomed a bright engaged student observer to come spend the day with her class.  

The reading lesson was to use a reader’s notebook as a tool to help support the work of  keeping track of longer books. The students are experimenting with different ways to take notes to keep track of the setting, characters and their feelings, thoughts, actions, and to follow a story’s problems and solutions. The class was engaged, and Jill and her student observer were circulating the room. First they noticed a boy who was making a list of the setting, a question followed, “Is it important to know the sequence of when each setting was introduced?” The boy decided on numbering the settings and it turned out they were not in sequence. Now we know something important about this student. There were many students who were keeping track of their reading in many ways. 

At the end of every lesson, there is a time to share and reflect on the learning that happened.. Jill asked her students if they would like to come up and show their classmates how they are using their notebooks and other tools to do this work.  Volunteers eagerly raised their hands and excitement grew. Now was their chance to share their strategies with others. One by one, they came up and shared all the many ways they recorded their thinking using post its, sketches of the changes in the setting and character diagrams showing all they have learned.  Each way so unique to the child and their way of learning.

While children are sharing their work, strategies, thinking or tips, Jill dipped in and out prompting and questioning to help children make connections to real life learning.  Questions like, “How did they help you as a reader today?” or “How does this strategy help you to better understand the book?” or “So you did… and then you understood…” This language was generous and inclusive, she did not tell students what to say. Instead she asked them questions or mirrored their words back to them. 

 After the lesson was done, the student observer shared her surprise at the levels of student ownership, and how interesting it was to see each child’s approach. This less directive approach proved to be just what the students needed and this was a great surprise to her. These practices of giving students: a tool, a suggestion, or even just a positive nod was enough. Better than enough – just what they needed to take on the work themselves.

Teachers are being inundated with a need to collect data. Data is important because it is meant to inform day-to-day teaching. That looks like an examination of student writing, rubrics, checklists, and anecdotal notes that are driven by close “kidwatching”  inside the instructional day. Yet teachers are often faced with the need to collect data in a sequential way, to plot growth on a graph. When plotting numeric scores on a graph becomes the “thing of importance” many times that score is relating to oversimplified disconnected academic tasks that can be completed quickly and that do not require deep thinking. The problem is there is no quick fixes when it comes to transferable learning. 

To understand what students can do we need to gauge growth within authentic learning situations. That looks like:

  • There is a student in my classroom who is reading below grade level expectations. 
  • I decide to provide an intervention in my classroom: Guided Reading 3 times a week for six to eight weeks. . 
  • My progress monitoring is the RR that triggered the need for intervention and subsequent Running Records throughout the process. Those along with my anecdotal notes are the progress monitoring data. 
  • At the end of the cycle reflect and refine my practice to see if it worked, or if something needs to change, or if I need some help to come up with a different approach. 

When teachers are collecting formative data like running records and anecdotal notes they are capturing the intricial features of what the reading process is and what it is to  transfer learning. In the end the whole purpose is to actually read in the real world. To learning something it has to connect real life experience. Responsive teaching is driven by real interactions with students. It is not a form, a chart, a graph. We need to be careful not to oversimplify the process in service of a number, a level, a cut-points. Everything we do as teachers is in service to our students’ developmental needs. 

Welcome Back!  We were very fortunate to have had a two week break and today was our first day back to school. As soon as the kids came into the classroom there was so much energy, so many smiles, and so much anticipation for what comes next. New Years and hopeful beginnings are so closely intertwined, on one hand we don’t know exactly what really lies ahead, and on the other we feel like we can accomplish great work together.

An Idea to Share

To get us focused and talking about our time away, we began the day with a carousel activity. The children wrote and talked about the following questions:

After a long break, kids come in excited to share about their time away and this type of activity takes that into consideration. It is also a great way to get them focused and able to share what is important to them,  in a controlled environment. As I walked around, I could support their language usage, by asking open ended questions to spark elaboration such as “What did that feel like? and “Why did you pick that to share?” Kids were excited to share and when it was time to start our day, they were on task and ready to go. Here are some things I learned:

  • One child went to Florida to check in on her new house
  • Like myself, one girl got a new dog
  • Several students took the time to go see the tree and Times Square in New York City
  • Many students had special visits with grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins from different states including Pennsylvania and Virginia

If we had just gone into the day without time to share the things that were a special part of our lives when we were not in school, things might have felt more disconnected, noisy and there would have been some untapped energy.  This activity helped direct the flow of energy into something productive for us all.

So keeping this in mind, we came up with our one word for the year.  Our word is “EMBRACE”.  

  • Embrace opportunities
  • Embrace imperfection
  • Embrace success
  • Embrace challenge
  • Embrace other perspectives
  • Embrace the humanity and emotional piece of teaching and learning

This post is dedicated to our friend and mentor, Dr. Mary Howard. She inspires us everyday to move our practices from “Good to Great”.  Mary, who believes in the potential for all children and works tirelessly to encourage us to be worthy of them.

Jenn, Mary, Jill

After years of working with very young children one thing we can say for sure is that childhood is full of complexity. Children are learning about everything. They are not just learning how to read (which is really hard to do), or how to be problem solvers in math (have you seen how math has changed?). They are also learning how to be more emotionally secure, how to be independent. Yes, in their world that may be how to ride safely on the bus, how to manage a backpack, or even how to get along with others in the lunchroom. Think about everything children learn in comparison to us adults. It’s astounding. 

So when teachers use words like our “low students” they are not honoring all who their students are and hope to be. When any student is denied access to more sophisticated work, they are being robbed of opportunities and may be missing out on important entry points into their learning process. When this happens, teachers are making assumptions and in doing so are most likely creating significant gaps that will be extremely difficult to fill. Why do some educators do this to kids?  Teachers care deeply about students so it just doesn’t make sense. Maybe they do it because students don’t meet their expectations for where they “ought” to be. Maybe they do it because they feel so much pressure to get high scores. We understand that pressure, all kinds of people analyze our data. Maybe they call kids “low” or refer to them as letters, or numbers from a misguided understanding of data and its role in school. We don’t know. One thing we do know for sure, it’s a problem, if we are discussing a child and we are not using the child’s name. 

In the end, does the answer to the question, why, really matter? What matters most is that we put a stop to it. Make a vow with us here today, I will not refer to my students as “low”. I will respect them and acknowledge all of their accomplishments and I will not let my own fear of failure get in their way.  We all have to believe in them if we are going to teach to make a positive impact. Yes, acknowledge the hard work that has to be done, but do that work by leveraging their strengths. There is always something to hold onto and celebrate. Be that teacher, the one who trusts in students’ abilities and hopes for the future.

Fix a problem, fix a problem, fix a problem. There are so many needs and we care so much about our students. The attachment is real, and we want the best possible learning environment for them. There is a lot we can control to make a positive impact but there really are things that make negative impacts. Maybe some children don’t have what they need, maybe we don’t share beliefs with some of our colleagues, maybe there isn’t enough time to do everything we think needs to get done. When we feel this way, it almost feels like we are drowning. The work ahead is so big that we don’t always see the progress because we’re up to our elbows in the work. This is us losing perspective.

We are human, and when people are stressed, focus narrows. If we only see the needs  in front of us we can’t appreciate the growth. That is compounded when sometimes it seems as though the people all around us have it all under control everything is light and airy and they just don’t seem to share the same sense of urgency. We have to ask ourselves, what’s wrong? There is so much pressure when instruction is rooted in authentic learning experiences and we are teaching for transfer for higher level thinking, and then we are held to these assessments that don’t match up to the methods of instruction. It doesn’t feel good to worry about not  having the results you want when you work so hard.

We know it’s not our job to “fix” our students they don’t need fixing. The goal of our instruction is to help students become more confident, and to build up their identity as learners.  There is nothing wrong with us – we just care a lot. Step away from the stress and open up to listening to another’s perspective! Sometimes we need people who aren’t in the day-to-day work inside the classroom, because they can more easily see evidence of the growth students are making.This is how we maintain a more balanced view of things. Finding people who share our values. People who are expert listeners and who help us with the reflection process makes a huge difference.  We are not so different than our students we have needs too and the same thing that helps our students will help us. Find people who believe in you.