This is a blog post that I’ve been thinking about writing for a very long time. I think it’s a scary post for me to publish because once I share my plan, I’m truly committed to it, and what if I’m wrong? I know that I’ve been wrong before, but this is a very public way of possibly making a big mistake, but then again, it’s also a way of having the support to hopefully meet with success.
Contrary to how things might usually be done, I’m going to share a bit about myself before I share my plan.
- This is my fifteenth year teaching for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. I’ve wanted to teach since I was a little girl, and I worked hard to meet this goal.
- I’m definitely a “curriculum geek.” I read curriculum documents every summer, and I know the expectations well. I look for overlaps between expectations, and when I plan, I do so with the expectations in mind.
- I love data! I pay attention to numbers. I track student growth, and when students are not progressing well, I ask a lot of questions, try different strategies, and attempt to find ones that help them meet with success.
- More than anything else, I care about kids! I may not have my own biological children, but I have 23 children that I care about just as much. When they struggle, I struggle, and when they succeed, I couldn’t be happier.
It’s for this last reason, that I’ve considered this new plan of mine. This year, social skills, problem solving skills, and self-regulation are going to be the three big areas that I focus on first. This doesn’t mean that I’m ignoring the academic areas. As students play, we find lots of opportunities to develop oral language skills (and phonemic awareness skills), provide meaningful reasons to read and write (for those students that are ready to do so), introduce and reinforce math concepts, explore science areas, develop fine motor and gross motor skills, and learn and share through The Arts. But, many of the conversations that my partner and I have with the children first, involve …
- learning how to take turns.
- learning words we can use to express our feelings.
- persevering through difficult tasks.
- taking responsibility (in numerous ways).
- learning how to safely take risks, and if/when to ask for help.
- finding ways to up- or down-regulate, so that we can be “calm” enough to learn.
- learning how to soothe ourselves when we feel upset.
- learning how to recognize important signals in our body (from hunger to the need to go to the bathroom), and how we can respond to each of them.
- learning that what works for one person, may not work for everyone, and that’s okay.
- learning what works best for us, and using these strategies independently to meet with success.
All of this, leads to my big wonder. I wonder, if by putting social skills, problem solving skills, and self-regulation, before academics, if I will ultimately see greater gains in these academic areas, as students will develop the skills necessary to be independent learners. Our play-based learning environment, also provides many opportunities for developing oral language skills, including phonemic awareness and vocabulary skills, and both of these impact on reading success. Will this plan work? I really hope that by meeting students where they’re at, targeting the instruction to all of the different students based on their strengths and needs, modelling and instructing primarily in small groups, and continuing to track progress, re-evaluate needs, and make changes, the data will show significant growth. So often reading, writing, and/or math benchmarks drive instruction, but maybe to see progress in these areas, we first have to look even more closely at the learning skills that actually have the biggest section for comments on all of our report cards. What do you think?
I think this is a great plan for any and all grade levels. Invest in people and they will lend themselves to challenging learning situations. Push an agenda (curriculum in absence of the skills that help them learn) and people tend to shut down or at minimum give only what they must to achieve the desired outcome. Learning becomes a task rather than a way of being. I believe focusing on personal and social skills will create a firm foundation for learning, in a way organically, as well as planned.
Thanks Heidi! I totally agree with what you’re saying here. I also think about our struggling students. While some students may succeed (at least to a certain degree) regardless of if we start with the academics or with these other skills, what about the students that are not succeeding? Maybe by helping students learn how to “learn” first (in terms of collaborating, problem solving, and self-regulating), they will meet with success too. Also, I wonder if the long-term impact will be greater. I tend to think that it will be. I’m excited to see!
I was just reminded of the Tribes Program (http://tribes.com/about/). It is very prescribed, but I did find a number of activities which I used repeatedly because they developed these soft skills in the midst of working through curricular learning. Other activities I used just because they reinforced building a community of trust and compassion; ideal for knowledge building.
Thank you so much, Heidi! I’m not Tribes trained, but I know others that are. I’ll look at the link and talk to some colleagues as well … much appreciated!
What a great plan!! I too am trying something similar this year I re-organized myself (by declaring myself excess) into a grade 1/2 at a new school. I have noticed that although the students are eager to learn, they are having difficulty relating to each other and to the learning skills. I have been using social justice books and talking about the learning skills and what they look like in our class with my kids. I have begun to see a positive change in them, which is leading to the academics being easier to teach. I have been reading “Black Ants and Buddhists” by Mary Cowhey and I have found it inspirational and uplifting.
I applaud you for publishing your plan. It takes courage to change. I like to think of it as action research….. You can use it for your ALP!!
I look forward to hearing more about how your plan is working! Keep posting! You are an inspiration!
Thank you so much, Pam! I love hearing about your experiences, and what you’re already noticing. I’ve never heard of Cowhey’s book before, but I’m going to check it out now. It sounds like a great read!
I also thought that I could use this plan for my Annual Learning Plan. My hope was that by publishing my plan, I would continue to stay focused on it and reflect throughout the year. I’m very interested in seeing the impact on students.
Aviva, you never cease to inspire me. Truly, whether you are finding some new way to see the world, or reflecting on an old way that needs a new look, your constant reflection upon your practice allows you to learn so much as you teach.
So, funny that you bring this up… I’ve been saying to friends, both in my school and beyond, that it seems like in FDK (it’s only my second year now) it’s way more “social curriculum” for much longer than I ever remember in 1/2 day classes.
So, that came up today at our team chat. Our awesome admin suggested we make our collaborative inquiry (for K team) about something that would really have an impact on our classes, and be meaningful. The suggestion (I believe backed up by the fact that this was becoming a focus across the board in our grade) – social curriculum. Yup – call it self-regulation, call it behaviour, no matter your angle or view of children, it is a bigger matter than we ever thought possible before as we looked at what FDK would bring.
So we discussed why this was… Why, with a whole day, each day, for kids to practice being a member of a class team, was it seeming to take way longer now to get a real rhythm?
We suggested various things we thought it could be: huge classes (after re-org we all have 26-28, which is smaller than our original 31 per room!), longer day meaning more self-care than needed before (esp. lunch, bathroom, dressing after accident, dealing with emotions in big group and/or when tired). We discussed the “can’t change” items (like class sizes) and can change items (like transitions, break times, and use of shared outdoor spaces).
Most of all, we talked and listened and felt relieved to know we weren’t alone in feeling… Tired. Loving the kids and the freedom to follow interests and sharing of materials, but also tired from the demands of early-in-the-year levels of support needed to run a classroom in which large numbers of students share materials, space, and adult attention.
So to answer your question – yes! Yes, I do believe that your focus on social skills and relationships will allow students to have the necessary headspace for learning – Maslow’s hierarchy, if you will… Can’t learn if basic needs are not fully met.
I will share your post with my team, by the way. I appreciate your thoughtful posts!
Thanks for your comment, Laurel, and for sharing your experiences! I love your final point about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: I never thought about it this way, but this is so true.
Reading your comment, I can’t help but wonder how many other teachers out there might be contemplating something similar. Are we all unsure? Are we all asking questions? Are we all wondering how these changes will better meet student needs? It’s nice not to feel alone. Maybe, the more each of us share, the more we can support each other. Please let me know how your changes go — I really do hope that you see the results that you want.
Many thanks, as always, for your support!
Sounds like the best way to go to meet the learning needs. Our students will never be ready for learning if they don’t know how to be part of a community.
I used to spend a lot of time with my grade 1 and 1/2 classes over the past few years working on those “learning skills”. My big justification for that was if a student is not available to learn then our teaching time is wasted anyway, so why not spend the time to teach what they really need to learn. I also am a true believer that learning the curriculum will come when the student is ready, feels comfortable and safe in the classroom such that they can take risks to explore new things. This doesn’t cone without working first on the relationship and building the community.
Good for you for putting it out there. I am sure as the year progresses you will collect loads of data to support your plan.
My wondering after reading you post and the other responses is how do we encourage this process to happen across the other divisions in our schools? Is it time that we make changes to the “curriculum” to support the learning that many teachers are seeing as a priority?
I am working with several students in my new role who have been suffled along and given labels of all sorts (ie behaviour problem student, ADHD, mental health concern) who when examined closer do not have the basics skills of the “social curriculum” you speak of, nor to they posses the “learning skills” necessary for success. I am working with them to develop these skills, but interventions later in school life means more ingrained “bad strategies” to overcome.
I think the earlier these teaching happen in a direcr way the better. Looking forward to hearing how things roll out for the rest of the year.
Thanks for the comment, Sarah, and sharing your experiences. You have a great wonder here, and make an important point that I think really needs to be explored. I wonder if as curriculum expectations increase in complexity, teachers feel increased pressure to focus on the academic expectations. I know that I did. I always felt that these learning skills could be addressed through the academic areas, and in some ways they can be, but are we truly giving them the attention that they need? I think about these students that are struggling. These learning skills may not just help them in their areas of need (e.g., self-regulation), but help them “learn” period. So how do we get this message out there? Does it begin with changes to the curriculum documents? Is there another way? You’ve given me a lot to think about.
I believe the curriculum was written for the “ideal” student population and school setting – upper/middle class, stable home, good food, access to other life experiences etc. – and this is not the reality of what most schools are facing. Even if that is your population many students are sturggling with self-regulation and other “skills” that significantly effect their ability and availability for learning.
I know that something needs to be done, but there is not one right way to do it, nor is there one magic fix. The curriculum does have ways to integrate these teachings, but I don’t think it is enough. We need more specific teaching of “leanrning skills”. All too often we assume the kids should have these skills because they are in grade 3, 5, 8 etc. They still need to be taught, reviewed, reinforced, celebrated.
How do we get others on board? Well I think that focusing on what we can do in our own classrooms and then sharing our successes and failures with our peers is a great start. I am hopeful that leading by example and engaging others in professional discussions will start the ball rolling towards change.
Looking forward to hearing what others think.
This seems like a great way to bring about some change, Sarah. I agree with you about a need to explicitly teach these skills — and in all grades. I know that Learning Skills are discussed, but even then, how often is that just when it comes time for report cards? I know that I’ve been guilty of this in the past too. I’m very curious to see what changes this focus brings in our classroom this year. I’ve definitely become aware of just how important these skills are for truly “learning.”
Hey there Aviva! I’m surprised at your nervousness about sharing this idea….you are one of the most transparent educators I know! Besides, this is such a fantastic, proactive idea that you have!
I’m sure you are aware that you aren’t putting academics on the back burner at all….you are, however, keenly aware that if the learning skills (self regulation, responsibility, collaboration) aren’t there, the academics won’t be either. So, you’re addressing the LS first–crucial in the early primary years–so that the academics will come along much easier.
As a junior panel teacher, I know that I wholeheartedly appreciate when primary teachers do this. If I have a class full of students who have solid LS, I can get through way more curriculum and go way deeper. Primary teachers can lay such a solid foundation….
Please feel confident in what you are doing. It’s a wonderful gift you are giving your students (and your colleagues!). <3
Thanks Adele! I really appreciate hearing this, and from a Junior teacher as well. I know that I’m not ignoring the academics, but I do still sometimes wonder if I’m addressing them enough (at this point in the year). That being said, I know that the students aren’t ready to learn without these other skills, and this is not just true of this year, but will be true of all years to come. We have to focus on these skills. I’m curious to see what the growth will be this year, and in the coming years.
As for being nervous about sharing the idea, I think that comes from the fact that I’ve always been so focused on academics. I’ve always paid a lot of attention to benchmarks. Scores mattered to me. This is such a huge shift in thinking for me, that it scares me. Going public just makes the plan a reality, and that’s a bit scary too. But maybe this ties back with my “uncomfortable” one word goal.
Thanks for your support!
Well, kudos to you for stepping outside of your comfort zone to meet the needs of your students!
Thanks Adele! I appreciate that! If I believe, as I do, that it’s the kids that matter most, then I need to do everything I can to meet the needs of the kids … even if at times it can be challenging for me. Being uncomfortable is good … right?
I agree 100% with your focus on learning skills as part of your plan. While academics are important those learning skills are really life skills. I start talking about them on the first day of school and never stop. I recently discovered a list of 16 habits of mind for 21st century learners. Many of this habits are reflective of the learning skills which we are asked to assess.
All of these skills are on my mind each day as I assess my students. Students of all academic abilities can achieve all of them and I have taught some students with learning needs that do excel on learning skills. I look at it this way. Which one of my students would I hire for a job irregardless of their academic achievement. Strong learning skills = strong employee.
Learning skills are on the first page of the progress report card for a reason. I tell parents that is the most important part of any report sent home.
Thanks for a great blog entry.
Thanks Herman! While I’ve often made similar comments about learning skills, I don’t think that I’ve spent as much time addressing them as I have this year. This makes me realize that we can’t just talk about their importance … we need to teach, reinforce, and give students time to practice, these skills. I’d be curious to know how people do this in various grades. I wonder if there are some overlapping approaches.
Thank you, thank you for this post. I never made my plan public. I wasn’t brave then but I am now. For the past 3 years I have done this. It works beyond a doubt. You dont need to worry their academic skills will soar. I’ve seen it every year. Take the time😀.
Thank you so much, Kendra! It’s wonderful to hear this. I wonder if others have tried this before too, and also noticed the benefits. Maybe this is a message that needs to be shared. I wonder if everyone then may consider things a little differently.