Dream vs. Reality: The First Day of School

I have dreamed of this moment for seven years. A fantasy from 11th grade still replays itself in my mind with crystalline clarity: My first day of school as a teacher. I’m wearing all professional black clothes with my hair slicked back in a bun. I’m stricter than I need to be because I want my students to take me seriously. I’m cool and aloof and ooze authority and respect. I talk about learning and brain growth and the value of hard work until we suddenly have an inspirational “Dead Poets Society” moment. The students leave, backpacks slung over one shoulder, talking about how they can’t wait for tomorrow. They jump, fist in the air – and freeze frame!

My real first day was nothing like that.

When I realized that baseline data must be collected before I could implement any learning community activities as per my goal and research this year, I immediately accepted the fact that my students’ first day of class with me would be… unorthodox. I stood at the door as they walked in, asking each student to say their name as they wrote it down so that the first time I heard it would be the correct way to pronounce it. The first thing they saw upon entering the room was a sign saying, “Welcome to Physics! Grab a baseline survey from the Pick Up station (near the door) then take a seat and begin the survey.” Once the bell rang, they had seven more minutes to complete the survey before I gave my two minute introduction to myself and to the course. The rest of the class was spent doing a Group Juggle with squishy bird shaped toys in order to start getting the students comfortable and familiar with each other.

Collecting Baseline Data: An Abrupt Start

Norms and expectations are easiest to establish at the beginning of a group’s existence. That means that the best time for me to introduce the notion of a learning community was the first day of school. So, as unorthodox and abrupt as it sounds to have the students silently submit a ten-question survey about learning communities as soon as they walked in on the first day, it was a necessary action in order to get the least biased baseline data that I could. Well, if I had been more zealous in my quest for unbiased data, I probably could have covered up our giant community calendar and “Welcome to Our Physics Fiesta!” decorations but I put a lot of trust in the students being slightly too overwhelmed by their first day of school to be so analytical of the wall decor.

The baseline survey consisted of two free response prompts and eight Likert scaled prompts that asked students to circle a number between one and eight where one implied that they “strongly disagree” and eight meant that they “strongly agree”. Heather had given me some advice and information about the benefits of using more versus fewer and even versus odd numbers on the Likert scale. I decided upon a scale of eight quantitative points because an even number denies the students an opportunity to respond with a true neutral. I also chose eight points on my Likert scale because it would allow me more clarity into the differences in the students’ choices than a smaller number would while still remaining mangable for me to record by hand. With the prompts, I tried to tease out what students knew about community oriented learning and how they felt about it.

The Part With The Numbers

To record the data, I created a Google Sheet in which the columns represented each survey prompt and the rows represented each student’s responses. I included their name or initial in my Google Sheet so that I would have the opportunity to compare a student’s responses throughout the year. I made a separate page for each class period as well as one total group page. Google Sheets was helpful in that I was able to include a cell for each prompt that calculated the class averages and the grand total averages for that prompt. The prompts and their all-class averages are as follows:

  • What the phrase “sense of community” means to me: (free response)
  • I have experienced a sense of community in previous classes. (4.78)
  • I like feeling a sense of community in my classes. (5.5)
  • I learn better when I feel like I am a member of my classroom community. (5.48)
  • I am familiar with the term “learning community”. (4.62)
  • What “learning community” means to me: (free response)
  • I feel confident in my ability to learn physics this year. (5.50)
  • I feel confident in my ability to pass the physics course this year. (6.04)
  • I believe that having a sense of community will help me succeed in the physics course. (5.88)
  • I believe that participating in a learning community will help me succeed in the physics course. (6.09)
  • I feel a sense of community with the people in this class. (4.71)
  • People in (our school district) have a shared sense of community. (5.41)

Reflections and Analogies

I’m still processing the information. I’m still figuring out what the data implies and how the averages compare across the class periods. I’m still interpreting data and sorting through rumours of remarkably high failure rates last year and re-takers this year. I’m still hearing and reading comments from students who are terrified of physics and have a wide range of confidence in their abilities. While I’m chewing on my data like a cow on its cud, life in our classroom has moved forward at lightning speed. In the last two weeks, we’ve discussed the traits of a learning community; we have drafted, finalized, and displayed our top five community agreements; we have learned each other’s names; we have developed routines with daily greetings and exit tickets; we have helped each other review mathematics concepts; we have run through the halls in a particularly fun pursuit of problem solving; and yesterday, we decided to believe in the power of “yet” by turning around each sentiment in which we express doubt in our abilities. Gone are the days of “I can’t do math”, there is only room today for “I’m not good at physics yet.”

I, too, am taking on the power of yet. I’m on a steep, but manageable, learning curve when it comes to my lesson plans and preparing materials. While each day of class so far has left me in love with my new job and with the communities we’re building, I’m not quite at the level of preparation that I’d like to be… yet. I will get there, I know it. With practice and experience, I will leave behind twelve hour (or more) days at school. There will come a day when I have nearly everything for the next week planned and printed the Friday before. So too will the day come when I will write these blog posts when I mean to write them instead of a week later like I did with this one. I’m not too worried and I’m not letting any of these current slips or shortcomings overwhelm me with personal disappointment. Heather and I have talked about this project being my “lizard’s tail”- the thing you never want to drop, but can lose if necessary to survive. I’m nowhere near needing to drop my “lizard’s tail” but I’m glad to feel secure in my plans and priorities.

New teachers and veterans, what is your “lizard’s tail” this year?

What is your yet?

First year teacher – passionate about community and equity

Embracing Failure

I am a big fan of mistake making.  Well, not the making of the mistakes part so much but of the learning from mistakes, expecting mistakes, embracing mistakes.  What if we flip the narrative on failure and, since we know mistakes happen, we anticipate them and respond to them with enthusiasm?

Okay, stick with me here.  Enthusiasm may be a little . . . enthusiastic?

Looking back on a 20 year career in education, I see so many mistakes, of course, and some outright fails.  I’ll never ever forget the time I, with four other teachers, took 32 4-year-olds on a bus field trip.  Left the school, counted everyone multiple times, went to find my seat with my buddy, only to realize he was still sitting in the exact spot – AT THE SCHOOL – where I asked him to wait for me.  We turned the bus around, of course, and raced back to him (he was still waiting patiently) but I could not shake that off.  Even now it haunts me.

Some mistakes are bigger than others. Every last one is a learning opportunity.

I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by mentors and colleagues and friends who embrace my failures with me, who lift me up, who help me see the learning opportunities presented in my failures.  I’m currently in the midst of my biggest professional failure yet.  In that failure, though, so many opportunities have developed.  Opportunities for growth, for challenge, for learning, for teaching, for building resilience, for growing my network, for failing out loud so maybe others can do the same.  Failure also, of course, invites self doubt, shame, embarrassment, to name a few.  So, as I reflect on my own mistakes, missteps, shortcomings, and failures, I often consider how our interactions with learners shape their relationship with failure.  How did I learn how to fail and how am I teaching others about failure?

Well, it’s a delicate balance, right?

We want to embrace failure as a part of learning.  Einstein said, (according to the internet) “You never fail until you stop trying.”  We want to build resiliency in learners.  We want our learners to always be willing and ready to try try again.  We know perfectionism puts limitations on learners’ willingness to take chances, ask questions, seek creativity. However, we also don’t want to embrace mistakes to the point where we accept failure.  Failure has to sting a little in order for it to motivate us, right?

I teach and learn with college students.  Say what you will about this generation of young people but I will defend their work ethic, their creativity, and their dedication to my last breath.  I see a fear of failure in them, a fear of risk taking, a fear of creative problem solving, though. Not because, they want their hands held, but because the consequences of any mistake have been so so steep.  My coursework is ungraded, due dates are flexible, engagement and iterative feedback is essential.  Students find this terrifying.  They struggle to trust that I won’t come with a guillotine on the last day.  Mistake making and embracing failure requires trust.

Teaching and learning depends on trusting relationships.  Full stop.

How do you build learning communities with high expectations, meaningful and trusting relationships, and a willingness to fail out loud?

We must be someone students can trust to launch them from failures into learning.  In what ways do you fail out loud with your learners and help them do the same?

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

4 Ways You Can Take Action As A Teacher

As a teacher I want action. As a teacher I want to be able to tell my students that they are safe at school. I also want to tell my students they are safe at home. I want my students to BE SAFE. As a teacher I want this to be understood-gun violence is an issue that goes further than the classroom.

The heated debate for the call for teachers to bear arms has encouraged me to do two things:

  1. Take responsibility for understanding the issue of gun violence as a whole through research.
  2. Find ways I can access my voice and power to end gun violence.

How can we take action? How can we turn our sadness, our pain and our anger into change?

Get informed.

I am a teacher, but first I am a student. My research started with Everytown.org, this nonprofit is the largest gun prevention organization in the country. I encourage you to spend some time on this website, reading on the many facets that make up gun violence within our country. This is what stood out to me:

-In America, an average of 96 people are killed each day.

-7 of these people are under 19 years old.

-About 62% of firearm deaths are suicide.

-America has a gun homicide rate that is 25 time higher than any other developed country.

-Gun violence disproportionately impacts the lives of people of color.

In order to prevent gun violence, we must understand where it comes from.

As a teacher, I am enraged. I am frustrated that the issue of guns has turned into an issue of guns in schools.

I have created a new mantra:

Turn rage into action.

My steps to taking action thus far:

  1. Vote. Find out who on your ballot supports gun reform and head out to the polls!
  2. End political funding from the National Rifle Association. Use this link to Follow the NRA Money  and call members of Congress that receive funding from the NRA for their campaigns.
  3. Share your voice! March for change. Start a conversation with a friend or family member.
  4. Make your voice heard. Encourage Call, email, text your legislators encouraging them to keep our students safe by:
    1. Creating stronger and more thorough background checks for firearm sales.
    2. Increasing the age for gun purchasing and handling to 21.
    3. Creating red flag laws. (When a person is exhibiting warning signs that they will harm themselves or others, families have the opportunity to seek help from court to have firearms removed. After judge considers evidence they order an Extreme Risk Protection Order or Gun Violence Restraining Order. This prohibits possession or purchasing of firearms for up to one year. Currently 6 states have passed this law, while 22 states have introduced this legislation.)

Turn rage into action in the classroom.

As educators, we are responsible for molding our student’s perspective of our country and government. How can we demonstrate civic responsibility? How can we engage our students in government a meaningful and appropriate way?

What other ways are you getting involved? Share below!

Works Cited

“Fatal Injury Reports,” Injury Prevention & Control: Data & Statistics (WISQARS), accessed December 23, 2017 http://1.usa.gov/1plXBux’]

Teaching is Political

In teacher education programs, we have a responsibility to prepare future teachers for the civic profession of education.  For me, this means registering students to vote in my classes, advocating for political activism, and encouraging them to see themselves as agents of political change (and to act accordingly!).

Teaching is political.

I’m following the walk outs in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky closely as their demands are the demands of educators across the nation.  Education has been deeply underfunded for two decades and low teacher salaries is just one of many far reaching consequences of political funding decisions.  Without funding, we are incapable of providing the supports necessary for meaningful inclusion of all learners.  Without funding, we are unable to promote professional growth and development of teachers to become and grow as teacher leaders.  Without funding, we struggle to convince exemplary teachers to host and mentor teacher interns. Our ability to recruit and retain the most engaging, responsive, empathetic, caring educators is compromised by our society’s weak commitment to education.

Our budget reflects our values.  Despite the teacher appreciation week festivities, as a country we do not value teachers or educational spaces.

Teaching is political.

So how can you get involved in moving teaching to a respected profession?

Join your professional organization!!  Join the Council for Exceptional Children if you are a special educator, the Division of Early Childhood and the National Association for the Education of Young Children for inclusive early childhood educators, the National Council for Teachers of English for you Language Arts educators.  Whatever your speciality, your professional organization needs you and your expertise!

REGISTER.  TO.  VOTE.  AND.  VOTE.  In every election.  In your local elections, school boards, city council, and mayor.  Vote in your state election, on education proposals, and community works initiatives.  Know your community’s priorities and engage in advocating for education.  Vote at the state and national level.  Know who you are voting for and what they believe about kids, teachers, education, and funding.  Track their votes so you can vote them out if they haven’t represented education well in the past.

We collectively make up the profession and we can ensure it reflects our collective values.  We can advocate for children, for teachers, for families, for resources.  We can make our voices heard.

I know you are tired.   

But teaching is political.  And so are you.

 

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

What Teachers Want: A Call To Arm

There are many facets to the current debate over gun control, but a lot of focus has fallen on two extremes. One extreme is a call to ban all guns. On the opposite side, there is a call for teachers to be armed. As a teacher, I find the idea of arming teachers to be ludicrous for many reasons.

I was called to teach. I was not called to arms.

My job as a teacher is much more than just knowing content and how to deliver it to a teenage audience. I’m also a counselor, cheerleader, parent and confidant to hundreds of students every year. I call them “my kids” for a reason. I love them. I want to nurture them into kind, open-minded, knowledgeable individuals, and of course– to protect them.  Would I defend them if a gun were pointed at them? Yes.

But I was called to teach. I was not called to arms.

To quote my friend and colleague, Rebecca Field, who wrote “An open letter from a furious Henrico teacher,” “At the end of my teaching contract, it says that I will perform ‘other duties to be assigned.’ I do not interpret these words ‘as bleeding to death on the floor of my classroom.’” Nor is it in my contract that I have to protect my students with a gun. Would I be able to use a gun on a student I know? No.

I was called to teach. I was not called to arms.

Financially, arming and educating teachers how to operate a gun is impossible. State and federal funding for schools is and always has been low. Many schools can’t afford to give teachers basic classroom supplies, to send teachers to state required professional development, or to give them a step in their pay each year. If schools can’t even buy their teachers whiteboard markers, how would they afford to buy each teacher a gun? Lock boxes? Ammunition? If schools can’t even pay for teachers’ continuing education in the content they teach, how would they afford gun safety training? If schools can’t even give teachers the next step up in their pay, how would they afford to offer teachers a bonus for being armed? It would cost billions of dollars that do not exist, and even if they did, those taxpayer dollars be better spent on mental health services and social-emotional learning in the classroom. Or on books that teach students compassion. Or on making smaller class sizes so teachers have more time to get to know their students.

We were called to teach. We were not called to arms.

We, teachers, call to be armed with more counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and nurses in our schools. We call to be armed with community support to make our schools educational, cultural, and healthy environments. We call to be armed with the knowledge that our students are safe from violence while they are in our buildings.

We were called to teach. We were not called to arms.

Neither banning all guns nor arming teachers are solutions to making our schools safe from gun violence. The Second Amendment can’t be entirely undone. Guns won’t simply disappear. However, the answer is definitely not more guns, especially in our schools. The answer is to empower teachers to use tools of teaching, not war.

Again, I say, we were called to teach. We were not called to arms.

 

 

Meredith Sizemore Swain has taught middle and high school English in both rural and urban counties. Meredith is currently taking the year off from teaching to be a stay-at-home mom to Claire, 3 months old.

What Does It Mean To Be Kindergarten Ready?

When it comes to young children going to school, we talk a lot about “readiness.” But what does that even mean?

I’ll just get down to it.

Very broadly speaking, “readiness” refers to skills and factors that contribute to a child’s success upon school entry. These skills reflect individual development across the following domains: health and physical development; social/emotional development; cognition, knowledge, and approaches to learning; and communication and language skills.

I want to make one thing crystal clear:

 Children are not innately “ready” or “not ready” for school.

 “Readiness” is a complex subject, influenced by many interrelated factors:

  1. Early life experiences: exposure to early education, home literacy environment, economic security, attention to health needs.
  2. The child’s individual differences: cultural and linguistic variation, developmental differences and the understanding of such differences, presence of a disability
  3. Expectations placed on the child by the school: the only legal requirement is reaching the correct chronological age, but the National Goals Panel suggests 10 critical keys to ensure that schools are ready for young children:
    1. Smooth transition between home and school
    2. Continuity of care between early care and education and elementary schools
    3. Help children learn and make sense of their complex world
    4. Be committed to the success of every child
    5. Be committed to the success of every teacher and every adult who interacts with children during the school day
    6. Introduce/expand approaches that have been shown to raise achievement
    7. Be a learning organization that alter practices if they do not benefit children
    8. Serve children in their communities
    9. Take responsibility for results
    10. Exhibit strong leadership

As you can see, in order to improve “readiness” we have a lot of collective work to do. Children and families need improved economic conditions, better health care for children and families, a commitment to understanding of individual differences, and environments that are responsive to the needs of children and families within their own community (just to name a few).

Hopefully you noticed that “readiness” is much greater and more complex than a checklist of skills and developmental milestones. The burden of readiness should not rest upon the frail shoulders of our nation’s preschoolers.  Idealistic? Maybe. Utopian? Maybe. But….

As adults we should carry the load and create the necessary changes- to ensure our youngest can have the greatest opportunity for success as they develop at their own pace.

  •  What can you do to improve factors for readiness in your classroom, school, or community?
  • How can you push the conversation about readiness towards a more comprehensive view?
  • How can you release young children from the burden of fitting in to a certain predetermined mold?
  • How responsive is your teaching? Do you take responsibility for results? Do you alter teaching practices when needed?
  • Do you seek out learning opportunities?
  • How can you exhibit leadership?

Tracy McElhattan is the Director of Early Childhood Ministries at a church in the Kansas City area. She also writes and edits faith-based materials for children with special needs so that all young children have full access to faith communities. She loves teaching teachers and challenging the norm.