Sunday, August 21, 2011

Starting a New Year

Yesterday I was able to get into my classroom to begin setting up for the new year.  My first day of school with children is September 6th and our first day of staff development is August 31st, so I have about 2 weeks to get things going.

I was pleased to find that, for the first time ever, the custodians put all my furniture exactly where I wanted it.  So I didn't have to start by moving around the furniture.  My husband came with me and we hung bulletin board paper, emptied my closet, set up desks, and made some small changes to the set up of the room.  

I have decided to start my year by making some assumptions about my students.  I hope it all works out.

Assumption 1: My students will be able to handle sitting in groups and moving around the room right from day one.  

Each year, I start my students in rows.  I do lots of direct instruction, slowly leading them toward group work and choosing seats.  This year, I decided to start them at tables.  I am starting a group project during the first week of school and will use that project to help them learn to negotiate the ups and downs of working with others.  So my husband and I set up desks into groups of two, three, and four.

Assumption 2: Sitting on the carpet is no different than sitting in desks.

I have a huge purple carpet in my room.  This carpet is large enough for all of the children to sit in a circle on the edge and have grand discussions.  I start each year with my carpet in the corner, tucked under the bookshelves to make it smaller.  It isn't large enough for a circle and is just barely large enough for them all to fit in a crowded group.  This year, I am going to have a grand discussion on the very first day of school.  I am going to help them learn how to have discussions without me, taking turns talking, listening politely, and contributing strongly.  We will start on day one with a grand discussion about what our class rules should be.  So we set up my carpet right in the center of the room, not tucked under any furniture, and we set up the tables around the carpet.

Assumption 3: The children don't really use the posters that teach skills.

I love posters.  I cover my walls with them.  I have, for years, had posters hung up high on the wall.  These posters were writing posters, talking about use of vocabulary, starting ideas, using voice, trying different genres.  I loved them when I put them up and kept them because they were so hard to put up and take down.  But I realize no one ever used them.  The children would see them on the first day of school and forget about them after that.  So I finally took them down.  I will use them as I teach each skill.  Instead, I put up posters about character.  I realized that teaching my students to be good people is much more important to me than teaching them about using good vocabulary.  I want them to learn to be strong individuals, willing to help others, and accepting diversity.  I can refer to these posters often, which makes them more relevant than the skills posters.  And I like the way they look.

Assumption 4: The children can handle all my UDL tools.

As any reader of my blog knows, I run a classroom with a UDL approach.  I have many tools to help the students meet with success.  I usually wait to put them out as I need them.  The fidget toys stay in the closet, the headphones stay locked in a drawer, the spell checkers remain by my desk, etc.  I have decided this year to put them all out on my UDL table and introduce the table as a tool table.  As the children look for tools or need items, I can direct them to the UDL table right away.  

Assumption 5: No one wants to spend an hour on the first day of school labeling and setting up their supplies.

The first day of school, every year, we spend about an hour labeling notebooks and binders, adding dividers to binders, unpacking pencils and pens, filling up supply boxes, and setting up desks.  It is boring and frustrating.  This year, I want my first day of school to be fun and exciting, educational and surprising.  So I am going to collect all supplies and hand them out as we need them.  This way, when we are ready for our binder, I can spend only a few minutes getting them ready at the beginning of a lesson and be done.  This is probably the biggest change for me and I am grateful for my aide, Joanne, who will be there to help make it work.

I am excited for these minor changes.  It means I am starting my year assuming my students are ready for my style...for projects and discussions, for responsibility and freedom.  I am going to spend time leading them to understand how to be responsible for their learning and I will start on day one.  I believe it will be the start to a great year.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Importance of a Support System

This summer I really started thinking hard about the importance of a support system.  I think that, my whole life, I looked for people who would be there for me.  As a child, this made me a very unforgiving friend.  I had high expectations for my friends and, if you failed to meet them, you were no longer my friend.  My expectations, I thought, were pretty honest and be there.  When I think about it now, for a child this is pretty deep.  Most children can't "be there."  It's the being there that runs a support system and young children aren't really capable of being a true support system.  So I have started to think about what this really means.

My Definition of a Support System

In order to be a support, one must
1. listen with an open heart.

Basically this means that when someone comes to you with a problem, you don't tell them how wrong they are right off the bat.  Listen to their feelings first.  Tell them you understand.  So it sounds like this: 

Me- "This parent is driving me crazy.  Every time I open my email, there is another complaint about Suzie not understanding the homework or being bullied by her classmates.  It's not what I see in school but I hate having to answer her all the time."

Supportive Friend- "Yeah, that sucks. It's hard to deal with this every day.  I know you've said Suzie seems so happy in class so what is this woman's problem?  She needs to get a life."

2. be honest.

Now would be the time to try to help.

Me- "I wish this kid wasn't in my class.  Her mom is really crazy."

Supportive Friend - "True.  Have you met with Mrs. Suzie in person yet?  Maybe she just needs some reassurance.  You're always much better with parents face to face."

Me- "I've been avoiding that but, you are right.  I will have her come in and sit with me and Suzie.  Let's find out what's really going on."

With the help of my supportive friend, I am able to vent first and get validation that my venting is justified.  Then I can get down to business.  

Now, obviously, this example is pretty simplistic.  But I realize my support system helps out in so many ways, not just when I need to vent about a pushy parent.  I depend on my friends to cheer me on when I am struggling, to laugh with me when all I want to do is cry, to celebrate successes small and large.  And, most importantly, I must do the same for them.

So why has this come up so much this summer?  It isn't because of Suzie's mom (Suzie's mom doesn't really exist although we have all had parents like this).  It isn't because of how rigid I was with my friends in elementary school.  But the importance of a support system has come up a few times.

  • ISTE
    • One of the things I miss terribly in school is a local support system. I have always been lucky enough or maybe smart enough to have found a very few people at work who can be my support system.  This makes school manageable for me - knowing that, when the going gets tough, I can reach out to my friend. When my friend isn't around, I hold my breath waiting for us to meet.  But at ISTE, I realized I could relax and breathe again.  Everyone there is in the same boat.  We work in schools where others are resistant to our ideas, where we are told to do things that go against our teaching philosophy, and where we are alone.  But when I talk at ISTE, all I hear is "Me too."  
    • This was brought home to me one day in the Blogger's Cafe.  I was standing by a couch watching Kevin Honeycutt with some friends playing music with IPads and computerized guitars.  It was fun.  Paul Wood was standing next to me and, while we were listening and laughing, I realized it was the first time in a long time that I was comfortable with a group of teachers.  I turned to Paul and told him this was just what I needed.  He, a true supportive friend, gave me a hug and told me he was glad I was there.  Ahhhh.
  • My Husband's End of Year Evaluation
    • My husband works in a district where parents are in control and teachers talk against each other.  He had a particularly difficult time this year with his grade level colleagues and it all came out in his final evaluation.  The principal wrote about issues he had with his classroom that were only issues because of his colleagues.  And she only knew about them because his colleagues told her.  One example...he was using email to contact parents and students.  One parent didn't get the emails and complained to the homeroom teacher, who, instead of going to my husband, went right to the principal.  Not a great support.  He did get the principal to change her evaluation, only talking about what she has personal experience with.
    • He has had a rough time this summer just wrapping his head around going back to work.  He has no support system there and, in fact, has to worry about the rest of the staff.  And he is miserable.
  • My Daughter's Schooling
    • I have written in the past about Ali's struggles with high school.  Her middle school was split into two high schools and her entire support system went to the other high school.  She thought it would be okay but she has been unable, after two years, to recreate that support system in her school.  
    • I am in the process right now of trying to get her moved to the other high school.  But all the superintendent is hearing from me is that she wants to be with her friends.  He doesn't understand the difference between friends and a support system.  She has plenty of friends at East (her school).  She just has no friends who listen with an open heart and then are honest with her.  Those friends are all at West.  This summer she has spent a great deal of time with them. While listening to their conversations, I finally realized what was missing at East. 
    • BTW...I reached out to my support system and got some great advice from Patrick Higgins about what to say to the superintendent. So, after our meeting Friday, when he started with no, he moved to..."Let me do some investigating and I will get back to you."  Stay tuned.
  • My Classroom
    • Now is the time I start preparing for a new year.  I am creating exciting projects, looking into great books to read, deciding on a theme for the year.  And what I realize now is that it is my job to be a strong support for my students and to model being supportive for others.  I want my students to feel supported in the classroom.  I think I do a really good job of creating this.  But now I have a better understanding of why it's so important.
I am incredibly grateful to have a support system.  I live with strong supports in both my husband and my mother.  I work with strong supports in my own classroom.  I am lucky this year to have my wonderful friend, Joanne Miller, be my aide again.  And I have my amazing support system in my online PLN.  I know I can always reach out to Karen Janowski, Maria Knee, and Linda Nitsche for an open heart.  I know I can always depend on Paul Wood to say just the right thing.  I know I can complain to Brian Crosby and he will listen and commiserate with me.  There are so many of you out there who are there for me.  

Do you have a strong support system?  Can you reach out to support someone else?

Image: 'Strength Over Head

Image: 'Deep conversation

Image: 'Class photo

Image: 'We're thinking of you