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 🙂

Reading Peeps

Today was one of my favorite days so far this school year – I gave my students companions in their reading journeys. Each student was paired with a reader of similar ability and given time to interview each other, choose a reading partnership name, and design a logo for their partnership. We began by talking about what a good interviewer does and what kinds of questions they would need to ask to get the most out of their interviewee. This idea came from Lucy Calkins’ Readers’ Workshop books. I have been usingDaily 5/CAFE for the last two years, and now I’m trying out some of the original Readers’ Workshop ideas. I’ll admit I’m a little dubious about pairing children up long term. Up until now, my classroom has been all about choice – choosing who you read with and how often. But I can see the benefits of sticking with one partner, reading the same books, and having extended conversations about literature that are based on a shared reading history. So I’m giving it a go.

I have 2 classes of thirty fourth grade students. Today took a great deal of planning – I wanted to make sure each student was paired with someone that I felt would be an excellent reading companion, and a good match personality-wise. At the same time I was also looking to create ‘new’ partnerships by putting students together who wouldn’t naturally gravitate to each other. When you factor in the students who are overly shy, on the spectrum, or just generally anti-social, this becomes an overwhelming task. But today, I was ready.

And it worked. Really well.

My students were serious in their interviewing. They discovered shared likes and dislikes, created some very cool Partnership Names (The Reading Peeps, The Book Bros, The Fictioneers to name a few), and had fun designing a logo for their partnership (I scaffolded this activity by asking them if they were to design a t-shirt for their partnership what would it look like). What with all the preparation and the discussion of our next Project (creating a Book Trailer using iMovie) our 90 minutes flew by. They were literally groaning that they didn’t have time to read their book with their partner today! Actually, I’m glad, because it keeps that anticipation and excitement going for tomorrow. It’s like looking at the present under the tree that you can’t unwrap yet. So much of what we do in our classrooms involves framing things in the right way to motivate students and I can tell you, today was a BIGGIE!

Naturally, there were two or three partnerships in each class that I have some concerns about. I knew it would be more challenging for them to find common ground and/or communicate with each other. Some were boy/girl partnerships, some were students who would never choose to work together on their own, and some were challenged by their social skills – which is actually one of the main reasons I want to do this. I want my students to learn to converse with each other in a trusting, respectful manner about books and hopefully about life. I think this is a set of skills we need to TEACH – especially at a school like mine where students are struggling with so many of the issues associated with poverty and low Socio-economic status. So, here was my strategy for starting those groups off on the right foot today. As they were interviewing each other I approached them and told them, I was so very excited about this particular partnership. I outlined the strengths of each reader, and explained that both students were at a point in their reading lives where they were ‘taking off’ with their reading. I told them that together they would be unstoppable and I couldn’t wait to see how far they would go. Without fail, their eyes lit up with pride and they were excited to get back to work.

I know there is still so much work to do, but I feel great about our first day as long term reading partners and the way it will shape the learning that happens from here on out. I’m very proud of my Reading Peeps.

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