Friday, April 27, 2012

Action Research

In the age of 21st century education and the high stakes that come with being an educator, we must be certain of the practices and actions that we foster. Every last thing that a teacher does has an impact and leaves a lasting impression on his/her students for a lifetime. Therefore, it is imperative that what an educator does in the classroom is in the best interest of each and every student regardless of background or ability. In order to identify and achieve the practices that best support our students, action research should be practiced by all teachers and those part of the learning community. Action research is an imperative method not only for identifying best practice to support learners but to use those reliable and valid evidence based practices as a companion and tool for leading change on a broader level. Those that conduct action research have the ability to lead by example and support their claims with sound evidence. People are much more likely to support efforts for change when they can see exactly how the change has an impact on learning and action research provides the means. In order to deliver the most outstanding education to our youth, one that is based on practices supported by evidence and meets the needs of all children and is dynamic in its ability to change with ever evolving expectations, desires, and needs, we must have a sound method for identifying the factors necessary for all students to achieve success and lead change and there is no better way in education than reliable and valid action research.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Something profound happened to me the other day at the market and the scene keeps replaying and replaying in my mind.
Two years ago, I was working with 7th grade severe needs children, and for part of the time, I would be in the general ed classroom working with moderate needs children to help accommodate and modify their learning based on their ability. However, being in the general ed classrooms allowed me to get to know all of the kids, and in addition to the severe and moderate needs children, I quickly began to build fun and meaningful relationships with many of the students and did my best to earn their respect. Well, I still see many of these kids around, and it is always a pleasant surprise to run into them around town. Usually we shake hands, shoot the breeze and reminisce for a few moments and carry on. As I walk away, I always feel enlightened to know that my former students are doing well, trying hard and doing their best and living life. Not much of a better feeling if you ask me.
Anyway, there are always those students that it seems you can never reach. No matter how hard you try or how many times you reach out, they still do not want much to do with you. After all, you are a teacher. I have known a few of these children. In fact, there was an instance one time when one of these very students, who was always in the office and always being escorted by the resource officer, took a rubber band and purposefully snapped me in the neck with a rubber band right before the entire class. The entire class gasped and sat extremely silent and didn’t know how to react as they didn’t know how I was going to react.
Well, I didn’t react. I stood before the class very silent and calm until the stinging went away, and along with the teacher, we redirected everybody’s attention back to their work as if nothing happened. The teacher was insistent upon calling the school officer to have him escorted to the office, but I asked if I could speak to him before she made any calls. The teacher agreed, and I was allowed my moment with him.
I reminded him that no matter what he did, I would always be willing to do anything for him and that I will always be there for him, that all he has to do is ask. He brushed this off with his tough guy attitude and told me that he would rather go to the office. So I told him that he could go, but before I would let him go, he had to shake my hand and apologize for his action. He refused, and so we sat there in silence. About five minutes went by, and he was seemingly getting nervous and very impatient. Finally, he stuck out his hand and gave me a trite “Sorry.” As I shook his hand, I let him know that his actions will define him as a person and that if he wanted respect from his peers and elders that he must give respect to receive it. After saying that, I let his hand go and he was escorted to the office.
Two days later, this kid had a massive stroke in the classroom right before the very eyes that witnessed him pop me in the neck with a rubber band. He was flown to the Children’s Hospital in Denver where he remained in a coma for nine weeks. That was the last I saw of him.
This past weekend, I was leaving the market, and as I was walking through the door, here this young man came. Our eyes met, and he gave me the most inspiring and brilliant smile. He walked up to me and grabbed my hand. I said, “Antonio, you are looking great, and you have a new fancy haircut. How are you?! It is so great to see you!” He didn’t respond. He couldn’t. I found out from his mother, who he was clinging to and now speaking with a cracked voice said that he had lost the ability to speak and now truly needs assistance for everything he does. She looked at me and said, “Thank you.” I thought, “For what?” and she said that she hadn’t seen him respond to anybody like that for a long time and his smile made her very happy. We looked at each other for a few moments, shook hands one more time and parted ways.
I know that that there are times when we feel like we want to give up on a kid and think that they will never turn around. But to have Antonio come up to me and communicate with me the only way he knew how, a handshake and a smile, reminded me that children listen and learn even when we feel like it is the last of their priorities. It also reminded me to never give up on a child no matter how trying they may be. Antonio didn't give up, so neither will I.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Love for Literature

Phew! TCAP is coming to a conclusion, and boy, are the students relieved! We started testing on the 6th of March and it is now the 28th, and we still have one last session to go. It has been a long road for my students as they have been testing for the majority of the month and certainly the same is true for students across Colorado. At our school, our daily routine has been butchered, which has brought out behaviors in my students that I have not seen since the beginning of the year, and my accommodation students are beginning to wonder if they will ever return to Mr. Moore’s class again as they are not allowed in my room while my remaining students are testing, and in addition, they test at a completely different time. However, speaking with my accommodation students’ proctors, I understand that the amount of effort they are putting fourth has been quite impressive, and I must say the same for the students that remain in my room. I am very proud of them and their effort. But again, TCAP has been difficult in that the remainders of our days are so chopped up. But, I’ve discovered a silver lining to the madness of a gnarled schedule, at least in our district, due to the demands of testing.
I am currently teaching in a Title I school. Part of the district’s expectations teaching at a title school is that we follow certain guidelines that we are not to deviate from. For one, all reading, writing, and math lessons are provided to us through a third party educational resource company. We are to teach from their books, use their lessons, and test our students’ knowledge using their assessments. Further, we are held to a strict pacing guide. Therefore, if a student transfers from one Title I school in our district to another Title I school in our district, there is no lapse in instruction because all title schools in our district are to teach the exact same lessons during the exact same week. There are tremendous benefits to this, but there are some rather pungent downfalls as well.
One aspect of our district’s system that I find beneficial is the structure that is provided through the third party educational program.  As teachers in this district, we know exactly what to teach, when to teach, how to teach, and the lessons are spiraled so that students get more than one exposure to a lesson throughout the year. Additionally, what we are to teach has been aligned to the Common Core Standards for each grade level. Further, it is rather nice to receive a transfer student that can pick up right where he/she left off. I believe this makes the transition for the student much more pleasant and less stressful. But again, there are down sides to this type of instruction as well.
The biggest gripe that I have, which is shared by many, is that the true essence of teaching is stripped away. No longer are the lessons our own original thoughts and practices. We have a little wiggle room to convey the information how we would like, but it is quite difficult when even what we say to our students is planned for us as well, and with administration coming through on the regular to ensure that we are following district expectations. It was even difficult for me to get my action research project approved because it strayed away from how our programs expect us to teach. Where in math we use to teach several strategies to complete any given type of math and let the student choose which strategy worked best from them, we now have to teach one strategy or “the” strategy the book outlines. Also, which alludes to what I am getting at, our reading and writing instruction comes from “cookie cutter” lessons provided by a program that is unaware of the dynamic setting of our classrooms and the different context every teacher faces. We introduce a concept, practice it with our students, read what they want us to read when they want us to read it, complete a worksheet and then assess. We don’t even get to read complete works of literature. All our students get are tidbits of stories compiled into a text book, never the complete story. Well, perhaps needless to say, the students have now caught on and are pleading for some originality and literary sustenance.
Well, because of TCAP and the accompanying schedule, the district and our administration have been a little more lenient on their expectation to teach from their program. I have taken full advantage of this and brought in a new approach to our math, reading, and writing lessons, and here is one thing that I have observed in my students since, a LOVE for literature. Gone are the days in my setting where a teacher can choose a book to share with their children and read aloud and have deep, meaningful discussions that children can learn from and take home to apply to their own lives. But during this time of assessment, where our days are usually planned for us from beginning to end, I decided to share with my students The Giver. The kids have become enthralled with the book. They want more and more. I see a passion for reading that I have not seen since we started teaching from “the program.” I have still maintained teaching students about character, setting, conflict, events, resolution, etc., which my students know very well because of the program we teach from (have to give credit), but now they are excited about reading so much so that several of my students have managed to get their own copies of the book to enjoy themselves.  The discussions we have are incredible. Students are asking questions, making predictions, identifying how the setting affects a character, making connections to their own lives…WOW, and all without any prompting from a predetermined dialogue! While we do this with our program reading, now the kids get the whole story and are evolving intellectually as the book evolves which doesn’t happen with the chopped up stories we read from the program.
The past month during TCAP coupled with a less rigid schedule has really opened my eyes and has helped me to realize once again that our youth does have a desire to engage in academia and there remains a love for literature. But, it wasn’t until it was, in a way, taken from us and returned that I realized this. More importantly, my students have realized this for themselves and now realize that learning and the means to learning, especially reading in our case, can be enjoyable and exciting.
So now I see both sides to many current practices in education. While my students have learned and grown intellectually through the implementation of a stringent program, which I am grateful for, their love for learning hadn’t been recognized by me or my students until we were able to break away and discover once again other original and distinct means to learning. Something as simple as picking up a novel to share with students, which is something I never thought would die, really jazzed my kids up and engaged them back into what they have learned and how to apply it to what they may read away from school. I have never had so much fun reading with my students! We need to find a balance between the two to recapture the hunger for knowledge in our students because it is alive, but we must work on making it well.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Our Mornings

This morning we played a game of Charades. Jasmyne acted out a “puma,” not a mountain lion! However, she looked more like a dying turtle in agony than a “puma.” It was hilarious, and the kids ate it up. We followed this activity with a game of Telephone. One student starts the conversation and whispers the massage to the next person and so on until it gets back to the originator. Usually the message is about Mr. Moore’s hairy knuckles which the kids always seem to crack jokes about and today was no different. But again, the students laughed with one another. Our last activity this morning was a game of You Can’t Make Me Laugh. One student stands in the middle of our circle and with much effort tries very hard not to laugh as another student does everything in their power to make that student crack-up while the rest of us are doing our best not to giggle ourselves. Not always possible. Today, Jakelin was doing her best to make Lesly laugh and was just about out of time and in a panic when she grabbed her cheeks and proceeded to pull and push them back and forth while cross-eyed and made everybody bust up. I think the most amusing part of it was the panic in her expression.
We start every morning this very way. There are things we do that precede and follow these activities, and we have many different, fun and stimulating ones, too. But the goal during this time is not only to stimulate the kids’ minds, but more importantly, to build community. Many educators call this time “Morning Meeting,” and there are several publications on Morning Meetings which is how I learned of this activity. I urge all teachers to look into this activity and consider incorporating it into your classroom.  Our Morning Meetings consist of what most Morning Meetings do: a greeting, a couple quick activities, and announcements. We do all of this at the start of every morning in about 15 minutes.
Our greeting hasn’t changed that much since the beginning of the year. The first greeting I taught my students as they first introduced themselves to each other was a firm handshake and a good look in the eye. So every morning since then, my students circle up around our classroom, and I go around to each student and greet each of them aloud coupled with a firm handshake and a good look in the eye. After I greet each student, the rest of my students chorally greet that student, and then I advance to the next student until everybody has been greeted. Here’s was so great about it. Now, after months of us doing this every morning, every time we have a guest in our classroom, my students don’t hesitate to greet our guest, shake their hand, and introduce themselves. Also, my students are now eager to shake my hand at the end of the day on their way out the door. It has become part of our classroom culture.
Next to come are the activities such as the ones I have mentioned. Students love and look forward to this time. Our class uses these activities as a time to stimulate minds and get the blood pumping, but as mentioned earlier, these activities are really to build community and friendships in our classroom. It’s a time to laugh, and learn from one another and gain an understanding of one another. During this time everybody enjoys the company of each student and they are happy at the start of the day.
The last thing we do to complete our Morning Meeting is announcements. This time is used to communicate with the students and inform them of any school activities, events, or guests. I then give students the opportunity to announce things to the class that they are excited about. However, announcements aren’t all we do. I take the opportunity at the end of announcements to let my students know what they did well the day before, compliment them and encourage the same behaviors for the days and weeks to come. I set the behavior and learning expectations at this time for the day, have the students reiterate them to each other and to me. We say the pledge (only once everybody is standing tall, quiet and respectful and addressing the flag) and we are ready to begin our day.
I firmly believe that the community we have built and the respect that my students have developed for one another through these activities not only help them grow socially but assist them in their academic growth as well. It’s great to see and hear the students respect one another and help each other out. Of course we have our spats and disruptions, but over the months they have declined greatly and the students have learned to handle these situations and almost continue seamlessly which allows us to focus on learning.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Small-Group Instruction

As I was conducting research for my literature review regarding the most effective strategies to engage students in their learning, I decided that small group instruction would become a priority in my classroom. There is a bounty of potential benefits that can be obtained from small group instruction. For example, small-group instruction is tailored to the specific needs of 4-6 students. Further, when placed in small groups, students are much more at ease with their peers in their small-group because they are of similar ability which leads to greater involvement; there is no extraneous pressure from more advanced students. Moreover, a teacher engaging four students can hear and reply more clearly, provide direct and specific feedback, and can respond to children’s reactions in a more effective manner when compared to a large group. Even though research shows an abundance of benefits, at first, I was extremely apprehensive and had a few concerns surrounding small group implementation.
My primary concern involved making sure that the remainder of my students stayed in tune to their learning while I was providing other students with small-group instruction. Before the beginning of the second semester, I was constantly questioning how I could ensure and be certain that the remainder of my students were focused on their studies.  After all, I was planning on releasing responsibility to the rest of my students while I am in small-group. This thought really stressed me out! The last thing I want to do as a teacher is fail to provide the means necessary for each and every one of my students to be successful in their education whether my instruction is the focus of their attention at the time or not. However, after the past seven weeks, I believe our class has small-group instruction time and what is necessary to be successful during this time down pat.
The most important things that I do to ensure small-group instruction time is productive for all and not just those in small-group is providing the whole class with a procedure to accomplish the learning tasks at hand while I am instructing in small-group. Because our procedures are very similar each day but with different exercises, over time, the procedure became routine. Now the students know exactly what to expect each time I am working with small-group and how to accomplish their learning tasks. Additionally, I set learning and behavior expectations for my students during this time. Not only do I set the expectation, I have them reiterate them to each other in their learning groups. After they have repeated them to each other, I collect their attention, draw a name from the cup and have that individual repeat the expectations for the class. Lastly, I have the class verbally agree to the expectations in unison before we break.
Just as research supports and as we have learned, I have found that my students are much more productive and successful when having procedures, routines and expectations. After the first two weeks of implementing small-group instruction, I really started to recognize just how engaged all of my students can be without me directing their every thought. But, there was one thing I really needed to work out.
Just when I thought everything was up and running smoothly, a few students would come to me while I was working in small-groups and ask, “What do I do now?” I thought that there was no way that a student could have successfully accomplished all the tasks laid out before we broke into small groups, but there are students that can and do all the tasks asked of them to support their learning and produce a high quality learning product. So I immediately learned to over plan during this time for those very students. For these students I decided not to simply give them additional practice but to practice the same skills as everybody else but with the requirement of higher order thinking due to providing them with more challenging tasks. Now, these very students are engaged the duration of our small-group time and have responded extremely well to their new responsibilities as reflected in their assessments!
The initial stress I endured just at the thought of releasing responsibility to my students has subsided, the students are largely engaged, and the time I get to spend with my small-groups is priceless. It is so wonderful to be able to engage 4-6 students at a time and focus on their specific needs and rest assure that the remainder of my students are engaged in the learning process. The most important thing that I have learned is to differentiate, differentiate, differentiate and not just in small-group, but for the various students that are working without my supervision. I look forward to the coming school year as I will be much more prepared to implement and manage small-groups in my classroom.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Active Engagement

One of my primary concerns in my classroom is whether or not my students are engaged in their learning. It is accepted that if our students are not engaged in their learning that our students will return home each night without comprehending the skills or concepts presented each day and will not know how to apply these skills to future learning. This problem is exacerbated when students need to recall previous learning to be successful in their current studies but cannot. Speaking with colleagues, I have ascertained that as teachers we sometimes feel that it is easier to move along in our teaching and never mind the children who are constantly off task and probably won't "get it" anyway. I feel this is a major downfall in many classrooms and schools today and a contributing factor as to why so many of our students are grade levels behind their like age peers. Many teachers rebuttal my thoughts and make the claim that we now have interventions and associated teachers in place for such children. I say that it doesn’t matter if they are in intervention if they are not engaged in their learning there either, and I am still receiving students that are years behind their counterparts and have been in intervention for a couple years. Additionally, wouldn’t it be dreamy if we didn’t need interventions to begin with? So what do we do? How do we make sure that we are not simply passing students along to the next level of learning without the knowledge to be successful? After reading studies, observing classrooms, and being a teacher myself, I believe that effective active engagement is a great part of the solution.
It really makes me contemplate each day after school when I feel that student engagement for the day's lessons did not meet my expectations as to what I can do differently tomorrow to get even one more student truly involved in our lessons. As I have mentioned before, my classroom is composed of quite the eclectic group when it comes to reading and comprehension ability. To combat this issue, I have been utilizing every active engagement strategy I learn about so long as it is fitting in my lessons. To mitigate the hyperactive tendencies that results in a loss of focus in my classroom, I have recently been trying to work in as much physical movement into my lessons as possible.
Most recently, as our class engages in a read aloud or choral reading, I have been having my students act out all of the action verbs that we come across in our reading. This action might look different from student to student, as we do not stop our reading to practice together, and some students’ actions are more subtle than others, but my students have been responding really well to this engagement activity. Students are beginning to ask, “Can we do that thing where we act out our reading, please!” Not only are my students excited for these lessons, they are gaining more from these lessons as reflected in our follow-up discussions and lesson work. Not to mention, my students now identify and act out every single action verb they come across whether we are in the room engaged in a lesson or walking down the hall to PE. What a great sight to see!
As my teaching continuously evolves, I hope to find just the right balance and combination of active engagement strategies to ensure that every one of my students, regardless of their current ability, get the most out of their education and me as their teacher. We owe it to our children to provide the most outstanding education from the moment they step through the door their first day of kindergarten and every single day thereafter, and active engagement is one way to ensure that we do just that. Maybe, once our students enjoy the learning process and are truly engaged in their learning from day one, intervention will be a practice of the past and our students will enjoy the knowledge they have gained and all they can do with it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Instructional Strategies

I am currently seeking the most effective instructional strategies to help improve my students' ability to comprehend what they read. At the beginning of the year, only 3 out of 24 of my fifth-grade students were proficient in reading comprehension at the fifth-grade level. This immediately became of deep concern to me and prompted my current action research. But beyond seeking the most effective strategies to improve comprehension, I am determined to find if a specific combination of instructional strategies is more effective than stand alone strategies.

Since the beginning of the third quarter, I have been incorporating active engagement whiteboards, think-pair-share, choral reading, and guided practice into our whole-group instruction. This is followed by a practice session and small-group instruction. While the majority of students are engaged practicing the fresh concept, I meet with 5-6 of my students and engage them into small-group instruction for 5-7 minutes. I then rotate the rest of my students in so that each student receives such focused instruction. After I have rotated through my small-groups, I pull the class back together for one last opportunity to collaborate over what they learned with a couple think-pair-shares requiring a genuine understanding followed by a surmising discussion. The last strategy I have been incorporating with each lesson is homework specifically focused on the day's reading instruction.

So far, students seem to be responding to this type of daily instruction very well. Many of my students have verbalized that they are having more fun with our lessons, and it shows. My students seem to be more eager to learn. Additionally, I have had fewer student disruptions since the start of this quarter, and I believe this is because we have been utilizing numerous strategies in our lessons which keep my students actively thinking and focused. Moreover, the small-groups have allowed me to focus on specific needs with specific students, and this looks to be promising in our efforts to improve reading comprehension.

One struggle I have been having is with homework participation. Student participation has been between 70-75%, but I would like to get this above 90%. The students that have been participating seem to be responding and to this point, seem to be performing better on our reading assessments, but it is still too early to say. Any suggestions are welcome and greatly appreciated.

I am excited about our new approach to reading comprehension instruction, and I am very pleased that my students are enjoying the learning process. I will be in contact with my students' parents in an effort to help motivate and support their children with their homework. I believe reviewing concepts after time has elapsed will help my students commit what they have learned to memory, and they will gain a deeper understanding.