Friday, August 30, 2013

Classroom Management… or Should it be Mismanagement?

As I was reading our staff handbook the other day the following line jumped out at me:

Start the year with specific written rules and expectations for your class.

It went on to detail that these rules should be posted and gone over so there are no questions from the students regarding what you expect in your classroom.

My thoughts? Crap.

This is an evaluation year for me and I didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings, so I emailed my principal immediately. I explained that there weren’t any rules posted in our classroom because I didn’t have a set of them to put up. I simply do not have classroom rules. Because she rocks, and because she knows me, she reassured me that we were fine.

This is not always the way my classroom has always functioned.

Eighteen years ago I began teaching. I recall being more than a bit concerned that I really had no idea what I was doing. Maybe sensing my unease, my mom - a veteran teacher herself – recommended a book called The First Days of School by Harry Wong. I read it, reread it. I tried to think of every imaginable scenario where I might have an “issue” regarding classroom management. And then, I jumped in.

While Wong’s book is a good book, and I think probably an excellent book for new teachers, there is no way to prepare yourself for every scenario you would face in the classroom. In my first few years of teaching I went crazy trying to find a way to “fix” it all. I would have most of the class “behaving”, but one child was defiant and refused to do anything I’d ask. Or a child who was having major issues would simply shout out horrible things during math class. Or the child struggling at home who slept through classes because it was the only time of peace. The child who was hungry and couldn’t focus. The child who had a family member struggling. The child. The child. The child.

The conclusion I came to was multifaceted. I began by looking for a definition - what the heck is classroom management? What is meant by a class that “behaves?” Does that mean the silent class has a teacher with better management than the chatty class?

With those question swirling already, I tackled the next topic – rules. How do a set of rules cover everything I need to share with my students. Will there be a rule that says, “Please make sure you don’t step on Susie’s shoes as you walk to lunch.” Or, “When we are frustrated, we do not slam our fist on the desk.” Do you get specific? General? For several years my rules became, “Respect yourself, respect others, respect your surroundings.” Then I began to question the need of even putting those up.

Another topic that came up were management systems, and I’ve tried them all. Clips, cards, notes, or even in the era of technology I briefly looked at management systems online. All of them seemed like more work than I really wanted to put into it and again I came back to the purpose. By having a system I felt like I was tell my students, “When, not if, you misbehave -‘x’ will happen.”

So where did I end up? Somewhere hard to describe, but I have a feeling many of us might be here.

On the first day of school a student, at some point, will usually ask about the rules of our classroom. I look around like I’m worried someone is eavesdropping, come in close, and whisper, “There are no rules.”

Usually they laugh, I laugh. And then I tell them that it’s not entirely true. We talk about the grocery store just down the street. I ask if I took the class there right now, could we walk in, grab the grapes, throw them on the floor, and stomp on them? They chuckle and tell me no. My response is always the same – how do they know that? Is there a rule posted?

We go on to discuss expectations. I expect they will make excellent choices this year. I expect that they will be kind. I expect that they will come to class ready to learn. Their big question is always – What happens if someone is mean? If they do something they shouldn’t?

My reply is always the same – if someone behaves in a way that does not fit in the norms of our class, I will talk to them. I will ask them if they are having a bad day. I will check-in to see if something has gone horribly wrong. And we will move on from there.

Here’s the thing. I don’t teach in a fantasy world. I have kids that struggle at times. Heck, I struggle at times. We will have some problems, but – at least for the last few years – they are few and far between. In fact, since I abandoned having “rules”, I have had less behavior problems than ever. I’m often asked, what is the secret? What have I done to these kids? The answer is simple. Nothing.

Or maybe it’s not so simple. I also start on day one telling my students I love them. I believe in them. It’s not baloney, it is 100% true. They know I cry when they make a mistake. They know I cheer when they get on track. They know how much I want them to succeed. They know me well, and I know them.

Thinking of it that way, I guess I do have a rule, that as the teacher, I am required to develop a relationship with each and every student in that classroom. That is a classroom management system I can get behind.

Today I read a blog post that said what I believe in a nutshell –“Not one rule you make this week will cause good behavior in May. But every strong relationship you make will.” Yep, that’s something I could post on our wall.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Finding the Positives

Today I sat on the floor. There were a variety of reasons for my position. I was tired, the room was warm, the floor seemed cooler. The main reason was that I was sitting with a student. Most teachers know this position – hip to hip, side to side. I sat with him, he read about a train at the top of the world. (Hello, Fountas and Pinnell tests.) As he read to me, I felt myself relax.

The first weeks of school are just crazy. I’ve learned over the years to hold on, take a few breaths, and wait it out. Soon enough everything will begin running like clockwork. For now, I wait.

Today I went to school with a specific purpose. I already like these kids, a lot. And I knew I was feeling a bit frazzled. I wasn’t getting through enough of my plans. One group is extremely chatty during writing workshop. I hadn’t had a conference with each of my students yet. Adding this to heat indexes of 98-102 this week in a non air-conditioned room and you might have a sense of where I was coming from. With that in mind, today I chose to focus on what was working with this new group of students. Here’s what I noticed.

They love learning. These kids are excited when we talk about lessons – on any topic. What is reading stamina? They have tons of ideas. Why would students choose to “fake read”? They fall over themselves to share. Favorite authors or books? Forget about it, we’d be here for hours listening.

They are creative. Whether it is drawings, stories, singing, or dancing, they amaze me. Many love video games. I love to talk to them about their favorites. These might be the next designers of those games. Their ideas are incredible!

My homeroom LOVES to write. Last year I was so sad that so many students still weren’t embracing writing and one goal I had this year was to change that. This group doesn’t need that goal. They LOVE writing. My main “chatty” class is my homeroom, especially in writing workshop. Why are they so chatty? Many of them want to collaborate. They are writing stories together. The dialogue is non-stop. I can’t fault them for their amazing ideas, just trying to bring the level down a bit. They beg to write everyday. With the heat we’ve been getting out early, which shortens some writing blocks. I have several that were not happy about that.

They love reading. This makes my heart sing. Kids are flying through books, sharing titles, and sharing favorites. We’ve started our first read aloud, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. I love this time together as we root for Kyle and cheered when he secured a spot at the library lock-in.

So the fact that we haven’t really started blogging, Twitter, conferences, etc. will have to be ok for now. In the past eight days we have began a community. I’ve received enough hugs and pictures to brighten my days for some time to come. And today? Sitting there, listening to a child read about a train that runs on permafrost, I looked up and saw this. Yep, we’re back into the school year and it feels great.  

Monday, August 26, 2013

Slice of Life - The Start of a New School Year

Slice of Life is sponsored every Tuesday by Stacey and Ruth from Two Writing Teachers

It amazes me how eighteen years into teaching, the first week still knocks me for a loop. I have enough plans from last week to last for three. I always forget that the group coming in is not at the same place as the kids who just left. Transitions will take longer, explanations will need to be detailed, and we will find our way.

And yet, I love it. I love the start of a new school year. It seems ripe with possibility. I love getting to know a new group, finding our rhythm, and watching them grow.

This year is unique. My oldest son, Luke, is in my reading class. Between my three classes – 80 students! – I have known many since they were babies. Faces smile at me and I remember them as toddlers. Luke looks up from his table and grins. I marvel at how far this group has come since I knew them as kindergartners and I dream of how far they can go.

This year I had all three classes fill out the questionnaires I usually just hand out to my homeroom. I’ve spent hours over the weekend reading through each one and typing the information into Evernote. Normally I’d just take a photo to save the information, but at five pages (20 questions with lots of room to write), photos wouldn’t work. After school today – grateful to be in the air conditioning, I spent close to six hours reading, typing, and reading some more. I now have eleven left, but need to wait for them until morning. My eyes are blurred and I know I won’t give them the attention they deserve right now.

What have I learned? So much. Fears, joys, worries, dreams. Fifth graders are still willing to share with their teachers. They are, as a group, excited about school and confident that it will be fun. They can all name a favorite author, book, and genre. Some want to be authors themselves. Many already knew about me before entering my class – I’m apparently nice, love to read, buy books, eat chocolate, and I have two sons. Oh, and I like to smile.

I have found myself alternating between laughter as I read and, occasionally tears. I’m confident that we will have a great year. I already know I will dread when they leave. Between now and then, so many possibilities await.

Below is a video of just a few pictures from our first week together. Enjoy! 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Getting To Know My New Group of Students

Apologies for the unexpected blog break. You’d think after eighteen years of teaching I would remember what the first week of school is like. Nope. Fast paced, exhausting, and thrilling would be three ways to describe the past week. I alternated between moments where I tried desperately to remember each students’ name to times where I looked up during independent reading feeling like we had been together for months. The first week back, there is nothing like it.

Trying to get to know my students quickly is always a challenge. When I was self-contained, I felt like I had a good grasp on who my students were in a few weeks. Several years ago we moved to semi-departmentalization and I rotated with two other classes. Trying to get to know three groups was much more difficult. This year our class sizes are even higher – and eighty students concerned me.

What I decided to try this year was reaching out to all of the parents on the first day. Usually I had the parents of my homeroom students write me a note about their child – I asked for any information they would like to share that would help me be the best teacher for their child. I’ve done this for several years; ever since reading Lucy Calkins book Raising Lifelong Learners: A Parent’s Guide. (Side note – love this book as a teacher and a parent.) This year I asked all three classrooms of parents to write me. The emails I have been receiving in return are beautiful. There is no way I could have learned this information within the first week. Some insights I doubt I would have gleaned in a year’s time. An added benefit, I feel like I’ve established a connection with many parents without even meeting them face-to-face yet. (Our Parent Night is next week.)

Coupled with the parent letter, I asked the three classes to fill out a questionnaire for me. In it are your typical questions at back to school time:
·      Tell me three things I need to know about you.
·      What are you most proud of?
·      What is the best book you’ve read?
·      Favorite Author?
·      What is the best thing you have written?
·      Who is a writer you admire?
And so on. With the twenty questions I have learned a lot about these new students of mine.

Last night I sat reading each questionnaire. Since it was lengthy, I didn’t have an easy way to copy it into Evernote. I wanted to have a record of the information in my students’ Evernote notebooks that I use. I had already emailed their parents letters to each individual notebook so I could refer back to them throughout the year. I’ve decided to take the time to type up some of their answers and my own reflection into a new note in their Evernote notebooks. At the top of that note I have written the following sentence:

Recommend ­­­­                                    to them.

After reading through their questionnaire – and reading the letter from their parents – I’m putting a lot of thought into the books they might enjoy. At the top of their note I’m placing titles I think they might like. This way as I conference next week I have some good book recommendations to share with them.

As I read through just the first twenty questionnaires last night I alternated between laughing and crying. Some of these kids are funny, and it comes through in their writing. Some have shared sad parts of their lives, and my heart breaks for them already. And then I read my last one of the night.

This is a student I’ve known of since preschool, they were in class with my son. I know the life is not always an easy one. The first response that made me smile was to “How do you think 5th grade will be?”

AWESOME!!!! Was written two inches high across the page.

To the question of what they knew about me already, the following was written:

She loves to read, loves books. She is nice to us. And I love listening to her read.

Heart melts just a bit.

The one that really made me tear up was this. To the question of “Which writer do you admire?” The response was: You.

I had shared with the students that I’d love to write a book. That I had this blog, that I write for Choice Literacy, and planned on trying to write a book through this school year, but was afraid. Her response let me know that she heard me. So grateful for that act of kindness.

And so I sit today. Reading through sixty more questionnaires. Typing more information into Evernote. With each piece, one more students shares a bit more. It is time consuming work, but so worth it.