Saturday, March 24, 2012

What Happened to My Year?

I realize I have not blogged in a while.  There has been a reason for that.  I haven't really been doing anything exciting or innovative in my classroom this year. Last week my class and I were visited by SMART P.R. They are creating a video for instructing educators about accessibility through technology.  I was asked to be part of the video.  As a reward for agreeing, I got the new updated, larger, multitouch SMARTBoard and a document camera with a 3-D component.  

Why am I telling you this?  Because two things happened as a result. One was I had to be out of my room for a day to get the board installed.  This meant figuring out what I could do with my students without using materials found in their desks or in the classroom.  So I took them into the science lab and spent the day working on experiments for magnetism and electricity.  I set it up ahead of time with an instruction sheet, experiment worksheets, websites and books for researching ideas, and a table full of materials to try out their ideas. 

The second thing that happened is I had to prepare a day for the videotaping where the kids were using technology in a unique way.  So I had my first Mystery Skype call with Shannon Smith from Illinois.  Mystery Skype calls are ones in which we contact another class and children ask each other questions that can be answered either yes or no, in order to figure out where we are calling.  We had jobs created such as Big Map person (crossed off states on the SMARTBoard), Google Earth and Map researchers, recorder (wrote down the questions and answers so we could refer to them), videographer and photographer, Internet researchers, and  questioners (answered the questions over the Skype call).  

Why did both of these make me realize that my year has not been what I wanted it to be?  Because while we were doing science experiments, the kids were working independently, trying things out, learning and working cooperatively with partners.  I was just facilitating.  I hadn't done much of that this year.  And while we were running our Mystery Skype call, I sat back and watched the children take over the call and the learning.  And when the day was over, and we said goodbye to the video crew, one very wise child said to me, "We are doing so many fun things since we got our new board."

Wow!  Did that hit me hard! And it made me really stop to think about what happened to this year.  Why has it been so different than other years?  And why hasn't it been as good?  Don't get me wrong.  The kids do enjoy school and I do love my class.  We still have fun and still do some small projects.  But I have spent more time this year teaching, instead of facilitating.  More time controlling instead of letting go.  More time doing what I knew was not right and good for children.  And I realize now that I have to stop.  

I moved to a new grade this year.  It shouldn't have changed much about my teaching but this grade change came along with lots of changes in state regulations, school board changes, and administrative initiatives.  Here is the list of problems I am dealing with this year that I am finally saying no to.

1. Following a strict Teachers College Reading and Writing program.

  • We have been going through Teachers College training for a few years now. And, up until this year, I tried it all, took the best, and continued to do what I know works.  But this year, I work with some excellent teachers who follow the program quite rigidly.  And we meet often to discuss where we are in the program, how it's going, and what are we doing next.    We share materials (enough so far to fill three large binders) and expectations are high to do the program.  Up until now, I have gone along with the system.  But lately I have begun to realize that I cannot work this way.  I know that I cannot use a program for all of my students.  I know that my "mini-lessons" are simply teacher directed instruction and, each time I do a mini-lesson, I lose at least half my students.  And I know that following a strict calendar, where we cover one unit per month come hell or high water, I rush through the unit, missing the fun and important parts in writing - learning about amazing language to use, finding our voice in writing, editing.  And missing the time to have incredible book discussions in reading, making the children fall in love with books and reading.
2. Following a new math program.
  • We adopted a new math program this year from Pearson.  And the requirements are we follow the program to the letter.  The problem with this?  It doesn't make sense.  While some of the lessons are fun and innovative, we are losing concepts, not understanding algorithms, and missing number sense entirely.  Also, the lessons are, once again, very teacher directed.  In fact, the book actually tells me what to say and what the response from the kids will be.  And guess what?  My colleagues on my grade are very gung ho to follow the program.  They have let me change things around but I still feel the pressure each time they share their material with me.
3. Timing
  • In order to follow these amazing programs, we have been given a one hour literacy block, when no children can be pulled out.  And we are expected to add another literacy hour in the day. We need one hour for writing and one hour for reading.  Then reading mentor texts are a separate time, as is read alouds.  The math program expects at least an hour a day.  So together, that's three and a half hours.  Add in one hour for lunch, and forty minutes for art, music, or physical education, and I am left with one hour a day for all the fun stuff.  It used to be the whole day was fun.  Now it's not.
So here I am.  The year is almost done.  We are heavy into test prep, trying to not be, but being pushed by administration, government, and local papers to do well.  My colleagues on my grade are, of course, working diligently to prep the kids.  And I am burned out.  My kids are burned out.  I cannot do this anymore.  Even with me changing everything I can, it's too many hours in a day doing what I know is wrong.  

For the rest of the year, and from now on, I am making some promises to myself and my future students.
  • I will keep my classroom fun and educational.  While I will still teach reading, writing, and math, it will be in a way that engages the students, excites them, and lets them learn more independently.
  • I will bring back project based learning.  My students will learn to research, communicate, and trust themselves to learn and demonstrate learning in a fun way. 
  • I will allow the children to pull us away from our schedule when something exciting comes along that is worth the change.  I like having conversations about government, politics, current events, world news. We haven't had many this year.
  • I will bring back more movies, creating more videos, participating in more voicethreads, writing more free blogs, and Skyping more with other classes.
  • I will make each day exciting so I don't hear in March that, being out of the room for one day means the best day of the year.  
  • I will enjoy teaching again.
I hope you can all help me remember my promises and hold me to them.  I want my students to learn and grow, to be successful and happy.  And I am determined not to let the government, administrative initiatives, and test scores to let me veer from that goal.