The Lifeblood of Our Classroom

So much of what my students and I do either stems from our journals or revolves around using them.  It's a seemingly small thing with an enormous impact.  But here's the catch to journaling- it has to be every school day.  And I mean every school day.

My classes and I have finally reached the tipping point with our journals.  It took work.  It didn't start out as everyday.  We did it every day of the week before Christmas break.  We have done it every single day in January.  It hit about this time last year as well.

It's just not the same if we do it almost every day.  It really does have to be every day.  If we only journal four out of five days in the week, it's still only something we sometimes do.  It's 80% of the time.  But journaling everyday turns it into just something we do.  Don't miss that.  It's huge.

Journaling the lifeblood of our classroom.  It's one of those things that must be done everyday to get the most impact.  That's what it takes for journaling to become a habit- daily writing.  That's exactly what I want for my students.  I want writing to be a habit.

It's just something we do.  Everyday.  Without fail.

New Teacher Academy- Classroom Management

I'm so excited to have a published post over on Edutopia!  Lisa Dabbs (@teachingwithsoul) publishes a a new teacher blog over there and asked me to do a guest post for her New Teacher Academy series.

I created a somewhat goofy video and post on the things I've learned about classroom management.  I had a good time doing it.  I'm grateful to Lisa for the opportunity to help out some new teachers and write for a larger audience along the way.

You can watch the video and read the full post on Edutopia- New Teacher Academy: Classroom Management.

On Losing Ctrl


"Each time I sit down to write I don't know if I can do it. The flow of writing is always a surprise and a challenge. Click the computer on and I am 17 again, wanting to write and not knowing if I can."   -Don Murray

[So, I've kinda been in a blogging slump lately.  I don't really know what the deal is.  I just keep finding excuses not to write.  I haven't been writing in my journal or on 750 Words either.  But I'm going to take the advice that I give all of my young writers- write.  Yes, it is stupidly simplistic.  Yes, it frustrates many of my students.  I still hold by it though.  Write.  Write when you have something to say, write when you have nothing to say.  Write when you can.  And, maybe even more importantly, write when you can't.  Slow claps to Edna Sackson (@whatedsaid) for getting me off my duff and getting my keyboard clicking.]

"Put your hands at your side, and get in that LINE!"

I heard that shouted many times on the episodes of Beyond Scared Straight I've recently been watching on Netflix.  The show is pretty much what I thought it was going to be- plenty of yelling, threats, and scared kids.  Inmates on the show are trying to use fear and intimidation to motivate teens to stay out of prison.  What I didn't expect, was it to remind me so much of school.  Seriously.  There are many things that are eerily similar in both institutions.

This got me thinking about control.  My need for it.  Safety's dependency on it.  People's resentment of it being taken.  It seemed to be one of the biggest concerns at the prisons.  My thoughts, as usual, rounded back to school.

How much control do I have in my classroom?  How much do I need?  What's up for grabs and what's not?  What's up to the students and what's up to me?  Control can be a good thing depending on the ways we get it, and for what purpose we want it.  Learners have to have a sense of control when they learn, don't they?

Quiet In The Halls

I'll admit, I fuss at kids in the hallway.  Not exactly the same way they do in prisons, but we're trying for similar goals.  My school has almost 700 kids.  There have to be some procedures for respectful behavior in the hall.  We quietly walk single-file on the right side of the hall with our hands at our side.  We do it out of respect for the other classrooms.  That's a good kind of control to me.  Eventually the students internalize why we do it, and it is no longer controlling.  Inmates... I'm not so sure.

Order (VS., and /or) Control

I wonder what else I try to control for my students beside hallway walking.  I feel I do need to control some things.  I'm the responsible adult in the room.  It's my responsibility to be in control.  I just need to make sure I'm trying to be in control of the right things.

I've realized many of the things I want to control are for the sake of order.  Order as opposed to chaos.  My room can get chaotic at times, but I never want chaos.  Safety, both physical and emotional, is another area that I feel I must step in and exercise control.  It would be irresponsible to completely leave safety up to nine and ten-year-olds.  This again all goes to the greater purpose of learning.  I don't assume control by coercive or threatening means.  No cloaks.  No daggers.  Just trust.  I feel this is good and acceptable.

Mediums, Methods, and Materials

This is the big area where I have to let go.  I cannot be totally in control of student learning.  If we were in total control, then that would give us total responsibility, thus negating responsibility to the students who are supposed to be doing the learning.

I know I want to keep getting better at this.  I think about how cool it would be to have students constantly choosing their own mediums and methods to learn.  What if I let them pick how they wanted to demonstrate their newly learned knowledge and skills?  That's the kind of control I don't want.  That's the kind of control our students need.

Exactly how much control is too much control?  I have no idea.  But I do know that if it's not a safety or order issue, I'm going to be dialing my control way back this year.  Way back.

Photo credit: joelogon

Stripped Learning

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Cue the Imperial Death March

Testing day.  It’s finally here.  For the last week, my class has been going through labor pains as we prepare for the inevitable day of our state writing test. 

We are in our room this morning, but it’s different.  The whiteboard is blank,  The SMART Board and computers are off.  Our learning artifacts on the walls have all been removed or covered by dull butcher paper.  The fluorescent lights are fully on.  The desks are all in rows facing the front.  It’s still our classroom, but it’s different.  It’s been stripped.  Not only physically stripped, but stripped of its dignity.

Why the formality?  Why the radical transformation?  This environment is not how I teach the students, so why must it be how I assess them?

I caught myself a few times lately saying things like, “When this is over, we can get back to real writing.”  The state test is, unfortunately, real.  It’s just not authentic.  It’s easy to forget the difference.

*     *     *

I paced the room, both anxious and confident, as I actively monitored the students.  I knew many of them were fighting the feeling of being trapped and constrained, just like I was.  Some students sped through, and others took their time.  But, in the end, I’m not completely sure it mattered. The hour hand took six trips around the clock, and it was all over.  The fear, anxiety, and tears came to a close.

Each of my students will now get a number- one number assigned to their learning.  This number is assigned from one day out of their lives.  It reduces their learning down to a quantifiable digit.  This number strips their learning.  It strips it of context and authenticity.  Their learning is stripped of its significance.  There’s a word- significance.  Where does that fit into bubble sheets and scripted prompts?

In our race to the top, there’s pressure to quantify as much as possible, whether that number represents significance or not.  But, we must never forget that there is a face behind that number.  It’s a face of significance.

What I Made Today

I made some kids laugh today.  My voice can get kind of high -pitched and silly when I imitate fictional teachers from "back when I was in school."  I guess 10 year olds think I'm funny.  I don't know what that says about me or my humor.

I made some kids believe me today, even though I lied.  I told them that they were a little too old to be making farting noises in the cafeteria.  But, the truth is, they're not.  I still make farting noises.  And I still think it's funny.  I had to turn my face so I wouldn't laugh when I was talking to them.

I made some kids wonder today.  We talked about holidays and traditions in other parts of the world.  It's hard for a 4th grader to think about that kind of stuff.  Some kids researched answers for genuine questions they had about other cultures.

I made a kid cry today.  She forged her mom's signature on a permission slip in the most forced, grown -up looking cursive she could come up with.  About three excuses in, she finally broke down in tears and told me what she really did.  I gave her a hug and told her I was not mad, just disappointed.

It was a typical day of making for me.  I make lots of things for my students everyday.  I can make kids laugh or cry.  I can make them question and wonder.  I can make them feel shame or pride.  On my best days, I can make them feel like like they are capable of doing anything they can imagine.  But, the one thing I can never make for them is their own learning.  Despite my role as a teacher, I can never make learning for anyone.  It's one of the great paradoxes of teaching.

Learning is making on a personal level.  Learning has to be made from within.  And that kind of making is always up to them.

Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.
-Chinese proverb

In My Empty Room

As I asked our wonderful custodian to unlock my classroom, I realized it had almost been two months to the day since I had been in my room.  That doesn't sound like long, but in teacher time, it feels like a lifetime.

I stepped through the door and set my things down on my empty desk. I started to glance around the room.  Empty.  Empty walls.  Empty whiteboard. Empty counters.  Empty desks.  Empty chairs.  Just empty.

Then a very strange thing happened.  I began to be overcome with emotion.  It was almost to the point of tears.  I was not expecting that.  I looked around and I swear I could hear them.  The laughter, the questions, the chatter. . . it was almost audible.

I had two pretty amazing groups of students last year.  It was a difficult year in many ways.  The first year of teaching a new grade level always is.  But, those students made it something special.

I couldn't sit down just yet.  I had to walk around, and look and touch.  I had to relive the old before I could begin the new.  I let my fingers lightly drag across the desktops.  I glanced out the window.  I didn't stifle the memories.  I let them flood back naturally and unencumbered.  I paced the room for fifteen minutes before I took a deep breath and finally sat down at my desk.  It was time to move on.

*     *     * 

Today is a blank slate, much like the current state of my room.  I have no expectations.  I have no list.  I have no agenda.  I simply want to be here.  I want to feel the space.  I want to look at it with fresh eyes and an open mind.  I want to causally leaf through the pages of possibilities and not limit my thinking.  I want to see this room for what is possible instead of simply what is.  It's empty now, but it won't be for long.