Monday, July 28, 2014

Different Kids, Different Approach

I was originally going to title this blog post "Best Changes" but I realized that the alterations I made in my summer school program for 2014 may not necessarily be better or worse, but seemed better suited for the particular group of students I had this year.

This was my second year teaching Grade 3 for summer school in July at Lucy Maud Montgomery Public School and both experiences were absolutely wonderful. Although the units were different (Solar Power vs Minecraft) and the subjects were different (Literacy and Numeracy vs STEM), there were certain techniques, routines, or teaching practices that I used both times, and there were other approaches that I attempted for the first time this year. Before I forget, I wanted to reflect on some of the new tricks I tried that I really liked (such as the "early intervention letter" that I wrote about two weeks ago).

1) The Build Zone

I gave certain areas of my room "zone" designations and this was the most popular one. Huge credit has to go to Mythili Thedchanamoorthy for giving me the resources necessary to make this a thriving exploration station. She lent me tons of link cubes and, even more exciting, she gave me dozens and dozens of different sizes of cardboard cubes. I didn't tell the children what to make in the build zone - this was their chance to experiment. This was fantastic because my students made all sorts of interesting artifacts with these materials and I was able to use it as a springboard for discussions in science and in math. It was also the obvious place for students to assemble if they had completed all of the mandatory assignments for the day. I hesitate to use the word "free time", because technically this was still part of their curriculum expectations, but they were the architects in charge and I piggy-backed on their creations and ideas. The area really demonstrated how beneficial it was when I had to leave the classroom for an extended period one day to deal with an issue. The supervising teacher reported that when the students had technical difficulties (because I forgot to plug in the netbooks overnight) and/or finished their work ahead of schedule, they immediately knew what to do - they gravitated to the Build Zone.

2) Collaboration Matrix

I've used this in other classes I've taught in the past, but this chart seemed to be a useful tool for this recent batch of students, who had a tendency (as we all do) to work with the same partners every time we have the chance to work with someone else. It made my reporting process very clear, open, and accountable. I told the students that part of the way I would determine the collaboration section of their report card would be to look at the matrix to see how many different people they chose to work with, and then think about *how* they worked with that person. The students were mostly responsible for recording their partnerships, except for Friday, July 18, when I took some class time to double-check the documentation. Their restlessness showed to me how rarely I spent in whole-group situations in which I was the only one talking. This tweet referred to the 20 minutes it took me to confirm that the information recorded for each student was correct.

3) Student-Controlled Bulletin Boards

Last year and this year, I paid a lot of attention to the class and hall environment. I designated one of the boards to the students to decorate, and it became a much more fluid and vibrant space (the first photo is from the 4th day of summer school and the second is from the 12th day). It led us to talk about strong, stable structures (because we had to figure out how to display items that were particularly heavy and/or large). They also felt comfortable taking down and putting up items of their choice.

Next week, I'll share some more photos of the amazing summer school experience my students and I shared.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Spending Time in Summer School

I've been thinking about ratios recently, and not because that's one of my math units. During summer school, I teach for three hours a day, from 9-12. I asked my husband and mother-in-law for their estimates on how long I spend marking and planning in the afternoons and evenings, and I couldn't get a standard answer. (One person said 2 hours, another said 4.) It depends on whether or not I have a task ahead that needs a lot of preparation, but I think it's safe to say that, recently, especially with summer school report card time approaching, I've spent more time planning and assessing than I have actually in the classroom with the students.

Is that normal? I Googled the topic and I didn't find any definitive answers. This blog mentions a Chinese school in which the instructor teaches for 90 minutes and plans and marks for the rest of the 9 hour day. This news article from England suggests that staggering amounts of time is needed for evaluating and getting ready for the next set of lessons. In the 2013 article, their teachers' union recommended:
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) passed a motion on Tuesday demanding a new working week of 20 hours' teaching time, up to 10 hours of lesson preparation and marking, and five hours of other duties, including time spent inputting data and at parents' evenings.
I don't think that this kind of change will occur. In a Canadian study I found online, on page 12 the researchers determined that 25 hours a week was spent on instructional time and 18 hours were spent on work-related tasks like meetings, assessment, and planning outside of the instructional day.

During summer school, it feels less onerous to put in those hours to craft the best sequence for the day or the perfectly-worded math problem of the day. I think I get this impression because of the different format for summer school (smaller class, more autonomy in lesson development, no clubs or teams, less subjects). I also realize that I may be actually doing things that increase my time spent that isn't completely necessary or required. For instance, I spent several hours on the weekend making these reflection pages in the students' notebooks.

Now, I could have simply whipped up a professional-looking worksheet on my computer and distributed it. Instead of placing dots on my evaluation chart that I'll be pasting into the last page of each notebook, to designate which grades were for science, math, technology, or a combination of both, I could have created a spreadsheet in Google Drive and with a click of the mouse, I could have coloured them easily. Why am I making work harder for myself? At the risk of using the rest of this post to justify my Luddite behaviour, I want to offer a few reasons why I like taking this extra time and effort to write and draw and comment in notebooks.

  1. Notebooks don't get lost like loose-leaf sheets. I don't allow the students to take home their summer school notebooks until the last day. I collect the books daily and I find that it's easier to keep track of the work when it's all in one place. Students need help with organization and keeping things together in one place where the risk of things falling out are minimal helps a lot.
  2. Putting effort into their notebook shows I value what's in there. I love watching my students flip through their notebooks as soon as they enter the classroom, to see what comments I've made on their work, what grades they earned, and what new items have appeared between the pages. They pay attention more to something I've written by hand than typed and pasted in.
  3. There's something appealing about making it by hand. Each notebook feels like a mini-scrapbook, a tiny time capsule of what the student learned for that month we had together. In fact, my site coach hopes that at least one student will choose not to take home his/her notebook so that she can keep it for her files. I know I referred to one of the student notebooks from last year to see what worked, what didn't and how I could design pages better to help elicit deeper thinking and higher-quality work from the students. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Take Time to Learn at LMMSS3

I love summer school! I enjoy what we study. I enjoy the students. I enjoy improving my own teaching practice. I tried something out this past week that went really well and that I really need to remember to use during the regular school year.

My recent actions were inspired by a less-than-ideal note that my own son received from one of his teachers a few months ago. I won't re-post the letter, although it does make me wonder if the principal saw it or proofread it before the teacher sent it out. The overall tone of the communication was irritation, frustration, and anger. It seems like the class had fared quite poorly on a social studies test and the teacher went on at length about how thoroughly she had prepared them and the students had not done their part and that they better study for the re-test. Reading the note left a bad taste in my mouth, because it sounded more like a rant and a blame-fest than anything productive.

Fast-forward to July 2014. A couple of my students in my Grade 3 summer school class had blank pages where work was supposed to be, and I was stymied. Why wasn't their work done? What was going on? I had time to think about the situation a bit - one of the benefits of a half-day program - and I decided to write the students themselves a note. This is what it said:

July 10, 2014
I feel concerned. As you know, I check everyone’s work daily and I noticed that you did not do:
1.      The journal entry from July 3-4, 2014
2.      The journal entry from July 7-8, 2014
3.      The house-building plans that were due July 9, 2014
I like you and I want you to be successful. These are the strategies I have used to help keep you organized and responsible for completing your work.
·         “To Do” lists posted on the SMART Board and blackboard
·         A description of “what counts as finished” for design plans and journals
·         Extra time after recess once the required Minecraft time is done
·         Verbal reminders to stay on task (e.g. don’t go to the build zone until you are finished your other jobs)
Unfortunately, these strategies do not seem to be working. To change things for the better, I need your help. Please think of at least two new ideas that will help you complete your work on time. Write them below. Then, take this sheet to the office so that our summer school principal (Mr. YYY or Ms. ZZZ) will give their expert opinion on our revised plan.
Yours truly,

Mrs. Maliszewski (a.k.a. “Ms. Mali”)

The differences between this letter and the one my son received from his social studies teacher were intentional.

  • My tone was meant to be curious instead of angry, positive instead of negative
  • Both student and teacher can change and improve, not just the student
  • Involving the principal was not a punitive gesture but one for growth and assistance
I am so glad that I wrote the notes and spoke to the individuals privately. It turned out that one of the students has a special education designation that I was not aware of, and the student was struggling with the volume of work that I was requiring. The obvious solution was for me to reduce the amount of assignments she had to complete and the amount needed in each assignment, as well as provide some peer and teacher support while she completed her tasks. Here's the remarkable part. After this encouraging three-way conversation that included the principal, this student went on to finish three separate, previously-incomplete jobs in a single day! It was a delight to send her back down to the office to effusively praise her dedication. 

I read another education blog post about the hardest part of teaching being "not enough" time or resources, and even in summer school, it's still true. However, with shortened class time and less expectations for summer school, occasionally I can take the time to learn how to do things better, how to intervene a little quicker than usual, how to phrase things better so that positive changes can occur, how to make school pleasant and educational. I'm not where I want to be yet, but it's the irony that I may never reach there - just keep trying and taking time to learn. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Returning to Cookie Land and Summer School

This past week marked my return to two activities: teaching summer school at Lucy Maud Montgomery Public School and baking cookies. The cookie baking wasn't mandatory exactly, but I was scheduled to bring in treats for my summer school staff on the same day that a wonderful crew from TDSB Library Technical Services was due to arrive at my regular school to conduct inventory. I wanted to show my appreciation for both groups and their hard work, and so I decided to return to the kitchen. Unlike last time, when I created a new batch of cookies each day over March Break, I had one night to make two different kinds of cookies. I had hoped to try a new recipe - Sarah Oesch brought these amazingly tasty items with her to our last Ontario School Library Association council meeting and I was eager to make them - but I received the information slightly too late to include with the baking bonanza. (I made them the next day.)

Cookie #1 : Spritz Cookies

Cookie #2: Vanilla Drops with Cranberries

Cookie #3: Chocolate Toffee Bites

Once again, I learned some new things while baking, and reinforced old lessons, such as:

  1. Be prepared, and even if you think you are, check twice.
  2. Stay focused.
  3. Start early.
  4. Even if it looks like a disaster, some good can come of anything.
  5. If you've done something before, there's a better chance you'll improve. Still, try something new.
Because I was busy planning for summer school, I didn't start cooking until after 11:00 at night. It was around 11:30 p.m. (while I was on the phone with Sarah grabbing her yummy recipes and chatting about all sorts of things) that I realized that I had no more all-purpose flour, and by this time, I was already committed to making two different kinds of cookies. I substituted cake and pastry flour for the all-purpose flour the original recipe called for in the vanilla drops. I also didn't have enough honey because I couldn't find the new bottle I had bought previously (and it was hiding in the fridge, a fact I found out a few days too late). I barely had enough cranberries. I finished baking at 12:30 a.m. and fell into bed, exhausted. I was so nervous about the vanilla cranberry drops that I delayed a long time before trying them. They weren't perfect; they were a bit dry and crumbly, but they were edible and, in fact, they were consumed more than the other items I took in to the summer school staff! The Spritz cookies turned out exactly as they were supposed to do. None were burnt. I had to wake up early to buy the icing sugar needed for the lemon glaze, but it worked out without any hitches. The chocolate toffee bites were absolutely delicious, and because I learnt my lessons the previous evening, I double-checked to ensure I had everything I needed, including the mysterious-to-me parchment paper.

Those five lessons listed above can equally apply to my summer school class. I'm teaching the same grade but a new unit of study (STEM, with a focus on Minecraft). I was a bit concerned that my new students wouldn't be as eager or hard-working as my previous group, but they have their own unique talents and skills and I am having just as much fun teaching them. I'm sure you'll read more about them here on this blog or on the GamingEdus website (