Sunday, June 14, 2015

Wrapping Up the Year

This year, my 30th as an elementary classroom teacher, will be my last.  I am moving into a new position next year, very happily and very nervously. Next year, and hopefully for a few years beyond, I am going to be part teacher of the gifted and part Project Lead the Way Lead Teacher.  But more about that later.

While wrapping up my classroom, passing over my supplies and hard work to a new, incoming fourth grade teacher, I have been thinking long and hard about this year.  It was a difficult year for me and I am trying still to figure out why.  Was it the combination of students?  Was it the extra stress put on educators in New York and the US? Was is learning to work with a new assistant (who was wonderful)?  Was is just feeling done?  Or was it a combination of all of these?

My students:  I love them.  I really do.  They are funny and caring and hard working and apathetic and lazy and loud all at the same time.  This class was such an enigma.  I ran my Responsive Classroom program as I always do, but it didn't take like it always does.  During meetings, my students fooled around, then stopped, then forgot the rules again as soon as something else funny happened.  The rules never stuck.  They did learn to be more empathetic.  But not always.  If someone was sad, they would crowd around and help out.  But someone drops papers on the floor? Step on them as you head back to your desk.  They had fewer recess problems than the other classes on the grade but it doesn't mean they had none.  The same class that worked so hard to raise almost $4000 in two weeks for Nepal and the Kibera Slums would call each other names at recess.

Effort never really hit its stride either.  They would work so hard during projects, doing research, setting up a plan, coming up with ideas.  But the actual projects always just fizzled out.  When I pushed for due dates, they rushed to complete the assignments and the projects came out rushed. This confused me because the understanding of the concepts was there.  Just the effort to put all that understanding into a cohesive project to teach others didn't always work. Usually the projects are amazing and I have to push to get the content understanding in.

Extra Stress:  This is, by far, the biggest reason I am leaving the general education classroom.  I hate what I do to prepare these students to take a meaningless, unfair state test.  And I do very little, ultimately.  But still, the pressure from administration, from parents, even from the kids, was more than I can handle anymore.  The fear that, thanks to our Governor, we will all lose our jobs within the next two years was too much.  The fact that unionized teachers have become the Enemy of the State is beyond anything I can take.  I truly believe that what I do is important, powerful, and necessary.  I do believe I am changing the world one child at a time.  I am not the enemy.  I am so grateful I will not have to give state tests anymore.

New Assistant: This wasn't so bad.  I did have a new assistant this year although she was only new to me, not the school.  She is hard working, caring, and absorbs everything we do. It did take some time to get used to working as partners, deciding on roles, etc. but it worked.  Still, I wonder if I held back on some global projects due to knowing that the help would not be what it used to be with my tried and true aide?  Maybe.  I'm not sure.  It would be great to blame this all on someone else but...I can't blame her. She brought a whole new side of learning to the room with her artist background.  She took some simple projects, like creating a book page for a project and turning it into an Eric Carle-like portrait of the class. How can I blame her for that?

Feeling Done: I did, many times, feel done.  When I would go to colleagues with great ideas and would get the same, "No time, " answer, I felt done.  When I would open my email in the morning to another testing email with 10 or 12 responses, I felt done.  When we had another meeting to talk about testing, I was done.  When I got lost in all my emails and missed deadlines for projects I wanted to do, including my very own Global Book Talk, I was done.  But always, just when I felt I could do this no longer, my assistant would laugh with me about something the kids said, or I would get an email from a teacher on the other side of the world saying she saw my work and wants to join in, or I would get called into the principal's office so she could share something wonderful that a child did for her, or a kid would come up to me in the hall and tell me she hopes I am her teacher next year, or.....   Something always pulls me back in.

And maybe that's why I keep teaching.  And maybe that's why I am so excited about my new position.  I get to keep working with children but I also work with adults. And maybe it wasn't such a bad year afterall.  I did get to go to Guatemala to keynote.  I did get to present at Learning and the Brain, in NYC and spend time with by friend Donna Roman.  I did get to run two Global Book Talks and skype with the author of one.  I did get to run a very successful round of quad-blogging.  I did get to work on a social studies project with one of my fifth grade colleagues and a health/science project with another.  And I did get to hear from my kids that I am their favorite teacher ever.  And don't tell me they all say that.  I know they do but I like to believe that, for me, it's real.  ;)

Here's to ending my 30 year career on a high(?) note.  And here's to a new career, a new opportunity, and making it work.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Responsive Classroom

In my district, once a month, we have two hours of professional development.  The district sets it up and it is usually based around a new program or testing.  This year, they decided to go in a different direction.  For three sessions, teachers rotate between three different classes.  One is on iEARN, one is on Second Step, and one is on Responsive Classroom.  I am running the one on Responsive Classroom.  

I have been using this program in my classroom for about 7 years now.  I went to the level 1 training, purchased and read most of their books, and have continued to attend workshops as they come up.  I feel very comfortable teaching others about the program and have run several courses in district to do just that.

I'm not going to get into the whole philosophy here.  Suffice it to say that RC is really about using specific language and behavior to help the children learn to be more responsible, independent, and caring.  And it works.  I have worked with some very difficult children who, while still struggling with behavior, have learned to adapt more easily to others, work with their classmates, and take responsibility for their actions.

The biggest drawback to teaching about RC is that, one of the most important times of the year to establish the program is in the first six weeks of school.  That's right...six weeks.  Not the first day.  Not the first week.  Not even the first month.  But the first six weeks.  What teacher has time for that?  When I went to the training, I fought against it the entire time.  And, when I show others, they do the same. 

What RC has done, and what I finally understand, is that you don't establish this program in a vaccuum.  You do continue to teach, address your curriculum, and prepare for all that is necessary in school.  But you do it with the language and methods of RC.

You might, by this time, be asking why I am writing about this.  I don't get paid by Responsive Classroom.  So why am I promoting it?  You see, running this professional development has really made me think about my kids...and my successes and failures with them.  And I realize that, for all the failures I feel every day, there are far more successes to recognize.

Just this year, I have:

Juan (all names have been changed) - This is a child who is difficult to be around.  While he has a kind heart and means well, he is very self- centered and is unaware of his personal space with regards to others.  Up until this year, he really hasn't had any friends.  In my classroom, I have watched him try to socialize and have finally started to see others socialize with him.  

Just Friday, while we were cleaning the room, Juan came back from one of his many bathroom trips (he needs the breaks).  He walked over to me and, very sadly, sad that a boy in the hallway told him he has no friends. He then told me that the day before, at recess, he had gotten some children in trouble for cheating in a game.  I said, in my usual "Let's not make this a big deal" tone, "What does he know?  Don't you have any friends?" 

He said, "No."  

Just as I was about to cry, Sonya, who is always in everyone's business, comes over and says, "I am your friend."  

Then Melissa chimes in and Tom comes over and, jokingly says, "Hey, Juan.  What about me?" 

Soon all of the kids were telling him to ignore the boy, who is turns out isn't really nice to any of them.  "Stick with us," they told him. "We are your friends."  

Juan smiled, went to help clean up, and, at the end of the day, gave me a hug before walking out the door.  

Cindy - This is a girl who can barely be heard when she speaks.  We have talked often about assertion but I so rarely hear her voice. Recently she started raising her hand to answer questions but still doesn't talk much besides that.
Monday, I was trying to give instructions for our next lesson.  Someone was talking.  I turned around to let the child talking know that she was being inconsiderate to me and her classmates when I noticed it was Cindy.  I just stared at her.  She was helping Wallace, who had been very confused during our last lesson.  He wasn't ready to move on so she decided to help him.  I never did tell her to be quiet.  I just asked her to move out in the hall with him.  

Sonya, Josey, and Jill - I had my data meetings this week.  This is when we sit with all the special area teachers - reading, math, etc - and discuss who is being serviced and how is it working.  What I was happy to hear was that, the same thing I was seeing in class, was being observed by the special area teachers.  These three girls had gone from children who just moved along, waiting for all the wisdom to just seep into their brains, to girls who took learning seriously.  They have become hard working, caring, enthusiastic, active learners.  And their math and reading scores have improved because of this.  I was thrilled and proud.  RC strikes again!

When I headed off to the professional development session on Thursday, armed with some of these images in my head, I guess I finally got across the idea that spending six weeks at the beginning of the year really does make the rest of the year easier.  And it really works.  

I have been getting messages from the teachers since, - emails, FB messages, phone calls - just to let me know how valuable the PD was and how excited they were to try it all.  And, the biggest compliment of all, one very normally disgruntled teacher told me this was the first time she had been in a worthwhile professional development session.  

Maybe more teachers in my district will adopt RC.  I hope so.  I love watching kids grow in character.  And, in the meantime, I'm heading back to class to help Juan learn more socially acceptable behavior to help him keep his friendships, help Cindy learn some leadership skills along with assertion so she can demonstrate her talents to the whole class, and keep the girls motivated to learn.  I really do love my job!