Freedom to Teach

The last two weeks I have been down the black hole of report cards, immersed in grades, comments and discussions with my partner teacher about the progress of our students and where to go next. I’ve also been a leader on a committee that is creating our District’s new Standards Based report card that will reflect our implementation of Common Core and a new 1-4 grading rubric. In short, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about assessing students – how it’s done, how it’s shared with parents, students and teachers; and what it means for those fourth graders that sit in my classroom every day.

This year California teachers and students were given a rare and precious gift. The California Legislature chose to opt out of the State testing that typically happens in April, in order to prevent students from having to experience a ‘double testing’ regimen of STAR plus the new Smarter Balanced pilot tests.

I like to think of myself as a teacher who does not ‘teach to the test’. I look at the standards and plan my curriculum accordingly. I teach what I think students need, based on where they come in to my class, and where I want them to be by June. I give them academic and emotional support. I try to share some life lessons along with my reading and writing lessons. I have high standards for my students – I want them to soar academically and socially. And I am fortunate to have an Administrator who supports me.

But not having the STAR test looming over our heads this year has taught me an important lesson. It changed the way I teach. This year I took more risks, I tried different strategies, I took more TIME. I focused on what I really wanted my students to get out of fourth grade, without worrying about whether I had covered every way they could be asked about a particular aspect of writing strategies and conventions. We had more book talks, more partner work, more book clubs. I finally started my long-planned but never implemented Breakfast with Books Club. I did ‘close reading’, but with texts that I knew the students would be drawn to (every single copy of The False Prince has been checked out of our school library since we read closely from the first chapter last week). My overarching goal was for this group of students ( at least 40% of whom came to me reading below grade level) was to get them excited about reading. To teach them the joy, fear, excitement and grief that can be found in the lines of a text. To make connections with characters and authors and to share their love of reading with each other.

As I assess my students at the end of second trimester, I feel very positive about where we are. Monday mornings are filled with conversations about books we’ve read over the weekend. I hear students randomly discussing characters and plots from books during their free time. Spontaneous book clubs have sprung up as kids share their love of Harry Potter and the Stranded Series of books. They are reading for pleasure and knowledge. And in the end, this is what I wanted. Are they ready to take the Smarter Balanced test? I’ll know in May when we take the pilot. But from what I’ve seen and read so far from other Districts, we will most likely do very poorly. However, in my mind, my students have already succeeded.

I am not an anti-testing advocate. I believe we need ways to assess our students – but we need multiple measures. No single test should define the way we teach. And I’m especially concerned about the money and industry that has sprung up around testing our students. For myself, this year has been enlightening. I am a different teacher when April isn’t looming as ‘testing month’, and I like what I’ve learned.

Having the freedom to teach has indeed been a precious gift.

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Giggles, Tears, and the Secret to Success in Teaching

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Last week was a challenge. You know those days……the days when well planned lessons go awry, even our ‘best’ students seem to have forgotten that well laid foundation for independent work, and the more challenging students are spinning notebooks on their pencils during the mini lesson, or passing notes to each other during work time. Call it Spring Fever, call it barometric pressure, call it a full moon – whatever you call it – you know how it feels! I think the ‘high point’ was when a visiting teacher, coming to learn about my workshop model, helped one of my students dispose of a cockroach that had cozied up to him while he was writing on the floor. You can imagine how much learning happened in the following 10 minutes!

We’ve all had those days, those weeks, and sometimes those years when the reality of your classroom doesn’t quite match the vision in your head. Luckily for me, I have a secret weapon and if it were in my power, I would make sure every teacher in the country had access to it.

My teaching partner.

I am lucky enough to teach with a person whose passion for teaching rivals mine. We have similar teaching styles, but enough differences that we complement each other. I know this is a rare and precious thing, because in my 9 years of teaching, this is the first time I’ve experienced it. I know that when I have those days, I can walk next door and tell my stories and we can both have a good laugh and/or cry – this week we laughed until we cried and it was such a wonderful release. Everyone should have a good giggle like that on a regular basis!

What makes our partnership even more special is the model we use to teach. I certainly take no credit for this model – it was well and truly entrenched at my school when I arrived and boy, am I glad I was willing to give it a try. I’ve recently heard it called ‘platooning’ in this article from Edweek. But you may know it as Departmentalization or Specialization. It’s the norm in Middle and High schools, but pretty rare at the elementary level.

Between us, my teaching partner and I have 60 fourth grade students – two homerooms of 30 children each. I teach Language Arts (reading and writing) and some Social Studies, and she teaches Math, Science and Social Studies. For example, my regularly scheduled day means I start by teaching Reading Workshop to my homeroom for 90 minutes, until morning recess. After a ten minute break (yard duty for us), the students switch homerooms (we are right next door to each other) and then I teach the same Reading Workshop to the second group of students for 90 minutes. Lunch time is 40 minutes and then I see both groups again in the afternoon for 50 minute blocks of writing, social studies, or grade level novel work. Mrs. R., my partner teacher, teaches Math to both groups in the morning, and alternates Science and Social Studies in the afternoons. Our students get all the required minutes for their subjects, plus the following benefits:

1. Movement and Variety – students move between the two classes and work with two different teachers.
2. They have two teachers who are specialists in their subject matter and teach accordingly – i.e. very well!
3. Students have two teachers who get to know them over the course of the year and work together to come up with ways to support and/or challenge them.

The benefits for teachers are as follows:
1. Having the opportunity to dive deeply into your content area and really expand your expertise – “Common Core” anyone??!
2. Getting to know twice as many students and make twice as many connections.
3. Sharing ideas/celebrations/frustrations with a partner who knows ‘exactly’ what you experience in your classroom. Say goodbye to feeling isolated and alone in your four walls.

I couldn’t think of a better way to teach. But I know that I’m lucky to work with someone whose ideology and beliefs about school, students, and teaching are similar to mine.

You may not have the opportunity to Departmentalize at your site, but you always have the opportunity to connect with another teacher. Trust me, this is the thing that will get you through the hard days, help you celebrate the great days, and smile at everything in between. Forge that connection – start small with a short conversation about curriculum, or how to help a struggling student. Make the jump to embrace connectivity – of the old fashioned kind 🙂 I promise, good things will happen.

I wish you giggles and tears and a partnership that brings your teaching to a whole new level.

Thanks Mrs. R. for being my other teaching half 🙂