Saturday, April 26, 2014

How to Strengthen Your Teaching Philosophy, One Vision at a Time

The other topic I am working on today has to do with developing your educational philosophy, one vision at a time. Have you ever felt disillusioned or dismayed about your ever-lengthening list of responsibilities, mandated standards, merit pay (and how you're held ultimately responsible for children who may have never even met you before this year), and how people regard educators? The answer, obviously, is yes. Looking at the moment I signed the contract to enter the teaching profession one decade ago in comparison to now, things have shifted quite dramatically-- in some ways, for the better, in other ways, for the worse.

Teaching is an increasingly difficult profession that is immensely under-appreciated and underestimated. Teachers seem to show up more in the news for taking advantage of their students rather than being their abacus. Whenever I read about an educator who is making a phenomenal impact, my heart soars... and I wonder what keeps them going in such a perilous era in education.

Students are being branded consistently, and by the time they reach teachers like me, they know precisely how they are generalized and what people expect of them. Beyond that, students throughout the nation (and world) are being held to the same standard-- the proverbial "bar" is being raised for EVERY student like they are ALL equally proficient-- with the same parental expectations for academic success, the same consideration given to them in their formulative years, the same kind of home (with clean air and decent upkeep), and the same degree of affirmation from those in their lives (with no verbal or physical abuse).

The fact of the matter is, though-- some students you will teach will have parents who earned their Doctorate (or could have), and others will have parents who struggled beyond belief. There are parents with learning disabilities just like children, and some have learned to overcome the odds while others may use it as a crutch, letting it discourage them every single day. Then there are children who have lost their parents or may have to thrive on their own or with other family members because their parents have left them. There are families who are concerned about water being turned on in their homes rather than homework completion... because they have to be.

Yet all students are judged as if given equal experiences from the moment they were born. Frankly, though, that is impossible. When I enter every school year with my list of standards to cover (and a few months later, begin glancing over the test item specifications for state testing), I plan what I consider to be strong, memorable lessons... yet not every student is going to perceive my words in the same manner. Someone is always going to think outside the box, someone is always going to REFUSE to get out of the box, and other students may not even know where to find the box. Some students may not even know what the box looks like or what a box even is.

Yet when I as a fifth grade teacher receive my roster of students, I am expected to receive students who have intricate, computerized minds with beautifully organized storage compartments. I am expected to have "Schematic Warehouses" to work with. This is the best part-- every single student I receive has something phenomenal to offer, but they have already convinced themselves of their "self-fulfilling prophecies". They already consider math to be impossible, literature to be pointless, science to be boring, history to be irrelevant, etc., because of how content has been presented to them, how others have measured their degree of success, and how they felt while focusing on concepts in the past.

By the time I was in sixth grade, math was WRETCHED for me. I received Bs in it in fourth and fifth grade-- I moved from the advanced to the remedial group in fourth grade to feel successful, and my fifth grade teacher (perhaps without realizing it) really soured my opinion of it because whenever my classmates got in trouble, we ALL had to sit inside and independently complete 50-75 problems while we were supposed to be out at recess.

In the 1980s and 1990s, standardized testing was not the pressure cooker it is now. We took the CTBS in elementary school, I believe, and my scores were always all over the place. I always was an Einstein at Language Arts, somewhat average to below average in Math, and variable in Science (no pun intended). The scores never defined me, nor did they inhibit me.

Looking at my pre-standardized life compared to now, I am grateful for a few things--
  • Teachers cannot simply do what they desire and avoid covering the curriculum with no follow up whatsoever. I think that is important and what originally spurred the Testing Revolution. 
  • If teachers had monitored progress more when I was in school and differentiated more, students may have felt a greater degree of success. Seeing where your students have strengthened is a phenomenal feeling. I have witnessed some of my students evolve leaps and bounds this year, and if it weren't for periodic testing, I wouldn't have something valid to base my differentiation on. I am grateful I can say things like, "_______'s score went up 64 points from the beginning of the school year on the math assessment. In the middle of the year, it had gone up 38 points. At the beginning of the year, he did not respond to the surface area and volume questions correctly. However now, he has mastered every single one." Though that is not the only measure I use when reporting progress to parents, noting the increase is a tremendous affirmation for the student. 
Despite testing being a positive thing to an extent though, something needs to change in education. It starts with our mindset. 

There are teachers who claim they do not have time to complete science experiments (and namely collaborative science fair projects) with their students, read and discuss class chapter book selections, head on field trips, and integrate technology in their classrooms. There are exhausted, overworked, and... yes, underworked students. There are students who are verbally lambasted all over-- and an imbalance of power in some classrooms, which is immensely stressful for all involved. 

Now before I proceed in sharing where I feel educational revolution can begin, I will give myself an award for blabbering so incessantly... 

Most Annoying Blogger Who Suddenly Rose From the Figurative Dead --> Me!

I know, I know. I am being uber-critical. And also quite brutally honest because I tend to stand on a proverbial soapbox. Yet I feel passionate about this topic-- like I should-- because I invest myself fully in the career my heart has chosen. Now without further ado... 

1. Develop a network. You should NEVER be on a proverbial island, alone. This goes for at work AND online. 

School:: At work, you may feel indelibly alone at times... or you may be part of an incredible team-teaching partnership or team. You may also have friends at other schools, which is fine. If you are fortunate, vow to watch movies, share resources, discuss educational philosophy, even hold a Bible study or host a prayer group. The possibilities are endless and so beautiful. Try to develop a network at school or within the district, yet if it is not possible, you may have to extend to online options. 

Beyond that, attend conferences, sign up for workshops... attend camps. It could change your life. 

Online:: Social networking may possess its downfalls in some respects, yet it also has IMMENSE benefits. Over the years, as my website and others were visited by people by all over the world, I met amazing people and was recognized for my contributions. Whenever I admired one's website or weblog, I contacted the individual. If she did not contact me back, fine... because there was always someone who would. In 2008, I contacted Krissy Venosdale when I visited her old domain for the first time, and then the same year, Angela Bunyi referred me as to Scholastic as a potential Teacher Advisor because she was impressed by some of the content. 

Because I followed peoples' advice and advocated education online, numerous opportunities have presented themselves. A few of the teachers who have contacted me over the years have opened "doors" for me in immense ways, namely Krissy. Looking online, there are message boards (A-Z Teacher Stuff has been a huge part of my educational journey), Facebook groups, Twitter, and blogging. For example, a lot of the teachers on Teachers Pay Teachers also maintain weblogs and have made various meetup opportunities possible. For many, their friendships have extended off the Internet. In my case, I attended Space Camp and the Twitter socials at NASA as well as the Smithsonian. Then this summer, starting the domains has brought together so many unbelievable people from so many walks of life. Some of the people, I knew offline, and others, I met online. Yet thinking of their collective power is mind-blowing. I can barely take the wait... I just want the debut to happen now, yet I have to work over the summer to assure that our synergism is developed and our vision is carried out. 

When you surround yourself with optimism and innovation, YOU then are uninhibited as well. 

Being able to openly communicate about education can alter your philosophy in incredible ways. The teachers who have altered my philosophy the most were Heather Renz, Laura Candler, Krissy Venosdale, Beth Newingham, and Angela Bunyi. (If any of you happen to be reading this, I am not yanking your chain. Seeing your photos, videos, blog posts, websites, etc., inspired me to be on top of cutting-edge educational philosophies and approaches.) 

2. Make your philosophy concrete. Walk the walk. Don't just say, "Ooh, yeah! Sir Ken Robinson! AWESOME! EPIC!" without ever watching his TED talk on creativity. Know what defines the "perfect classroom" in your mind. Also notice there are so many ways one can approach a standard. There are worksheets you can distribute, but then there are inquiry-driven labs and performance tasks you can assign. 

Read new literature-- that is how I became exposed to Fountas and Pinnell, Stephanie Harvey, Tanny McGregor, Marilyn Burns, Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn, and Linda Dorn. Three years ago, I couldn't tell you who Tanny McGregor, Franki Sibberson, Mary Lee Hahn, or Linda Dorn were. Yet now I love seeing how ideas can be presented in visual manners, students can be masters of literature, and how responses can be enhanced by maintaining Thoughtful Logs. 

I saw this video on YouTube that you may very well enjoy (posted by Keleininger)::

3. As soon as your students walk into the classroom on the very first day, get to know them as PEOPLE, not vessels you are filling to succeed beyond measure on a standardized test. I give a survey about favorites and hobbies. I ask if they have siblings and animals at home-- and also who inspires them the most in life. I read the surveys on the first day and then take notes. I then sit the students down as a group and ask each of them about something that stood out on their survey. Keep building upon your knowledge of your students and share your interests as well so you are REAL to them, not just one who imparts curriculum-- or worse, shoves it down their throats. 

4. Let your students create! Don't always define rigid expectations for them. Creativity is lacking in schools to an extent, and a lot of students are expected to comply to cookie-cutter standards. This year, I incorporated engineering challenges and also let my students construct model bedrooms (over the course of the past few days). While I cringed that my room looked like a craft room/maker shed until it was cleaned, it was a learning experience seeing how they approached constructing their own model furniture to scale. They thought outside the box and utilized materials in ways I never would have thought of on my own. 

5. Vow to be strict AND fun. If you want to have fun with your students, you need to lay down the law first. Procedures MUST be in place and modeled. Enforcing and re-enforcing expectations (later in the year) can be achieved without yelling because immediately, there is an imbalance of power indicated from the moment you raise your voice above your students'. You then convey shouting is going to achieve something, but speaking in a calm tone of voice probably will not. Some educators may believe that is the ONLY way attention can be garnered, because of how their students are raised, but the educator/student trust factor has to be built. I did pretty well with enforcing the "no yelling" rule this year, yet I did a few more times than I wanted (it's always under twenty times) and I need to see how I am going to promote excitement in a stern manner with my upcoming group. 

I may seriously show my students a short slideshow of amazing things on the first day of school next year and state, "This will be achieved with enthusiasm. It will be achieved with synergism. Your choices will drive this room. HOWEVER, we MUST have expectations in place and get this place running in the smoothest manner possible so we have time to make that joy a reality." 

6. Get together with fellow educators (locally or virtually) and embark on a really neat project. I am actually doing that, though the details are disclosed right now. It is not directly the domain itself, though it is something that will certainly be featured on the domain. Some other projects can be:: writing and implementing a grant, taking an endorsement class together, starting a store online, or starting a blog together. 

7. When you plan at the beginning of the school year, think of all the things you want to achieve. Begin with the end in mind. Commit to some new projects every year... think of ideas that are going to get the students' minds whirling. I'm not talking boring stuff here. I'm talking about lessons and units that promote collaboration, creation, independence... simply being unique and showcasing your students' greatest attributes. Then as you build your classroom community with your students, keep every single idea of yours at the forefront of your mind as you watch your classroom synergism unfold. Stay current by checking out new ideas on social media platforms-- especially Pinterest. Sometimes seeing one image can spur a GRAND idea. 

Another neat idea is to find at least one interactive lesson for each standard over the summer so you are on the up-and-up of freshness all the time. One option for organization is that you can print out tables in Microsoft Word, type a standard in each box, and then type the lesson or idea in before inserting it into your plan book. Or you can create folders on your computer, which I do, labeling them with the standards and their respective topics. Then save .pdf files, videos, songs, Microsoft Word files, etc. to the folders. You will then gain confidence that you are adequately preparing students for state testing, yet in a way that engages their long-term memory storehouses. 

Remember, winning your students' enthusiasm over is ALL in the presentation. If you present content in the same way again and again and again (aside from note-taking), you may..................... lose their interest. Please do not expect your students to all respond well to the same kind of presentation. Not everyone's brain is wired the same. 

8. Imagine yourself... stronger. Imagine yourself at your VERY best-- be your own Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society. Literally envision a scene in your mind of you captivating students' attention, presenting phenomenal content, and... I know this sounds sappy... feeling immense respect for yourself in the process. Treat yourself well-- rest and eat well. Try to not let worry or especially NEGATIVITY overrule you because that would be insanely unfair.

I am leaving you with a link that includes TED talks about "re-imagining school"

I know this post was a marathon, but I felt passionate about the topic. I hope you gathered something valuable from here that you can incorporate.

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  1. Inspiring piece! I'm sharing your ideas with others, especially the part on taking baby steps in planning one interactive activity for each standard. The videos that urge us to rethink schools may also start discussion and planning. One of the basic problems is teachers in the US do not have adequate planning time within the work day and must have the drive to plan within their personal time -- a commitment we cannot all take. Going beyond this, and looking at a foundational problem, many teachers do not know how to plan and think reading the lesson plan in the TE is all there is to planning. Even more, do not know how to plan while using even lower levels of creativity. Your article gives some paths to take in revitalizing instruction and classroom atmosphere --- I'm adding some of these for next year's planning and am hoping inspiration BITES a few more of us after presentation. Lol!

    1. I loved hearing from you, dear and longtime friend. =) I completely understand the issue about planning and have pondered about how I am going to do it if I marry and have children in the future. I personally think it's really good to have some concrete "plans of action" and choose from your "menu" of creative options when you're busy. I prefer committing some time to planning over the summer, no matter what your life looks like, because if one organizes a list of activities well in that time, then it should be fairly decent to choose something that will engage students without conglomerating personal time.

      Gale, you know I'm not the type to just follow a lesson plan. Maybe it's because I am a LOT like the kids... I crave some kind of implementation or real-world connection. I think this summer when the domains finally debut, I'll have a decent "storehouse" of lesson plans, videos, music, interactive activities, performance tasks, and higher-order, multi-step problems for math... so hopefully tons of teachers will be able to utilize those and feel confident they are preparing students for testing in the most invigorating manner possible.

      Awesome response on so many levels. =)