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Thank you Kindergarten teacher: 6 important things you taught my Sixth Graders

This post originally appeared as a guest post at Apples and ABC's.
On my outdoor, Southern California school campus, the sixth grade teachers don't really mix with the Kinder teachers.  I mean, they're lovely people and fabulous teachers.  We know they're doing good work within their colorful walls, farm bulletin boards, princess days, and hot chocolate centers. We see their cute laminating in the work room and occasionally, in the lounge, get to pour half and half in our coffee simultaneously. Sadly, the school day sucks us in and we're lucky if we catch a glance of the back of their head during recess. But even though our interactions are limited during a normal week, we are fully aware of the benefits we reap as sixth grade teachers -- benefits that are a direct result of some major Kindergarten awesomeness.  Here are sixth important things my class o'tweens learned from you.

How to sit in one spot with others. 
It's something we take for granted in the upper grades, but having 29 students who know how to sit in one spot for certain parts of the day is invaluable. I know it required an incredible amount of energy to make sitting in one spot...well, fun, but you somehow managed it! You sang songs, did chants, awarded points -- and now I can use my math time focusing on solving ratio word problems without kids who randomly skip over to the window.  Thank you!

How to walk quietly in the hallway. 
Believe it or not, the 'bubble in your mouth' trick doesn't go to far with 12 year olds. Shocking, I know. That's why I'm so glad you spent your mornings walking past the office with big-cheeked 5 year olds. You happily prance and explain, "Keep that bubble in your mouth, friends!!" They smile and watch their friends to see if anyone will lose that invisible bubble. They're engaged and excited.  And now, I have a class who can walk quietly by the library without so much as a concern.  They get it! So thanks.

How to be curious.
If you're not chasing leprechauns, growing butterflies, making clouds out of shaving cream, or hatching chickens, you're up to something that sparks those little minds. Your students are full of wonder and you cash that in like a Vegas pro. You show them how fun it is to question and explore, to discover and experiment. It catches like a fire and when my sixth graders are tasked with building an earthquake-resistant structure, they are eager and dedicated.  They know the journey will lead to something spectacular.  They've done that before.

How to get along.
I know that recess drama can get you down. Who stole this ball, who tattled on whom. Where's my special pencil and so-and-so won't let me go down the slide.  These experiences, while frustrating for you, have ultimately helped these littles navigate the complex social structure of the recess yard.  I know you spent a lot of time role-playing and practicing "what to say when you are mad", "how to be a good friend on the swings", and "why throwing sand at someone's face isn't a 'good' choice".  But because of this work, work that you never get to fully witness the results of, I have a class of kids who can skillfully implement and execute an organized game of kickball completely tearless. Tearless! It's amazing.

That reading is magic.
Do you have any idea how much your over-emphasized renditions of Pete the Cat or Chrysanthemum have sparked a love of reading? You taught my kids that reading is fun, that reading is worthwhile. You taught them how to imagine the characters and "see" the story.  You talked about the story, and showed them that stories open a whole new world where friends can experience an adventure together. Because of this, I don't have to fight to have students read 'The Road Not Taken' and discuss potential symbolism. I get the buy-in. They already know that those words are the page are magical because they saw it first hand. With you.  

That school is a safe place for their hearts.
You are the ones who show our kids that school is not only a fun place, but a safe place where they can be loved as they are and where people care. And I know, usually it's easy to love a sweet almost-six year old who hugs you almost daily, but I also know that sometimes you're tired.  But even still, you look in their eyes and listen to their 35th story of the day and you smile.  So they learn that teachers can be trusted, that teachers love them.  They come to you with their problems and you help.  At five, it's a big deal. But at 11 3/4, it's huge. When my kids walk into my room on the first day of school, with worries about divorces or sick grandmothers, with an growing awareness about the world they already know I'm on their team. I do absolutely nothing, and they know I'm going to be there for them no matter what. You showed them that, and they remember.

Kindergarten teachers, you are appreciated.  These little people learn some big things in your class.

Thank you for everything.

Contain Yourself: Why I Love My Self-Contained Classroom

I teach sixth grade in an elementary, self-contained classroom.  I know, it's weird, right? In most places, 6th graders are already in middle school and staring down the most embarrassing and awkward years of their life. (I'm not speaking from personal experience, of course. Ahem. Purple glasses.)  But for the small number of us who are lucky (yes, lucky) enough to have an entire group of 11/12 year olds in a self-contained classroom, things are a little bit different.  

Last year, at one of our early 'Back to School' staff meetings, one of the presenters talked about moving away from the 'silo' approach to teaching.  What she meant was that we no longer just teach reading during 'Reading' or writing during 'Writing', where each subject exists in its own 'silo'.  Nowadays, rather than simply teach content, Science teachers are expected to use informational text in their lessons and Social Studies teachers are incorporating argument essays into their work.

As an elementary teacher, this philosophy isn't new.  We're used to planning cross-curricular lessons that spark interest and engage.  But for middle school students? It doesn't sound so easy.  Yes, having a middle school agenda in an elementary school building certainly has its challenges.  But there are a few reasons why I love it anyway.

3 Easy Tips to Beat the Recess Blues

The importance our kids place on recess is fascinating. Students cluster like they're in a newsroom, reporting the critical events of the day such has who moved their clip to orange or which dessert their mom remembered to pack in their lunch (here's hoping it was sugar-free).  Older students organize complex games of basketball involving half-courts and sub-ins, and the primary students chase each other around the monkey bars. If it weren't for the screams and shrieks of delight, an observer might find recess to be... peaceful.

But for some of our sweet kiddos, recess just stinks. They hate the sun, they don't like to play basketball, or they've just moved from Northern Iowa and have no friends.  Those kids have what I like to call the Recess Blues. And for those kids, recess can seem like an endless stretch of time designed as torture.  So what can we do for them? How can we support our students who don't like the typical recess activities, don't have a way to enjoy them, or who have a hard time making friends?

I give you 3 easy tips to help your students beat the Recess Blues.

1. Set up "Playground Buddies"

Once, when I taught first grade, I had a brand-spanking new student who had never been to school before. Never. Not preschool, not Kinder. On the first day of school, I sent the children to recess. Out she happily went with the others. During that time, I popped into my neighbors class to see how her day was going. She told me that she had set up her new students with "playground buddies", which meant a veteran student would 'show them the ropes' on the playground and be a sure-bet for pairing up for play.  I gulped. Had I been as smart, I would have done the same. But I wasn't, and at that moment had visions of obliviously waving this student into the lion's den with an over-the-top grin, "See you next Thursday! Don't forget your jacket!"

Luckily, she was an outgoing gal. But that experience taught me that pairing up a kiddo is a powerful tool for a teacher! It's got to be some kind of intense pressure out there as a new kid. Finding a friend. Asking for their hand in play. Kind of like asking someone to the prom, if you really think about it. Stressful! So take the pressure off and pair them up so they can play monkey in the middle with someone other than them self.

2. Teach some old-school games

Red rover, red rover. Let all the 80s kids come over! You and me, we know a lot of awesome games. Awesome games that our students are clueless about because those games don't involve pixels.  Red rover, cat's cradle, jump rope songs, Steal the Bacon, TV Tag - these were the games of yesteryear, and they are seriously awesome games. They get kids running like crazy and playing together! I love these games for three reasons. One, most kids don't know how to play, so you have to teach them yourself, which means they start out on a level playing field in terms of skill. Two, they are almost limitless in terms of players, so even the kids who weren't interested at first, but later become interested because they are so enthralled by the joyous laughter of their peers, can join in on the fly. And three, the rules are simple, which means they are easy to follow and they make it easy for kids to negotiate when conflict arises.

Oh, and four. You get to play it yourself when you teach them, and therefore can skip the gym.

3. Put them to work

Sometimes, a kiddo who is dreading recess won't say anything to you directly. But after watching them wander around the yard, day after day, drifting from hopscotch to four square you'll realize who they are. Those kids are the perfect "very important helpers".

You know those extremely important "papers" you've been meaning to take to the office? That time-sensitive note you "need" to deliver to the other teacher on the other side of the field? Why yes, child, you are the perfect person to help me with these incredibly important tasks that must be done immediately -- and during recess.

Of course the kicker is that these tasks may or may not exist, and they may or may not actually be important. So put on your best Judy Garland face and sell it.  Feeling useful is powerful for a child who is bored or in need of a recess activity, especially when it's something you're selling as extremely important! And what's better is that you'll get to build a relationship with that kiddo. When you're setting up your important 'job', it's a great time to do a little chatting about their interests, friends, and life. And when they've completed their important mission, they'll just love how gracious you are and how you are so appreciative for their efforts. "And you even gave up your own time to help little old me!"

Of course you couldn't run those errands yourself anyway. Your feet hurt because you already played Red Rover. Twice.

What are your best ideas for helping kiddos beat the Recess Blues? I'd love to hear about them!

on the Science of Teaching

There's a lot said about the art of teaching. The right brain. The feeling. The music and theatre behind it. Ask anyone who's been in the classroom for some time, and they'll tell you about the instinct and the art, the symphony in the little moments.

It's all true.

But there is another side of teaching that is equally important to the art of it.  One that begs to be given the recognition it deserves:

The science of teaching.

Before you make assumptions and click on that open Amazon tab up there, thinking 'Oh great, another post on data', let me explain.

What I'm talking about isn't the exclusive idea of data, although yes, that's important too. Any teacher in 2015 knows all about the value of assessment and data (provided it is the right of of assessment that leads to the right kind of data. But that's another post entirely).

I'm talking about the scientific method -- the scientific process of teaching and learning, where teachers essentially test their hypothesis and later come to a revelation regarding it.  Teaching well involves this process and sadly, it's a school of thought that I fear is beginning to wither.  I don't mean to say that this process involves scientific testing on students, at the expense of their learning.  What I am describing is the inner thought process of a skilled teacher who uses information to test themself, to test their ideas about what comes next in the learning progression of their class.

Let me tell you the experience I had in my classroom where I really began to see this.

You might know that I've recently moved to teach sixth grade. One of the biggest challenges of teaching sixth grade is the new emphasis on argument writing. It's a messy thing, writing arguments well. 

Before I began teaching this, I spent some time researching what the general consensus was about arguments. Collegiate level ideas, high school ideas, middle school ideas. I researched steadfastly. I wanted to have a clear picture of what it was I was asking my students to do.

Once we began, though, and my students turned in pieces of assignments and papers, I began to develop different expectations.  I began to realize at times that perhaps, the lesson I initially taught led the students in the right general direction, but it didn't quite get them where I wanted them to go.  Yes, they were making progress and they were writing well. But the subtleties that I instinctively knew I wanted to see, they were missing.

Something about a paper didn't feel right. Or I realized that the way I presented something was worded incorrectly, and yielded something different. At one point for me, after a lesson on adding evidence, my students were adding so many quotes that they weren't actually arguing anything! It was terrible! Or I'd teach a lesson, and get something back from a student that was beyond what I wanted, which gave me a new idea.

And that's how it went. Lesson after lesson. Feedback, revision, conferencing, a-ha moment for me, new lesson. I'd collect a stack of papers and read them through. I'd get a general sense of where the ships were heading, then I'd plan a lesson to try and wrangle some that were astray. Each time, my writers grew, but more importantly, I deepened my own understanding of what it was I wanted. We learned together.

Is it wrong that I didn't know exactly what the result would be when I began? That I didn't know what the precise outcome would be after every single lesson? No. It is not. My point is that this kind of teaching, this kind of responsive teaching, though it may appear confusing and disorganized on the surface, is it not.  Some call this the art, but really it is very scientific. And it is not wrong. Looking at a breakdown of the scientific method illustrates this idea.

Ask a Question: Good teachers look at their students work and they think about the topic they will be teaching. They ask, What do my students need? Where do they need to go from here? What are my next steps? How will those next steps get them closer to the final steps? Skilled teachers are constantly asking these kinds of questions.

Do Background Research: Looking at student work is terrific background research. Teachers look at what their students can do and what they can't, and they gather more information about it.  They look at other anchor work that represents what it is they are striving to reach. They look on reputable sites to teach themselves. They talk to trusted colleagues.

Construct Hypothesis: Based on the question and the research, teachers formulate their hypothesis. A hypothesis in the classroom might sound something like this: "I think my students need a lesson on analyzing evidence and not just piling quotes into their paragraphs.  They need to take out every piece of evidence from their paper to see that they are overusing quotes." Once you've constructed this hypothesis, you don't know that doing this lesson will achieve the exact result you're after. You're hoping it will, but you don't know for sure.

Plan and Test Experiment: The experiment is for the teacher. Planning a lesson to execute how to deal with the hypothesis is important, and the actual lesson is where you test it out. No, you're not 'experimenting' on the students. You're experimenting with your hypothesis - whether your hypothesis will hold up, whether your next step got the result you thought it might.

Analyze Results: Once the lesson is over, you can look at the student work and think about whether your hypothesis was right. Did your lesson get the students where you thought it would? Did taking out all the quotes build awareness in these writers? For example, do they now, in their revised or new papers, have a better balance of evidence and ideas?

If yes, then you've been successful.  If no, then it's time to go through the process again. That lesson wasn't quite right.

And it starts all over. 

But sadly, I fear there's becoming a stigma regarding this way of teaching. That in an effort to feel successful and achieve *proficiency*, we have taken this process out of teaching.  We've made things so straightforward that the scientific method isn't behind what we're doing.

In this age of stated objectives and standards on the board, I wonder why teachers aren't being trusted to formulate their own hypotheses based on their expertise, and carry out the next steps that their experience and the student work suggests. I wonder if we are oversimplifying the learning experience and taking away the discovery from teaching well, from learning well.

Is it true that a clear objective is important? Yes, just as it's important that a scientist knows exactly what hypothesis is being tested.

But teaching is also messy. It's a messy science. Sometimes you add too much of something, and the pot boils over. Sometimes you heat the beaker too quickly, and it cracks.  But that's a good thing. Each time you learn, each time you grow.  And when you learn, they learn.

And isn't that the point?

Do you believe in magic?

Happy Sunday, friends! I'm so excited about today's Bright Ideas Blog Hop!  

Last month for this Hop, I posted a deep and meaningful idea about talk in the classroom.  So to lighten things up, today I'm sharing a bright idea for a fun way for students to do reports.  Step aside, 21st Century Skills - this construction-paper-file-folder oldie's going to steal your students' hearts!

These report folders work for any subject! I've done book reports, science research projects, and state projects with them. And once your kiddos know how to make one, they'll be begging to do more! Upper grade kiddos, especially, can create one of these quickly without much help.  How perfect for independent work time?

Disclaimer: The students make prettier ones than I do.

 You can use a paper cutter,  but scissors work well too!

I hope you can try this fun project in your room.  Here's to a great week!

For even more 'Bright Ideas', keep on hopping! Your next stop is Mandy from Mandy's Tips for Teachers!  She's got a great post about collecting papers and permission slips.  That's where I'm headed now because I have a serious losing paper problem.  I'm sure she's got something terrific to share!

Or if you want to do some exploring, check out all the links for many more ideas here:

Let's Talk about Talk! Six steps to quality classroom discussions.

My current principal is obsessed with the following question about instruction:

"Who's doing the work?"

She says it constantly - at staff meetings, after walkthroughs, or just in conversations about teaching.

"Who is doing the work?" 

What she means by this is, "Who is doing the talking? Who is doing the learning?" Because she believes that the one in the classroom who is doing the talking is the one who is doing the thinking.  And the one who is doing the thinking is the one who is doing the learning.

So why is it that we teachers spend SO much time talking?

Maybe it's because we've got content to cover and time is precious so we just get 'er done. Maybe it's because teachers are usually extroverts and well, we just love talking! (I know I'm definitely guilty of hijacking a conversation or two!)

Who knows, really.  What's important is that classroom discussions are a huge part of learning.

How can they do this with us talking so much?  And how do we stop?  How do we create a classroom where the kids are the ones doing the talking - where the kids are the ones doing the thinking and learning?

This is something I've been working on tirelessly.  So I've narrowed down some key steps that I think help support discussions.

Six Steps for Quality Classroom Discussions

1. Set the expectation of a true discussion.  Students need to know what a real discussion looks like, sounds like, and feels like.  Creating anchor charts with expectations sets the tone for the work you'll be doing.  For example, students need to know that when they're having a discussion they must listen and think about what others are saying.  They must make eye contact with the person who is speaking. The point here is that students need clarity about what a discussion is before they can engage in one.

2. Set the expectation of the language of a true discussion.  Students need to understand what words are appropriate during a discussion.  Accountable Talk strategies are a great example of this, although I'd caution you to not overuse them as they can lesson the authenticity of the discussion.  But simple phrases such as "I agree with" or "I don't agree with that idea because" are a great place to start.  Once students are in the habit of responding to each other and not just the teacher, they will need the discussions stems less.  

3. You need something easy to talk about at first.  Later on, you'll be talking all about poetry, characters, mathematical strategies, and literature themes. But in the beginning, you need a vehicle for teaching kids how to have a discussion - a vehicle that's not academically scary.  Something that doesn't need a lot of background knowledge to be successful at it. My favorite way of building this environment is by using something called Visual Thinking Strategies but the truth is, any thought-provoking painting or picture would work well.  Simply search for thought-provoking artwork on Google and you're sure to find something you think will interest your class.  The key here is just to practice having a discussion using something that is accessible to every student.

4. Your greatest tools are your questions.  Questions that don't have one answer are vital for a quality discussion as are questions that require students to back up their thinking with evidence, especially when discussing text.  Strong questions keep students engaged covertly!

One of the most powerful questions I've learned from my principal (which is so easy to add to your discussions) is:

What do you think about what __________ is saying?

Think about that question for a minute.  It really requires students to listen and respond to the ideas of others.  It also lets them know you expect them to do that.  It's one of my go-to questions, especially if I am at a stand still in the discussion. Try it! You'll love it!

5. You really, really need to listen.  This is incredibly hard for us teachers. And it actually might be the greatest challenge to creating a quality discussion.  We often already know what we want to hear when we ask a question that we don't fully process ideas that don't hit our mark.  When I was a first year teacher, I was SO good at pretending to listen.  I'd nod when a student shared a 'connection' and then I'd move onto another student who shared a totally unrelated idea.  I rarely asked follow up questions or got into a brief conversation with the student who was sharing.  Did I really listen? No.  I acted like a listener.  But I wasn't truly listening or taking in what was being said.  I wasn't thinking hard about it.  But if we want our students to do that, we must do it also.  We must if we want to take our class discussions beyond the surface.

6. Be patient with your students and with yourself.  Discussions that are meaningful cannot be created in a day or even a week.  It takes a lot of time for the students to become comfortable with sharing ideas, listening to each other, and responding in a way that's deep.  It takes a lot of time for teachers to practice shutting up and really listening.  There's bound to be times when there are crickets.  You must be patient with your students and yourself, especially in the beginning.

Ready to get started?

Set aside just 10-15 minutes a day to practice having discussions.  Use the artwork at first to get the students comfortable.  At first, a discussion might only have two or three participants.  Everyone else might stare at you like you have six heads.  There will be A LOT of silence.


You'll be modeling the language and asking great questions and you'll feel like an idiot because no one will know what the heck to say.  They won't know what you want from them!  That's okay! You need to give it time.  As you practice having discussions as a class, everyone will get better at it! You'll know when it's time to take the discussion into an academic area.  And once you do, you'll see that your kids really will know what to do!

Then pretty soon, the kids will be doing ALL the talking and you won't be able to stop them (and you won't want to!) 

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