Reflection on Winter Quarter

Here I am blogging again! After months away, it feels both foreign and familiar to be back here. It’s hard to believe that Winter quarter was 2 months ago. It feels like it has been much longer, and also just like yesterday.

When I reflect on my blogging during my last quarter I realize how much I had to push myself to get out of my own head while blogging. While on this journey to become a teacher I had spent a great deal of time thinking about me. What am I learning? What connections ammaking? What am I learning about teaching? How does all of this make me feel? So much of this program had been about being reflective about you as a teacher and learner. Terms like unpacking your own knapsack and being reflective had caused me to focus my blogging primarily on what this process has been like for me. Though it is important to look inwards during this process I realized that I needed to focus on the overarching purpose of teaching, my students and their learning. I think this is the direction that I was moving towards in my blogging when my path changed. I had been set to spend two more weeks in my placement where I would switch my thinking to how am “I” impacting “them”. Unfortunately though life does not always work out as you plan and I needed to cut my student teaching experience short. I feel as though I was just gearing up to move out of my head and focus  my blogging more on student learning when this process was put on hold. I cannot say that in my blogging I moved more deeply into using evidence of what my students were learning. I believe that this experience would have been completely different if I had completed those additional two weeks in the classroom.

This blog reflects my growth as a teacher who is reflecting on both her practice and her students. When this blog began a year ago, it was mostly just theoretical. My blogs were related to what I had read that week and my ideas about education. As I moved through this program and began to work with “real” students, these blogs became a lot more authentic. This quarter I thought deeply about issues that I saw in the classroom. I wrote about my experience with the importance of wait time, not only in whole class interactions, but also when working individually with students. I wrote about the importance of creating an authentic context for learning.

One thing that I have enjoyed about blogging is the ability to have insight into what others in my cohort are thinking. I learned about thoughts and experiences that I would not have known about if it were not for the blog. We shared our experiences often we were all together, yet I always felt like I gained such a deeper understanding of my classmates by reading their blogs every week. Blogs that I commented on that still stand out to me were about reaching a “difficult” student, classroom management, and the importance, or lack thereof, of students being quiet in the classroom.

It was nice to not only have this insight but also to have the ability to have conversations and share our thinking in this type of format. As we have learned, it is important to give our students multiple access points to the information we are teaching because students all have different needs and learning styles. Blogging gives us another way to express ourselves and learn from each other.

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Creating Community In The Classroom

Throughout this program we have talked a lot about the importance of creating community in the classroom. The importance of this became very apparent when I started working in my placement. If students feel safe and supported, they are better able to learn. The importance of community though reaches far beyond academics. Creating community in the classroom helps students grow emotionally and socially. It prepares them to be people who know how to support others and to ask for what they need. As teachers it is not only our job to teach the curriculum but to teach our students life lessons. I feel that it is my job to help shape my students into good citizens. This starts by creating a classroom community where students are held to high standards. I will expect my students to be kind, respectful and supportive of each other.

My placement is in a classroom filled with “great kids”. They are often very supportive and encouraging of each other. I rarely see students cutting anyone else down and I am often impressed by the respectful way that they treat each other. There are a few ideas that I have seen that I believe encourage this classroom environment.

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Something as simple as students “sharing” at lunchtime seems to really encourage this supportive environment. Anyone can get up during lunch and share with the class. Sometimes a student brings in a favorite toy, a story about what happened over the weekend, or a new shirt they received for their birthday. The rule is that when someone is sharing everyone must be quiet. No side conversations are allowed. After the student shares they ask if anyone has questions or comments and their fellow students raise their hands to ask about what they have seen. One thing that always impresses me if that the students ALWAYS have something to add. There have been times where a student has shared something and I was worried that they would be met with blank stares from their classmates, yet every single time a hand is raised. This shows the student who is taking the risk of sharing that they are supported. This lunch time sharing feels very safe.

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The other idea that I absolutely love is something that is being done school wide. This year my school has taken on the concept of “being a bucket filler”. This concept is based on a children’s book. This book talks about how we can either fill someone’s bucket, or take from it, depending on how we treat them. The concept is that we are always having an affect on those around us. When someone fills your bucket with an act of kindness, you feel good. When someone hurts your feelings, they are taking from your bucket. The goal is that as a school “we are bucket fillers”.

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We were given a laminated bucket poster to use in our classroom. We then laminated hearts for students to write on. When someone does something nice for you, the idea is that you will write the act of kindness on the heart and put it into the bucket. These notes are anonymous by both the person writing the notes and who the note is written about. Every Friday we have a class meeting and the teacher reads the notes in the bucket. They are then posted on the wall.

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I love this idea for some many reasons. I love that I am at a school who is making a priority of creating a school wide community based on kindness and empathy. I love that students can see how even the smallest act of kindness can make another person’s day. The sharing out of the notes each week makes everyone feel good and encourages future acts of kindness.

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Supporting ELL Readers In The Classroom

   I made two different connections while reading the Fain and Mesmer readings this week. While reading Family Talk about Language Diversity and Culture, I found myself thinking about my struggling readers who are also ELL. The text they are exposed to is not rich and does not help them to develop depth in their thinking about literature. While reading “Go Dog Go”, there is not much to really think about at all. I like the idea suggested by Fain of having students read high quality literature in their first language with their parents. The conversations took place in the study shows how this type of activity can help students to develop their thinking skills. This is an aspect that they understandably fall behind their fellow students if they are only using their in-class reading as a basis for discussion and analysis.

   Through deep and meaningful discussions at home, they are given the equal opportunity to work on the skills that their fellow classmates are developing. “The discussions at home in families’ native language supported all three children in gaining conversational skills, confidence, and language support.” (Fain, p.313) I also found it interesting that research tells us that supporting a students’ primary language will actually help to strengthen their English. “Over 30 years of research have indicated that children become more proficient in their first and second languages when their first language is strengthened and used as a bridge to make connections in their second language learning.” (Fain, p.313)

   The other connection I made while doing this week’s reading also involved my struggling readers who are ELL. While reading Response to Intervention (RTI): What Teachers of Reading Need to Know, I was reminded of the work that I saw my teacher doing while she conducted her daily individual instruction with our student who struggled the most. The activity she is using sounds very similar to the Word Attack Test that was mentioned in the Mesmer reading. She has the student read through one of his “just right books” and notes the words that he struggles with. If the word comes up frequently in the text, she adds this word to the student’s collection of flash cards. They go over the word, how to say it, and what it means. She then has the student write the word on the card. On the other side of the card she has the student write the word in a sentence that the student creates. These flash cards are often used at the beginning of their daily conferences. His decoding and comprehension of these high frequency words have greatly improved by doing this daily activity. He began the year as a level B reader and is now a level E. I learned a great deal by watching her work with him and plan to use this activity with struggling readers in my own classroom.

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What’s The Purpose?

   The other week in my placement the students were learning about non-fiction texts.  Some of the lessons we taught the students involved being aware of the author’s purpose and being able to tell the difference between important facts and interesting details.  I found myself constantly thinking to myself, “What is the purpose of these lessons?” We were following the pacing guide and these non-fiction lessons where what was supposed to be taught at this specific time, but it lacked any real context or purpose to engage the students. Both Routman and Tovani write a great deal about the need for students to see a purpose for their reading and writing. They need to see the lessons that they are learning as a part of a larger picture. The learning needs to be authentic and not simply isolated lessons that focus on skills or strategies. If students are to apply what we teach them, they need to be learning these lessons in context. Students need to understand “why” they are learning what we are teaching them.  

   There were times in the lessons where the students were told that this information would be helpful in the future when they would be asked to do a research project. They were asked to go back to their readings and use sticky notes to write down when they noticed something in their non-fiction reading that connected to that day’s lesson. It all felt so forced. I did not feel that the lessons were being taught at a time when the students could really use the strategies and retain what they had been taught. I asked my cooperating teacher about this. I asked why we were teaching these lessons now if the research projects were not starting until next month.  She told me that she found that it was best to “front load” the information. She thought it was better for the students to be taught all the lessons before they needed to apply them. I asked her if she believed the students would be able to retain and apply this information a month later, she said that she believed they could.  

   She has been teaching for 6 years and I believe that she is a good teacher who knows what she is doing, but I still struggle with accepting her answer in full. I do agree that you cannot begin teaching about the features of non-fiction texts at the same time that you need the students to begin a research project. The students do need a bit of background knowledge and the project would likely move too slowly if it had to follow along with the entire non-fiction unit. I do think though that the project and the unit should overlap at some point.  If I was sitting there thinking “what is the point to all of this?”, the students were likely feeling the same way. These lessons didn’t seem to really connect with the kids because they didn’t see the purpose.

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Working On Wait Time

   One aspect of teaching that I really need to work on is wait time. I am not only referring to the usual idea which refers to giving time for students to think before calling on them during whole group instruction. I am finding that this concept of wait time really applies to all areas in the classroom. This week I had two instances that really stood out to me. I was forced to look at myself and why I was so uncomfortable with the awkward silence or a student struggling that often accompanies this wait time.

   I have a student who is a struggling reader. He reads grade levels behind and is still working on decoding words. When I read with him I have a terrible habit of jumping in too early and helping him. I hate to see him struggle and assume he is getting frustrated, so I help him sound it out. More than help, I basically sound it out for him. I told me CT that I wanted to observe how she worked with him because I could tell that I was doing it wrong. It was so interesting to me to see how she did things. The amount of time she gave him to struggle through a word without any help from her. She also suggested strategies to use, but did not do the work for him. I saw that he was able to work through many words, apply decoding strategies, and the teacher “gave it to him” only as the very last option.

The goal of teaching is for students to learn strategies that help them solve problems and understand material on their own without a teacher’s assistance. Students will not learn to be independent I am always jumping in to help them in the moment. I need to learn to become more comfortable with allowing students to struggle. As another of my professor calls it, I need to allow students to experience “controlled floundering”.

   The second instance that really enlightened me on the importance of wait time occurred when I was helping a student with math. This student tends to be quiet and she is someone who needs time to process. I on the other hand tend to talk quickly and if I student doesn’t reply to what I am saying immediately, I tend to keep talking, keep explaining. This is something else I need to work on. I was working with this student and I kept talking and talking. I was not getting responses from her so I could not tell if she understood what I was saying. At one point I realized that what I was doing was not working and I decided to “just shut up”. I gave her a direction and then I stopped. I didn’t say anything else and I gave her the time to process her own thinking. And as I sat there waiting, she being to write and correctly complete the problem. We went on like this for the next 10min. I would clarify a question and then I would sit back. Every time, without fail, she completed the problem correctly.

   I had falsely believed that a lack of immediate response meant that she was still confused.  This lead me to feel that I had to keep explaining in a variety of ways until she understood. I was wrong. This experience made me realize that students will all process information in different ways. Some students will be able to immediately engage with me and I can tell if they understand or are still confused. Other students will do their thinking quietly in their head, and if I allow them the space and the time they need, they will show me if they understand the material. The ability to verbally express yourself, or think quickly is not a sign of a student’s understanding. We have talked a great deal about learning to teach children who are different than us. In this instance I came face to face with this reality. Thee way my mind works has influenced the way I assume other’s minds will work. This is incorrect. I need to give a student more or less based on what they need as an individual. I have to be aware of myself, my assumptions, my areas of discomfort, and question it all. I need to make sure that, above all else, I am truly giving the students what they need. Sometimes less really is more.

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Acting Like A Teacher vs. Actually Teaching

   This week our professor asked us to think about how we are reaching out students and how do we know if we are becoming an effective teacher. My honest answer is at this point I don’t think I am really reaching them on an academic level yet. In the past 4 months I have only been in the classroom for 8 days, and those 8 days have not all been consecutive. I feel that there has just not been enough time for me to say that the students have learned from me yet.

   I certainly feel that I have connected with the students and we have formed relationships, but I don’t feel that I have had a big impact on them academically. I am also in a classroom where my CT still does all of the teaching. Since the beginning of the year I have only taught one lesson for my formal observation. My role has been mainly classroom routines and management up until this point. I do help the students when they are working independently on math and writing as well as daily reading conferring, but I still do not feel that I have taken on the “teacher role” yet.  As I move through this quarter and being to take on more lessons myself, I am hoping that I will begin to feel that I am activity teaching the students.

   One thing I have talked about with my classmates is how different all of our experiences in the classroom are. Some of us have been given the freedom to do a great deal of teaching, while others of us have been able to teach very little. I have realized is that I am going to need to speak up and tell me CT that I need to be given more time to practice all that I am learning. I think it must be difficult for teachers who are used to doing it all on their own to hand lessons over to interns. I know that my CT is not doing this because she does not trust me or think I will not be a good teacher, I just think it is so natural for her to be the one teaching all the lessons.  I believe that if I speak up and say that I would like to take on more of the teaching she would gladly allow me to do so. My goal is to take on more teaching responsibility  and hopefully in a few weeks I will be able to reflect on what my students are learning from me.

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Cutting Ourselves Some Slack While Also Believing in Ourselves

For the past 2 weeks I have been thinking a lot about the pressure we put on ourselves as pre-service teachers. It is so easy to see great teachers and get sucked into the false belief that we need to be like these amazing teaches from the very start. It is great to have high standards for ourselves and to push ourselves to be the best that we can be, but we also have to realize that everyone has to start somewhere. We have to cut ourselves a bit of slack and realize that every great teacher was a new teacher once. We have to much to learn and we will make many mistakes as we go along. I work very hard to remind myself of this. I think I have fallen into the trap of believing that to be a good teacher, either you have it or you don’t. I see others who seem to seem more confident, comfortable, or knowledgeable and I question myself. I have had a few “ah-ha” moments over this past week where I felt comforted by the fact that the people who observe us and who will eventually hire us do not expect us to know it all from the very start. I was also reminded this week that we are often much more critical of ourselves than we should be.

During one of our classes the other week the principal and vice principal of the elementary school came in to talk to us. They mentioned how even they make mistakes after all these years and how they are always learning. They said that the people we see who are amazing teachers have put in a lot of time and work to get to that point. We were reminded that everyone was a beginner at some point.

The other “ah-ha” moment came after my first formal observation. Before the lesson I felt that I would most likely do well, but also worried that perhaps I was going to make a million mistakes. I worried that maybe my field adviser would see me teach and think that I didn’t know what I was doing. But this did not happen. I taught my lesson, and after I was done I was told that I did an excellent job. One of the comments that really stood out to me was that I was told that I seemed very confident and comfortable with the students.  How funny, because on the inside I felt nervous and awkward.

The two lessons I have taken from this week is to cut myself some slack and to also believe a bit more in my teaching abilities. No one is expecting us to be perfect and we really are our worst critic.

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