Establishing relationships with families …

I’ve always maintained that teaching and learning is a three-way partnership between the student, the parents and the teacher.  In previous years, at the start of the year, I have spent time nurturing relationships with students and their families.  Last year, I didn’t feel like I gave this aspect of school life as much time and energy as I had in the past.  Sure, I had great relationships with most of the students and their families, but not all of them.  And, I paid the price for it; I felt like I was constantly chasing my tail, reacting to situations and defending myself.  It wasn’t a pleasant way to exist.  I was unhappy, my mental health suffered and from that, my physical health.

But I can’t change last year.  I can’t change the interactions I had with families.  However, I can change what I do now.  This year, I vowed it would be different.  I wanted to change the way I established relationships with families.  These are some of the things I am doing to strengthen bonds with  families:

  • Conduct a family survey.  This idea came from Pernille Ripp and is probably the best thing I’ve done to start off on a positive foot with parents.  The information that came out of the survey has been, and will continue to be, incredibly useful.  You can find a copy of my survey, which is based on Pernille’s, here.
  • Contacting parents to discuss issues before they get out of hand.  After reading the family surveys, I identified a couple of anxieties held by some parents, so I gave those families a quick call to chat about them more.  As one parent told me, “It’s better to turn off the tap rather than mop up the mess.”  I love this saying and used it when talking to parents at our recent Meet the Teacher evening.  Some parents had similar questions about general issues, which I was also able to address at the Meet the Teacher evening.
  • Calling parents for positive reasons.  Parents always worry when the school calls – either their child is sick or has been misbehaving.  I always begin a phone call with “Hi, it’s Anna here, your child’s teacher.  Your child is fine!  Do you have a few minutes to chat?”  It only takes a few minutes out of your day, but means so much to parents; they really appreciate hearing some thing positive about their child.
  • Inviting parents into our classroom, both the physical space as well as the virtual classroom.  Last year, the Year 4 team began a once-a-term’Meet the …’ afternoon, with the focus changing according to what we were studying.  Parents love coming in and chatting to ‘convicts’, ‘scientists’, ‘playwrights’ and, this year, ‘bloggers’.  They always comment about how much students have learnt and how well they can articulate themselves.  Parents are also invited to join us on our blogging journey by subscribing to both our class and individual blogs.

How do you connect with families and establish positive relationships?

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Classroom Questioning …

Asking the right questions in a classroom is hard. It’s one of the many things for which teachers should be applauded. The ability to ask the right question, quickly analyse the student response and know what to ask next. All of that for multiple students, sometimes at once. It’s hard stuff. But something that we need to get right.

Asking the right question to elicit a greater depth of student thinking is something upon which I place a high value. I try to ask open-ended questions, to honour student answers, to ask more questions about thinking rather than content and to elicit student questions. Often, my lesson planning revolves around the questions I’m going to ask students.  But, it’s not something that you just get right.  You have to keep working on it, in every lesson.

Over the years, I have continued to keep questioning at the forefront of my mind, analysing my questions via video or peer observations, planning my questions carefully. I’ve discovered that having post-it notes stuck in various places around my classroom serve as useful reminders of particular questions until they become habitual, just a part of who you are as a teacher.

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As I have fine-tuned my questioning, I’ve come to the realisation that often the simplest questions are the best. They are the questions that turn it back around onto the student and encourage them to do the thinking. I believe that students are the ones who should be doing the most thinking in a classroom; that our questions should simply serve as a launching pad for their thinking. Some of my favourite questions are:

  • What makes you say that? (this also happens to be a Project Zero thinking routine)
  • How will you find out?
  • What do you think about ___ ?
  • What could you do next?
  • What questions do you have?
  • What do you think about what ___ said?

Many teachers work so hard asking questions and mentally ticking off student answers as they are fired back, often only from the brightest or most confident students. Dylan Wiliam talks a lot about how teachers receive an answer to a question and assume that, on the basis of that one response, all students understand. It is difficult to elicit responses from all students and gain a broader feeling of each student’s level of understanding. But, it can be done. Some of my favourite strategies to use to, again, put the learning back on the learner, are:

  • Wait time. I call this the ‘Ten Second Silent Think’ (it used to be ‘Five Second Silent Think’ but students decided that it wasn’t enough time). I count the ten seconds on my fingers.
  • Turn and talk. After some thinking time, all students turn to the person next to them and talk about the question. Not only are students getting a chance to refine their thinking and listen to someone else’s perspective, they are also able to feel that their answer is heard, even if they are not selected to share with the whole class.
  • No hands up. You don’t see many hands go up in my classroom in response to questions. When students have a response ready, they put their thumb up in front of their chest to let me know. Or, depending on the question, I might ask them to show me on their fingers the number of ideas they have or how confident they are to answer the question.
  • Icypole sticks. Instead of hands up, some students are selected to share their response with the class. There has been some discussion at our school about how this strategy may contribute to student anxiety, but my feeling is that if it is used in a non-threatening way and developed as part of the classroom culture, students are quite comfortable sharing their thoughts or asking for extra thinking time.
  • The basketball strategy. This strategy really deepens the discussion. I love Dylan’s analogy with this strategy – ‘Less ping pong, more basketball.’ My basic version of the basketball strategy is this: One student responds to a question. The next student is asked to respond to the first student’s idea and a third student sums up the previous two thoughts. This is the simplest method, but there are many other variations to tweak this strategy. As you become more familiar with using the strategy, you can adapt it to make it work for you, your students and the specific situation.

In my classroom, there is an expectation that students will participate in a discussion. “I don’t know” is not an acceptable response to a question. “I’d like some more thinking time” or “Can I talk to someone about it” are acceptable responses to questions. Students are always given options to help them get out of the “I don’t know” mindset. Some options are:

  • “Would you like some more thinking time?”   If the answer is “yes”, I ask students to give me a little wave or a thumbs up when they are ready to respond.
  • “Who do you think you could ask?”
  • “Would you like to sit on the couch and have a chat to your partner about it?”
  • “Do you think you could summarise/repeat what … just said?”

Questioning is such an important part of what we do as educators, yet often we don’t spend as much time on it as we should. I say, “less activity planning, more question planning”!

What are your favourite questioning strategies?

Feedback from students …

We’ve all been there. Planned an incredible lesson and been so excited about how wonderfully it is all going to unfold.  Only to have the lesson flop. The students just weren’t as excited as we thought they would be. They didn’t seem to get the explanations that you thought were so clear.

It is after lessons like this that we really need to reflect on what happened and why. But often this reflection occurs in private, or perhaps during a debrief with a colleague. Almost certainly only with adults. What if we asked the students? What if they told us what went wrong and their theories on why? What if they told us what excites them and what doesn’t?

The idea of student feedback has been playing on my mind over the past few weeks as I have participated in Pernille Ripp’s online book club and as the teachers gathered at school before the students returned. Sure, we do a once, perhaps twice, yearly student survey. But what if we were checking in with students on a more frequent basis? What if students were providing us with feedback on a weekly basis? How might we structure this so feedback becomes a seamless part of the classroom culture?   So, for Term 1, I’m going to experiment with a weekly feedback form through the platform, Socrative.  Anonymously, students can provide responses to several short questions that will remain the same for the term.  I don’t want it to be an arduous process; but rather an integrated part of our class culture; just something that we do. The questions I’ve decided upon are:

  • List three words that best describe our classroom this week.
  • What is something you enjoyed about our classroom this week?
  • What is some thing you didn’t enjoy about our classroom this week? What could we do differently?
  • Give Miss Davidson ‘Two Stars and a Wish’ – two things she does well and something you’d like her to work on.

I tried this for the first time on Friday, after a week at school, and the results were interesting, albeit relatively unsurprising, which I suppose it the goal of something like this (after all, when we hand a parent a report card, we know we haven’t done our job if they get a surprise at the results). I jotted down the common ‘least enjoyed’ experiences and have begun making plans to improve these – differentiating our morning puzzles and discussing/exploring how we can support students who feel the need to call out and interrupt all the time.

Another question that I want to ask my students on a regular basis this year is ‘What do you want me to notice about you?’ I did this several times last year and the feedback was incredibly interesting.

  • I want you to notice that I always try my hardest.
  • I want you to know that I find it hard to listen sometimes.
  • I want you to know that I don’t understand Maths very well.
  • I want you to know that the classroom is sometimes too noisy for me to concentrate.

This year, I plan to weave this question into our newly established Reflection Journal.

What questions would you ask your students to gather feedback on your teaching?