“I Don’t Want To Go To School!”

My #oneword for 2015 is uncomfortable, and this blog post is a challenging one to write because it makes me feel very uncomfortable. I’m worried about how the comments might make me feel about my classroom practices, but I also feel like I need to hear these opinions. This is something that matters to me, and it’s something that bothers me a lot: student absences.

As many of you know, I moved schools this year. I actually moved back to teaching at a school not far from one of the first schools that I taught at in the Board, almost 14 years ago. Back then, I always had lots of students away. I taught Kindergarten, and my lowest number of absences was 30. One student was away for almost 100 days. These high numbers of absences weren’t unheard of at this school, and maybe in my first year of teaching, when I often felt like I was just trying to stay afloat, I never took these absences to heart. But I do now. And once again, my daily student absences are very high.

I know that there are many reasons that students are away.

  • Sometimes it’s illness.
  • Sometimes it’s a family emergency.
  • Sometimes it’s for a vacation.
  • Sometimes it’s a bereavement day.
  • Sometimes it’s weather-related.

But sometimes it’s because the child just doesn’t want to come to school, and it’s those times that keep me up at night. It’s those times that give me a lump in my throat and make me swallow back the tears. It’s those times that make me question, what can I do differently?

My problem is that I strongly believe that students should want to come to school. They should love their time there. School should be an exciting place to think, learn, problem solve, and “do.” I really try to work with the students to create this kind of school environment. If students articulate that they’re “bored,” then I listen to them. I try to find out more about what they mean, and what would make a difference for them. And then together, we try to make this difference. I know that I’m not perfect. I make mistakes daily, and I try to learn from these mistakes. But one area that I was confident that I wasn’t making a mistake in was creating an engaging classroom where students would want to be. Listening and observing the students each day make me believe that this is true. Is it true for everyone though? What about those students that aren’t coming?

This is not about all of those times when illnesses or extenuating circumstances keep children at home. It’s about those times when students say that they “just don’t want to come.” Those times happen — way more frequently than I’d like — and it makes me sad. And I want to be able to change things, but I don’t know what to change. I’ve asked these students to try and find out more information, but I’m not getting an explanation. So now I’m blogging in an attempt to look for some help.

This post is not about placing blame. It’s not about me trying to force students to come to school or question why they’re allowed to stay home. It’s about me trying to make positive changes so that they want to come. The bottom line is: I love school. I’m thrilled to get to come and teach every day, and I always have fun in the classroom. My students make me happy. Learning makes me happy. School makes me happy. School brings me joy. How do you help students experience this same joy? How do you respond if they aren’t? I’d love to hear from everybody on this topic! If you have a suggestion, I’ll listen. I know that high levels of absences aren’t uncommon at my school, but if there’s something I can do to change this, I want to make this change. What can I do? What would you do?

Aviva

Think, And Then, Do!

My nephew goes to school in the States. He’s in Grade 1 right now, and he loves to tell my family, all the time, about his class. One of his favourite sayings to repeat is to, “Think, and then, do.” In the context in which he shares this saying, it’s clear that it’s meant in terms of having students “think first” before “acting” to avoid possible classroom problems. I like to think of this phrase in another context though: give students a chance to “think” and then “do” (or solve problems/find solutions) in their continual effort to learn.

I thought a lot about this saying today as I observed and interacted with students learning. It started this morning, as a group of students were working together on our February Calendar to add important dates. One student looked over at Saturday and said to the students he was working with, “Is this a home day?” When they determined that it was, he went over to the schedule board and grabbed one of the cards. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing, until I saw that he took the word, “home.” That’s when I asked him, “If we’re going to write, ‘home day,’ how could we spell the second word?” He looked up at the days of the week, and with his group members, found the word, “day.” After he wrote, “home day,” on all of the Saturdays, he figured out that he also needed to add these words to all of the Sundays.

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This was the same group of students that also figured out that they could take the schedule card off of the board to write in Mrs. Ritter’s name for the days that we have Health. When the year began, the students were constantly looking at me to spell the words and answer the questions. Now they’ve learned how to problem solve on their own and support each other. They are “thinking” and then “doing.”

The calendar provocation resulted in a lot of “thinking” and “doing” today. A small group of students decided to add information to our yearly calendar. It was difficult working in such a small space, and sometimes, the students got mixed up on the dates. I was thrilled when I walked over to the table today, and one student told me this.

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She figured out the solution all on her own, and helped correct the errors so that the calendar was accurate. This is another example of “thinking” and “doing” success.

And then came our time this afternoon in the Fitness Room, as students worked together to use their bodies to create structures. We were exploring the concept of stability, and looking at how we could use ourselves to make stable structures, but without leaving the floor (i.e., there was no cheerleading pyramid for today). Students developed plans on how to do this, and their plans met with various degrees of success. I’ll admit that as I listened to their ideas, I already had thoughts of my own for how to modify them, but I resisted the urge to interrupt (at least most of the time :) ), and let them work through the solutions together. Then after experiencing and problem solving their way through various structure options, we made connections to the designs of real structures.

This should say, "make," instead of "mark."

This should say, “make,” instead of “mark.”

“Thinking” and “doing” helped students understand concepts, work through problems together, and create meaning for themselves.

Watching this “thinking” and “doing” in action though, helped create meaning for me.

  • It showed me what students understand.
  • It showed me what strategies they use.
  • It showed me how they interact and collaborate with each other.
  • It showed me how they work independently.
  • It showed me how they problem solve, and the thinking behind their solutions.
  • It showed me what they don’t understand, and what we need to do next.

As educators, we need time to watch our students. We need time to listen to our students. And we need to know what to watch and listen for, so that we can support our students more as we plan ahead. How do you give your students a chance to “think” and “do?” How do you observe and support them during the process? How do you resist the urge to do the thinking for them? I think that “thinking” and “doing” is something that we can support at home and in the classroom, and I’d love to hear more about your “thinking” and “doing” experiences!

Aviva

Let Me Tell You A Story

Let me tell you a story. It started with the fact that I’m a planner. Yes, I’m constantly changing my plans. Yes, at times I wonder why I bother planning ahead, but I think that I feel better knowing that I have some ideas, even if they constantly change. And so, at the end of last week, when I realized that The Hundredth Day was coming up, I needed to start thinking (and planning).

I shared my questions. I shared my thinking. I shared my plans. And then a wonderful thing happened. My story with my questions and my thinking quickly became “our story.” Comments appeared on the post. Tweets came through. A fellow educator even blogged her thinking. Every thought, every question, and every plan shared, made me reconsider my story. My plans altered, and continue to alter, thanks to your additions.

What may have started off as good became better because of you. This whole experience makes me think of Dean Shareski‘s talk at The HWDSB Principals’ Conference on Thursday. Now I wasn’t at the conference, so my whole understanding of what he shared is through the tweets and blog posts (here and here) that I saw. All of these speak about the power of storytelling. When I blog, I tell a story. When I tweet, I also tell a story (usually numerous short ones :) ). And when people respond with a comment on the post or a tweet in reply, they add to this story. As seen from my 100th Day post, they also make this story better.

Thinking about storytelling, and more so, thinking about that storytelling that happens through social media, makes me wonder about those people that don’t share online. How are their stories told? How do they add to the stories of others? How do they experience the joy of “communal storytelling?” Regardless of your role in education, I’d love to hear the impact that storytelling has had on your “teaching” and “learning” experiences. How do you “tell” stories? How do you let others share theirs? How do you learn from each other? Let’s create a new “story” together!

Aviva

Getting Uncomfortable … Again!

I love the 100th Day of School! I’ve always loved this day. Teaching junior grades for the past couple of years has meant that I haven’t been able to celebrate this special day that seems to take place in all Kindergarten and Grade 1 classes — and sometimes even some grades past that. Having just finished the 90th day of school, I know that the 100th day is happening very soon (on February 6th), and just the other day, I started to think about our celebration. This is when I got very “uncomfortable.”

Here’s the problem: I started to question why we celebrate this day. I know the connections to math, but practising counting is something that we’ve done all year long. Plus, many of the activity choices that I’ve considered before are not meaningful ones, so the skill development is there, but without the thinking and application. I also have many students in my class that are working on counting to numbers other than 100: either beyond the number because of their understanding of patterning, or less than the number because of other needs.

This thinking got me wondering why do we count down to a day? What are some days that I’ve counted down to before? I couldn’t help but think of Kristi Keery-Bishop‘s tweet from yesterday:

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I need to make this learning “real.” And that’s when I thought that the reason that I usually count down to a day is to “celebrate.” But in this case, celebrate what? We could have a party to celebrate the number 100, and then play games and do activities as part of this celebration, but how will this celebration help me meet multiple student needs? How will this celebration incorporate Language and Math, while also providing “voice” and “choice” that I believe are so important? And how will this celebration get my students thinking — really thinking – and solving problems along the way? How will I also provide an authentic audience and “real reason” for their work? 

That’s when it came to me. We can celebrate our 100 Days of Learning, by having students create something to show what they’ve learned in these 100 days of school. They don’t have to share everything they’ve learned. They need to pick something, in any subject area that interests them. There also needs to be a Language and a Math component (especially number sense) that ties into what they make. This number sense component can vary depending on students and their needs. For those children that need additional practice of skills, I can continue to work with them on this day … and on other days too. So it’s with all of this in mind, that I began to create this 100 Days of Learning Innovation Day/Maker-Ed Challenge. Here’s my thinking in my Explain Everything Screencast that I made early this morning.

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I just realized that the 100th Day of School is also a Friday, which means that it’s Family Fridays. Parents are invited in to join us at the end of the day to learn along with us. On this Friday, parents can be the audience for our work. They can ask us questions about our learning and celebrate in what we share. Students can also go around and see what their peers made, and hear more of the thinking behind what they created.

Reconsidering the 100th day has been hard for me, but the more that I think aloud, the more that I believe that it’s what’s right for my class. How do you celebrate the 100th day of school? How do you make this learning meaningful? Why do you make these choices? I’d love to hear more about your thinking, as I further contemplate a very different plan than I’ve ever had before.

Aviva

We Don’t Need To Use Them, Even If They’re There!

This morning, I saw a tweet from HJ DeWaard: a teacher that I love learning with and from on Twitter.

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The moment I read the blog post, I knew what I would be writing about tonight. The truth is, in some regards, I think that the author, Beth K. Johnson, is right.

  • Worksheets do populate the web. 
  • They are used regularly: by many teachers, in many different classrooms, for many different reasons. 
  • I’ve worked in six schools before — most with large amounts of access to technology — and I still think, in many ways, worksheets have trumped technology use at most, if not all, of the schools. I know because I’ve been that teacher. I’ve probably killed a large forest with all of the worksheets that I’ve photocopied over the years … and all with the best of intentions. 
  • Often teachers do use technology for different purposes than worksheets: one is for reviewing facts, and one is for applying learning. This is seen as a balanced approach. 

What’s the problem then? I think my day today says it all. Our school is working on developing phonemic awareness skills in our youngest learners to help with their reading skills. There are lots of worksheet options for phonemic awareness. There are also lots of games/activities from wonderful programs that help with developing these skills. I haven’t used the worksheet options, but I have used the games/activities, and maybe they’re not much different. But then today happened

Some of my students are working on reading nonsense words. At a meeting the other day, one suggestion for developing this skill was to play with silly rhymes aloud in class. I decided to give this a try. As we were substituting sounds in some oral rhymes (e.g., Start with mat, now instead of an “m” say a “z.” What’s the word? Zat.), I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Seuss. His books are full of nonsense rhymes. A conversation after school with our LLI teacher had me putting out There’s A Wocket In My Pocket, as a provocation for creating silly rhymes … and hopefully, sentences and stories. Students loved this! They were making silly rhymes on the iPad, on the SMART Board, and on tons of different paper options. A few students were even writing and reading some rhyming stories (some of which contained and some of which did not contain nonsense words). 

Then one group of students that were playing with lots of silly rhymes (seen in the first video below), saw a few students working with the alphabet on the floor, and they decided that they were going to write The Alphabet Song. They started with a letter other than “A” though. That’s when I suggested that they write their own Alphabet Song. These students tried a couple of different options. The best part is hearing the corrections that they make to the song and why. These students understand rhyming, and while they’re not making silly rhymes at the time, they’re thinking about how rhyming works and making this learning meaningfulNext week, I can start my own Silly Rhyming Song, and see where this provocation takes this group. 

Now, let’s move forward a bit in our day until just after the nutrition break. It was time for a transition, so why not play a quick game to help with this? My students love Simon Says, so we played the game, but with different phonemic awareness skills built in. Listen to the students as they think through the different possible answers. 

In all of these cases, worksheets may have allowed for the practice of the same skills, BUT …

  • Would they have provided a meaningful context?
  • Would they have provided opportunities for extending learning?
  • Would they have been differentiated to meet different student needs?
  • Would they have moved beyond knowledge and understanding to thinking, communication, and application?
  • Would they have allowed for student voice and choice?
  • Would they have been as engaging?

Worksheets may always be readily available, be it online or in schools. But maybe if we begin to question their use and show other options, they’ll remain unused. I don’t think it matters if worksheets are replaced with technology, but I do think it matters that they begin to be replaced … with options that allow for more meaningful learning, critical thinking, and engagement. Maybe No Worksheet Week is the place to start. What do you think? What role do worksheets play in your classroom? Are they worth replacing? Why? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

Aviva

What Teaching Means To Me: EVERYTHING!

Very early this morning when I probably should have been sleeping but couldn’t, I decided to read one of Jonathan So‘s recent blog posts. Jonathan is an amazing Grade 2 teacher in the Peel Board, and somebody that I’m lucky to learn from online — and even occasionally – in person. In this post, Jonathan tells about how he got into teaching, but he also asks some great questions, including, “What does teaching mean to you?” This is the question that got me thinking.

In some ways, the answer to this question is easy. Teaching for me means making a difference for kids.

  • It means helping all students succeed.
  • It means allowing them to pursue their passions, and supporting them along the way.
  • It means giving students ownership over their learning.
  • It means helping students wants to learn.
  • It means giving students a reason to want to come to school each day, and having them leave just excited as when they arrived.

Teaching is everything to me! Yes, I have a personal life. I have family. I have friends. I have my own interests outside of the classroom, and I pursue them. But, when I drive home from school and blast the radio in the car, I also think about my students. I think about our day.

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t?
  • What can I do better tomorrow? How will this make a difference?

My students are in my head at dinnertime. They’re often what wakes me up in the middle of the night (besides my barking dogs :) ). They’re the ones that I think about as I read the paper at breakfast time, and talk through in my head my mini-lesson for Writer’s Workshop. They’re “there with me,” as I drive to school, and prepare for a new day. How can I make this day a success?

Because my 17 students are so very much the reason I teach, they’re also the reason that I constantly question myself.

  • They’re the reason that I reconsider my practices.
  • They’re the reason that I make some very uncomfortable choices (as I believe that these choices will make a difference for them).
  • They’re the reason that any low score (from Dibels to DRA) and any misunderstood concept, makes me wonder if I could be doing something better. Something different. Something more likely to help them succeed.

I know that I’m a good teacher. I know that what I do in the classroom matters. But I also know that nobody’s perfect, and when we improve, our students benefit. So this also means that to make a difference for kids, I need to remember that “good” can always be “better.” I need to be open to new ideas. I need to work with teams: both online and in-person. I need to plan, act, assess, reflect, and try again. I need to make each day matter for students because the students matter: they’re what teaching means to meWhat does teaching mean to you?

Aviva

No Worksheet Week … Who’s In?

Today I saw a tweet from Tony Sinanis: the principal at Cantiague Elementary School in New York City. I’ve never met Tony before, but I just love learning from him online. He’s devoted. He’s passionate. He’s incredibly student-centred. He likes to inspire change, and he inspires me to want to change. He’s definitely someone in my PLN that I would love to meet in person one day, and I really hope that I do. And it’s because of everything that Tony does and embodies, that I not only want to do his challenge, but challenge others to do so as well!

2015-01-20_19-42-08Here’s the truth: for me, this year, this challenge has been my “every day.” This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, this is the first year that I could make this comment. I’m not sure what really inspired me to change.

  • Maybe it’s because it’s hard to align inquiry and worksheets, and we continue to passionately explore inquiry in the classroom.
  • Maybe it’s because I haven’t found a good way to really differentiate with the use of a worksheet.
  • Maybe it’s because I still haven’t quite figured out the “box of paper system” at my new school :) (see this post for more information), and this has forced me to keep questioning first why I need to photocopy. After asking the question, I end up convincing myself it’s not necessary.

Now, I’m not saying that everything we photocopy is a worksheet. And I’m not saying that there aren’t good materials that are worth photocopying and distributing to kids. I’m just saying that in my opinion (and please know that you don’t have to agree with me), maybe the same activity for every child is rarely necessary. Maybe what could be accomplished by a worksheet, could also accomplished without one, but in this latter case, allowing for extensions, greater thinking opportunities, more hands-on learning, and multiple ways to show thinking and learning. (Another important point to consider: worksheets can also be just as easily shared and completed in digital formats, and I think we should reconsider these ones as well.)

I know that my feelings about worksheets and the fact that I don’t use them now will make this challenge a little less challenging for me. But I think that no matter where we stand on the worksheet continuum (from rare use to all-the-time use), we should support Tony’s challenge. Why?

  • Because it’s when we’re uncomfortable that we can really grow. Thanks for sharing these wise words, Sue!
  • Because even if we rarely use worksheets now, we can always learn new ways to improve our practices. Learning never stops!
  • Because this provides a great opportunity to try something different, and share these different approaches with a global community: through Twitter and through blogs. We’ll all be in this together!
  • Because we can learn so much from each other. As we reconsider worksheets, we can share, question, and revise our new approaches together. We’re not in this alone.
  • Because this provides the perfect opportunity for “voice” and “choice.” We can let the students help us come up with alternatives. We can give them a bigger role in the  planning and learning, and see what happens. I think it will be something wonderful!
  • Because it’s one week, and if it doesn’t work, we can always go back to our worksheets. But maybe we’ll find that we don’t need to, or at least don’t need to in the way that we used them before. Every journey begins with a single step. Let’s be brave and take this step.

Who’s in? Why do you plan on doing this challenge, or why do you plan not to? If you do plan on partaking, how do you plan on making it work? Hopefully we can learn a lot from each other before the challenge even begins on Monday! Thanks for the inspiration, Tony!

Aviva