It’s all about standards

This has possibly been my favorite week to date in the teaching program. We’ve been learning about how to use the standards, the end goals, when planning our teaching. It’s overwhelming to read all of these standards–I took a whole morning just reading through the English Language Arts standards for K-3–but working with these concrete goals makes what I’m doing feel real and tangible. More so because we’re not just reading them, we’re breaking them down to their simplest building blocks and comparing them to things like Bloom’s Taxonomy and talking through them and just really digging into them. At least a few of them.

The backwards mapping was a good introduction to the process. I felt like it was a toe dip into the waters of being a real teacher. I would have liked more guidance because I felt like I was over-thinking and yet not quite getting it. But I do get the gist of starting a big project by knowing where you want to get and going backwards from there.

Unpacking a standard felt familiar to backwards mapping, but maybe with more focus on each individual word of the standard. This word, “produce,” what does it mean??? A lot, actually. Also, the Common Core standards for fifth graders are way more intense that Virginia’s standards for third graders.

Assuming I had understood everything up to that point, by the time I got to writing learning objectives, I was feeling pretty confident in my abilities. It felt like the standard and its accompanying curriculum framework (both written by the Commonwealth of Virginia) laid out exactly what they expected my students to know. I just needed to list it out in ways that would keep me and my students focused on the goal for that lesson, day, or unit, whatever the case may be.

Parts of this process feels a little redundant, when the essential skills borrow language from the standard itself, and when objectives ask for those skills again. Of course, I could be missing something and be headed straight for an insufficient. I do wish we had seen this modeled in class. Perhaps that would have been dull for my colleagues already in classrooms, but I work a lot better when I have an idea of what the end product should look like, and I didn’t with this. I don’t think it would matter that we would all have to go back and do these activities for the wide range of subjects and grade levels, because I am confident I can transmute what I see into what I need. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t trust myself to teach myself, yet it feels like that’s what I’m doing a lot of the time.


Class rules

We’ve been learning this week how important it is to get on the front end of the classroom management train. That makes sense, of course; rules are not something you want to make up on the fly, and especially at the elementary age, kids need more guidance on appropriate ways to behave in school.

I like thinking of classroom management from general to specific: standards, rules, procedures. In general, how do we have a happy, peaceful classroom that is conducive to learning? By making the standard “Only act in a way that helps you and everyone else learn.” Nice and broad and simple for kids to understand. It has the benefit of being easily turned into a question, as in, “Zaina, are you acting in a way that is helping us learn?”

That’s followed by our classroom rules. I don’t have a complete list yet, as I’m sure I’ll find things I hadn’t thought of once I actually get into the classroom. In the meantime, a few of my non-negotiable rules include:

  • Listen when other people are talking.
  • Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
  • Follow directions quickly.

It will also be important to have rules for the playground and when walking in the halls. Kids find all sort of ways to hurt themselves on playgrounds, but rules like “Use two-hand touch” will do something to minimize that.

Finally, the nuts and bolts of our classroom come up in the procedures. In order to listen when other people are talking, students cannot be jumping up and sharpening pencils any time they want, for example. We will have a procedure along the lines of “Wait until you have been released to work before getting up to sharpen a pencil.”

It’s also important that students get a quick, productive start each morning, with as few distractions as possible, so we will have procedures to come into class and put things away in cubbies or on hooks. Students will know they have work waiting for them on the board that they need to get started on as soon as possible because I will have indicated that to them from the very first day and for several days following, with reminders in the form of positive feedback often.

I know that going in as a first-year teacher, I will have to keep an open mind about classroom procedures. The dynamics of a class from year to year could easily call for more specific procedures about what to do when students get silly or a little more vocal. That would be something that we discuss as a class, sitting down to talk about what strategies might work that will allow kids to be excited, while still ensuring that we’re all able to learn and that we are not disturbing other people. I can’t begin to guess what ideas students might have, but I do know that I want to encourage enthusiasm and fun–they’re third-graders, after all. And it might be a procedure we regularly revisit to check in on.

More than anything else, I know it’ll be important for students to buy into the rules and procedures of our classroom. They need to see the value of everything, otherwise why would they follow them? And part of that will be them seeing me follow all of the same standards, rules and procedures that I am holding them to.

High expectations lead to great things

Before this week I was not so acutely aware of the effect of a teacher’s expectations on her students. Peering back into my history as a student, I remember most of my teachers expecting more of me than I sometimes gave, but I certainly wasn’t able to recognize changes in my behavior as a result.

The power of self-fulfilling prophecies is clear, though. If you are made to believe you are a great dancer, you will dance more often and improve with more practice and less inhibition. If you are made to believe you are a poor soccer player, you may quit the team and never improve. The phenomenon is the same in the classroom, but with more significant consequences. Teachers project their expectations of students, verbally and non-verbally, consciously or not, and students can tell. If their teacher doesn’t expect much of them, there is little incentive for students to set higher goals for themselves. It is not a direct route, but higher expectations lead to better performance, which leads to greater pride in one’s work, and then there is also the cyclical effect of greater pride in one’s work leading to still more improved performance.

I look forward to working with great students. I am moving into a world of international private schools with resources and involved parents. I know that those things do not equalize student’s ability, but I know that I will not be facing all of the challenges that some of my present colleagues may have to face. I hope to slip into a system that already has high expectations of its students, where it will be easier for me to hold all of my students to high standards. In very concrete terms, I am glad to add classroom techniques to my toolbag, like giving students time to think, using fairness sticks to call randomly on students, moving constantly among all of my students, asking for more developed answers, finding and explaining the right and wrong in everyone’s answers, and more.

In terms of the group assignment we completed this week, I will not hesitate to say that I was the weakest link. Carolyne started us off early, creating the glog and doling out assignments, knowing that this was a busy week for everyone. Daniel contributed probably half of all of the content on our glog. I did some work, later became indignant when it disappeared, realized I hadn’t saved it, and had to hurriedly do it again in what space remained. This group project simply was not my priority this week.

A perfect, happy classroom, right?

Keeping a class in line is something I’m really anxious about. When I picture myself in the classroom, I envision a pretty rosy place with lots of smiling faces and no screaming or biting or crying (again, elementary…). There’s no back-talking in that classroom, and very few hurt feelings. I’m worried reality won’t be kind to me.

I understand it’s crucial that the students respect you as the teacher, and that respect is earned by being fair and consistent. It’s upsetting to hear stories about students being discriminated against by one teacher and then getting it into their head that they’re bad students and then growing into that role, potentially ruining the rest of their school career and life. There’s so much riding on being fair to all students, regardless of whether you like them personally or if they remind you of someone who tormented you growing up.

I want to have a classroom with clear, simple rules that students can reference easily. I really like the idea of students being involved in the process, either helping to create our class rules or the consequences for infractions. Even younger elementary students can take ownership on that level. And then hopefully they can hold each other accountable to the rules every once in awhile.

One line I’m really not sure how to walk is the one between taking students and their conflicts seriously and micromanaging everyone’s hurt feelings. In the classroom I served as the assistant, a kindergarten class, there was a lot of… tattling. A lot of crocodile tears. The teacher and I could have spent all recess sorting out who wasn’t allowing who to play with them, but often that seemed unnecessary and over-involved, and I watched experienced teachers instruct students to try to work it out themselves. I want to take my students’ concerns seriously, and everyone needs to feel safe at school, but negotiating everyone’s social network would be impossible. Is bullying like obscenity? I know it when I see it?

I’m not overly worried about students liking me. Children seem to, in general. I like them, and I know that goes a long way. I could have a rude awakening in store for me, naive from my own experience of loving the vast majority of the teachers I had. I really don’t think that’s going to be my biggest problem though. Famous last words?

Learning objectives and digital tools

Today’s classrooms sometimes come with computers, SmartBoards, iPads, cameras, touch tables, and more, all outfitted with more technological tools than we needed to get to the moon. When it comes to incorporating these tools into a lesson plan, is more always better? No, certainly not. Technology should be used strategically, not as ploys to entertain students or simply for the sake of using these resource-expensive digital tools.

It should all start with the learning objectives of the lesson plan. These objectives should be specific and concrete; they should be measurable. They should not set unrealistic expectations. In teaching a lesson about local geography, a learning objective might be: Students will create a map of the area around the school, incorporating three features that aid in direction-giving.

To get started on this project, the teacher might open Google Earth on her computer and project it so the students can see her zoom in on their school. They could discuss as a class what they see that helps them know where they are–street signs, recognizable buildings or parks, and so on. If this is an in-class assignment and students don’t have access to a class set of laptops or iPads, they can draw their own map from what they see projected, or they could go to the computer lab and work on mapping software to create their map digitally. But if the mapping software is too complex or offers an overwhelming array of options, it might distract students from the task at hand.

When building a lesson plan, technology shouldn’t be incorporated simply because it is available. Be wary of it serving as a distraction or a reward before it works as a tool.

Strategies for brain-based teaching with digital natives

Today’s first graders were perhaps swiping at iPad screens before they could string a sentence together, and when they graduate from high school and are looking to enter the workforce or go off to college, it will be 2025. They have grown up in a world of Wi-Fi and smartphones, and the only thing we can count on for the world they enter as adults is that technology will be more powerful than we can even imagine today.

In Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age, Marilee Sprenger lays out the context, evidence, and strategies for how to best teach today’s students, anticipating the vast majority of them to be digital natives. I’ve collected some of her techniques that I can most see myself using in my elementary classroom.

She stresses that there are many crucial life skills that are difficult to develop with a computer, chief among them the ability to relate to, empathize with, and “read” other people (pg. 9). Digital tools provide dozens of ways to connect with people, but they can’t do much to raise our emotional intelligence. For this reason and others, a successful learning environment will include both high-tech and low-tech tools.

Physical movement might seem like the lowest of low-tech tools to use with your students. Exercise gets your heart pumping, blood flowing, and oxygen movingthat oxygen gets right to work increasing your brain power. It also releases endorphins, putting you in a better, more receptive mood, which is better for learning (pg. 22). I knew a first-grade teacher who started every morning by having all of her students run a few quick laps around the playground. Huffing and puffing, the students went back to class with smiles on their faces.

Work to lower stress in the classroom. The brain likes what is familiar, so build that into your classroom. Sprenger offers the strategy of employing rituals throughout your week that students will come to expect and count on (pg. 36). I like the idea of a daily meeting during which we read a morning message, share important news, and introduce the things we’re going to be working on that day.

Have students work in groups often. This will strengthen students’ collaborative and communicative skills as they share information, coordinate responsibility, teach one another, and stretch their comfort zone (pg. 50). Groups should be mixed to represent different learning styles, achievement levels, cultural backgrounds, and so on. Change groups and leadership regularly to magnify the effects.

Introduce students to mindmaps. Digital natives are practiced at quickly processing visual images, and if you give them the tools to visually represent content, they will enjoy better retention and recall of the information (pg. 101). I remember doing this often in elementary school, but the practice dropped off as I got to high school, when content-heavy material would have been difficult to physically fit on a lined notebook page. An online mapping tool like mind meister fixes that problem easily, and low-tech, hand-drawn maps work great for elementary students.

Appeal to students’ desire for options by offering them choices at multiple stages of content acquisition (pg. 47). Let them choose from a variety of research topics; have them pick whether to do their research online or in the school library; allow them to choose their manner of presentation from a list you compiled during a class brainstorming session. The balance between freedom and structure will be different for each student, but by establishing boundaries in advance or as a class and then being flexible as students have new ideas, hopefully everyone will be left satisfied.

Regardless of how you’re presenting new content to your class, in a high-tech or low-tech way, always, always try to link it back to material they’ve previously learned (pg. 28) or connect it to something in their life outside of school (pg. 31). These students are accustomed to the hyperlinks that litter every website they visiteverything is connectedplus information is more interesting and more likely to be retained if you can fit it into a larger picture.

It is futile to resist the tide of technology; there is no returning to typewriters when second graders are taking state reading tests on computers. Better to embrace the change and teach to these brains that have developed differently in response to the digital world they’ve been steeped in. Which of these techniques appeal to you the most? Do you have any other strategies you use or hope to use in your classroom?

Sprenger, M. (2010). Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Plant unit with the third-graders

Next semester I will be teaching third-graders a unit on plants and trees. We are expecting a new student from Japan at the beginning of the semester; I have heard he speaks no English. Fortunately we have another Japanese student in our class who has made very good progress so far this year; she is in the beginning fluency stage of English. I will partner them up when he first arrives, and hopefully she will be able to help our new classmate when he really needs it. I intend to incorporate a lot of pictures and images in the plant unit, and there are a lot of trees around our campus that will be great for hands-on, multi-sensory learning. Trees and plants lend themselves very well to cross-sectional images with labels, and at the same time are familiar to all children, so hopefully this will be engaging to our new student as well as the other students. The Japanese girl will likely still struggle with some of the more technical language, like photosynthesis and chlorophyll, including in their pronunciation, but with repeated focus on those challenging sounds, I’m confident she’ll get the hang of it. While she is being a helper to our new student, I will still partner her with one of the English speakers so she continues to have support on the content and language.

One of my Salvadoran students has been at our American school since pre-K and has intermediate fluency. She is very talkative in social settings, but tends to clam up when we’re having discussions in class. I don’t think it’s shyness; rather, I’m afraid she’s not very confident in the scientific language. I think it is time to have a private talk with her about creating some specific language goals. I will continue to correctly model this academic language through our plant unit, and she will hopefully be engaged in achieving her goals. I believe she would advance quickly if she were partnered with one of my other high-achieving girls, one of the native English speakers.

I also need to keep an eye on the Hungarian boy in my class. This is his second year at our American school, and he is still in the speech emergent phase. Luckily, he spends many recesses collecting leaves and nuts, so hopefully that will translate into an interest in our plant unit. I’m confident he could do fill-in-the-blank activities, especially if I have them work in their groups. He is another one who would really benefit from very detailed images that illustrate plants and their life cycles.

Final projects for the unit could be one of a choice of reports: students could produce their own detailed drawings, turn in summaries of the different classroom books about plants, or write a report on the life cycle of a plant or tree of their choosing–maybe one that grows in their home country.