Courage- Student Singalong Edition

My students and colleagues never cease to surprise and teach me. Today was one of those times, so I thought I would share a little bit about it. Up until about 2:30, today had been a fairly blah sort of day. Everyone seemed to be on edge and no one really seemed to be getting along with one another. Not that this was a big deal. Some days are like that, even in Australia. When 2:30 rolled around, that blah sort of day went out the door.

I guess I should give you a little preamble. We have been studying poetry. It is a unit I love, but can definitely be challenging for some kids. What I asked the kids to do over the last couple of days is to create a rap or song and be ready to share it in a small group. Any topic, any tune. As you can imagine, the kids kinda struggled with this. I was okay with that because I think that a lot of learning can come out of struggling through something like that. They then shared their songs in small groups in the class. Again, we were still in that blah sort of place. That was until I asked the kids if any of them wanted to share their song with the whole class. To my utter shock, one of the girls volunteered right off the bat. She sang her song about bacon entitled, “I’m So Greasy” to the tune of “I’m So Fancy”. It was awesome. A number of other students volunteered to get up in front of the class, on their own, completely voluntarily, to sing the songs that they had composed. They were great. Even our fabulous SEA Katie got into the act with a song recorded on Garage Band. (I am working on convincing her that we need to post it for the world to hear)

The students amazed me with their willingness to do something that, for many of them, was completely out of their comfort zone. They showed courage and investment in their learning. I am proud of them. Just wanted to share.

Why I Love Working in a Catholic School

Tomorrow our school celebrates Holy Thursday by having a whole day retreat where we take our students through a series of prayers and activities designed to get them more prepared to celebrate Easter, the most important day of the year. This retreat is an important day on our school calendar and one that I have come to appreciate more and more as time goes by. 

This day is a clear illustration of why I love working at a Catholic School. It means that our faith life and our academic lives don’t have to be separate. Growing up I went to a public school.  I would even say I went to a good public school. I finished my schooling with a strong academic background that allowed me to succeed both in University and later in my life. I always felt, however, a disconnect between my internal faith and the way I felt I could live that faith when I went to school. That disconnect disappeared when I started working in a Catholic School. I love that I can have conversations with my students where we can talk about morality and decision making in light of a shared faith.  

I have read a lot lately where people are trying to paint independent schools as places of wealthy elititism. This just has not been my lived experience. I am not saying that there are no independent schools that do not take on an air of elitism, but I would be willing to wager that the public schools in those neighbourhoods take on those same attitudes. In my experience, most of the parents that send their kids to Catholic schools do so because they want the values and beliefs that they hold at home to be mirrored by the schools that their kids go to. Most parents that send their kids to Catholic schools want to be closer partners in their children’s school. The Catholic schools that I have worked at (there have been four of them) are not filled with the rich elite. They are filled with families that make sacrifices to send their kids to that school. 

I have been very fortunate to work at the schools that I have. I have been surrounded by excellent teaching and non-teaching staffs and supportive parent and parish communities. I look forward to telling you more about my experiences moving forward. 

Change For The Sake Of Change

i think that often in schools we deliberately make a decision not to just make chang s just for the sake of change. We don’t want to rock the boat and we know that the process of change can can be difficult, both for ourselves and the people around us. I do feel, however, there is something to be said for change for the sake of change. 

This school year I switched to fifth grade after years in grade seven. There was no reason for it other than the fact I felt like I needed a change. It turns out that the move has been a great thing for me. It shook me up a little bit and forced me to do things differently. It allowed me to challenge myself. 

We do this regularly in small ways in our classrooms. Today my students moved their desks around in the classroom. Was there any reason for this other than to give the students a change of scenery? Nope. Change for the sake of change. 

A teacher that I greatly admire had been teaching fifth grade for a long time. One thing I admired about her was that every year she chose one area of her program to look at and change. She had a good program that she was  happy with but she was constantly changing and trying to grow. I know that this is not exactly change for the sake of change but it was constant change and growth. 

In the immortal words of Chuck Salina (or whoever he borrowed the phrase from), “Better green and growing than ripe and rotten”. 

Promoting A Culture Of Change

I have found the last couple of months to be some of the most exciting of my career. This stems directly from having the opportunity to see a number of my colleagues pushing themselves to change and to embrace new things.

I came into school the other day and saw Joy (guest blogger in the making) excitedly shooting video in iMovie because she had taken the initiative to take a course at the Apple store. Her excitement rubbed off on our music teacher and now she and I are planning to take a course to learn Garage Band. I walked into our computer lab today and saw our second grade students blogging. One of our Kindergarten teachers has embraced the idea of Genius Hour. These are only a few examples of my colleagues and friends embracing change and dedicating themselves to life long learning.

I feel extremely fortunate to work where I do. Our principal not only encourages us in embracing new things, but backs it up by supporting us as we push ourselves into trying new things. Our whole staff seems more like a family than a group of coworkers most of the time. Change can be difficult, but it is easier when you are surrounded by people who challenge, support and encourage you.

Homework- Yes? No? Maybe So?

The longer that I have been a parent of school aged children, the more the teacher and administrator in me questions the value of homework. Almost every school mission statement talks  about the value of education of “the whole child”, yet asks families to cram extra academic work into time that could be spent on artistic or athletic endeavors that truly meet needs that the school says it values. As a teacher, I am still not sure exactly where I sit so I am going to lay out my thoughts and hope for some feedback from anyone who is reading.

Why do students have homework?
I believe the two main things that teachers are trying to accomplish when assigning homework are to either have students finish up what they were working on throughout the day or to reinforce concepts that are being taught through extra practice.

Does homework accomplish those things?
I guess that depends. Not all kids complete their homework on time, so a teacher still has the issue of not all students being at the same place. Additionally, there has been quite a lot written about the fact thst homework, particularly for younger children, does not appear to have many long term learning benefits.

What about those kids that work more slowly than others? When would they finish?
I don’t think that kids that have brains that take longer to process than others should be penalized for that. Fair and equal are not the same. There is no reason that teachers need to assign the same number of questions to each student or that each assignment has to be the same for each student.

Is homework fair to all kids?
This is a tricky one. We all know that each child walks into our classroom with a unique set of gifts, talents, and challenges. They also all come with unique home situations and level of parental support. I am not so sure that asking kids in difficult home sutuations to be able to navigate the same homework expectations of others is quite fair.

What can you see as benefits to eliminating homework?
Beyond creating a more level playing field for all kids? How about not having the aggravation of kids that constantly don’t have their homework completed on time and what that can do to a child’s self-image?

What would be the major challenge of eliminating homework?
In a word, change. Eliminating homework would mean that  many teachers would have  to change how they  do business. It would mean they would need to do a better job of personalizing learning for their students and communicating learning to parents. Many parents would also need to change because they  would need to see schools today as different from when they went to school.

So…verdict?
I am still not sure. Writing this post has helped me think things through a little bit, but I am hoping that anyone out there who is reading can give me their two cents.

Perseverance

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Every time that our school community goes to Mass at the Church building that shares our property, we pass a little flower garden. It kind of juts out into the path that people take as they walk back into our school building. In the corner of this garden is a sad little plant, stepped on and trampled by many as they try to save one step on their way back to the business of their day. I would have expected this little plant to have died by now, faced with constant trampling by the feet of countless students over the years. Instead, this plant constantly battles back from every trampling that it takes, trying over and over again to reach its potential as a beautiful flowering plant.

To me, this sad little plant is a symbol of perseverance. It is a symbol that can show us how, when things are difficult, to keep trying, even when we know that things may well get hard again.

I think perseverance is one of the most important qualities that we, as teachers can attempt to foster in our students. One of the ways that we can do this is to be careful in the ways that we provide feedback to students. In Carol Dweck’s book Mindset (which, as I said, I will comment on more at another time), she states that praising effort over ability can help students to achieve a growth mindset that allows them to grow as a learner. While I have not taken the time to do any deep research in the matter, the concept rings true to my lived classroom experience.

Perhaps it sounds funny that a half dead, trampled plant can be a strong symbol of perseverance to me, but it is definitely one whose attributes I hope that I can emulate personally and  encourage in the students I teach.

Parents, Never Say This to Your Kids

One of the things that I find most challenging as a teacher is when, in the middle of class, a kid pipes up and says, “I’m just not good at Math!” I am pretty sure that every teacher of an intermediate classroom has heard it and I am sure many share my frustration from hearing it at that moment.

So, where does this attitude come from? I can tell you almost without fail that every time I hear this phrase come out of the mouth of a student, that by the end of the year I will have one of their parents tell me, “I was no good at Math when I was a kid. I’m still not good at Math. Little Billy is just like me.”

Obviously, little Billy is struggling with the concepts being presented. However, this is also a way that students and parents let themselves off the hook. They could be saying, “I find Math hard, I don’t enjoy it very much, and I don’t want to put in the work.” At least that would be honest. And if we are in the business of being honest, it also gives parents and students a way to protect their own ego in the event that they try hard and fail.

It always amazes me the things that a person can achieve through hard work and dedication; the things that they can achieve if they see struggle as an opportunity for growth instead of an indictment of them as a person. Where would Michael Jordan have been if, after being cut from his tenth grade basketball team he had said, “I’m just not good at basketball.”?

So, please, parents, don’t tell your kids that you weren’t good at Math. Tell them that you believe in them and that they can achieve whatever they put their minds to. Help them to “Be like Mike.”*

*Jordan, not me 🙂