Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How do we grant this wish?

 The day before the snowstorm I was working one on one with an upper grade student. I was challenging him through the type of work I was giving him and in return he would frequently give me dramatic, "You are killing me! I'll never survive" quotes. Despite his complaints I could see his effort coming through. He shouldn't have been able to perform as well as he was- and yet he was working extremely hard to get answer my questions. Of course, he was frantically trying to hide all of his academic struggle behind his overly dramatic expression of how I was the meanest teacher ever.
As we neared the end and I was packing up my things he said, "If I could have any super power do you know what it would be?"
"What?" I replied, barely paying attention because I was sure it would be to fly away from me and/or school itself. Or maybe become the Hulk and then really show me what he thought of my assignments.
"To read. I want to be able to read anything!" He proclaimed the words with the same romantic longing as I might say I want to fly anywhere in the world. As though he believed it wouldn't be possible to achieve but he wanted to dream anyway.
"A lot of kids have that superpower," he went on. "I don't know why I don't. I can't even read easy books. I try but they are too hard for me."

What do you say to that? How do you reply? 

That superpower wish has haunted me for a week now. This child's deep desire to read (read everything!). This is why I got into special education- to help children find the super powers hidden inside them. On paper he is a child we could find excuses for why he's not achieving. We can shake our heads, say isn't it a shame he's not on grade level, and just move on. But we can't. It's our job to give our students the super power of reading. It's what we've been hired to do. So now we need to figure out how to get him there.

So how do we help him realize what he can do and give him the skills to do it? How do we give him a boost up and help him overcome some his innate struggles?  What can we do that hasn't already been done? I know we can get him there. Now we just need to figure out how.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

6 Steps to Fighting the Teacher Winter Blues

It's January. Winter break is over and spring break seems so far away. It's cold, cloudy, and gets dark early. If you live where I do snow days do not even seem to be in our future. Mid-year testing is starting and we all want the kids to be further along than they are, but we do not necessarily have the time to get them there. The flu or equally rough illnesses are going around, which create unpredictable attendance issues and an increase of substitutes in the building.It's a bleak time of year.

This is the time of year we can get discouraged. It's usually the time of year I start browsing job adds, wondering if there is some magical job out there that won't require me to make sub plans at 10pm when my daughter is throwing up in the next room. The biggest problem with this time of year though, is that if we aren't careful we can take it out on our kids and our coworkers. I'm guilty of this myself. I've taken today to hole up in a coffee shop- away from my family and my home responsibilities to clear my head, get some work done, but most importantly, to try to come up with my plan to fight these mid-winter blues.

1) Find one thing every day to look forward to teaching.

We got into this job to teach. Not to do paperwork, go to meetings, or enter scores into a computer. Those are part of the job we can't escape, but we can keep our focus on what drives us forward. Every morning there should be something we can identify as what we'll enjoy doing or teaching that day. Maybe it's a just sharing a favorite read aloud, introducing a new math strategy, or using that smartboard we spent a lot of time making.

For me, it's usually finding some new way to present the material. If I get into a rut- even if it is a rut that delivers good instruction- I find myself getting depressed with the job. Sure, I know how to run a good reading group and can get results by doing what I've always done- but that doesn't keep me energized or excited. I need to try new strategies, add a twist to what I'm doing, or learn about a new educational theory that can change how I look at my students' learning. Often in the stress of everything else this is the first aspect of my job to go. I have to hold myself accountable to keep the energy and excitement in the job. If I don't bring the excitement and intellectual curiosity the kids certainly aren't going to bring it.

2) Smile and say, "Good Morning" even when you don't mean it.

To everyone. The kids. The parents. Our coworkers. The custodians. Sure there is freezing rain, you stepped in a puddle when you got out of your car because you had to park in a different parking space than normal, your running late to a meeting you are dreading, and you have a stack of paperwork that will keep you up late into the night. You don't have to be emotionally dishonest and tell people you are having a great day, but you can smile. Make people think you are happy to see them. Tell them the puddle story and laugh about it. Take a moment to listen to their rough morning as well. Commiserate. Then smile about it.

3) Remember it is January for everyone.

So often when we get stressed with our own work we become hyper critical of those around us. We start thinking we could do a better job if our teammate did a better job. We stop being flexible with each other and start looking for ways to criticize each other. It is far easier to look inside someone else's classroom and label what they are doing wrong than to take the time to fix issues in our own classroom. This only creates distrust and resentment and does nothing to move ourselves forward. Plus, spending energy worrying about what other people are doing wrong takes energy away from improving what we can do right.

4) Let mistakes be mistakes.

This is what I am most guilty of- dwelling on my own mistakes. We all make them. Every day. We make them in September and in June. We make them with kids and with our colleagues. We make them with parents. As much as we try to be perfect we can't. We have to accept that. Not every lesson will be perfect. Not every statement we contribute in a meeting will be intelligent, and not every piece of paperwork will be done error-free. That is OK. Mistakes do not change our worth as teachers. One bad lesson does not mean we should not teach. One silly observation in a meeting does not mean we should stop contributing. If we look at mistakes as a part of life we can simply move on, ready for the next challenge.We also need to apply this to our colleagues. Repeating a co-workers mistake to everyone we see only undermines our work as a team. If our teammates feel that they cannot take risks because the team will dwell on a mistake, or worse- gossip about it later- the team will absolutely not grow.

5) Ask ourselves, 'Does this need to be said right now?'

Before complaining about something ask yourself if it needs to be said in this moment. Sure I am frustrated with this kid's behavior, but there are ten people in this meeting. Can I keep it professional now and then vent to one close friend later? Do I really need to share my thoughts on a coworker's poor lesson, or can I let it go? How can I turn what I am about to say into a professional statement that will help everyone here grow? Is what I am about to say going to negatively change how people view a student or a colleague? If so, is there any good in saying it?

6) Celebrate

Celebrate everything. Celebrate that Johnny did not pick his nose during the lesson, or that Sarah did not forget all of her high frequency words over break. Celebrate that you did not leave the room screaming when George asked to go to the bathroom for the 100th time. Annie identified one more letter than she did yesterday. Karen did not tell you she hated test prep during this week's lesson. That book you picked for guided reading- yeah, it was just one guided reading group- but it rocked. Good book choice. Way to tell Ben you noticed he was raising his hand more. That read aloud was amazing- those voice you did- the kids hung on every word. What's more- I noticed Ricky smiling when he saw you this morning. He hasn't smiled all year. You are doing amazing work.

So, in short- my resolutions for now are-

1) Get excited about ONE thing every day. 2) Smile more. 3) Be understanding of everyone. 4) Including myself. Be nice to myself. 5) Keep my negative thoughts in my own head and 6) Celebrate the *** out of every single tiny step forward.  7) Repeat. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Test Prep Frustrations

On most days of the week I pull my fifth grade reading group for guided reading- we sit down with a book, read it and talk about it. We often examine open-ended questions like how the characters changed, or what they learned. There is independent writing about the text but it is often tied together with a discussion. I even sneak grammar questions in, but since it is all around one fairly motivating text these tasks seem easily swallowed. The group is lively and I really enjoy working with them- and I believe the feeling is mutual.

Except on Fridays.

On Fridays we have test prep instead of straight guided reading. We work on a passage like one they will see on the May SOL test and answer the multiple choice questions. It isn't quite as enjoyable. This past Friday I found myself fighting back tears right along with them. One fifth grade student even crawled under the table and announced, "This is why I HATE Fridays! I hate test prep!" I don't blame her. I hate it too.

Their ability to discuss a book seems to stop cold when they are presented with four answer choices. They freeze. One is often stumped by vocabulary she hasn't learned in the year she has been in the country, and another could write an essay on why each of the four answer choices are correct- and the logic is usually just close enough that it is hard to reason with.* 

We wade through each question as I silently attempt to identify what test prep skills are missing so I can sneak them into my guided reading group during the week. 

I want these students to pass. They work so hard every day that they deserve to pass the end of year test. Let me re-phrase that- they deserve to have the knowledge and ability to pass the test. I want them to be able to sit down with that beast of a test in May and confidently answer the questions because we have prepared them for it all year. I'm their teacher- it's my job to give them that skill, isn't it? I don't want to throw up my hands and scream the test is unfair, and I don't want to give excuses for why these three may not pass. I want every moment of our blood, sweat, and tears throughout the year to pay off.

Yet on Fridays I often sit back and wonder what we are doing. If we can discuss a text during the week, find deeper meaning, identify vocabulary based on context clues, and analyze the author's message, then why are Friday's so tough? Are we learning how to be meaningful readers the rest of the week and Fridays we are only focused on passing an arbitrary test? Or do Fridays serve to keep me honest- bringing me back to earth about my students' progress? They do help me identify the holes in my student's learning so I know what to teach during the week. Yet they also can disillusion all four of us if we aren't careful.

For awhile as an educator I screamed about the uselessness of the standardized tests. Yet my voice became hoarse and no one listened. These days I'm more focused on the students in front of me- if this is how we are going to play the game then I want to give them the best opportunity to do so. What skills do they need in order to succeed with these current educational expectations? What needs to happen differently? 

Friday afternoons haunt me into the weekend as I find myself replaying their frustration in my mind. We spend the week enjoying reading and then end the week with thirty minutes of biting pencils, sighing loudly, and desperately trying to solve the mystery of how to answer standardized test questions. I have no answers, or no thoughtful conclusions to this. Just a sense of frustration and failure as a teacher.

*I was one of these test takers. I know what it is like to read four choices and be able to argue each choice, to the point you lose the ability to identify the 'best' choice. Best in whose standards?