Dear Child …

Dear Child,

Today is the second day of Parent/Teacher interviews. It’s another chance for me to sit down and talk to your moms and dads about how you’re doing and where we need to go next. These are short meetings. They’re 15 minute opportunities for us to chat, and I can’t help but wonder what gets lost in such short talks. So today I write this note to you to share what I want to make sure you know at the end of these interviews.

I’m proud of you! You continue to do better. You are working hard. You are pushing yourself to do more, share more, and show me more of your incredible thinking. You’re showing me that school matters to you, and you’re coming in every morning with a smile on your face and an eagerness to learn. I love that!

You’re teaching me a lot! You are telling me about things that matter to you. You’re forcing me to think of new ways to make learning meaningful. You’re not afraid to tell me what you don’t understand, and you’re making me think of how I can help you understand more. You’re telling me when you’re interested, and you’re telling me when you’re not. Sometimes it’s hard to hear that you’re “bored.” But hearing this is making me think of new ways to excite you, and for that, I’m grateful!

You’re making me laugh a lot, and you’re making me truly love my time in the classroom! Changing schools was hard. I wanted the change, and I was excited by it, but at the same time, I was also scared. I didn’t know what to expect. Have you ever felt happy and scared at the same time? This was like me! But you quickly made that scared feeling go away. You quickly made me feel welcome in a wonderful school with a wonderful community. Every day, you tell me stories and engage in discussions that make me laugh so hard that my stomach hurts, and you just love to giggle along with me. It’s great that we can laugh together! You make me feel like the luckiest teacher in the world to be your teacher, and I honestly can’t ask for more!

I know that the Progress Report is short. I know that it’s full of many adult phrases and levels of progression. I know that it’s easy to focus in on those “marks”: progressing with difficulty, progressing well, or progressing very well. Please look beyond these levels. Look at what you can do now that you couldn’t do before.  Celebrate this growth! And think about what you may still want to continue to work on, and we’ll work on these goals together. Goals are good! And I know that you can meet these goals because you understand the value in hard work, and you will put forth the effort because it matters to you!

And so, on this last day of interviews, I say to you, “Thank you for letting me teach and learn with you! I’m excited for the many months to come.”

Yours Sincerely,

Miss Dunsiger

Greatest Strengths And Weaknesses

This morning, one of our Board’s superintendents, Sue Dunlop, tweeted me the link to her recent blog post. It’s rare for me to read a post where I feel as though the author is talking to me, but that’s what I felt when reading Sue’s post. Within a couple of minutes, I tweeted her back and said,

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I really applaud Sue for so openly sharing her greatest strength, and how it can also be, her greatest weakness. I love how she didn’t just write about this weakness, but wrote about what she does to continue to work on it (and improve). Sue’s inspired me to write a post on the same topic: a post that’s hard to write, but a post that I think I need to write too.

I think that my greatest strength is that I care deeply about kids, and I really want to do everything I can to ensure that ALL of them meet with success. Even almost 30 years later, I still remember when I was in Grade 2 and identified with a non-verbal learning disability. I remember that psychologist saying that due to the large gap and my many needs, I would probably always struggle in school and never make it through university. Even back then, I wanted to be a teacher, and based on her assessment, this was not going to be a possibility. I was devastated! But I had teachers and parents that didn’t give up on me. They helped me learn strategies to succeed. They taught me how to advocate for myself. They showed me that a “label” could be changed, and they helped me change that label. I wanted to be a teacher. I became a teacher. And I was — and still am — determined to be that teacher that tries to change those labels for other students.

My passion for student achievement though is attached to other strengths, but also, weaknesses. While doing what I can to help students, I meet with successes, but also failures. I tend to blog about both. For me, blogging is about reflecting (and I think that’s a good thing), but I wonder sometimes if in an attempt to discuss my beliefs, I also come across as implying that I know how to teach and learn best. I don’tYes, I know what works well for the students in my classroom, but all students are different. Teachers are different too. I might feel comfortable with trying something that others don’t. We may all deliver the same content, but not all in the same way, and that’s okay. I think that I need to more often go out of my way to engage in discussions and learn from those individuals that may teach differently. They still do all that they can for students. I know that I can learn a lot from people that I may not already be learning from. I can then take what I learned to better reach the students that need it.

To do this though, I need to address one of my other weaknesses: initiating conversations. You see: I do want to learn from new people, but this means that I need to take the first step. What if the discussions don’t go well? Will I become upset? That’s another problem: often my passion, leads to tears. I try to plan out exactly what I’m going to say (before I say it), so that I won’t cry. I try to anticipate what others might say, so that I’m prepared with the responses, and again, don’t cry. I try to walk away before the tears come, but what if I’m not successful? Here I am speaking about my greatest strength as my drive to increase student success, and yet, knowing that this strength often makes me question my own success (in one way or another). 

What are your greatest strengths, and how do they lead to some of your greatest weaknesses? How do you address these weaknesses? Thank you, Sue, for causing me to reflect tonight. I’m interested in hearing what others have to say about such an important topic!

Aviva

The Comments That I Can’t Ignore!

Comments: utterances on numerous topics. At any given time, in any given conversation, so many comments are made. These comments are often innocent, and yet many times, these words hold value. I’ve often been told before not to let words bother me. I’m getting better at this. But there are some comments that I can’t ignore.

  • Play-based learning isn’t working.
  • Students only need direct instruction.
  • Inquiry is just a phase.
  • Students don’t learn in this “new way.”

I know that everybody comes at teaching and learning from a different perspective. I know that all students are different, and what works for one child may not work for another one. I know that there’s value to many practices in moderation, and it’s hard to dismiss something entirely, when it might benefit some students at some point in time. I know that often our “ideal” is not a reality, and sometimes we need to adjust our teaching practices based on a variety of factors.

And yet, saying all of this, it still makes me feel sad to think that play-based and inquiry learning are just seen as “phases,” and that direct instruction (which for some reason seems to equate to blackline masters) is the only way to help students learn. Please don’t get me wrong: I do a lot of direct teaching. This is rarely full class teaching though: not all students need the same instruction at the same time. But I also encourage students to think, explore, and problem solve, and I’m glad that I do. Today definitely showed me that!

This afternoon, I shared this math problem with my students. I was amazed! At many times, plans didn’t work, but not one child gave up. Students modified their plans. They changed their materials. Some students even started again. And not once did a student come to me for help. They asked their friends or they worked through the problem on their own. Direct instruction can allow us to teach many skills, but play-based and inquiry learning is what teaches students to think, try, reflect, and try again. I want this for my students!

What do you want for your students (or as a parent, for your child), and what approaches allow them to achieve these goals? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

Aviva

Home/School Connections: Does The “School” Need To Be The “Teacher?”

It’s no secret that I’m passionate about home/school communication.

  • I complete a Daily Shoot blog post every day and email it out to parents.
  • I update our class blog at least once a week, and add a newsletter every month (to give an overview of the month).
  • I usually call parents every week to touch base, answer questions, and share important information.
  • I invite all parents into the classroom every Friday afternoon from 2:45-3:05 to share in our learning (read more about this here).
  • I talk to parents every morning when they drop their children off at school, and again, at night when they pick them up. 
  • Minus our new Friday classroom visits, these home/school connections are ones that I’ve maintained for my 14 years in teaching (across various grades from JK-Grade 6).

I don’t do these things because I’ve felt obligated to do so. I communicate with parents because I enjoy making these connections, and I believe that ultimately, they benefit students. I will never forget in the Faculty of Education when my Methods Professor said, “Parents give us the best that they have.” For parents, they really want what’s best for their child, and they know their child best. Talking to parents has helped me learn more about the children I teach and how I can help them the most. Not all parents want or need the same type of communication, and this is why I think various methods matter.

Our Positive School Climate/Parent and Student Engagement Consultant, Aaron Puley, helped me further think about parent engagement at one of our last speaking sessions. He mentioned that not all parents want to connect in the same way, so now I ask parents what they want. Many parents want me to phone them, but not all do. Most parents like emails, but some prefer paper copies of notes. Almost all parents like the quick opportunities to touch base in the morning or after school, but some would prefer a longer time to connect when it’s not quite so busy. I try to listen to what everyone wants, and I try to follow through. This often results in positive interactions with parents, and I think this matters.

And while I do strongly believe in the benefits of teachers connecting with parents, I also think that home/school connections can include students connecting with their parents. I thought of this more today when reading this blog post by a wonderful teacher and great friend, Jo-Ann Corbin-Harper. When reading Jo-Ann’s post, I can’t help but think about why parents might want to hear more from teachers. My guess is that they want to know how their child is doing and they want to be able to support their child more at home. Does this information need to come from teachers? Not necessarily. Students can tell parents how they’re doing. They can explain what they’re learning in class. They can even indicate their goals/next steps, so that parents can further support them at home. This doesn’t mean that teachers should never communicate with parents, but I wonder if this means that home/school connections can mean more than parent/teacher connections.

Self-reflection is so valuable for students of all ages. For my Grade 1’s, I think of the number of times that I’ve recorded these reflections in podcasts and videos, and I hope as the year goes on, more can be written down. Maybe the question prompts on the Daily Shoot Blog Posts allow for my young learners to extend learning at home: making a home/school connection that may have started with the teacher, but can then continue with the child. Yes, I still want to continue connecting with parents, but now I’m thinking about how students can connect with them more. How do you communicate with parents? What role do your students play in home/school communication? For any parents reading this post, what would be your ideal home/school communication system, and why? I’d love to hear your thoughts as I continue to reflect on home/school connections!

Aviva

Is Curriculum A Choice?

This afternoon, I happened to catch this tweet by Heather Theijsmeijer.2014-11-15_14-05-06Heather is sharing one of the slides from Will Richardson: one of the speakers at today’s #STAO2014 conference. I was supposed to be at #STAO2014 today, but circumstances changed and I wasn’t able to go.

While I agree with so much on Will’s slide, these points about curriculum bother me: “Curriculum should be a strategy. Not orthodoxy.” and “Curriculum is a ‘best guess’ as to what our students need.” I haven’t had a chance to hear Will explain the points on this slide, so I apologize in advance if I misinterpret them, but when I read them, I can’t help but think that curriculum is seen as a choice. Is it one though?

I’m a big believer in the fact that curriculum should play a large role in our classrooms. Yes, we teach students. Their needs and interests may vary from those in the curriculum document. But if we know the curriculum well, we can see the different entry points for our different students. We can see the links between expectations and interests. We can figure out how to make these expectations engaging, so that students will want to learn more.

Curriculum doesn’t need to equate to photocopies of blackline masters, hundreds of questions in textbooks, or the same activity for everyone. Student voice, student choice, and inquiry can all intersect with curriculum expectations. We just need to figure out how … or at least this is what I believe. I’d like to say,

  • Curriculum is our starting point. We need to figure out where to go from there.
  • Curriculum is not a checklist, but an important guide.

What do you think? What role does curriculum play in your classroom? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic!

Aviva

 

Why Must It Be A Secret?

I’ve had this same situation happen numerous times at different schools:

A teacher pops in during the day — maybe just to ask a quick question. He/she always begins with, “Aviva …,” and then quickly follows up with, “Oh no! I’m sorry. I meant Miss Dunsiger.”

There’s always such concern over the fact that the students heard my first name. Why?

I’ve always told my class my first name. In fact, since I’ve started using social media tools in the classroom, I often model how to do so with the use of my first name. If the app says to use your name, I show how I write, “Aviva”: mentioning that we can stay safe online by only using our first name or our initials. When I model for students how to write a card and a letter, I show how I sign both with my first name because when I’m writing to friends or family members, they don’t call me, “Miss Dunsiger.” This provides a perfect introduction to how we’re often called different names depending on where we are and whom we’re talking to. Students share some of their stories connected to this topic — often discussing how their parents are called different names at different times – and it becomes a nice learning opportunity for everyone.

I understand why students call us by our last names. I get that it’s often a sign of respect. I’m fine with this practice, but I also think that respect comes from far more than just a name choice. My parents run a private school, and all of the students, parents, and teachers call each other by their first name. Having taught at their school every summer since it opened, I can tell you that there’s definitely still an atmosphere of respect, but there’s also an important “connection” that happens when we share a personal part of ourselves with our students. There are many blog posts, Twitter comments, and face-to-face discussions lately on the importance of building relationships with students. I agree with this! I think there’s many ways to do this. I wonder though if one of the easiest ways to start is sharing something simple, but nevertheless, meaningful: our first name. Let the conversation continue from there!

This year, a few of my students even named one of the many class critters (a.k.a. our snails) after me: Aviva. I don’t think that there’s ever been an “Aviva snail” before, and now I’m just hoping that it wasn’t the snail that ran away. :)

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And while this may be amusing, I think it means something too. We connect first with new people by learning their names and addressing them by name: why then must first names often be seen as such well-kept secrets in elementary education? What do you think?

Aviva 

Questioning The Remembrance Day Assembly

I think that I need to begin this post by recognizing educators around the country that put a lot of time into coordinating Remembrance Day Assemblies. I came from a school with a teacher very devoted to this job, and I went to another school with another teacher equally devoted. At both schools, numerous classes planned readings and songs to recognize this important day. Bands and/or choirs performed. Sometimes there were guest speakers. Students shared their work and we watched thoughtful video recordings and slideshows. Every student, from every class — Kindergarten to Grade 8 – worked hard to sit quietly, listen attentively, and stand still for the moment of silence. Often these assemblies would last more than an hour, and students went out of their way to really demonstrate their best behaviour. I definitely think that Remembrance Day (and the message behind it) is a day to recognize, but is an assembly the best option?

For many years, I’ve watched students as young as three sit through an assembly that often exceeds an hour. As teachers though, we’re regularly told about the benefits of limiting sitting time on the carpet. We’re regularly encouraged to think carefully about full group instruction, and consider how small group instruction might better support students. I’m a huge advocate of this kind of approach, and I’ve seen the benefits for my students, whether they’re in Junior Kindergarten or Grade 6. But then assembly time comes — especially the Remembrance Day Assembly – and we do everything that we try to avoid for the rest of the school year. Why?

At one point this morning, I looked around the gym, and I saw students wiggling on the floor. I saw their eyes wandering. They weren’t being loud. They weren’t distracting others, but they were definitely far from engaged (at least in my opinion). And the truth is, I felt for them. If this was my classroom and I saw students shuffling around, I’d start to question what I was doing. I’d start to question how long I was talking. I’d start to wonder if it was time to shorten the lesson, make it more exciting, and get students more actively involved. We can’t do this in an assembly though.

So what do we do? While I have some reservations about long assemblies, I definitely think that Remembrance Day is a day to recognize. Many students today shared wonderful work about this important day, and I think that this is something that should continue. What if we did a Remembrance Day Celebration of Learning instead? Last year, my previous principal and vice principal started Celebrations of Learning at the school, and it was great to see the diversity of student thinking and learning. This Celebration of Learning could be different though: it could be connected to key themes and ideas related to Remembrance Day. This doesn’t need to be an add-on. Students were exploring these topics anyway as they prepared for the Remembrance Day assembly, but now they can share their thoughts, ideas, and work in small groups with their peers.

  • They can question each other.
  • They can become the meaningful audience for each other’s work.
  • They can even reflect on what they learned, and share their thinking in small groups, grade teams, or with the class.
  • We can invite speakers to engage in discussion with students as well.
  • All students (and even school staff members) can share something that is meaningful to them.
  • We can still have the moment of silence as a school.
  • We can still share videos and slideshows with the class or in small groups, but instead of just “getting” information, we can think, question, and respond to each other.

Hopefully all students can then leave school truly understanding the meaning behind this important day, and knowing that they helped create this meaning for themselves and others.

How do you recognize Remembrance Day at school, and what do you think about making a change? How essential is an assembly to helping students understand the importance of Remembrance Day? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

Aviva