Monthly Archives: October 2010

Following My Own Advice

When I got up this morning, I had a lot of work to do, most of it writing comments about my students. Three times a year I have to write a paragraph about each student that I teach. My goal is to make the parents smile and say, “She really knows my child.” It is one of those Love/Hate tasks. It really helps me to take the time to focus on each individual child and try to describe her as she is in my classroom. It is incredibly demanding though. While part of what I write is about her skills, most of it is about her as an individual. There is no Cutting and Pasting that works. Each comment is unique to each girl.

As I was getting myself set up, arranging all of the papers and pieces of evidence that I had collected during the trimester, I remembered my previous blog post about the importance on exercise when using the brain. Part of me wanted to shrug it off and get straight to the task at hand, but another part of me thought that it would be just as good an experiment with me as it was with my students. So I went outside and began to briskly rake leaves. The air was crisp and clear with a gentle wind blowing. The leaves were dry and easy to rake. It felt great to be outside and since I love to rake, it was a great start to the day. I had to discipline myself to stop after 20 minutes and head back inside to the real task of the day.

I sat down and the comments started coming. I felt awake and alert, definitely less in need of caffeine to create the energy. I worked with barely a pause for an hour and a half, at which point I started to feel distracted and lethargic. I had lost my sense of control over the material that I was using to understand each student and each comment was starting to sound similar, rather than unique. I realized that it was time to re-energize my brain. I got up and went back outside. There was no guilt or sense of avoidance. I was doing what would help my complete the task I needed to do, and exercise was part of doing the work of the day. Again, I spent about 20 minutes, raking and enjoying the fresh air. I wasn’t happy to leave it and head inside, but my brain was back on task when I got there. I stayed at it for another couple hours.

It was just fun to practice what I had been preaching last week to my students. Exercise and movement do indeed help the brain to work better!

The Wonder of Some Exercise

I have used movement in my classroom a lot over the years, getting the students up to work in small groups or to participate in simulations and role-playing. Today was the first time that I incorporated an actual walk into the work of the class. It was an 80 minute period, first thing in the morning. The purpose of the class was to discuss study strategies and to allow the students time to practice them. I wanted for them to experiment with new ways of learning, so that they could begin to identify what works the best for them.

I started the class by going over the topics that were going to be covered on their upcoming test. It is first test of the year, as I tend to do many other kinds of assessment. I only give tests every now and then, mostly for the students to see how much material they have control over. I believe that mastering control over a body of information is an important skill, even in the Age of Google. It is far harder to think and write about a topic when you don’t have the facts in your mind. I work on helping them find the best ways to practice and learn facts and main ideas.

The students shared the ways that they like to learn information which ranged from making flashcards to recording it in Garageband to retyping their notes. We discussed some other strategies and tools that they could use, from paper and markers to Smart Ideas and Word. Because this isn’t the first time they have thought about this, they had a good idea of what tools they wanted to start with for their studying.

Then it was time for a brisk 5 minute walk. I suggested that they use the time to review in their minds what they knew and what they wanted to learn, but I didn’t enforce silence. The point was simply to get their blood circulating. We headed out of school and across the playing fields. They loved it. They chatted with each other and then broke out into a run when they got to the field. They laughed and joked with each other, spinning around and acting like the children that they are, rather than the students they must be in the building.

When we got back inside, I told them to find a comfortable space, in the room or in the hall, to do their work. They quickly spread out and got started with what they had planned on doing. There was none of the fidgeting and distraction that can so often accompany a Work Time. They had developed a plan and knew just what they wanted to learn and how they were going to do it. AND the blood was flowing to their brains. It was their task, and they owned it. There was a total focus on the task at hand. I wandered around among them, quietly recording what tool they were using to help them learn, fascinated by the variety of their choices.

After 25 minutes, I told them to stop and come together. They left everything where it was and gathered together. I told them that while they walked, I wanted them to share with a partner at least 2-3 facts or ideas that they had focused on while they were working. We set out on the same walk, with them moving in front to take the lead, talking and laughing over what they had learned. The whole exercise seemed like a lark to them.

What was amazing was that when we returned, they settled right back into the task at hand. They immediately picked up on where they had been and clearly shifted their focus from the walking time to a learning time. This is definitely a strategy to play around with. I had read about it but never tried it. I saw one of our PE teachers, and she responded, “That’s what it’s all about!” I have to agree!

So Hard to Convince Them

It takes more than just telling students that my goal is to see how they think and not to simply have something to throw a grade on. They are so used to thinking that class and work is all about the grade, and not about the learning, that they truly doubt it when I tell them I just want to watch how they work with the material. For many, they have learned the Game of School really well, and they know how to play by its rules. They are masters of rote learning and simply want to be told where to find the answer, to write it in the blank and get their A. For them, being told that there is no Right Way to do an assignment can be terrifying. The rules have suddenly disappeared, and with them, their strategies for doing the work. For the others, the ones who are constantly being beaten down by the grades they receive, they completely expect eventually to be ambushed by a grade. They have lost their interest in learning, because school has taught them that they are no good at it. Their fear and distrust shuts down any fluidity that they might have with their thinking. For both kinds of students, it is a process to teach them how to enjoy the learning process and to move away from it being about simply about the teacher.

This is my most recent example: I had my students make a mind-map showing the connections between 20 vocabulary words that we had been studying. I wanted them to put the words into categories, whatever groupings that they found.  We did it first as a class, using the school as an example. We brainstormed a list of words to describe the school and then they identified groups of 2-4 words and explained why they had created that group. I had them make two different attempts at building groups, so that they could see that there were many ways to build categories out of a list of words. We connected each pair of words with a line to explain why they were close to each other. They loved the process of inventing and reinventing ways to discuss what they had identified as significant about our school.

I then turned them to the vocabulary of the unit and had them do the same activity: create one way to group the words, create another way to group them; examine the two ways and develop a final mind-map with words and connecting lines.

They could barely start their work because of the barrage of questions that focused mainly on “Is this going to be graded?,” How do you want this to look?” It was so hard for them to accept that watching them work and seeing how they put their thoughts on paper was what I was after. School has them so trained to not value their own work for the learning that is happening there, but to only look for how to get the grade. It is the grade that will show if the work has value, and by association, if they have worth.

Exploration, testing new ideas, trying to figure out the puzzle is scary work. To be in the process of learning takes all of us out of our comfort zones. In many ways, working for the grade is much easier than being in a classroom where the goal is active engagement and learning. I need to keep working on ways to make my classroom a safe place to try and an even safer place to fail. I need to affirm the experimentation that may lead to a dead end. I also want to work on developing ways of giving feedback that feel valid to them, that truly recognizes and affirms their work.

I always forget…

Perhaps it isn’t that I forget, but that it is impossible to actually remember just how exhausting it is to be teaching all day. sort of like being hit by a tidal wave of exhaustion that comes from being “on” all of the time. I love what I do, and that is probably part of it. I try to be totally present for every moment that there are students in my room – definitely one of my goals for myself. I want them each to feel seen and known, so checking out and relaxing simply can’t be part of the routine, even when they are working independently. It can be so tempting to simply sit behind my desk while they are at their tasks, rather than being up and walking around the room. When I am up and moving around, it is clear that they maintain a sense that I am with them as they take on the struggle of clearly writing out their thoughts or mastering whatever project they have to tackle. I want to have them stretch, to move out of their comfort zone, but I want them to know I am there to catch them, to keep them from completely falling. I can’t do that from behind my desk with my thoughts on my next job.

If I retreat and use the time when they are at independent work to do my own work, the students notice it immediately. They are so sensitive to the energy flow in the room. Their behavior changes almost as soon as I shift my attention and withdraw from them. They quickly become less focused on their task and are much more easily distracted. For older students, it may be that they need to learn more independence and that that separation might be called for, but for middle school, it is different. Middle school students still need that attention, that gentle hand of guidance to keep them on track, simply staying visible and being mentally present. When we offer them that, it provides them with the space to test new ideas and to grow. Most importantly, when we stay connected, they know we care.

But, Boy! is it exhausting! Between planning, teaching, grading, recording, thinking and starting it all over again, there is very little time for that wonderful contemplation of summer, where thoughts can be played with and new strategies considered. Now is the time to draw on those calmer moments and create, build and produce as fast as we can. Each new day should teach us something new about the students in front of us and challenge us to rethink what we did last year to make sure it presents this year’s group with the appropriate challenges and supports. Each new day should reawaken our commitment to the students who trust us to lead them well.

And once we have done all that, then it is time for bed! Time to refresh and start again!