Monday, May 29, 2017

Phrases From A First Year in 5th Grade

It is difficult to believe that May is almost over and the school year is winding to a close. As a mom of two teenagers, I am well aware that time passes more quickly than any of us would like. That said, this year went by too quickly. I find myself looking at the UbDs and thinking "can we squeeze a little more time in to do just a little more?"

In spite of the fact that this year WILL end - with all of the undone things of every school year and so many more - there have been some pretty large successes. For one, there is a school, where once there was just an idea. That's a big deal.  And I am really proud to have been a really small part of that endeavor. Along with that, there are many important things I have learned along the way.

In reflecting what I have learned, I started listening to the things I say each day. These statements frame my days, but also provide a way to think the things I have learned over the course of this year, my first in 5th grade. Things that I need to remember in the future and things that I will always want to remember about this first year of Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

Do the work. I say this all day long. Turning an idea into a school takes work. But so does running the school. I have worked harder this year than I've worked perhaps ever. And still there is work that goes undone and work still yet to do.

The students are working hard, too. They work to rethink the meaning of school and the ways in which they can be successful. They work to understand eachother and get along. They work because they want their families to know that they are capable and creative.

We all have done the work - on some days better than others - and we know that there will always be more work for us to do. And we like that.

Scale it back. Here's a handy phrase I use when students are getting a little loud. Or when an idea gets a little out of control. Sometimes "just enough" is the best path forward. This is hard to accept when there are creative ideas floating around. Or when there is important work to do. But scaling it back keeps things from getting out of hand. It keeps the classroom productively humming, while keeping the planning from being too burdensome. And it keeps the focus on the learning and not on the bling.

Let's get together as a group. I don't and never have had a "signal" to gather the attention of the people in my room. Other than "let's get together as a group." This handy phrase for when things are getting a little scattered, confused, disjointed or contentious - which happens with adults and students alike. Getting together as a group allows us to hear ideas, prioritize, better understand what is happening and build a community that is capable of doing the work.

I'm a teacher, not a doctor. On any given day, I am presented with a variety of rare and life-threatening medical situations. For each, I reply, "I'm a teacher, not a doctor." Most of the time, this results in a rapid recovery and speedy return to work.

The phrase helps me, as well, when I am prone to think that a problem is insurmountable. Problems aren't insurmountable. And often, they need teachers to solve them, not doctors. We are all gonna live.

Do you have any snacks? We eat. A lot. 5th graders are growing and get hungry often. Teachers are also growing and need sustenance. Snacks help us focus, they help us bond and connect over preferences and they make us feel good. Why wouldn't we eat them all day?

Can I? Students like to help. Some want to water the plants, some like to set up the projector, some like to take attendance, some want to facilitate discussion, some like to help others - and for all of the 45 different kids in my classes, there are at least 450 different ways people want to help.

The same is true for the adults. We all have skills and talents and want to lend them to our community. When students and teachers ask "Can I?," it is important to be able to say yes.

I am sad the year is over. In spite of the hard work, it was a joy every day. That sounds sappy, I know, but it is true.

There are many things I'd like to do different and better. There are many ways I might have proceeded that would have generated different and perhaps better results. But I am pleased with the phrases I have adopted and those that my students are using to communicate the work we do each day. These reflect our belief that what we are doing is real - not just an idea anymore - and what we do we go with one another.

In 5th grade, we have explore three essential questions: What makes communities work? How do I impact my community? How does my community impact me? I would argue that communities work because of common language. And that we impact those around us by the words and phrases we use regularly.

What are your phrases? What do they communicate? And how do they impact your community?

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Momentum, yes! Performance, maybe..

We had some breakthroughs in math this week. It started on Monday when a student came in first thing to ask if I'd do some math with her during her Rover Time. Rover Time is a period in which students can pursue their own inquiry, practice skills, read, engage in discussion with others and present what they have learned to the class. The preferred Rover activity is to "research" - I'll blog about that later.

But on Monday, Deija asked for math. We had fun. A few others joined in. A good discussion ensued and soon they were sharing explanations and thinking.

I had planned to give a quiz on Friday, so this enthusiasm for math was exciting. Perhaps everyone would do well.

On Tuesday, more people were interested. Excitement was building. We did math during class, math at Rover Time, math at lunch and math after school. It was lovely to see students teaching eachother, encouraging one another, sharing strategies and trying over and over again. You can literally see the excitement and determination in their faces..

In some ways, this was the most exciting week of my teaching career. It was student driven, this thirst to get better. And it spread like a virus through our classes.

But then we took the quiz. It was ugly. I could talk a lot about the quiz design. I could argue that we might have made success more attainable - and those are things I have to ponder.

But my bigger question is not so much HOW did this happen, but WHEN will it happen? I believe that we are doing many things right. We're talking about what we learn, we're building an understanding of the WHY of math, not just the HOW, students are engaged and motivated - and yet, throughout the quiz, I saw people struggle. 

They wanted to talk about what they were doing - with me and with eachother. They wanted to use manipulatives. They wanted to do fewer problems and take their time with each.

Quiz design is one thing, but what they will be asked to do in a few weeks on the statewide test in another. How can we keep our momentum for math, while building the stamina, the speed and the silence they'll need to "perform" on the test? In a perfect world, this wouldn't be the question. But in our world, it is very real. And I really need to come up with an answer.

In the meantime, I will mourn our performance on the quiz. But I will also celebrate the bigger wins of this past week. Of Deija identifying as a mathematician. Of Caspar and Sadia collaborating to solve some really hard problems. Of Kayla insisting that she "can't" only to prove to herself that she really can. And of Taylor proudly marching up to the office to show her work to the principal.

I am hopeful that the performance will come. Maybe not for this year's test, but some day. And I am thrilled that the momentum is here. That will make the difference for all of us.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

This Is Why We Fight

Yesterday was a hard day for me. Post-election, I was in mild denial about what would happen. And then, it happened.

At school, the kids were a little gloomy, too. They drew a sad face next to the date. They talked a little about their fears. And then they got to work.

I wanted to find a way to act upon our collective sadness and fears. Many people are marching today to stand up for equality and justice. I wanted to a find a way to remind my students that they matter. Their work, their ideas, their collaboration, their sense of community - all have an impact.

When I got home from school, I started writing progress notes to some of the kids who had shown leadership, kindness, determination or effort in the past week. It was a small act, but it made me feel a little better about things.

I sent a note of congratulations to a student who had formed and was leading a project group. She and I had met twice over the last week about issues and needs. I was impressed with her ability to prioritize and communicate with her group. So I wrote a note to her and mom explaining just that.

Her reply blew me away. She wrote:

"Thank you. Also they encouraged me in the group. Also now they are some of my good friends.
They really inspire me to work super hard during the day.
We need some glue and markers so we can design the poster and make it."

Knowing that we work and walk together, she knew that the group made the difference - for her and for the outcome. With humility and kindness, she recognized that everyone's gifts mattered and that she could not be successful alone.

As I look at images from across the globe today of people standing together for what is true and right, I think of what that can mean for people. I think of the potential we have as a nation to, in the words of a 5th grader, "encourage the group" and "become friends" and "inspire others to work super hard during the day." This is why we fight.