Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Sheer Genius of SmartBoards

Image taken from here

I am not a believer in SmartBoards, there I said it.  Sure, they are a nice tech tool to have but honestly, for that amount of money, I could think of about a thousand other things I would rather have in my classroom.  In fact, Bill Ferriter at the Tempered Radical agrees with me, which partly prompted this post.  And yet, I have to applaud what the makers of SmartBoards have done to our school districts.  Think about it, a smart board.  So if you have it then you must be smart for making the investment and if you don't, well, then you are not.

Sometimes it is all in a name.  After all, that is why companies spend money trying to come up with the best marketing they can.  So when someone came up with the name SmartBoard you know high fives went around the room.  How about the Interactive Whiteboard?  Teachers love to speak of how interactive their SmartBoards really are.  And where does that notion come from? Their name.  I do nto for one minute believe that soemone went up to that board and thought indepedently of how interactive they are for students, maybe for the teacher, but not for others.  It really should just be called a touch and response board but that just doesn't seem to have the same kind of connotation.  So when you call something interactive well, then, think of how much easier you can sell it.

So really who is the board interactive for?  The teacher who gets to touch it as the lesson moves on or the selected student who gets to come up and move a word around.  Ooooh, now that is engaged learning.  I don't dismiss interactive whiteboards as classroom tools altogether but I do dismiss the notion that they are the ticket to reform our classrooms, to re-engage our learners, and teach our children.  Instead they lead themselves to more "sage on the stage" type of teaching where the teacher is in control of all of the learning and the students just get to participate.  That is not what school should be.  So laud your interactive whiteboards as much as you want, but keep in mind just how they were sold to you.  I think it is time we see them for they really are; tools, not solutions, not magic pills, just another tool and one that comes with a steep pricetag and a much too deep learning curve.  This should not be the future of our classrooms. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

14 Steps to Meaningful Student Blogging

So you have heard about blogging with your students and you are considering taking the plunge but just not sure what or how to do it? I am here to tell you; blogging with my students has been one of the most enriching educational experiences we have had this year, and that says a lot. So to get you started, here is what I have learned:

  1. Pick an easy platform, both for you and the students. I used Kidblog with great success, it fit our needs, it is free and it offers easy moderation.  There are other great alternatives out there such as WordPress or EduBlogs
  2. Teach them how to blog first. We did an excellent paper blogging lesson first (found on the blog of McTeach), which brought up why we were blogging and how to do it appropriately.  This got the students excited, interested as well as got them thinking about what great comments look and sound like.
  3. Talk safety! We assume some students know how to be safe, but don't assume it; teach them the do's and dont's. I came up with the lesson of why the Internet is like the mall and it really worked.  I also sent home safety plans for students and parents to discuss and we discussed it throughout the year.
  4. Teach them how to comment. In order for blogging to be effective, comments are needed, but if students don't know how to properly comment they will lose out on part of the experience. We discuss how to thank people, how to answer their questions, and most importantly, how to ask questions back. This is all part of common conversational knowledge that all kids should be taught any way.
  5. Start small.  The first post was an introduction of themselves. It was an easy topic and something they really liked to do. They then got to comment on each others post as well which started to build community.
  6. Include parents. Parents always know what we are doing and are invited to comment.  The students loved the extra connection and parents loved seeing what the kids were doing.
  7. Connect with one or two classes to be buddies. While comments from around the world are phenomenal, the connections are what it is all about. So reach out on Twitter or through the most excellent #comments4kids and set up something more permanent. The students relish getting to know one another and the comments become even more worthwhile.  Thanks Mr.  Gary's class in Egypt and Mr. Reuter's 6th grade class in Merton, Wisconsin for being our buddies.
  8. Speaking of #comments4kids, this excellent site created by Will Chamberlain is a must for anyone blogging with students. Link their blog to it and ask people to comment, tweet it out with the hashtag #comments4kids, and use it to find classes to comment on.
  9. Visit other classroom blogs. Show them how other kids use it and have it inspire them.  Blogs can be found through Twitter or the comments4kids site.
  10. Let them explore. My students love to play around with font, color, and images. They taught each other how to do anything fancy and also let each other know when font or color choices were poor. This was a way for students to come into their own as creative writers and also start to think about creating their online identity.
  11. Don't grade! Blogging is meant to be a way to practice writing for an audience and learning to respond to critique, not a graded paper. I would often tell students my requirements and even make them go back and edit but I never ever chastised them for mistakes made.
  12. Challenge them. Often students would ask to write about topics but we also had a blogging challenge almost weekly. This was my way of finding out what they really thought about fourth grade, their dreams, their hopes and their lives. The kids always wondered what the next challenge would be and looked forward to writing them.  We would also share creative writing pieces from class, create diaries of work we did, and share our op.ed. pieces.
  13. Map the connections. We have a world map in our classroom that we use to push pin people we connect with, it is amazing to see it grow and what a geography lesson is has turned out to be. Students are acutely aware of where Egypt, Alabama, New York and other places in the news are because they have connected with people there.
  14. Give it time! Some students took to it right away, others weren't so sure, and yet they all ended up loving it. The sheer mass of paper I have had to print to create their writing portfolio is staggering and it shows how ingrained it became in our classroom. I now have kids blogging when they are sick, out of school or just because.
So here it is, take the leap and believe in your students' ability to stay safe and appropriate on the internet.  Stay tuned  for a student-created video tutorial on how to use Kidblog, kids teaching kids, that is learning worth doing.  To see our student blogs and maybe even leave  comment, please go here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Some Questions on Labels

Those struggling learners, the reluctant readers, the underachievers. All labels heard in schools on a daily basis. The tired ones, the creative types, the giften, the talented, the fidgeters, the lazy students. We label and label in order to define them all, to fit them all into a box under the pretense of being better teachers, of making our jobs easier, more manageable, more suited for differentiation. After all, if we don't label then how will we know who needs which services? If we do not label then who will we teach at what time? How will class lists be made up to ensure balanced needs? We may not be tracking our atudents openly but the labels keep on coming.

I often ponder labels and what effect they have had on my own life. Some teachers labeled me gifted, I was not, only gifted through circumstance. Others labeled me underachieving, where rather it was in response to the teaching method. I was labeled opinionated in history, that one stuck, outspoken in English, talentless in math, and relentless in my pursuit of academic excellence in college. Labels shaped my education whether I agreed with them or not, yet how often were they shared with me? How often was I aware of what category I was placed in? And worse, how often when I was aware did it become my definition?

Some will inevitably argue that if we do not label our students whether through tests or grades then how will we rank them? How will we teach them best? If we don't know who our strugglers are then how will we reach them? I don't know. But what happens when those labels become all we see? What happens when the labels end up defining the student rather than the student defining the label. What happens when one teacher's comment becomes the mold we force the student into? Can we label our students without actually harming them and impeding their learning? Can we genuinely categorize students as struggling when they are perhaps just learning at a different pace?

I hope someone has the answer.

We End the Year

As students count down and yet feel so guilty for wishing for the summer sun, we push on, aware that every moment is one moment less that we get to be this group.  That we get to have this experience.  That this moment is done now too.  And we celebrate, and we reminisce, and then we worry because what comes next?  Will these students be ok in the next year?  Did I teach them everything I wanted to?  Did they understand my words?  Our goals?  Did they make this their own?

We end the year the way it began; eager, anxious, pondering what comes next?  We end the year the way it began; wondering where to now, what challenges shall we undertake, who will be our friends?  A year has passed, the goals been met - or have they - and constantly we ask ourselves; now what, now what, now what?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Want to Teach in China for the Summer?

My sister-in-law works for a teacher recruiting firm and has passed along this opportunity for anyone who may be interested.  I promised her I would post it so if anyone want an adventurous summer, here's your chance!  They are looking for people without children though, fyi, which is why I am not doing it.

If interested, contact Jinny Han / Director 

Summer Teaching Position in China,

1. Name of School :  
EWAS WeiHai in China:
One of the TOP private school in Southern China
2. Location: 
WeiHai Lab 2 School
HuanchiWeiHaiSandong, China
More info. Of WeiHaiWeihai Official Gov’t Web :

3. Contract Term:
Contract Term: July 4 ~ Aug. 26 (8 Weeks)
US Departure Date: June 28 or 29, 2011

4. Benefits
a.Round Trip Air Tickets Provide: US - China
b.Free Housing
c.Salary: $4,000 for Contract Term
5. Number of Positions: 5

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Not So Delusional Guide to Twitter

I have read so many posts on how to get on Twitter and get connected, many of them offer fantastic advice and yet some of them keep reiterating how it is all about following.  Follow one person, and then see who they follow, and then follow them, and soon you will be following so many people you will feel like the most popular kid in the school.  Except you don't.  Instead you feel like the kid who came to prom only to take pictures of all the cool people there.  So I offer up these tips instead for those trying to figure out Twitter.

  1. Follow one person, or even 10 but then stop.  Let yourself process what Twitter is and how these people are using the tool.  Don't mass follow, you will find enough people to follow, just take your time.
  2. Connect.  Once you have a couple of people you follow, reach out to them.  Tell them you are new, tell them your story, and comment on their blogs.  Open up about yourself, start a conversation, and give them a reason to connect back.
  3. Don't give up.  Sometimes I felt like the biggest loser when it came to Twitter; no one thought I was witty, no one rt'ed my posts, until I realized that this is not what Twitter is about.  Twitter is about the connections (I know, I sound like a broken record) so it is not about the retweets or single comments but the dialogue you get involved in and the people you meet.
  4. Who cares about Klout?  I didn't realize I had a klout number until my husband asked me what it was.  Then I had to look it up because that little number meant nothing to me; it still doesn't.  If you are asking whether Twitter is worth your time you probably haven't connected with the right people, so keep connecting.
  5. Don't worry about the popular kids.  One thing for ongoing discussion has been the grades of popularity Twitter educators seem to have.  Sure there are people with massive followings, but guess what?  They are normal people and they probably have that many followers because they say some really great things and they are good at connecting with others.  It is okay to reach out to them as well, no one is off limits.
So there you have it, my small piece of advice on how to get something out of Twitter.  Of course, you can follow as many people as you want, but think about what your true goal is: numbers or connections?  I for one count my connections just as much as I count my blessings.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

So I Survived My First EdCamp

There I sat in the corner, carefully checking my Twitter, had I been discovered?  Was I going to speak to anyone or just spend the day lurking in the corners, learning and tweeting away but with no human contact, shouldn't be so hard.  This was already looking like any other conference I have ever been to; I would learn by myself and then go home and blog about it.  And then something happened; after about 1 minute of sitting there,  I get a message from Josh @Stumpteacher asking me if I am sitting in the corner.  Two minutes pass and a woman comes up and asks me if I am 4thgrdteach, yes...  Turns out to be my friend Katie @TheTeachingGame who I give an impromptu hug to.  Now I am a hugger, but I have never hugged someone who should be a stranger before and yet with Katie I was like a reunion.  Welcome to EdCamp Chicago, my very first unconference and my first conference after getting on Twitter.

What followed was a day of stimulating conversation, a lot of laughs, and a lot of connections.  So what were my biggest take away's?  Well, the connections were incredible. Every day I pour my heart on on this blog and on Twitter, so to have people come up and tell me that they know who I am and like what I write, really was mind-blowing for this small town girl.  Also, to get a chance to sit down and speak to some of the educators I learn from myself was incredible.  The different experiences, stories, and perspectives really offered me a jolt of knowledge.

I also learned a lot about myself.  I can speak in front of peers that I respect even if I have not met them before.  I can also voice my opinion without being too bullheaded about it.  I learned that somehow I am making meaningful connections with people that I have met through Twitter.  It was also amazing to hear other non-present people's names being brought into the conversation and others recognizing the names.  It truly showed just how connected one can be on Twitter.

And finally, the idea of regular people setting the agenda, offering choice, and impromptu conversations, really played into my belief that we must offer our students choice.  I chose to leave one session because I was not adding anything useful to it, instead we created a smack down which was incredible.  I chose to be part of a session on grading, because it is something I am passionate about.  I chose what I wanted to learn, how I wanted to be challenged, so my stake was personal and I was more engaged.  That is what we should offer our students as well.

So did I get inspired, sure, but mostly I had my spirit renewed.  There are passionate educators out there who have no problem with spending an entire Saturday discussing how we best can reach students.  That is incredible.  There are people out there who have no qualms of telling you exactly how they feel even if they disagree with you, but also this sense of not being alone.  I often reach to Twitter to be inspired, but I often walk away with new energy and new passion.  EdCampChicago did that for me as well.  I am sad that I will not be at ISTE this year, but hopeful that next year will be my year for truly making the face-to-face connections.  I will be there in spirit.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

School: The Killer of Curiosity

"What is that?"  "Where does this go?"  "Can I do this?"  All questions overheard during my school's recent kindergarten visitation day.  There they were: fresh, eager, curious, asking questions about everything; where does this go, what does this do?  I marvel at their spirit.  And then I think of later years of students, despondent, going through the motions, routine focused and mostly okay, but not asking all of the questions.  Where did the questions go?

As teachers we do not set out to kill the joy of learning, at least , not anyone I know does.  We state in our missions that we want to change students' lives, motivate them, inspire them, and keep them eager to learn.  And yet our mission seems to be at odds with our school system.  Classrooms are set up all facing the teacher so that the "sage on the stage" can be the center of attention.  The whole day is rigidly structured so that subjects do not overlap, routines are taught and mastered and hardly ever broken.  Punishment goes hand in hand with rewards and grades become the ultimate reward in the end.  An A will always be better than a B no matter what the teacher says.  We divide our students into winners and losers and hope they all have a nice journey through school. And then we wonder why students lose interest, lose relevance.  By the time we get to high school, the eyes are on the prize; graduation, where they will break free of the rigidity of school  Students count down until summer vacation so that they can be free.  Free.

As Alfie Kohn has stated, "School is not an institution of learning, it is an institution of listening and memorization." (Said in in a LeanBlog Podcast 2/24/09).   And this I believe is killing our school system.  Test-obsessed and score driven, we no longer let children develop their curiosity to provide them with a real stake in learning.  We no longer offer them choice because we have too much curriculum to cover.  Our homework is not set up for meaningful exploration but rather to teach time management and study skills.  Time management?   Like our over-scheduled students need more time management?  When students fail to hand in their homework we assume that it is either because they are too lazy or because they didn't feel like it.  We do not assume that perhaps it was uninteresting, irrelevant or perhaps even too hard or meaningless.  We almost always assume we know best.  And even if we know within our hearts that the piece of homework assigned probably wasn't all that engaging, we assign it anyway, because we have to assign something and we were forced to do inane homework when we went to school so why should our students be exempt.  But the system is broken, we know it, and we have to change it.

There are exceptions, of course, thankfully.  There are pockets of teachers and schools that are taking a different approach. That are actively combating this curiosity-killing school system.  Those that let their students explore, those that weigh their options, assign meaningful homework, that question their practices rather than go with the status quo.  They provide inspiration for some and shudders for other.  Perhaps they are just too different for some to even recognize them as schools.  Yet they are part of the answer.  We must bring back exploration, we must give teachers time to fully engage their students.  We must spark teachers' curiosity as well so that we all can love learning again.  They say that curiosity killed the cat, let's not have the lack of curiosity kill our schools.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

What Type of Difference Do You Make?

I have been accused of being a good teacher, something I carry with me when the days are long.  I say accused because I am still looking for the proof, the evidence that indeed whatever it is I have chosen to do makes a positive difference in the lives of my students.  We know we make a difference every day, however, we do not always know whether it is a good or a bad one.  And as teachers we make the choice of what type of difference to make.

When I was child I was bullied by my classroom teacher.  For 3 years she hated me with a passion so deep that I ended up switching schools and leaving everything behind.  I was different, having been taught English at a young age, and she did not like anything about me.  She stopped friendships, singled me out whenever anything went wrong, and once kept me in a closet. It was extreme, and not something many students thankfully ever have to experience, but she made a difference in my life.  She taught me how exactly not to treat a child.  How exactly to make a child feel unwanted, unloved, and like an overall outcast.  She taught me many things.

Another teacher thought that I just wasn't trying hard enough.  Every conference, he would tell my mother that I was smart, but...obviously, I thought school was a joke.  He thought my essays were too dark, too long, too sappy.  He thought my witty comments in class were not so funny.  No matter how hard I tried to emulate the students he did like, he did not like me much.  I never got the good jokes or the extra remarks.  He taught me to believe in myself even if someone didn't get it.  He taught me it it is ok to be too sappy or too dark as long as it is not all the time.  He taught me that my mother believed in me no matter what he said.

And then there was my music teacher.  Oh, for two years she thought I was a musical idiot.  Although I asked her for help when it came time to compose, she offered me the same explanation over and over again, hoping that this time it would make sense.  It didn't and what I composed sounded crazy, yet, I had no idea, because I didn't know how to play it.  I scored high on performance but crashed in music theory and composing, leading me to abandon being a music teacher.  She taught me to explain things properly to my students, and not in the same way but in a different way.  She taught me to listen when someone explains why they do not get it and not just jump to conclusions and move on.  She taught me that I am supposed to believe in the abilities of my students and not box them in.

There were others.  Others who didn't get me, didn't believe in me, or lost me as a student.  Thankfully there were many as well that liked me, supported me, and nourished me.  All of of my teachers shaped me into the teacher I am today, however, those that harmed me somehow shaped me more.  They taught me what not to be, provided the example of how not to teach, how to shut out and disillusion.  So when we speak of making a difference in our students lives think of what type of difference we want to make.  Do we want it to be of negative consequences or positive?  Either way, we make a difference, but it is up to us to decide which type.  I hope you choose wisely, after all, these are just children.


Friday, May 13, 2011

4th Grade do Innovation Day

Once again my students astounded me.  Given the opportunity for a full day to just create and inovate, they showed me that if we truly trust our students, they will be able to manage their time, create an exciting product, and have fun while doing it.  On Monday we did our very first Innovation Day, an idea being integrated in other schools around the globe but originating from companies who call it FedEx Day.

The idea is simple: the students get to pick a project to work on for a full day and it has to be done within that day.  the requirements were minimal:  They have to learn something, they have to produce something, and they have to be able to present it the following day.  We decided as a class too that it would be best if no more than 2 students worked together.

Two weeks prior to the day students were given a brainstorming sheet, supplied by Josh Stumpenhorst and modified for 4th grade.  Immediately the excitement grew.  "A whole day where we get to decide?  That's not what you do in school!"  Some students knew right away what they wanted to study such as Aidan and Erik who were keen to build and research a Celtic castle due to their heritage.  Other students changed their minds almost overcome with the idea that they could do anything they wanted to.  After some conversation even the most excited were able to choose.  They had to outline their process more detailed as the day grew closer and we spoke of how they would proceed Monday morning, finally,  they were ready.

Monday morning I was as excited as my students: would they be able to pull it off? Watching them walking super fast down the hallway told me they were as anxious to get started as I was.  Indeed, right after announcements we jumped into it.  The room quickly erupted in noise and paper, which can be seen right away in our video.  I stepped out of the way and let them work.  As the teacher, the hardest bit of this day was to truly get out of their way!  Instead of me solving problems, they were solving their own, using all of the resources that we have discussed throughout the year.  It was incredible to watch them work together and other own.  Throughout the day students would show me their progress, parents would pop in as well as other teachers.  I live tweeted the event and even some videos.  The kids were so into it they asked to skip recess and lunch.  As the clock wound down and students started mellowing out; I knew that this was a must do event!

So what did we learn, well, students created:
  • A huge cardboard model of Big Ben
  • A painting of the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Scrapbooks from kindergarten to 4th grade
  • Snowflakes and their patterns
  • A Celtic Fortress
  • A board Game called Advance
  • A dream house out of Lego'
  • A model of the Washington Monument
  • A model of the The Pentagon
  • A model of the The Capitol
  • A T-Rex
  • A commercial for Fleels (flats that can be converted into high heels)
  • A model of D-Day
  • A model of Apollo 11
  • A clay model of Big Ben
  • Glogsters on favorite basketball players
  • A paper zoo
  • And many research papers
And what did I learn?
  • That staying out of the way is a great thing.
  • That trusting your students to create will result in magical things happening.
  • That students will use the resources they are taught to use.
  • That innovation and creativity is alive and thriving, the problem solving that occurred in my room that day was just incredible.
  • And that some students do need help when picking a project to ensure it is enough for the whole day, although that was remedied by adding research components to it.
As the year comes to a close and these incredible 4th graders look more and more like 5th graders, I am thankful that we had this opportunity to learn together.  The students showed me how much they are capable of, how much learning can transform them, and how school should indeed be fun.

My students made a video trying to convince other teachers to do Innovation Day, I think they say it best.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rain Puddles

Today, freshly picked up from daycare, my two year old Thea ran out out of the car and into the nearest puddle.  Free from inhibitions, my husband blames this on me, she jumped and jumped until her pants were soaked.  Thinking nothing of this minor obstacle, she quickly sat down in the puddle, took her sandals off, then her pants, and then her diaper for good measure.  As I stood there watching her so uninhibited enjoying the freshly made rain puddles, I quieted the voice in my head that told me to get her inside.  That voice that warned me of germs, and colds, and what will the neighbors think.  And so there she sat in her puddle, by then eating a popsicle she had begged for and she said "swimming mommy, I swimming."  In her head this puddle was the biggest swimming pool she could have ever asked for.  In her head life at that very moment offered her everything that she wanted; no clothes, water, and a delicious treat.

So I let her play and was once again reminded that it is okay to back off.  It is ok to not reprimand or remind of the rules. It is even okay to sit with your butt in a rain puddle if it happens to be the perfect day for that.  Thea will be just fine.

Today I Choose to be Happy

Image from I Can Read

This morning as I woke up. I chose to be happy.  It was not a hard decision, the temperature has finally reached above 60, the birds were chirping, my husband was there.  And yet, I made a choice to be that way.  When I get to my classroom this morning, I will also choose to greet my students with a smile, give them a run-down of our day and end it with a "I am so excited for today."  I do this every day and my students crack up, after all, how can one teacher be so excited about every single day?

The attitude we bring into our classrooms is a choice, and a very important one.  There has certainly been days where I have chosen to be in an awful mood, stress will do that to you, but when those kids walk in our door, then I choose differently.  I don't believe in putting on a show for the kids but I do believe in giving them my best, after all, they choose to come to school excited as well.  So together we get excited, sometimes we choose to be mellow and snuggle in with books in our special reading spots, other times we meditate on the floor, whatever we do, we choose it together.

So today I choose to be happy and just a little bit goofy.  The school year is winding down, my students are having  harder time focusing, so together we will not just get through the day, we will experience it.  Every moment is a choice we make, whether we acknowledge it or not.  What do you choose?

Monday, May 9, 2011

This Year, I Was Not the Teacher

I have written of all the things I have changed this year and how amazing the journey has been.  I  have written of the things I have tossed, the things I have kept, and what I never want to try again.  I have argued against something and then changed my mind.  I have dreamed big and I have fallen hard.  But most of all I have been honest.  I may have taught some things to my 23 kids, but really I am the one who has learned.

I have learned that being a teacher means every year your heart grows bigger and you arms longer.  I have learned that my memory can really contain names of former students and their parents, even when I haven't seen them in 3 years.  I have learned that my students think I am funny, even though my husband would argue against that.  I have learned that there is always a good reason for a dance break particularly if it involves Justin Bieber, even if only to see the boys cover their ears.

I have learned that riddles are best done when paying attention and that not all technology enhances my teaching. I have learned that I can decide to keep a clean classroom or an organized one but not necessarily both, I have also learned to be at peace with this.  I have learned to correct myself when I say my things, or my classroom, this year it has truly been all ours.

This year I have learned that standing by the door in the morning means the kids see me smile right away.  And that standing by the door means good morning is said and I get an instant read of their mood.  I have learned that when I check for homework there will always be one students who forgot it at home or forgets to hand it in.  Thankfully, I have learned that it is truly not the end of the world when homework doesn't get handed in on time.

I have learned that when you really trust your students to learn, they will push themselves even higher than you could possibly imagine.  I have learned that when you give up a little bit of control, they rise to the occasion and even the worst of days cannot make me want to bring back punishment or rewards.

This year has been a big one for me.  One that will be remembered for many years as the year where I learned to trust my students, fully, completely, and passionately.   So when I look back at why I became a teacher, it was not to be the teacher, but to be part of something bigger, to be part of something that I felt would change the world.  I may not be perfect, lord knows, I would rather not be, but I am doing ok as a teacher.  My students have taught me that.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Some Thoughts on Motivation

Honestly, this post has to start with a disclaimer.  I have only been teaching for a little over 3 years in a middle-class school at an elementary level.  Because of this I have had few run-ins with highly unmotivated students, as well as older students.  And yet, unmotivated students surround us, they show up in our schools at an alarming pace and already at the elementary level we struggle to reignite the fire.  So perhaps an elementary perspective is not so awful after all.

"Mrs. Ripp, this is so boring."  That sentiment greets me on semi-regular basis from one child.  Most days he is passionate, funny, and involved, that is, if he likes what we happen to be during.  Today is no different, he has been involved, engaged, and eager most of the day but now the fatigue has set in and the writing prompt just does not want to get done.  This is a regular occurrence throughout America, passionate students that are mostly motivated at all times but sometimes hit slumps.  This post is not about them.

Instead, this post is about those kids that put their head on their desks, that groan when we give directions, that could not care less about threats, rewards, punishment or motivating pep talks.  Those are the kids we all meet; the truly unmotivated.  Those students that do not see the relevance, the importance, or even the wisdom behind school.  Those students that feel that this is just a temporary illness, something to be waited out for real life to begin.  And yes, we have them even at the elementary level.

The other night, I shared on Twitter, "I always wonder if having unmotivated students just mean that what I am teaching is unmotivating, I think it does."  Lo and behold a man I admire greatly, Tom Whitby, was kind enough to engage me in my train of thoughts.  As we discussed, my own thoughts became much clearer:

Motivation is linked to the teacher whether we we believe it should be or not.

If a student fails, the teacher is most often the first to be blamed before any outside factions are investigated.  

We have the most control over what happens within our classroom.

As part of this discussion, Tom Perran offered up this article discussing how teachers only have control over 10 of 16 motivating factors.  And yet as teachers we do have to own up to our part in motivation.  Last year, when I sat through another round of book report presentations I yawned often, stretched to stay awake, got droopy eyelids, and yet admonished the students for getting restless and unfocused  Hmm, that doesn't seem right.

As teachers, part of our job is to provide engaging lessons, but it is this definition of engaging that seems to mess us up.  I used to think that by engaging it meant me lecturing for a while and then giving the students work time, as long as I kept the questions coming, the students were engaged, right?  For some reason most of the time my results were less than stellar.  I also used to think that as long as I provided some sort of choice then the students would find their motivation.  And while our more self-reliant students did because they already have a sense of duty instilled by the teacher, some students didn't.  Enter in punishment and rewards.  If a student didn't turn in their work then recess was taken away, and if that didn't work then a 0 was given.  Ooh a failing grade.  They even got their name on the board and were not offered a chance to enter the weekly drawing for the monthly pizza party, confused?  So was I.

The problem with punishment and reward though is that it often only motivates in the short term.  A student knows that as long as they hand something in, even if it is awful, then that counts as a finished product.  As a teacher, I often lost sleep over what to do with these students.  they seemed already by 4th grade to hate school, finding it a punishment for childhood, and worst of all, they knew how to work the system.  So what to do?  Again, I realized that the problem wasn't the students, it was the curriculum and how I taught it, so really it was me.  See, I am the biggest in school motivator there is.  While I may not be the one that decides what to teach, I most certainly am the one that decided HOW to teach it.  And if I thought that lecturing (which even put me to sleep in college) was going to capture the imaginations of 9 year olds then I was an idiot. 

So after almost a year of changing things up, this is what I have realized as far as motivation:

  • Choice matters.  When students choose not just what they will do for a project but also what they would like to learn about within a perimeter, you get buy-in.  This continues to be one of the most exciting simple realizations I have come across.
  • Motivation is contagious.  When one student gets excited and has an opportunity to share that enthusiasm, it catches.  My students get to blog about projects, we have huddles where we share and we are a bit louder than we used to be.  But guess what?  Those loud noises are usually students super excited about something.
  • Eliminate punishment and rewards.  This short-term motivator seemed more harmful than helpful to me.  This year we have class parties when we feel we want one, I have lunch with all my students several times a month because they ask me to, and no one is excluded from anything.  When homework doesn't get done, I ask them how they plan to fix it, most students choose to do it at recess.  Fine by me, they are free to go if they choose.
  • Be excited yourself.  The fastest way for kids to lose interest is if you are bored.  I realized that I hated some of the things and taught and how I taught them (goodbye grammar packets), so something had to change.  Now my students joke about how I almost always introduce something new with "I am so excited to do this..."
  • Look at outside factors.  Some students have a lot more on their plate than we could ever realize.  Ask questions, get to know your students, and be a listening ear.  When my husband lost his job, it was hard for me to be excited about things as well because I was too busy worrying.
  • Control what you can.  We will never be able to control what our students go home to but we sure can control what happens in the room.  All the teachers I know choose to create a caring environment where all students feel safe.  This alone means students let their guards down and feel it is okay to work hard and have fun.
Loss of motivation doesn't just happen overnight, I believe all students start out motivated and then life gets in the way.  At some point during their school years they start to hate school feeling it is stagnant and irrelevant.  I therefore do everything in my power to ensure that students leave my classroom still liking school, perhaps a small goal, but an incredible important one.  If they like to be in your room, then it is up to you to figure out how to keep them engaged.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Would You Like Being a Student in Your Own Classroom?

It was a simple question really, "Would I like being a student in my own classroom?" that stopped me in my tracks.  Last year when the students had left, the chairs had been put up, and the exhaustion hit, I realized that no, this was not the type of classroom I would have wanted to learn in.  And so began a quest of soul-searching, revising, and rethinking, in order for myself not to become a statistic; another new teacher who quits.

I don't know where I went wrong.  After all, in college, teachers loved my lesson plans and raved about my ability to connect with students.  I graduated with a big heart and a big head.  I was going to save the world.  And yet, something didn't click.  In social studies last year I remember scolding my poor students because they were obviously uninterested.  I kept telling them that this was important and they better listen, thinking that yelling at them would make them snap to attention.  Or the student who once again didn't do his homework, he got an earful as well because that would show him.  Oh how off track I was.

It really hit home when I read a parent magazine last summer in which a question was posed, "My child dreads going back to school, what should I do?"  The answer?  "Remind them that they will see their friends and how much fun they will have during recess, art and music class."  Recess?  Art?  Music?  What about writing, reading, math?  What about the majority of the time?  Would they be glassy-eyed robots just waiting for the next bubble of fun outside of my room?  I had to change.

So I looked inward, reflected, and realized that i had it all wrong.  School wasn't about me, or about the knowledge I was going to impart on my students.  Instead it is about them, the students  Those eager kids that show up ready to learn if you let them.  So I had to get out of the way while still acting as a guide.  I have written many posts about my transformation and how much it has affected me as a person and as a teacher.  Most importantly though it is through this transformation of my own ego that real change has happened.  Now I look around my classroom and I celebrate.  There is the girl who was too shy to even look at me busting out of her shell as she acts in a fractured fairy tale.  There is the boy who barely could add two numbers nailing most math concepts.  Or the shy and kind boy, who's biggest wish now is to be on more committees so he can decide things.  That is what it is all about.  My students are ready for 5th grade, they are ready to leave me with their new knowledge, their energy, their inquisitiveness.  I got out of the way and it worked.  Now when I ask my kids what is the best thing about school they tell me it is all the learning, the projects, the work.  Not recess, not the parties, not their friends, that is just extra.  And what a victory that is.

So I will continue to change and adjust.  I will continue to ask myself whether I would like to be my own student.  It was not a pretty realization back then and it wont ever be but it was a necessary one.  Now I am proud to say that yes, I would love to be a student in my own room, and not because of the teacher, but because of the opportunities to learn.  Would you?


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Have You Thanked a Parent Lately?

This week as I bask in the adoration that is teacher appreciation week at my school, I am often reminded of just how much people care and what an incredible feeling that is.  However, I am also reminded of how I am not alone in this adventure of teaching, how my decisions and ideas only can go so far without the support of parents.  So I think it is time we introduce parent appreciation into our schools.

I appreciate the parents of my students in oh so many ways.  They are the first to tell when their child loved a lesson we have done and also the first to tell me ever so gently that perhaps that lesson just didn't make much sense.  For your feedback and honesty; thank you.

I appreciate the parents that take all of the time.  We know that parenting is a full-time job, even when your child is in school, so thank you to those that drop off the forgotten gym shoes, permission slips, or lunches. Thank you to those that plan and prepare the extra events.  Thank you to those that donate time, energy, supplies to our ever-involving ideas.  And thank you to those that support, whether in person or through thoughts.  I feel the involvement and I do not take it for granted.

I appreciate those parents that dare to speak up.  That tell me when something is going amiss or when an injustice has happened.  Thank you to those that push me to become better, more, deeper and aren't just alright with stale teaching.  Thank you also to those that believe that we can always improve and trust me to come up with new ways to reach their child, whether it is in familiar territory or not.

So truly, this is not about the what happens in the classroom, but what happens in the community we build up around these incredible students.  I am not alone in this nor do I ever want to be.  The parents are the ones that help a school year become an incredible one.  The parents are the ones that help me excel.  Thank you for placing your faith in me as an educator and caretaker of your child.  Thank you for believing that I am a good fit for your child and that my abilities will help your child achieve greatness. Thank you for trusting me.   Without you this would not be the incredible journey it is.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I Teach the Generation

I teach the generation that believes America has always been at war.

I teach the generation that thinks dictionaries are outdated.

The generation that takes internet for granted, knows words like wi-fi, iPods, and Facebook.

I teach the generation that knows Apple is not just a fruit or even just a computer.

I teach the generation that has never seen the World Trade Centers.

The kids that believe that history is only something that happened more than 5 years ago and has vaguely heard of Hitler.

I teach the generation that believes having a cellphone is a natural right of passage, as is getting your first computers, alongside a car.

I teach the kids that want more technology and know how to use it already, sometimes better than their teachers.

I teach the kids that ask more questions and are used to answers right at their fingertips.  That information is free and always accurate, after all, the internet told them so.

I teach the kids that believe books come in many shapes and forms and libraries are mostly just for school use.

I teach the kids that are consumers, always wanting more, bigger, better.  New is great, old is bad, and used is only sometimes acceptable.

I teach the generation that will teach the next generation, what will they teach them?

Monday, May 2, 2011

I Knew a World

"Hey Mrs. Ripp, did you hear we killed that terrorist? You know the guy that dropped the bombs in New York?". So starts my morning teaching 4th graders today. "Actually, he didn't drop a bomb," I reply. "Oh..."

I teach the generation that does not have a "where I was when I heard story." I teach the kids who were born the year of the September 11th attacks, and they therefore do not remember. Something that happened less than 10 years ago has already become a page in the history books, just one more event to happen to America. My students do not know what it feels like to go through an airport without hourlong security lines, or to bring big bottles of shampoo in your carry on. They do not know a world without threat levels or a war on terror. They do not know a world where we haven't been fighting a war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They do not know America at peace.

I know all of these and so it becomes my duty to shed light on what America was before 9/11. How we knew there were people that hated American values but not that anyone would use planes against us. I knew a world where flying didn't make you nervous, where going abroad and stating you are American didn't make others look at you strange. A world where it was wasn't us versus them all the time, or bombs were hidden in shoes, bottles, or pockets. Where people were given fair trials and most terrorists were in the movies with bad accents. I knew a world where we didn't send soldiers, my brother included, to fight an endless war against a faceless enemy driven by hatred. I knew that world and I hope someday, my students will know it too.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Which Sales Person Are You?

Yesterday as my husband and I were car shopping we had two very distinct experiences.  One sales guy, Paul, was relaxed, listened to us and whenever he didn't have an answer to a question he told us who he would ask for the answer.  He followed through on our questions, made himself available, and seemed genuinely excited to work with us.  Another sales guy, Josh, was new, very eager, asked many questions but did not listen to the answers.  He repeated himself, kept asking us whether we wanted to upgrade and didn't show us the product we wanted to look at.  He had the cheaper price, but also the cheaper pitch.

In the end, who do you think we went with?

As teachers we often are in such a hurry to make sure our students know everything they possibly can that we sometimes forget to listen.  We sometimes forget to admit we don't know an answer.  We sometimes forget to take our time.  But we have to.  The experience of our students depend on us, so who do you want to be like?

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