Sunday, August 24, 2014

Creating a Positive Classroom Climate

   Boys Playing in Dirt  I have been interested in building a positive classroom climate since I first started teaching. My interest originally started because the school districts around me served a challenging student population. Though life would prove to take a very different course for me (I ended up moving down to Mexico to try my hand in some international), I am so glad I researched this area. Regardless of what kind of student population your district and school serves, a positive classroom climate will always be key. This year I find myself with a bit of a challenging class. There are at least 5 students with identified behavioral/emotional issues, and about 13 students who are below grade level. While the beginning of the year is always very tough when working with young kids, I find myself faced with additional challenges. This is not all bad. This means everything I know about a positive classroom is going to be put to the test this year. I might have to refine a few things. I might have to learn new strategies. It will be a year that I will have to grow as an educator. As frustrating as it can feel at times (when several boys are literally at each other´s throats), I think I am going to get a lot out of this school year.
     As such, I would like to reflect today on some great ways to create a positive classroom climate:

1) Set up a student-centered classroom. When students have choice, they will naturally behave better.

2) Allow for collaboration between students and students and teacher. Again, this gives students a voice and shows them they matter. When they feel they can be part of their own learning and make decisions, they will have more buy in.

3) Allow for social learning. Learning is best when it is social. There´s a time for pure silence in the classroom (taking a test is the first that comes to mind), but the classroom should not be a prison. I always tell my students some talking is okay as long as they work. You can always tell who is being productice and who isn´t. Talking doesn´t automatically mean they can´t produce any work. Also, I don´t feel it´s very realistic to think students will just sit there in stone silence. I don´t think that´s even healthy for our students. Talking allows a social aspect, a time to build vocabulary, express themselves, even work through conflicts.

4) Character education: This was not included in my initial research, but lately I have learned a lot about how the teaching of character education helps to reduce bullying. Imagine what character education can do for behavior in your classroom. Not sure when to include it? See point 5.

5) Class meetings: I am going to openly admit, right here and now, that classroom meetings is something I did in the past as the need arose. I conducted meetings when there was an issue to work out. This year that is all going to change. My challenging class will need some more proactive and preventive steps. Class meetings sometimes occur daily, weekly, perhaps even monthly. This year my class will have a meeting every week. This will be my chance to teach character education, highlight important messages (such as ¨mistakes are okay¨), and reinforce classroom community.

6) Go to school everyday with a positive attitude: Everything is about perspective. Keep your heart positive. It´s for your own sanity and, ultimately, for the well-being of your class. Believe that you can make a difference and create something beautiful, even when challenges face you head on, and that very attitude will take you so much farther than an attitude of defeat.

     The above list is not a comprehensive list, but it does highlight the important factors and steps to building a positive classroom community. Have any tips and suggestions that you´d like to add to this list? Let me know!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Power of Assessments

   Cute Little Girl  I am really focused on assessments as I think about this upcoming school year. The idea of assessments and how we use them has been one of interest for me for quite some time. What are assessments? For whom do they serve? How should we use them? The answer at first blush seems so obvious. With much thought, however, it truly isn´t. It´s much more complicated then it outwardly appears, and I argue that it is complicated because assessments have widely been misused. I don´t think the misuse of assessments is anyone´s fault. I think as teachers and schools we haven´t used them for their real purpose.
     Imagine this (a scenario you might have experienced yourself, or a scenario your own child might have gone through): little Jose takes a test. He´s very nervous during this test because he´s had mutliple tests recently that he´s failed. His grade has been going down consequently. His parents have been upset with him for a while now. Jose fails this test. Again he senses that feeling of being a failure. He can´t seem to understand anything. The teacher asks him, ¨What´s wrong? What happened?¨ Jose now asks himself the same thing. The next day Jose goes into class and class continues as normal. The failed test is now another test in his past. He is on a downward spiral and isn´t sure he will even pass this year.
     Is the above scenario a typical scenario of what happens when a student fails a test? Unfortunately it is. Have you detected what´s wrong in that scenario? The teacher missed an opportunity to help Jose reach the learning goal. Assessments are not just a measurement of the depth of student learning, assessments should be guiding our next steps in the classroom. Is student failure our goal? Of course not. Is passing a test our end goal? I sure hope not. The purpose of education is the growth of knowledge, skills and abilities. The purpose of education is not to pass a test. I repeat: the purpose of education is not to pass a test. We should never say, ¨Study so you can pass your test.¨ We test to measure the learning that occured. Assessment, then, serves as a means to measure student learning and guide where our teaching should go. If my student fails, then I know my student did not reach the learning goal. A failed test, my friends, is a call for additional action.
     Here´s a better scenario with little Jose: It´s the day of the test. Jose is not too nervous because he knows his teacher will do everything in his power to ensure that Jose understands the material and meets the learning goal. Even though he isn´t very nervous, he ends up not doing too well on the test. He´s actually not surprised. He had a tough time with the concepts covered on the test. The next day Jose comes into class. Jose´s teacher, Mr. Smith, approaches him with a smile. Mr. Smith assures Jose that they will continue to work on the material that Jose did not understand. You see, Mr. Smith reviewed the tests and made a pile of the tests for the students who did not pass the test. Failure is not an option in his class. His students are there to learn. His responsibility is to help find a way that they will best learn. He came up with different lessons and activities just for those students to give them more time and a different means to understand the material. After he´s worked with them during the week he will give them a different assessment to measure the depth of their learning.
     Assessments are powerful. They guide us. They inform us. They are not, however, why we teach. We should not be teaching so students can take a test at the end. We should instead be teaching so students meet the learning goals. If a student doesn´t do well on a test, we shouldn´t stop there. Failure should not be an option. Instead, we should plan further action. What will we do next? What steps will we do to ensure our students succeed? You see, that is the power of assessments.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Active Research on Character Education in the Classroom

This sumer I took a MOOC course on teaching character strengths in the classroom. I also participated in a Facebook group that corresponded with the course. As a group we decided we really want to continue our group and continue to learn more about how to implement character education in the classroom. As such, we decided to do a little active research in our own classrooms since a lot of what we have learned is not really well known (like how do you teach students to be more gritty). I am so excited about this active research project that lies in our near future. I am announcing this here because in a few days the course will be officially finished and I will open up our Facebook group to the world and invite all of you to join us. So, anyone who is interested in teaching character education and, specifically, researching ways to improve grit in our students, then please follow me there. I will be including more specific information on this later this week.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

iPads for Intervention

     As I have already mentioned in my blog, my grade-level team was granted iPads for this coming school year. Our challenge is to use it to enhance both teaching and learning. This challenge has been ever-present in my mind this summer. Now that the new school year looms closer than ever, it´s time to make our team´s ideas more concrete. My team and I are focusing on literacy with iPads, but this does not mean we won´t use our iPads in other ways (we´d be silly not to, right?). I think I briefly mentioned the idea of using iPads as a means of intervention, but this was a passing thought (and, I think, a good one!). It was a thought that lacked flesh on its bones. I recently watched a TED Talk about MOOCS and the need to change the way we teach. As I watched this TED Talk I felt guilty (why? I´m not really sure...perhaps I internalized our inability to change in this informational age and took it as a personal failure). It brought the challenge of the iPads in our classroom back to the front of the mind. Not only that, it made the challenge even more pressing and urgent. I teach very young children so it is still critical that my students do many things traditionally like read with real books and write using paper and pencil. However, this doesn´t mean that everything has to be kept traditional. I then went back to my idea about intervention. It was time to really think about this idea in more detail. My school already has its teachers spending some of their school time providing intervention. What if we use iPads to help deliver the intervention? Let´s say math, for example. Students who need a reteaching lesson could be grouped together to watch a reteaching lesson on the iPad and then do some follow up work. This could be done while other students (students who are moving through the lesson smoothly) are working on something else. Obviously this speaks to the idea that the same can be done for enrichment, but I´m trying to fine-tune this one idea, so I won´t touch enrichment quite yet. A teacher could pre-record a reteaching lesson (there are several apps available for making videos) to be watched by the intervention group. That same video could be used for students across the grade-level (not just in the one class) meaning more students could potentionally be reached. At my school teachers actually intervene with another teacher´s class, so if I created a video the teacher who works with my intervention group could be in charge of presenting the video and running the follow-up activity. The lesson could be stored to use for future use and future classes. Those who are lucky to have TAs, TAs could also be the ones in charge of the video. These are my thoughts for now, but I am sharing them (even if they aren´t fully fleshed out quite yet) with you in case you find yourself with a similar challenge.

Do you use iPads for intervention in your own classroom? I would love to hear what you all do and what you suggest.

Starting Strong: 6 Things to Keep in Mind as You Begin the New School Year

         The beginning of the school year is such a special time of year. Teachers excitedly get their classrooms set up, organized and d...