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.