Fist Bump Victory

It’s a busy time of year again. The kids are back at school. We are in a cooperative elementary program, which means that I am back to school too, volunteering in their classrooms each week. This beginning is made even busier by the fact that we are moving next month. It’s very exciting but also bittersweet as the kids will be changing schools. Knowing that we’re leaving makes me reflect on how far some of the kids in the class have come since I met them years ago. I remember walking into my daughter’s class and realizing right away that one boy in particular was quite a handful. Most days he was totally checked out of the lesson and tried everything he could to distract the kids around him. Adults approached him and he would find the quickest way to offend them or scare them off with little regard for the consequences. In other words, he was on my radar.

One thing I’ve learned working with kids is that the toughest ones to like are the ones who need positive attention the most and he was no exception. His mom told me that she and her husband had adopted him just a couple of years ago after he was in foster care. When he was 2 years old, his mother overdosed in her bed, leaving him in the house with her body for days until he was finally discovered. Can you imagine what that does to a child? For this boy, it meant being unable to adjust to change. His day was shot if there was a substitute, a field trip, an assembly, a fire drill, or anything else that broke the routine. His mother died right before Christmas so the holidays are painful for him. Once on a field trip to the arboretum he realized his mother had taken him there before she died and he couldn’t recover for the rest of the day. It’s a minor miracle that such a great family adopted him and that he functions so well so much of the time.

I think the co-op program is a perfect fit for him. It’s great that he has a parade of adults who interact with him and build him up. Week by week I work with him as I would any other student. I set expectations and follow through with consequences when necessary. I also look him in the eye and ask his thoughts and feelings about what we study. I choose him as my helper and offer him leadership opportunities. I play with him and we joke. Today I wandered the room and greeted each student. When I came to him, we gave each other a goofy look and he showed me the screen of his computer. He pointed to a tiny speck on a screensaver of a street in Paris at night, said “slug bug” and bumped his fist into my hand. It seems so small but what a gesture for him. It really filled me up all day. After years of effort and positive interactions, he focuses so much better now and wants to do well. It’s a beautiful thing to get to see.

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Little Geologists

This is Chris. He and I co-teach science in 1st grade at my kids’ school. We are a part of a cooperative elementary in which parents lead lessons and teach the kids in addition to having a full-time classroom teacher. There are many benefits to cooperative learning. For one, it is a great way to ensure the kids are exposed to different subjects that there may not be time for in a regular classroom with just one educator.

Chris loves having his picture taken. Can you tell?

Chris loves having his picture taken. Can you tell?

We’ve been studying rocks and soil since the beginning of the year. When we started in October, it took Chris and I 20 minutes each lesson just to get the kids seated and listening in order to teach anything.

We’ve come a long way!

One of the best parts about teaching science is that it is always hands-on. Each week the kids have learned not only the dirt on dirt, but how to use scientific equipment to study it. Our little geologists are now quite the earth material experts. They team up well, listen and follow directions, know how to make good seating choices on their own, and understand the importance of contributing pertinent information and valuable observations. Not only that, they are awesome at identifying soil components like pebbles, gravel, silt, clay, and humus. They sort the soil like pros too! Today was the final lesson in the unit so we took the kids outside to apply their knowledge. It is always rewarding to see kids making learning connections.

Here is a glimpse into my school life:

The One World School House

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It’s about time I post something education-related. I thoroughly enjoyed Salman Khan’s book. In it, he lays out his reasoning and vision for education in the future. He discusses how the current system fails to meet the educational needs today and what we can do make education free, world-class, accessible and useful for everyone.

Kahn illustrates how our Prussian-born education model, a system based on regimentation and that’s soul purpose was to supply a labor force, ignores our modern need for creativity, entrepreneurship, optimism, and initiative. He believes that currently we are teaching topics in a disconnected way, making it difficult for students to fully master them. He asserts that we place too much weight on standardized tests and don’t pay enough attention to different thinkers. He also points out our society’s failure to see math, science, and engineering as creative subjects, which limit their approachability and appeal.

His vision is exciting. He suggests that students learn subjects to mastery level, thus nullifying the need for letter grades. He believes students should learn, test, and retest until a topic is fully understood. Kids should advance at their own pace. This provides solid building blocks for learning more advanced subjects. In his research, he also discovered that there is much more value in less homework. Instead, self-esteem and values flourish when families spend time simply discussing and exchanging ideas. There would be no class lectures but rather teachers and students learning alongside each other, seldom all doing the same thing. His ideal classroom looks more like a beehive than a library. Kids would spend 20% of their class time doing Kahn Academy lessons and the rest of class in peer-discussion and problem solving. He suggests that instead of a traditional 1 to 30 teacher/student ratio, that classrooms be large and open with up to 75 students and 3 to 4 teachers. There will be nooks for quiet study but the classroom would otherwise be bustling. And grade levels wouldn’t be segregated by age either, but by skill level. By the time a student leaves his program, they would build a multi-year narrative of how they learned and a portfolio of creative work (including science and engineering work). This provides a much more well-rounded view of a student/future employee.

I love all of this.

He also proposes these same ideas for college-age students. While keeping colleges on campuses away from home, he suggests a few key changes. Instead of staffing colleges with professors who would rather be researching or publishing, he suggests hiring retired or practicing scientists, engineers, investors and executives – people excited about teaching and learning. He also proposes that students work not one but up to six internships in order to graduate. This gives the student skills and development as well as a potential job after college and maybe income in the meantime. Internships also provide employers with more information about their potential employee than just a GPA and list of extracurriculars.

In his pilot programs, he has seen huge success, especially in low-income kids who were phased out by track systems early and never retested. Using Kahn Academy and his model of testing to mastery at one’s own pace, these same kids operated at the same and sometimes higher comprehension levels than their tracked peers. He also discussed briefly just how simply the required technology could be to distribute and install in countries lacking means and hardware.

His ideas are simple and straight-forward. I don’t know how it would impact countries other than the United States, but I think it’s a great alternative to what we are using today. If schools adopted at least some of these ideas, I am almost certain kids who don’t currently have opportunities would be allowed to thrive. Nowadays we need as many innovators as we can get and a person’s potential shouldn’t be limited by an outdated system.

Thanks so much for reading! Hope I didn’t spoil the book.

A Beginning Teacher’s Bible

As a brand new teacher of course I felt unprepared for a classroom of my own. I took all the right courses and set up my very first classroom but felt really green when it came to classroom management.  Classroom management is the process of ensuring good behavior from students.  I cannot stress to you how important this concept is to a productive learning environment. Establishing rules, routines, and procedures at the start of the year makes the teacher’s job easier, empowers the kids to positively contribute to the class, and offers a predictability that benefits everyone.  The best part about good classroom management is that if you start off strong, your classroom will ultimately manage itself with very little work from you.

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Conscious Classroom Management by Rick Smith is a fantastic resource that set me up for success. I reread it every summer in anticipation of a new school year.  The book is well-organized and broken down into three parts. The first part discusses who you are as a teacher. It helps you clearly define your role and standards. The second part is all about avoiding the common pitfalls of teaching and getting ready for the year. The third part gives the reader great strategies for when misbehavior results in a need for consequences.

My favorite items in the book are the lists Smith provides. I go through his “What Procedures Do We Need,” item by item when I am starting a new year. He also has a “Before-School Checklist” that is immensely helpful.