Sunday, January 30, 2011

After Publishing my Discipline Management System

About 3 weeks ago, I chronicled how I had gone from a checks, sticks, and names discipline system to one based in logic, respect, and communication instead.  Little did I know that it would hit such a nerve with so many people.  So now with 33 comments,  81 re-tweets (even one by the very smart Alfie Kohn!), and more than 10,000 views, I think it is time to answer some of the questions that were posed.

  • Don't you think it is just because of your great group of students that this works?  This has been a popular one, especially as I discuss it with colleagues who happen to know firsthand what an amazing group of 4th graders we do have.  My answer, well maybe, and yet, I do know that there are students in my room that would not have flourished as much if they had been subjected to last year's rules. These would have been my frequent fliers, often spending recess with me or the principal.  Through communication, I have only had to keep a couple of students in on two occasions as we discussed behavior expectations and how to fix reoccurring problems.   I know that I have 23 incredible students, but I did last year as well and the year prior.  So really, since these are the students that I do have, it appears to be a mute point.
  • How did you come up with this system?  I didn't.  In fact, many commentators pointed out that it sounded a lot like The Responsive Classroom, Love and Logic, or various other programs.  I did not read any of these programs, instead I went with my own commonsense and sense of right and wrong.  I wanted a respectful classroom, which also meant I had to give a lot of respect.  I also knew that this would not be a one time thing of discussion, but something to revisit throughout the year whenever we had time.
  • Why should I care, listen, use what you are using?  That's the wonderful part about the world of blogging, you don't have to!  All I am doing is chronicling my own decision to get rid of a punitive system to one guided by communication.  This approach works for me, but by all means, I want people to use whatever works for them.  I just want to let people know, particularly first year teachers that there are other methods than punishment to create a strong classroom.  I wish I had known more about that in college.
  • Will you use it next year? Absolutely!  As with many changes on my journey this year, I could not imagine going back to my old ways.  I do not know what my classroom will consist of next year, but I do know that I am going to have some very eager new 4th graders ready to learn so my job is to provide them with the very best experience possible.  That includes a room where they feel safe, respected, and listened to, not just by me, but by their peers as well.  There may be changes, but fundamentally my philosophy will only expand and gain momentum rather than completely change.
So keep them coming.  It is only through dialogue that we continue to push our boundaries and learn together.  

If You Give a Classroom Videos

If you give a classroom videos to watch, they may just ask for more.  And then when you play another one, they may start to discuss if it is true what the video purports.

As they discuss the message they ask to write that day's Op.Ed. on the topic and groan when you only give them 15 minutes to write.

When they start to write, you will notice there is furious scribbling and lots of staring.  Then you ask why they are staring and they tell you that they are thinking.  As they think, they come up with even better reasons for why there should be fun in education.

When the time is up, the most reluctant of writers eagerly raise their hand.  As they share, you notice, that other students are nodding in approval.  As they nod in approval, you see the speakers smile.

As the speakers smile, you notice the mood getting lifted and more students raise their hand to share.  As they continue to share, you realize just how much thought went into their writing and you get very, very proud.

When you realize how proud you are, you know this has to be shared with others, so you ask the students to please publish it in their kidblog.

The students cheer as they love to blog and as the cheers settle, one student raises their hand eager to ask a question.

If you let that student ask their question, they will ask if they may watch another video.  And if you let them watch another video, chances are they will want to watch another one after that.

Friday, January 28, 2011

When You Lose Your Voice

I lost my voice.  No, not my speaking voice but the one that writes, that blogs, that sometimes even inspires others.  It wasn't something that I noticed happening, it just slipped away until I realized that I was in drastic need of something to regain it.  I didn't set out to lose it, it just merely happened as life got a little too busy and the rhetoric a little too heavy.  As criticism got to my head and my own self-importance whittled, as did my voice diminish.

I am not that important, in fact, not being important is what makes this journey so incredible.  Being able to reach out to others through this blog and listen to their ideas, their creativity, their passions.  So I knew something needed to change when I started to over-think my writing, limiting myself and my reflections based on what "people" might think.

But I cannot write for an audience, I can only write for myself.  I started this journey to reflect so that is where my focus must remain.  To put it all out there, the good and the bad, the inspired and the embarrassing, because that is what makes life's journey so interesting.  I didn't come here to inspire or to engage, only to be me.  So with this; I reclaim my voice, unfurl it and uncover it.  Hopefully this time, I will remember to stay true to myself.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

All You Have to Do is Show Up - A Tale of Perfect Attendance

Today the debate turned to perfect attendance rewards, something that seems innocent enough on the surface, but can elicit debate in even the most timid teachers. I was lucky to engage in a great dialogue with a trusted colleague but also turned to educators around the world to get their input. The judgment was swift and to the point, most were vehemently opposing them, lambasting them for what they thought they really were; bandaid awards to those students who may not otherwise receive an award.

So why is rewarding students for perfect attendance not a great concept? The ideas were many:

  • It is one more way for schools to separate the winners from the losers in a public forum.
  • It rewards students just for shwoing up, not effort, work ethic or learning. What life skill does that teach since there are no jobs that reward you merely for showing up.
  • Perfect attendance award does nothing but encourage students to come to school even when they are sick enough to stay home or contagious.
  • It makes losers out of the kids where life situations prevent them from coming to school; funerals, court, counselor appointments etc.
  • We are rewarding kids based on their parents behavior; whether they can get them to school or not. Why disappoint the kids further that already are battling with parents that may not be able to supply reliable transportation.
  • If this is the only thing we can rewards students for then we are not spending enough time recognizing or uncovering their talents.
  • And finally, my own opinion; if we have to reward students to come to school then what value are we placing on schools? School is meant to be a place of stimulation, of excitement, of amazing discoveries. Not a place where you show up just so you get a reward. Not a place that has to have a reward tied to it as theperetual carrot. While I agree that we should celebrate those students that do show up day in and day out, I just don't think that an award eceremony is the right venue for it.

Add your voice to the debate! Is a perfect attendance award ceremony simply a cute certificate that does no harm, is it no big deal, or is it another way to compartmentalize students?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Today I Didn't Answer their Questions

Hey Mrs. Ripp, where is Panama? Hey Mrs. Ripp, what does sum mean again? Hey Mrs. Ripp, I don't get it. Substitute your name for mine and and I am sure this is what many of our classrooms sound like on anay normal day. Except today I didn't provide the answers, today I didn't answer with what they wanted to hear. Instead I asked, "How will you find the answer? How will you figure that out?"

Not answering a child is not something I was taught in college, in fact, quite the opposite. I was taught the curriculum, taught to memorize it so I could give it back to the students whenever it was needed. Not anymore, not all the time. Now my students are being taught where to find the answer, where to turn to to figure it all out. Nothing revolutionary, nothing I invented, instead something I learned from watching other great teachers do it.

So today, what happened to those students that didn't know the answer? Panama was found through studying our classroom map, sum was looked up in a math reference book, and an explanation was found through a classmate. Will this approach always work? Who knows. Today it did.

Have you tried not answering? Is it something we have to teach or can we throw students into it without help?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Adding Up the Weight of Words

I used to think I was a good dancer. Not the "So You Think You Can Dance" kind but not horribly ungifted either. I could shake it without care, busting a move with the best of them, and carefree live my life. I used to think I could dance until I met my husband. Brandon is a natural, he moves, he shakes, he glides. Why he knows how to twirl around a dance floor I do not know, but next to him, I acquired two huge left feet.

At first, we laughed about how I was clumsy. Being tall, skinny, and with two large feet didn't help me either. And yet, as we laughed and joked about it, I really did get worse at dancing. For every negative comment I started to believe a little more that perhaps, just perhaps, there was something to it. Perhaps I really was bad at dancing, perhaps those jokes and comments were truth and not just fun to be had. Now, I barely ever dance, mostly just around my house with my daughter, but I am no longer the first one on the floor and I definitely always looking around seeing if anyone notices just how uncoordinated I am.

I think of my students, of the little comments we make throughout our day. Of snappy lines other students make, often in jest, but oft repeated. I wonder how many of those lines, those comments, dig themselves in and burrow down deep until they latch themselves into their psyche rendering them useless at something. How often do they start out laughing along until they realize that it is just not that funny?

We must always carry a sense of humor about ourselves, but when does that humor become destructive rather than funny?

So those little words, those small actions, add up to more than we can ever know. And not just the negative ones, but the positive ones as well. How about laughing about how talented someone is rather than how inadequate? Perhaps if I had joked about how incredible of a dancer I was, I would believe it now. I know that words have power, but often I forget about the small words and how much power they gain when I add them up. It is time for me to give weight to the positive ones.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ok, I Admit It

It is time I admit a few things.  Not any secrets, nothing that will hurt others, but truths that I am ready to share about myself.  After all, my birthday is nearing, time for reflection is now, and honestly, why not put it all out there?  So in no particular order, here it is 
  • I am not tough.  Far from it in fact.  Although my steps seem self-assured and I can argue all of my opinions, inside I am still that awkward 15 year old hoping for acceptance.  So when people speak of "people" and what these "people" are saying about me, that pit in my stomach grows.  And yet, I know that life is a series of ebbs and flows, and someone out there likes me and what I do.  
  • I am a massive (proud) geek.  Oh, such a cliche, but it is true, my husband reminds me all the time that I would be a Trekkie if I had more time.  Instead I consume all things zombie, Neil Gaiman, techy tools and nerd style.  I would rock geeky glasses if I needed them.  I get excited when students quote obscure books or Sherlock Holmes.  I will talk videogames with you.  And it's ok, I embrace it in my own nerdy way.
  • I am not an extrovert.  I am boisterous, I laugh loudly, and I sing in my classroom.  That does not mean I am comfortable around people.  In fact, I think the internet has provided me with a much needed shield so that I could explore facets of my personality and let myself shine amongst others.  See me at a conference and don't be surprised if I am very, very quiet.
  • I do not have all of the answers.  I am sharing my journey, not selling a path.  
  • I change my mind.  This year certain things are working for me incredibly well but that does not mean they will work next year as well.  I am forever open to change, to reflection, to reinvention.  After all, life is not a passive act and neither is teaching.
  • I don't think I am a great teacher.  I have been around great teachers, my mother being one, and I am not even close to that.  And thankfully so; my journey has just begun and I need to aspire to something.  I think I have good ideas, passion, and dedication, but greatness - maybe in 25 years.
I wonder what others wish the world knew about them?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

We Are Not the Most Important Piece of Life

I used to think student vacations meant lots of projects for them to do,  but then again,  I used to think a lot of things. This year with the advent of limited homework and more in-school learning, I stopped that practice. First I felt guilty; after all, wasn't I supposed to assign lots of work for students to be engaged in when they were not in school? if I didn't assign work, would they remember what it means to be in school, to work hard, to learn?  And yet, I knew that it had to be done.  Students were asked to read, maybe blog if they felt like it, which some did, and otherwise just be with their family.

The result; happy students who came back eager to learn and share all of their experiences.

As one of my students struggles through the sudden loss of her beloved grandfather, I am strengthened in my resolve to not encroach.  To not impose too much on the outside life, to let my students breathe, reflect, and in this case, mourn, without the pressure of school hanging over them.  For me, it is time I embrace a radical notion;  an education may be important but it is NOT the most important thing.   Life is the most important, and the chance to live it fully, remember it, and grow as a person will always beat the things we do at school.  We are important pieces, but we are not the biggest piece of a person, and nor should we be.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

So How's this Whole No Grading Thing Going for Ya?

This year I threw out letter grades almost completely. Only almost because I am still required to give my fourth grade students a letter grade on their trimester report card. I thought I was crazy, doing this, and I am sure I wasn't the only one. I thought I was going to regret it for sure, face uphill battles from confused parents and upset students, yet instead, nothing...

I have battled with grades my whole life myself, from being a student that never applied themselves enough to a staunch, anxious overachiever with a ridiculous GPA. I never quite found the balance. I just couldn't get my grades to fit me, they never showed my interests, my smarts, my deficits. They were just an arbitrary number on a piece of paper, something that said nothing about my future or my past. Not even a snapshot in time.

So when I became a teacher, I fiddled, I muddled, and I tweaked. Those poor averages and grades I came up with never seemed to tell my students their story either. An A meant little but an F meant something,right? We finished a product, stamped a grade on it and end of discussion. So this year I stopped grading and I was terrified.

When you tell people you don't believe in grades, they mostly think you are crazy and have no place in teaching. After all, life is one long file and rank and grades make us all fit in so nicely. And yet, my parents on orientation day believed in me. They seemed to get it because I explained to them what I would do instead. I promised to engage their child in discussions, to constantly evaluate and more importantly reevaluate what knowledge their child had secured. I promised to set up learning opportunities where their child could show off their skills in different ways than written work. I promised them to monitor, alert, refine and reteach whenever needed. I promised them that they would know what their child knew and what they were still working on. I add to these promises whenever I can.

So has it been perfect? Oh I wish. But neither were my letter grades before. Averages never told the full story, and often it was hard to fully explain why a child was a B or a C. Now I can talk about where the child stands, what they have secured, where they are developing. Now when I discuss strengths of my students, I have checklists, specific samples and conversations to refer to. The students are aware of their progress and they know what they need to work on. Getting rid of grades has meant more work for me focused on the student. It has meant more time spent talking to my students, more focus on our goals, more time to really prepare and think about my lessons instead of all that solitary grading. For me, it has meant I can hold my head up higher when in conferences with my students. For me, it has meant a new way of teaching, of preparing my students for a life that will try its best to label them somehow. A way for me to help them tell their story right now and perhaps even point them to their future story.

So that whole no grade thing, maybe not such a bad idea after all.

PS: I couldn't have done this without support from Joe Bower (@Joe_bower), Jeremy MacDonald (@MrMacnology) and some wisdom from the guru that is Alfie Kohn.

Let Them Speak - If You Missed It

Last Saturday, I was excited to be a part of the incredible New teacher Reform Symposium.  Not only did I get to participate in some incredible presentations, but I also got share my journey in my own classroom toward a more student-centered classroom.  Thank you to all that participated in my presentation, I learned so much from the comments and feedback, and I am forever amazed at how many people are willing to reach out, share, and learn from others.

If you missed my presentation, it can be viewed in this archive.

Here are my presentation slides, which probably need to be viewed along with my notes, otherwise they do not make a lot of sense.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Warning, This Will Not Be On a Test!

Today we went sledding. 23 screaming kids, 3 excited teachers and one measly hill covered in snow that did not know what was coming. My students didn't earn this experience, well, I am sure they have, but not in the traditional sense of earning. Instead, I looked out the window yesterday during class and realized that the snow was just perfect. The kind of snow that only comes a couple times a year in Wisconsin; pristine, fluffy, begging to be used for childish pursuits. So I declared that we would go sledding today, and indeed we did.

There was no educational value in this experience, nothing that will be assessed, reviewed or graded. I didn't veil it as such either. I wanted to have fun, I wanted the kids to all play together, I wanted to be a kid for a while. So there we were, celebrating that literacy assessments were done with our sub and speech teacher. All kids sharing sleds, a student with autism not sledding but giving pushes to any child that needed one for extra speed. We were all there, loving the moment. Pictures? Nah, I was too busy having fun. And that is ok.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Let's Set the Record Straight

Today was a great day for quiet excitement; I was thrilled to see that the archive from my presentation at The New Teacher Reform Symposium had been released. So it was with much anticipation, thrill, and dread that I sent the link to my biggest fan and critic; my husband, Brandon. Certainly he would have something for me to work on, I was not disappointed. After some wonderful compliments he wondered whether people now think that my students run around chaotically in the classroom, just exploring wildly without any direction.

Hmm, I thought, I better set the record straight.

My classroom is a bit loud, that I will admit. And not necessarily because I like loudness, I don't, in fact I like it to be silent when I write, but what I do like is learning. So because I have spent too many minutes shh'ing kids for the wrong reasons, there is more chatter and movement in my room then there used to be. There is also a great deal more choice, as in, I chose the direction in which we are headed but the kids help me figure out how we get there. While some label this student-centered learning, I am not sure that is what I do; I just figured out something needed to change and that something turned out to be me.

So while I have as much curriculum and standards to race through as other districts, assessments that must be done and certain assignments that belong in fourth grade, I also have a lot of freedom in how I get there. Sure we have a set math and science program, but even under those constraints I find a great deal of autonomy. If there wasn't, I do believe, it would be stifling. This also happens to be a strength of my building and my district; while certain things are mandated, others are not, so we can be ourselves, the types of teachers we want to be without others wagging their fingers at us.

So to set the record straight; my classroom is not an explosion of exploration (most days), but what it is is an environment created to offer choice in learning style and rigor. I find that happens best for me when I point the direction and then let the students steer with me. The direction I am headed this year; I could never go back.

Friday, January 14, 2011

If Kids Ran the School

Last week I asked my students to blog about what they would change if they had invented school.  While some may think their answers predictable, I think they offer valid suggestions as we move forward in our educational reform.

  • More Recess - while easily dismissed as impossible, I think that this being the top response shows that students need more breaks during instruction.  I do sometimes provide an extra recess if the weather is nice, but often there simply is not time for a full recess experience.  What I can do on a regular basis, though, is to give them partner talk time, free choice for a couple of minutes or even just shift activities more often.  Anything  to offer them some chance for movement and resetting of their brains.
  • 4 Day School Week - It was not that students wanted less time in school, in fact, they suggested longer school days so that they could have 3 days off to be with their family.  I have discussed how much I value family time myself so I can understand the time to just be a kid and to let all of the new information sink in.
  • Allow electronics.  After a recent lunch with my students I was not surprised to hear that most of them had received an Ipod Touch or something similar for Christmas.  I believe, as many do, that the way of the future will be students supplying personal electronic devices alongside schools.  What a great way to incorporate known tools into our learning environment.
  • More choices.  Whether it be choosing your teacher, your room, your learning partner, or just the project, students were begging for more choices in their day.  While I feel my school allows students many choices, this was a great reminder to constantly challenge myself to offer more choices than I perhaps have felt comfortable doing in the past.
  • More fun.  Students wanted to play more math games, chew bubble gum, have lunch with their teachers, play more in the room and just be more creative overall.  

What do you think your students would make their priority?  Is there a way to incorporate ideas from this into your room?  I am certainly trying to.   If you would like to see their full responses, visit our kidblog and leave them a comment or two.

A Student Nominates their Person of the Year

We nominated our Person of the Year today and this is what one of my amazing students wrote:

     My person of the year is Martin Luther King Jr. because if he didn't do what he did I wouldn't be in here with my fantastic teacher and awesome friends.  I, instead, would not have friends, teachers, or rights.  He was willing to make people's lives int he future better even if he was not the best. 

     Martin Luther King was a great man and I am glad him and other people like Rosa Parks were born.  He did not care if people bombed his house or threatened him.  If he was not born, my dream of becoming a football player or baseball player would never be close to coming true.  The reason I chose Martin Luther King is he made my life the best it could ever be.  That's my person of the year; Martin Luther King Jr.

To see the post and leave Lewis a comment, please go to his post.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Must We Grin and Bear It?

Yesterday I shared a blog post regarding my journey from a complicated discipline system to throwing it all out and insetad running a classroom based on respect and communication.  A comment poster by an educator whom I admire, Jeremy MacDonald (@MrMacnology) immediately sparked my interest ( take a moment to read the whole comment). 

He writes,"My daughter has "cards" in her Kinder class. She is absolutely terrified of "pulling a card." I've been to her class to visit her and she is a robot. She's not my little girl....I know her teacher. How do you approach another teacher, who is in direct contact with your child each day, and tell her that her management is depriving my daughter of enjoying kindergarten; enjoying school?"

What an incredible discussion to start!  Do we, as educators and parents, that perhaps are on a different teaching journey than some teachers, have a way of discussing this with our child's teacher?  Is there a gentle way that one can help "enlighten" others or must we grin and bear whatever happens in their classroom?

I know that my teaching methods have changed greatly because of interactions with other teachers, however, these have not been parents of mine, but rather colleagues.  How would I feel if a parent came to me and told me how to teach or how I should change something?  I know there has to be a way to initiate this type of conversation, but how?

So let us open up the discussion!  Do you approach the teacher, do you anonymously send them education books, or do you just let it be hoping for a different approach the following year?  Can you start the dialogue or is it not worth it?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It's Not You, It's Me - Or Why My Great Idea and Your Great Idea Shouldn't Date

We've all been there, bouncing around at your school or home because you just discovered something absolutely, truly, fantastically wonderful that you just cannot wait to try in your teaching.  It is a marvelous feeling this one, one that makes you want to sing from the rooftops and share the idea with everyone you meet.  And then you do and the person who you indulge it with looks at you blankly.  Silence.  Deflated, you walk away, thinking to yourself that maybe that idea was not so great after all.

But wait it's not them, it's you.  Or me in this case.  I am one of those can't wait to try it and then tell everyone about (mostly on this blog) idea kind of people.  I get so overly excited about something that I am practically bursting at the seams with my newfound wisdom and my poor husband is forced to listen to hours upon hours of blissful teacher talk.  I rave, I rant, I share and then I don't understand why others don't see the magic or get as excited to try it as I did.  Take Twitter for example, I don't think I have convinced a single person to get on it, and yet it is one of the most life-altering educational experiences I have ever had.  But it's not the "them" that are to fault, it is me.

We all love great ideas.  We all have them and we all share them.  Some great ideas work especially well for us and others just really don't.  As I grow as an educator, I am beginning to understand more which type of ideas I am really drawn to; student-centered, technology integration, and no grade/homeworks/rewards etc. are things that just rock my world.  Others not so much.  So when other people come up to me and share their great idea, I might be the one with that blank stare that does not show any kind of enthusiasm.  Because to me it just doesn't sound that exciting, or it goes against something I think I believe in, or I just don't have the time.

And that's when I realize, hey it is okay for others NOT to get excited over my great idea.

After all, being a teacher means you get to work with an incredible array of personalities that have one thing in common; they really love kids.  So whichever way, or whichever ideas we use, to get us to change the world one kid at a time, is alright by me.   However, I will promise myself that the next time someone presents their great idea to me, even if it seems a little strange, I will give it a good listen, perhaps even try it, and then decide.  After all, I can only change myself.

Put Your Name on the Board - a Tale of Why I Gave Up Classroom Discipline Systems

Image from here

Put your name on the board! Those words spoken in a very stern voice accompanied by a teacher look was enough to whip the toughest student into shape. Except when it didn't which for me was enough times to make me wonder. Could my discipline systems really be thrown out and replaced with nothing? Would chaos then reign supreme?

If you had come by my room last year you would have seen them. Those sticks in the cups or the names on the boards with checks, sometimes double checks and plenty of stern looks to go around. I was doing exactly what I had been taught in school, exerting my control as the main authority figure and if students misbehaved, well, then there was some form of punishment. Oh don't worry; there were plenty of rewards as well. If students didn't move their stick or get their name on the board for a week then their name got entered into drawing for pizza with me. At the end of the month if they didn't have their name in my book for not doing their homework, they could also enter their name, and then I would finally draw names and five lucky students would have pizza with me. Confused? I was! I could hardly keep check Of all those names, checks, and punishments.

However, last year I realized something after reading Alfie Kohn; I knew I had to change. By perpetually focusing negative energy on the same students, who, lets face it, are most often the ones having their name singled out somehow already, I was indeed just adding more to their self doubt. While I believe in discipline for all students, I also believe in compassion and that philosophy simply was not fitting in with my chosen system. So I did as many teachers may do; I threw it all out. However, instead of hunting for a new system, I decided to detox myself, start this year with no system for reward and punishment and instead strive to create a classroom community where students just know what the expectation is.

I was petrified that first month. I run a tough classroom in my expectations for my students and I know that if you do not set the tone those first weeks, it can be detrimental to the rest of the year. And yet I held strong in my conviction that even the more unruly students would eventually figure this out through repeated conversations and respect. And boy, did we talk. We talked about expectations, rules, how to speak to one another, and what to do when something goes wrong. A lot of the time, I just listened to these amazing students come up with solutions to problems, listened to them explain how they envisioned our classroom, how they wanted fourth grade to be. And I was in awe; these kids knew how to behave without me telling them over and over. And they certainly would figure it out without me alternating punishment and rewards.

So after the first month I started to breathe again. I let our new system flex itself and watched the students help keep the classroom stabile. Sure, there are times when I think ooh if I just had a way to "punish" it would fix this and this and then I realize that perhaps I just need to find some time to speak to that particular student. Now instead of an exasperated tone and a system to keep them in check, we discuss, we try to fix, and we reevaluate. I don't run the classroom with a complicated system of checks and balances, rewards and punishments, but rather with an atmosphere of community, of belonging. Is it perfect? No, but neither am I, nor my students. I am just glad I believed in my own skills enough to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, my students would know how to behave without me rewarding them for it. Once again, they blew away all of my expectations.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Mystery Box

Today, I was mean to my kids.  I taped a 10 foot by 8 foot square off on the carpet before they came to school and then I said nothing.  Just watched them as they drew their own conclusions as to why this mysterious box was taped.  I had not thought much of the placement of my box, just needed one, and so it was by chance it was by our fabulously exciting crayfish.  The kids latched onto this coincidence as if it was the missing piece to the puzzle.  "It is to keep us away from the crayfish," offered one.  "Or for us to know where to stand?"  Or my favorite, "We are going to have a crayfish race!"  This one took on a life of its own as the kids then discussed how that would be possible since our crayfish can only be out of water for about a minute.  Some offered solutions and others shot it down, but all through the day, the mystery deepened.  During literacy, when I introduced our new author study project, we happened to sit in part of the box.  "It is for us to sit in!" the kids exclaimed.  I shook my head and smiled.  I finally told the kids that maybe I did it just to drive them crazy, one student told me I wouldn't be that mean.

Finally, at the end of the day after I had been asked more than thirty times what the box was for, the big reveal came.  P.E. was done, the students were fidgety and I waited for absolute silence.  Then the Native American simulation script started and the lightbulbs went off.  "It is for the settlers, it is for the settlers," was the excited murmur running around the room.  Mystery solved...

Incredible what some masking tape on the floor can do for an otherwise fidgety Monday morning.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Wait, I'm a Foreigner Too

We are at the grocery store and my daughter starts to run away, I yell after her "Thea, kom her nu" and other Danish after her until she comes running back.  As I turn back to the cash register I notice the glance from the cashier and I think, "Yes, I am foreigner too." Being a Dane with every stereotype personified (tall, blonde) in America means people in general do not realize that English is not my first language.  While this is a blessing most of the time, it always astounds me how much of that perception is based on my looks and my name.  I married into a big farm name in this area so my last name "Ripp" means most do not give me a second glance even after stumbling through my first name, which is as about as typically Danish as one can get.

I also do not have an accent.  An early gift from my mother was living in San Francisco at the age of 6 and being thrust into a 1st grade classroom not speaking a single word of English.  Directions were mimed and friendships were formed through glances and lots of hand movement.  Perhaps this is why I speak so much with my hands now?  Either way, research shows that children pick up the native accent if they are exposed to a language before a certain age and I happen to fall into that category.  So when most people discover that I am indeed fresh off the boat so to speak, there are two reactions: "Wow, I had no idea" or "Oh, I thought I heard an accent" (to which I always think, no, you didn't).

So why am I bothering share this story?  Because it made me think of how we treat students who may be a higher level ELL (English Language Learners).  Those non-native speakers that speak so well that we forget that English is not their first language.  We generally remove our support in the classroom, expecting them to do just as well as their English-first speaking peers and then are surprised when sometimes they don't.  We get fooled by their conversational language and perhaps even their academic one, and then do not understand why their written work may be not as strong or another academic area.

So as I think of my own experience as an ELL student, I recognize my own need to re-support those students that may "sound" just fine.  Those students that are very strong but are still learning.  After all, although we are all still learning, when something is not your native language it does add another exciting dimension to your progress.  So enough with my own assumptions, I must not forget about the whole history of the child and not just their present day status.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Let Them Speak - Notes from my RSCON#11 Presentation

Just a disclaimer with these; they were written late one night as I was brainstorming what i would present on.  They are not polished but just free thoughts as I went through my slides.

Hi, my name is Pernille Ripp and I am not an expert.  I am a 4th grade teacher in a school with around 450 students and I am on a journey.  A journey into questioning everything I was taught in school, a journey that has led me here today opening up about why my classroom is changing, and hoping to inspire others to question their classroom as well.

Many articles have been written about student centered classrooms, there are many people that know more than me, use them, connect with them on twitter or through the internet.  I am only here to tell you my story, so let's begin.

Last year I had fantastic students, I felt more confident,  and I had a great team, and yet at the end of the year I was deflated.  I was spent.  I questioned what I was doing as a teacher, why did I teach the way I did and why did the method I had been taught just not seem to work? I shared this with my husband and he asked me, “What can you change?”

So I joined Twitter and started thinking about who I was as a person and how I wanted to be as a teacher.  I also started blogging and doing most of my thinking aloud.  I knew a big problem for me was the amount of control I had in the classroom, it seemed to be a dictatorship at times, and yet, I didn’t know how to change it or whether I could do it at all.

Control - a huge word in education.  In college we are taught tricks on how to control our classroom, or classroom management strategies.  But the control doesn't stop there, we not only have to control the room, but also the learning.  There are many books written on how to control the learning in your room and we eagerly read them as new teachers, desperate and afraid of not having it.  So if you walk by most traditional classroom settings what you will see is the teacher at the front of the room, talking at the students that are sitting in neat rows all facing the teacher, or at least that was my room. Questions are answered when students raise their hand, or not at all.   It is evident who is in charge.

Some people think the opposite of control must be assumed chaos.  Because if there is not a clear power structure in the room then no one will know how to act, behave or learn.

This was almost my classroom last year, I had pods but still it was all about me.  I was always in control,  carefully planning out every lesson, every step.  There is a beginning point, a middle, a finished  product that then gets graded and handed back.  Once it is handed back to the students that journey is finished.  Students are participants in the stalest form of the word.  They are participating in what the teacher allows them to participate in.  There is no shared control.

So what happens when we give up that control to the students and create a student centered classroom?  Well, most people assume that chaos reigns supreme.  I was one of those people.  I was petrified of the little things, of noise, of clutter, of not being in control at all times.  I thought my classroom would be wild and crazy filled with screaming kids that refused to work.  Instead this is what happened, this is from a regular day doing writing in my classroom.

Student  centered means putting the focus on the students rather than the teacher.  Think of how powerful that statement is.  We think as teachers that that is what we do at all times, but is is not true.  It is often a show put on by the teacher where the students get to watch and do some work, but every step of the way has been predetermined.  The path has been chosen and we are in a hurry to get to our destination.  So when the focus is shifted back to the students we have to ask ourselves how will my students learn this?  How will they explore and get to our goal?  The how becomes just as important as the what.

The first step is to realize that you as the teacher no longer is the only authority on learning.  Students are given control as well and you step back from your big brother role.  To do this you have to realize first what you can let go of and what you cannot.  I knew there were certain things such as interrupting others that I would never be ok with, but many other things such as sitting in desks, rubrics, grades, homework, I could let go of.

So in the truest sense of the words, it is elementary.  We must unlearn some of the lessons from college and our experience and stop hogging the limelight.  And this is much easier than it sounds.

So baby steps becomes the way to first do it.  Many students are not prepared for student centered learning.  Their voice has been hushed or diminished for so many years that we first have to help them find it again.  This can be accomplished through activities already in the first week.  Some things I did was have them create classroom rules, and also have them help me set up the room.  This way they already started taking ownership of our learning environment.  

I also spoke to them about my choices and the why's behind my decision to get rid of grades and most homework.  For more information on that you can see my blog.  I also kept quiet a lot of the time.  Now I am a talker, but they needed to see that it wasn't all about me from the very first day.  This is huge.  Set the tone from the very first moment you meet them.  Explain to them the journey you are going on and how you will be challenging them, it was incredible to see the kids get excited about all of my crazy ideas and it was a great way to field any questions right away both from students and parents.

Then began the actual learning and the real challenge begins.  We are so used to being the bringers of learning that we forget what it means to let students explore.  This was and is my biggest challenge.  I still have to stop myself from just talking at students.  So instead, for everything I continuously ask myself what is the goal of this lesson?  If I know the goal, then I can backtrack from there.  An example could be a unit on crayfish, I have a set curriculum I am supposed to guide the students through.  I chose to instead ask the students what they wanted to learn and do with these animals.  I knew the overall goal of the unit was to teach them respect for life and animals.  Well, you can certainly get there in many ways.  By giving the students ownership of the unit, they became much more invested.

so ask yourself what the goal is of your lesson.  Can it be accomplished through an exploration rather than a teacher led discussion?  Most of the time it can.  Another huge lesson for me was to actually inform the students of our goal.  How many of you teach without telling the students what the goal of the lesson is?  I used to until I realized it is like putting someone in a car every day without telling them their destination or purpose of the trip.  It doesn't make any sense.  Once students know the destination or goal you will be surprised at their methods for getting there.  In fact, students are usually way more creative than I will ever be in coming up with project ideas.

It doesn't always go perfect though, so then what do you do?  Well, you ask the students what went wrong.  In a recent exploration of Native Americans, my students asked to pick their own research projects and choose their own finished products.  I was scared and excited since this would prove to be my biggest letting go of the year.  I did meet with the kids to hear their project ideas and help them if needed.  It was amazing to watch kids do their thing.  Almost all of the kids were deeply engaged and very, very excited about the project.  When it came time to present their finished project one pair of boys came up and told me they were not done.  In fact, for two weeks there weren't quite sure what they were really supposed to be doing.  Instead of asking me for help they just made it look like they were busy and when I walked by they were always working on something, or so it seemed.  So what did we learn?  Well all of us learned to ask more questions!  Also for me to tune in even more.  While most kids were ready to do this free of a project, some were not.

This is a major point of student-centered learning; not all students are ready for the same level of freedom.  Some benefit from working with a teacher as facilitator and others can do it on their own.  It also completely depends on the project and can change all of the time.  My students whom others may consider to be struggling did really well in this project.  So make yourself available to all of the students and don't  be surprised by who asks for help.

Another important aspect of  this type of learning is to really give students an outlet for their voice.  I accomplished this through student  blogging.  I use kidblog.org, which is a free blogging websites particularly for teachers and students.  Greta Sandler did an incredible presentation on the how and why of student blogging, which I have linked in my presentation.  Every week my students have a blogging challenge where I get to either reinforce something we have discussed in class such as protagonist and antagonist, or I pick their brains.  I ask my students questions about the classroom, about me as a teacher, about what they would change, what they like or dislike.  And they are honest!  If you give kids a chance to tell you they will.  We worked hard on how to comment and blog and now it has become one of our biggest tools for communicating.  Never mind all of the people we have connected with throughout the world.  Now when my students talk about projects they try to bring the world in rather than just focusing on their own little world.  This shift in perception could not have been done without student blogging.

So what all of this means to me is really just focusing on the students.  My goal is to make sure that these kids still love going to school when they are done with fourth grade and student-centered learning helps me do that.
ask yourself, what can you let go of?  What do you not need to be in control of?  When can you be quiet?  And continue to question yourself!  I certainly do not have all of the answers and yes some times I have to talk to the students and be the  bringer of knowledge but if you balance that with student led explorations, you will see it becomes less and less you and more them.  And ask the students what and how they want to learn something, they bring quite a bit of knowledge in as well.  As teachers we cannot be the only people with the knowledge, we have to give that power back to the students.  Student-centered learning is the tool to do that.

I thought I would end with letting my students speak for me, because in the end, it is truly all about them.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Lesson from the Two Sisters

This was written by The 2 Sisters in their weekly email, which I receive, and it struck a chord with me because I have certainly done this to my students.  What a wonderful opportunity for me to reflect on my own reading program.

Are Our Tasks Related to Reading Worthy of the Treasure Tub?

All three of our girls were home for a few days during the holidays.  What a special time we had reconnecting, playing games, cooking, eating and even cleaning out their old bedroom closets.  Old clothes were tossed, traded and made fun of.   Books and music were sorted through.  Then each girl pulled out their large plastic treasure tub filled with sacred mementos from grades K-12. 

Our oldest daughter fished out a stack of worksheets that caught my eye.  When she passed them over I discovered they were supplementary ditto's to be used in conjunction with reading The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner.  It was an impressive little tome of comprehension questions, word searches, vocabulary to be defined, crossword puzzles, etc....and a note on top in her teacher's neat handwriting that said, "I hope your work on this packet will encourage you to read more Boxcar Books." 

So I had to ask, "Did you read more of that series?"  Her immediate reply was an enhanced grimace, "Never read another one!"  The worksheets were tossed in the recycle bin...and the work, which she didn't value then or now, had the exact opposite effect of the one her teacher had intended. 

My friend's children read every book in the series and had many adventures with neighbors in the backyard playing Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny.  They endeavored to solve mystery after mystery, whether in text or in play. Of course, they were never asked to do a "packet".  

My poor girl had to look up furious, handkerchief, and clothespin and use them all in a sentence. She had to unscramble words like railroad, merchant and clues.  No wonder she never read another one. 

If we want the next generation to love reading for gaining knowledge and providing entertainment, we have to be careful about the tasks we demand they do around books.  Do we have well intentioned supplementary materials that are robbing our students of the joy of books?

What will your students...and ours....find in their treasure tubs 20 years from now? 

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

It Happened at a Meeting

Today I took notes at our staff meeting.  Yes, a highly unusual task for me as I just sit and listen most of the time.  But today was a day for note taking as we discussed hidden assumptions in life.  I have written about this before mainly on this post, but the discussion keeps pulling me back in as I continue to challenge myself.

To assume means to suppose to be the case, without proof and it is this last bit of the definition that really sparked my interest today.  When we assume in our classrooms, do we do it because it is easy?  Because of intellectual laziness?  Or is it some inane need to classify in order to navigate through life?

As teachers we often assume whether we can admit or not.  We assume perhaps that a child who rides a certain bus has a laundry list of issues that need correcting.  Or a child who comes from a wealthy neighborhood should be fine academically.  Perhaps we assume socioeconomic status based on a pair of worn out shoes, rather than stop to ask the child, who may in the end, just really like those shoes.  We provide snacks for the kids who live in rental properties, and extra time to do homework because their home-life may be tough, but how often do we ask our middle-class kids whether they are having difficult or whether food is sparse at their house?  So in this instance, we assume because we are used to it.

I didn't start my job with these assumptions, in fact, I prided myself on how much of blank slate I was.  And yet, here they are now, fighting me every day.  We see our class list and images and connotations frequent our thoughts until we meet the kids and then (hopefully) realize how wrong we are.  We base our class lists for the coming year on even more assumptions about how a certain student may be do in a certain class based on the assumptions we make about that teacher.  Sometimes others correct us and sometimes the assumptions is given more life because others nod their head, already victims of the same cloaked inferences.

So why are assumptions bad?  As a victim of many, I can tell you they diminish you as a person unless you fight hard enough to break out of them.  Because I moved a lot as a child due to my mother being awarded Fullbright scholarships, I was assumed to be transient with everything that entails.  Because I was taught English at a very young age, and thus was the only 1st grader fluent in English, I was assumed to be gifted, which I am not.  Because I was raised by an incredible single parent, I was assumed to have "daddy" issues or be the victim of a lackluster childhood, when the opposite is true.  My mother's scholarships means I learned what it means to be a global citizen.  Being fluent in English means that I can teach my class with a native accent, rather than the awful Danish one (Lars Ulrich anyone?), and being raised by the most passionate and inspiring of mother's who later married her soulmate gave me a role-model that I will forever try to emulate both in life and in love.  In short, my "messed up life" on paper proved to be a fantastic journey.

As we pass our assumptions on in the hallways, meetings, or lounge conversations, we breathe new life into them.  When we have one more child that fits the bill of what we thought they would be like, then we pat ourselves on the back, and know that we were right to categorize them such in the first place.  Every year, as more students come our way, we strengthen our categories, our distinctions, and it becomes harder to see the truth, to wipe them all away.

Some will argue that there is nothing wrong with assuming certain things, and I agree that this is not a black and white discussion.  Yet something has to be done with the monologue constantly running in our heads.  When we do not speak our assumptions aloud, no one is there to refute them, and so they take on more "truthiness" until we don't remember a time when we didn't know this to be a fact.  We have to fight our assumptions before we make them truths, the future of our students are at stake.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

You Know You Are a Blogger When...

Being a blogger has nothing to do with how many people read your blog, so you know you are a blogger when....

While having a conversation with a colleague, you keep getting inspired to write another post about what they say.

When someone tells you a new idea, you think of the comment you would leave if it were a blog post.

You cannot help getting ideas for new post whenever you read anything.

You base your new technology purchases on whether or not your blog platform will be supported.
When signing things you almost sign your blogging name.

You constantly tell others about the incredible comments you have received or made on your blog.

Your students know the names of the top people that you interact with.

Your professional reflection has never been better.

Your PLN is a vital and important part of your life.

You are pretty sure your mother knows everything there is to know about your daily life through your blog.

What did I miss?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Which Lens Do You View the World With?

We choose how we view the world, a line taken from an excellent post recounting a mother whose daughter has autism speaking to a group of MIT professors. Think about it for a moment, it is a quite deep sentence, we choose how we view to world...

Now flip that to your classroom, your school, your community; we also choose how we view these. Do we come to school with dark colored lenses where no matter what our students do, it is simply not good enough? Are our lenses wonky where we end up treating our students unequally? Is one eye closed to the world so we only see one side of the story? Or do we wear rose-colored lenses so that the world always seems bright and cheerful?

My lenses are clear, therein lies no fog. I view the world every day with a slight rosy tint to it but clear nonetheless. And more importantly, my lenses work both ways; they view the world and they view myself. I am always checking, readjusting and cleaning off my lens, so that whomever I encounter gets a clear view and not one tinted by perception. Is it time you clean your lenses?

We are Not Born Selfish

As I watch my daughter interact, I realize that we are not born selfish. Instead we become it as our lives turn into one long competition for more, bigger, better. This can be seen in school where many teachers suffer under constant business or stress, and if they are not suffering from it, they are a rarity. I used to be one of those teachers, too busy to even think some time, until I realized that by projecting this frantic persona, I was being selfish.

When you are constantly busy, or claiming to be, you shut yourself off to others. People realize that you will not be able to help, because you are too busy; you will not give them that precious time they may need, because you have too much to do. This is detrimental to furthering personal connections. When people stay out of your way because you are frantic, they often do not come back.

So when you return to school, make a conscious effort to turn off your busyness. Instead open yourself up to others. When someone approaches you for help or an extra hand, give it to them, even if it interferes with prep time. This small gesture of giving time fosters goodwill in your environment. When we actively help others, they notice and they in turn may help others as well. We all know that helping breeds helping, so why not live it? I know we are busy, all people are, but it is how we choose to deal with that busyness that makes the difference. So remember that doing something that may seem inconvenient to you may make a huge difference to someone else. Don't be selfless but be less selfish.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Have You Balanced Your Account?

This year it will be all about balance for me.   The accounts of our life have to be balanced and mine seem a bit unbalanced at the moment.  I have started this incredible blogging adventure, well-knowing that I then chose to give some of my precious time to this investment.  And it has certainly paid off in big ways.  However, whenever I choose to give my time somewhere, I am taking it away from somewhere else.

So as I continue this learning journey, I am resetting my calculations, deciding how big of a percentage of time each big category will have.  These categories are the thread of our lives, the love, the drive, the inspiration.  Those memories we carry with us, the ones that us feel like we have lived.  So I look forward to taking stock, reinvesting where I need to, and diminishing where I must.  It has to add up to 100% since there is only so much of me, so much of time, so much of life to be lived.

Are your accounts balanced?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Not More Resolutions but Renewals Instead

It is indeed a new year, resolutions abound, and people fell eager, excited, rejuvenated, and ready to change their lives.  I am one of these people as well that truly views a new year as a time for transformation, a time to renew vows made to oneself, to reflect, and to reevaluate.

I, too, made a resolution, a small one to save more money for traveling, but that is it.  Professionally, I have quite a few resolutions going on already, as my husband reminds me, such as limiting homework, throwing out grades, student blogging, and my fun new blog for sharing lesson and.  So yes, I have a full load, but a fun one.

So instead of a resolution, I decided to remember the goals I have already made for the year.  We get so busy with piling new ones on, that we can forget about the awesomeness of the old ones.  So the goals I renew to myself are, in no particular order:

- Remember they are all of our children. There is no such thing as just "your" students anymore, make yourself visible to all, and treat them all as if they did indeed belong to you, because they really do.

- Question yourself. Why do you do the things that you do in your classroom? Why do you teach this way?

- Take time to discover your passion. Your passion may be apparent to you but to some people it isn't, however, if you don't give yourself the gift of time to really reflect, how will you ever discover that you love zombies, technology, and Neil Gaiman?

- Give the gift of now. Be present wherever you are, whether it be in your classroom, with your family, or in the car. Give that moment in time the honor of being there fully, even though that may be hard, it is worth it in the long run.

- Reach out to others. Whether it be through Twitter, your PLN, or staff members, use them, reflect with them, and praise them. These are the people that will support, encourage, and challenge you on a regular basis, these are the people that will raise you up.

- And finally, don't survive it - live it!

Why the Internet is Like the Mall

Image from here

Another cross posting from my other blog, this one has taken on a life of its own, with others putting their own spin on it.  When we discuss internet safety, it is vital that we are able to relate it to students' lives, so that they can understand that being behind a computer does not mean that they are protected.  While I am not in the business of scaring students, there are plenty of other ways that can happen, we can stress the importance of proper behavior.  And thus this lesson came about; linking the internet to going to the mall.

I believe in the importance of honest conversation with the kids, where they supply the answers, rather than me hitting them over the head with it.  I simply started out this lesson by writing the words "Internet Safety" on my whiteboard and turned to the kids.  They volunteered what these words meant to them and then I ventured into the mall analogy; so what would they do to stay safe at the mall if their parents dropped them off?  

Some of the students answers were

  • That they would not talk to strangers
  • Give anyone their information if approached
  • Go only to the place they were supposed to
  • And they wold go straight there, rather than take detours or stop at other places 
  • They wouldn't give their money to strangers

By having the students provide the safety rules, taken from their own memory of rules drilled into their heads by their formidable parents, they connected real life danger with things that can happen on the internet.  Sometimes students think they are safe on the net, as we all know, and this brought the responsibility home for them.  

So as we continue learning proper safety and etiquette, we will keep referring back to the mall analogy, for example, would you walk up to a friend and tell them their outfit was ugly when talking about how to comment?  Today was one of those moments where I was able to make students understand something they have to learn in this day and age.  A lesson not just meant for 4th graders or 5th graders but hopefully something they will keep in the back of their minds when they go on the internet themselves, or maybe even next time they go to the mall.  Once again today I realized how huge my responsibility is for these kids and how glad I am to be their teacher.  

A New Adventure Begins

With the start of a new brilliant year, I am excited to unveil my new blogging adventure:  Lessons from the Fourth Dimension, a blog dedicated to sharing lesson plans and resources in my classroom.  While I teach 4th grade, these plans are meant for anyone to use and adapt to suit their needs.

I have been inspired by so many people, so this is my way of trying to give something back.  Thank you so much for your support on this blog, I hope you enjoy this new adventure.

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