Thursday, September 27, 2012

I'm a survivor...

Seems hard to believe that October is around the corner. How can it be that it's only been 4 weeks, and yet how can the first month have already come and gone?

Many new teachers experience a "survival" phase their first months of their first years of teaching. Heck, I'm feeling it myself in my fifteenth year. Though I think calling it a "survival" phase diminishes the amazing work that is done in the first few months of September, it does call attention to the rapid learning curve of new/first year teachers and the tremendously hard work teachers do every day. During this time, it is hard to keep your focus above the day-to-day work. We forget the big picture, and get bogged down in the minutia of each day of teaching.

It's not unusual for new teachers to spend 70 hours on schoolwork, so it's no wonder you're tired on Fridays - you're constantly trying to keep your head above water. This is so normal, to feel overwhelmed with this new career.  You're probably beyond the total excitement of the beginning of the year, but you are likely still incredibly enthusiastic, have lots of energy to continue learning about your students, and making your lessons as engaging as possible.

Now's a good time to take some time to reflect on all that you're accomplishing. It's also a time when you might need to take a day this weekend to stay in your pjs and watch a silly movie, or spend a few hours with a friend on a walk through the fall colors. You are surviving, but you also need to take some time to find a balance. I don't know any teacher (or any adult, really) that has perfect work-life balance. And frankly, it just isn't realistic to think you'll be able to have it in your first year(s) of teaching. Teaching is hard, hard work. But this weekend, plan for a little balance. You'll need to care for yourself now, so you can care for your students throughout the year.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


I've sat in on several conversations in the last few weeks with groups of teachers, particularly new practicing teachers as well as preservice teachers, who shared that they enjoy working with older elementary, middle school, and high school students partly because they get to be sarcastic with the students. They said that students think sarcasm is funny and that it is a way to help them connect with their students.

When I hear these comments, I have a hard time biting my tongue. I try to probe for more information about why they consider sarcasm an effective way to build relationships or as an instructional or management tool. It is hard for me not to jump in immediately with how I feel about sarcasm - that it has no place in a classroom. Elementary, middle, or high school.

See, the thing about sarcasm is that at the heart, it is meant to harm. Someone or something is always at the bad end of the joke. Even if it is directed at the teacher themselves, it sets up a classroom environment modeling that it is ok to make fun of others. Teachers do not mean for this to cause harm. But in actuality, sarcasm is hurtful. Criticism of sarcasm use by teachers dates way back, as evidenced in an interesting article by Thomas Briggs at Teacher's College, Columbia University from 1928.

And I'll tell you this - when I observe students in classrooms where teachers use sarcasm, more often than not, most students are visibly uncomfortable or confused by the jokes. There are students that get it and do think it is funny. And some students have learned to laugh even if they don't think something is funny. But what are we teaching them with this behavior? Think about new English Learners in the classroom, for whom every day can be a challenge just to keep up with what is happening in the classroom. How will they make sense of the sarcasm? With so much left to inference and interpretation, it is no wonder that sarcastic remarks can be confusing for all students. Because of all this, I don't think sarcasm helps a teacher build relationships, which is a top priority at the start of the school year. There are much better, safer, kinder ways to build relationships with students rather than resorting to sarcasm.

I can still remember a sarcastic remark my third grade teacher made to me, humiliating me in class when I made a mistake on an assignment. Teachers want students to remember the wonderful learning moments from class, the relationships they built with each other and with them, not for the humiliating, hurtful, or mean-spirited things they say about students or themselves.

This is not to say that students do not need feedback about their performance and behavior. Teachers, of course, have the obligation to provide students with accurate, ongoing, constructive feedback on their progress in school. Sarcasm, though, can detract from the message of feedback because of the emotions that can be tied up in the statement. Feedback is one thing, sarcasm is another. 

I'll be honest, that I can be sarcastic with my friends, and when I started teaching middle school, I resorted to sarcasm in my first year. I thought that the kids could understand it and that they'd think I was funny. The same few students would always laugh at the jokes, but once I really started to reflect on what I was doing and why, I realized that it did not help me reach my goals of helping students learn to be the best people they could be.

A couple of resources to help you think about this. NEA has a piece on building relationships with students that addresses sarcasm and is worth a read. I also love Peter Johnston's Choice Words, which isn't about sarcasm, it is about the power of teachers' words. You can hear a podcast with author Peter Johnston at the link.

As you begin this school year, consider the language that you use with students, the way your powerful words can be interpreted. If you know you use sarcasm in your classes, think about why, when, and how it is used, and perhaps consider other ways to meet your objectives. I think you'll find a better environment for your students and their learning will result.

Monday, September 10, 2012

student data: understanding reading levels

In many schools, perhaps your own, students spend the first few weeks of school enduring many assessments designed to gather information about their "levels." This assessment data is extremely valuable, and, depending on the assessment measure, can give you incredible information about students' strengths and weaknesses. It can be hard on students those first few days to sit through math and reading assessments, plus pretests in other classes, but the information is essential. As you all know well, in order to plan effective instruction, teachers need to know their students' strengths and weaknesses. And these beginning of the year assessments are necessary for that.

Sometimes, though, the information is used in ways that limit students. I find particularly in reading, there are teachers and librarians that carve lexile numbers in stone and require that students read only within that lexile. As Donalyn Miller points out in her recent article in Education Week, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Fahrenheit 451, Gossip Girl: A Novel, and The Great Gilly Hopkins are all within the same lexile band, and would certainly not be right for all students reading within that band.

In many cases, interest trumps reading level. This was evidenced by the thousands of third graders lugging around the Harry Potter books, making their way through the 500+ page novels. When kids are motivated, they will work hard to make it through books that are outside of their lexile band. In some cases, yes, they still will struggle and may need to abandon books for a later time. But in many instances, rigidly sticking to lexiles will limit students' reading rather than enhance it.

So, analyze the data. Use it to help you plan instruction to meet the students' specific needs, and let it guide your suggestions for student reading. But also let the students' interest guide you too. You can find more out about their interests through interest inventories (just google "reading interest inventory" and lots of options will come up), reading conferences, and through all the work you do to build relationships with students by getting to know them throughout the year.

More food for thought: Ed Leadership article about critical thinking v reading skills.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

building relationships

Most experienced teachers will tell you that good teaching hinges on being able to develop relationships with students. You've probably had experiences in your own P-16 schooling that have been more or less successful based on the relationship you had with your teacher. When students believe their teacher knows them, and that there is a sense of community in the classroom, they feel more safe to take risks, to participate, to learn.

Building relationships with students is hard work, and doesn't just happen. Time and energy must be actively devoted to this task throughout the year.

One way to start is through get-to-know-you activities at the beginning of the year. These include interest and attitude surveys, name games, and team-building exercises. This is a good place to begin. But getting to really know your students doesn't end there.

As you begin planning activities and assignments, find ways to allow students to choose topics that interest them, assessments that allow them to show their strengths, activities that encourage students to share who they are and what they know.

If you assign writing journals, respond to them when you can with personal feedback. Journals can be a nightmare to manage, especially if you teach middle or high school and have 130 journals to review. I used to collect them ever few weeks, and would have students review their entries since the last collection and circle with a colored marker the one entry they really wanted me to read and respond. That way, I wasn't bogged down with a lot of reading, students could maintain some confidentiality in their journal if they so choose, and I could still feel like I was providing students with some feedback on this important work. And it helped me get to know my students through their writing.

One thing I used to do occasionally was to eat lunch with the students. It is amazing what you learn about students when they are in the lunchroom. 

Another huge step you can take is try, even just a few times a year, to go to the extra curricular activities your students are involved in. Show up to a student council meeting, a math club tournament, a choir concert, a basketball game. Your students will see you differently when you show this level of interest in them, and will often show a different side of themselves in these settings. Plus they will be just delighted to show off another aspect of themselves to you.

A few other suggestions include building a positive classroom environment by communicating positive expectations and building empathy between students and trust your students and let them know they can trust you.

The best thing you can do to build relationships with your students is to learn about them as students and plan instruction to meet their needs. Easier said than done, you say? Certainly. We'll keep talking about this throughout the year.

And as always, dear readers, please comment to let me know what's on your mind and what you need.