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?

A sense of community …

The new school year started on Friday. I used to find the Friday start a little odd – what was the point of just one day? – but now I really value it. In just one day you can begin to establish the foundations of a positive class community – through fun and shared experiences – without students (or teachers!) getting too weary early on. We all leave school content, have the weekend to rest and then return for our first full week, ready to sink our teeth into learning. Many students on Friday told me that they felt nervous, but excited about the day. We even coined the term, ‘nervexcited’ as a way to explain our feelings of the first day of Year 4. All those nerves and the high level of excitement take up energy, so it is lovely that students are able to get a taste of life in Year 4 before a weekend to recharge.

The first day in 4D was a high energy one, filled with lots of community building tasks such as:

  • A game of ‘Categories’ (kind of like musical chairs but with different categories called out) to learn about one another and what we all got up to over the holidays.
  • A couple of picture story books (‘Wherever you Go’ by Pat Zietlow Miller and, for a bit of fun, ‘Dirty Dave the Bushranger’ by Nette Hilton and Roland Harvey, a favourite of my brother’s when he was young)
  • An inference game, inspired by this blog post, where the students made inferences about me, their new teacher, based on the clues in my evidence bag (What can you infer about Miss Davidson based on this hiking boot, book, dog lead etc?)
  • The ‘Coded Hundred Square’ Maths challenge, which required lots of teamwork, persistence and flexible thinking.
  • The ‘Spaghetti and Marshmallow Challenge’, which required even more teamwork, persistence and flexible thinking. Both these challenges gave me a fascinating insight into the teamwork skills, use of different strategies as well as each individual’s level of persistence.

But, whilst building a sense of community in the 4D classroom was awesome, my favourite part of the day was when students and parents from the last two years popped into 4D to say hi. Throughout my teaching career, whilst I have been chasing new adventures and new experiences, I’ve moved schools a lot.  One of the things that I really missed was being a part of a school community. On Friday, I had the beautiful feeling of feeling really connected to the school community. It was a lovely moment, the feeling of making new connections and rekindling old connections. It makes me excited for the year ahead and I’m looking forward to maintaining that sense of connection within the community throughout the year.

How do you build a sense of community in your classroom?

Confessions of an introverted teacher …

I often get asked how I survive as an introverted teacher.  To tell you the truth, I had never really thought about it until a few years ago when I came across the wonderful book, ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’.  Prior to this incredible book coming into my life, I knew that I had often come across as being aloof and somewhat anti-social at times.  This book changed my thinking and really helped me understand myself as a social being.  The bottom line is … Yes, I enjoy socialising but it drains me.  I need peace, quiet and solitude to recharge.  Which is somewhat at odds with the teaching life.  Each day is spent with 24 little beings who all want a piece of you.  Also, the teaching profession is moving more and more towards a collaborative model.  Which is fantastic for the learning of students but energy-sapping for an introverted teacher.

Just last week, I stumbled across this fantastic article, ‘Reimagining School for Introverted Teachers’.   It gave me a few ah-ha moments and inspired me to reflect upon some points about being an introverted teacher in an extroverted teaching world.

Introverted teachers need time to think.  It is difficult for introverted teachers (perhaps anyone?) to be put on the spot to come up with their best thinking.  Introverted teachers appreciate a heads-up on the topic of conversation in a meeting so that they can prepare their thoughts before being asked to contribute.

Introverted teachers do their best thinking alone.  During collaborative planning, I never come up with my best ideas.  I come up with my best ideas when I am walking the dog, taking a shower or driving to and from school.

Introverted teachers need solo work time.  When I am not teaching, I need time on my own to get tasks done without interruption.  Pernille Ripp writes about an unwritten policy that her school has – if a teacher’s door is shut, it signals that they are working and don’t want to be disturbed.  Imagine how productive introverted teachers (well, any teachers) could be if this was the case.  Don’t get me wrong, I am interested in hearing about your weekend or discussing the great movie or book you’ve seen/read, but when you interrupt my work time, you interrupt my flow.  Let’s have that chat later.

Introverted teachers should be allowed to work on some professional development activities alone.  Time spent reading, pondering and discussing is excellent PD.  Whilst I enjoy formal PD opportunities, they drain me.  I much prefer to read and discuss with small groups of like-minded educators.  Professional reading groups are a really enjoyable form of PD for me.  This summer, Pernille Ripp’s Facebook book club has been fantastic – read and think about the text, jump online and contribute to the discussions.

Introverted teachers need quiet time during the school day.  When we don’t spend break times in the staff room, we are not being anti-social.  We are recharging quietly and preparing for the next teaching session.  For me, it’s a quiet cup of tea whilst thinking about the previous or the upcoming lesson.  Or, at lunch time, a solo walk around the block enjoying 1o minutes of movement and sunshine.

So, my answer to those who ask how I survive?  As much as I can, I implement the strategies that I know work for me – taking a walk, closing my classroom door, quiet professional reading and thinking – at school.  Outside of school, these strategies seem to work:

  • I try to leave work at work.  I don’t check email or correct work at home.  If I work at home, it’s the reading, thinking and writing work.  The stuff that I enjoy and recharges me.
  • I meditate daily.
  • I do yoga several times a week.
  • I exercise daily, even if it is just a walk with the dogs.
  • I don’t overschedule my social life.  I leave time on the weekends for me.  Time to be by myself and recharge.

I prioritise these things because I know I’m a better person to be around when I do.  These things recharge me and allow me to be the best I can in the classroom, with the students, where it matters.

Are you an introverted teacher?  How do you ‘survive’ in an extroverted school environment?

 

Summer reading, Summer inspiration …

We are in the second half of the summer holidays now and it’s at this time that I begin to turn my attention towards school again. Not towards the mundane administrative aspects of school but towards the big stuff. Ideas for curriculum. Ideas for how to make my classroom a better place to be, both for students and adults.  Goals for improving myself as a teacher.  Inspiration from my favourite professional development sources – Twitter, education blogs, books by my favourite educators.  All those things that would be nice to do during the term time but there just never seems to be enough time or enough mental capacity. This year, I’m finding inspiration and ideas from the following sources:

  • ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’ by Ron Ritchhart. This book serves as a reminder, a refresher, an inspiration about the importance of creating a culture of thinking in the classroom. I am dipping in and out of this book, with the hope that I’ll find a group of equally nerdy Cultures of Thinking educators to form a mini book club to read and discuss the ideas in this book together.
  • ‘Embedding Formative Assessment’ by Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy. I have been a big Dylan Wiliam fan since I first read his article, ‘Inside the Black Box’, many years ago. This book is the follow up to ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’ (very similar titles as you can see) and offers excellent tips for, as the title suggests, embedding formative assessment in your classroom.  Developing a broader repetoire of formative assessment strategies was a big focus for me in 2015 and I finished the year satisfied with the progress I made.  In particular, I was happy that many strategies became a habitual part of my practice.  These, I’ll write about in another post at some time.  In 2016, I plan to focus on Learning Intentions and Success Criteria as I want to work on making these more visible and accessible to students. I want to make them an integral part of the learning in my classroom.
  • A couple of John Hattie articles about mindframes, as these eight mindframes will provide the structure for the regular breakfast group I attend with educators from a variety of schools from around Melbourne. Over the past few years, I’ve dipped in and out of Hattie’s work on Visible Thinking but haven’t spent much time exploring the mindframes. They intrigue me and Hattie always challenges one’s thinking.
  • ‘Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower Your Students’ by Pernille Ripp. This book has provided an interesting professional development opportunity over the summer, through the development of a book group on Facebook. What an incredible opportunity; to be able to read and discuss a professional text with so many amazing educators from all over the world. It’s kind of like a Global Read Aloud for adults. Each day, a new discussion question is posted to the closed Facebook group and already, I have picked up so many new ideas for the new school year and had my thinking pushed to consider different perspectives. It also makes me feel grateful that Australia doesn’t have such a heavily mandated education system as seems to be the case in America, although, at times, it feels like it is heading that way.
  • Back copies of Educational Leadership, the ASCD publication that I subscribe to but often don’t find the time to read during the term time. If you are not familiar with this publication, I can highly recommend it. With a basic membership (at about $100 a year for shipment to Australia), you receive eight copies of Educational Leadership, a magazine with a different focus for each issue. These holidays, I’m catching up on issues about questioning, data and emotionally healthy kids.

The holidays provide a wonderful time to sit, reflect and spend time doing the school related things that energise me, which, unfortunately, I often don’t have time for during the term time. I’m hoping to make these things more of a priority in 2016.

Which are your favourite professional texts for inspiration?

2015 Global Read Aloud

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.  Albert Einstein

I’ve thought about this quote a lot as I have reflected upon my first experience participating in the wonderfully engaging, collaborative project, Global Read Aloud (GRA).  If you haven’t already heard of this incredible project, the concept is relatively simple yet incredibly rewarding for all involved … you choose a book from a pre-selected list, read it aloud to your class over a six-week period and connect with other classes around the world.

The reason this quote popped into my mind is because, in the current education world, such strong emphasis is placed on assessment and data collection.  We, as educators, are continually being asked to collect, analyse and report on data and about student progress.  Don’t get me wrong, data collection and accountability (both for educators and students) is an incredibly important part of what we do.  But, as Einstein points out, not everything that matters can be measured.  And so was the case with my first GRA experience.  Participating in the GRA helped me to ‘tick off’ only one of the outcomes on students’ Semester Two reports, but it rewarded both myself and the students in my class with so much more than tickboxes on a report.  Rewards that can’t necessarily (and you wouldn’t want to) be measured.  As I talked enthusiastically to my colleagues about the GRA , I found it difficult to explain the impact I was noticing in my classroom.  Most of the time, I simply said, “Pop in some time and see the energy in the room.” And that’s what it was … a beautiful energy in the room as students listened to the story; drew their visualisations; shared their predictions, inferences and questions; discussed big questions and wrote blog posts with their reflections.  And that’s just the reading side of the project!

The most powerful part of the GRA occurs when you connect with classes on the other side of the world.  This was a new experience for me and at first, I was a little unsure about how it would all unfold, which only added to the excitement of the adventure.  Twitter proved to (yet again) be a fantastic way to connect with others and I was fortunate to connect with a couple of teachers in the USA, one (big shout out to you, Sarah Guy!) with whom my class made (and will hopefully continue) a beautiful connection.  You maybe wondering, what kind of ideas did we share and how did we share them?  Well, the collaboration seemed to evolve naturally over time, with new ideas for learning experiences and connection ideas normally arising through Twitter or email conversations along the lines of, ‘Hey, I thought we could use this thinking routine in chapter X.  What do you think?’  Here are just some of the collaborations we made:

  • Students wrote blog posts in response to questions and commented on other people’s posts.
  • Students explored various concepts in the novel using different thinking routines.  I wrote about that here.
  • Students responded to discussion questions using a Padlet on our class blog.
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One of the collaborative Padlets we created
  • Students explored our buddy class’ home town and school using Google Earth.
  • Students asked and answered questions about life in another country.
  • Students tweeted (via my account) their predictions, questions and thoughts on the story.
  • We (the teachers) filmed ourselves reading several chapters so that our students could hear part of the book read by another teacher (with a different accent!)
  • My class thought that it would be fun to send our buddy class some Australian items, which launched the ‘Culture Box’ project.  We sent off a box filled with Australian goodies such as Tim Tams, a football, a favourite picture storybook and Australian flags and in return, we received a box filled with American goodies such as Halloween candy, a picture storybook and some sporting memorabilia.
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The 4D Culture Box ready to be sent to America
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Room 23’s box arrives in Melbourne!

The book that I chose to read for our first GRA experience was the incredible story, ‘Fish in a Tree’ by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.  The story boasted a powerful storyline (girl with learning difficulties develops strong friendships and a stronger belief in herself) as well as realistic characters to whom students could relate easily.  The story was a perfect fit for my Year 4 classroom, where we place a high emphasis on growth mindset, persistence and friendship.  At the end of the book, I asked students to rate the book out of five stars.  The overwhelming consensus was 4.5 stars.  The reason it didn’t get 5 stars?  They wanted the book to be longer!  The students (and teachers) loved the book so much that we have decided to kick the 2016 school year with ‘Fish in a Tree’.  It’s the perfect book for setting the tone for the beginning of the school year.

If you haven’t ever participated in the GRA, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It is an incredible way to add greater engagement, dialogue and global collaboration to your reading program.  Also, since the GRA occurs in Term 4, it’s the perfect way to finish the year on a high.

What is something you do in your classroom that counts but can’t necessarily be counted?