Why Do We Have to Learn This?

At some point you will hear (or have already heard) a loud refrain from a child in your class:  “Why do we have to learn this?!”

Instinct may make you defensive, but this is a valid question.  And the answer can’t be — because it will be on the test or because I said so.  Students must feel their work has meaning and is valuable to them. If a child struggles to see value, they may go through the motions of the work, but they may not truly learn. The content has to be relevant to them today.why

For example, most elementary students are expected to learn about U.S. Presidents or significant historical dates and places.  Is the objective to merely memorize trivia?  Or are we challenging students to learn about characteristics of leadership, the principles of a Democratic society or how governing decisions affect our lives? 

Instruction of this type can be more than fact-based; it can be an opportunity to instill values (such as tolerance, obedience, leadership, cooperation.)  It can also provide an atmosphere for developing analytical or discussion skills.  (Ask students to compare and contrast political candidates or the impact of a local legal decision.)  

Clearly there are some facts and figures that students just have to learn.  And making it immediately relevant can be tough.  In that case, you can make the work engaging by providing different modes of delivery: books, movie clips, experiments, student-led discussions, etc.

As the teacher you must model for them how to go about problem solving. Navigating a confusing lesson is a problem that must be solved.  Talk through the topic and show your approach: what questions do you ask yourself as you make sense of a difficulty?  Celebrate when they accomplish something, teach them positive self-talk, demonstrate it for them.

Help them see that all learning is an opportunity, not an obligation.  With these tactics in play, eventually the refrain will change from “Why do we have to learn this?” to “When can we learn more about this?”

 

 

Benefits of Student Engagement

When you think of student engagement you think about students being drawn into their learning. To know if your class is engaged we must first define engagement.  Phil Schlecty “Increasing Student Engagement.” Missouri Leadership Academy; (Jan. 1994) says students who are engaged exhibit three characteristics:

  • they are attracted to their work,eager-student
  • they persist in their work despite challenges and obstacles, and
  • they take visible delight in accomplishing their work.

Some lessons will hit all three targets, but there are objectives that aren’t that exciting but still need to be taught.  Things like long division, editing/revisions, fractions (need I say more?) may present a challenge for engagement.

Think about activities that you are excited to engage in:

  • What motivates you to participate in those activities?
  • What skills do you draw upon to engage in the activity?
  • What are your expectations for the outcome of the activity?

As adults we can choose we have options.  We can choose the activities and learning that we’ll spend time to pursue. Our strengths and interests guide us and push us towards engagement. When we succeed we can then transfer those skills to other possibly less desirable activities.

For students who don’t have the same freedom, it is the teacher’s job to create lessons that motivate students to fully engage in the learning process. Students must be engaged in all of ‘school’ — in its global form —  academics, interpersonal, extracurricular, social and relational.

Check back in for posts about academic and social engagement.

Squad Goals

The life of an elementary teacher can be a lonely one.  In some schools, a solo teacher may be the only adult in their classroom and have little access to others.  If she or he is lucky, an assistant or college intern may spend some time in the room.  But it’s not uncommon for them to be the only adult in sight for hours at a time. New teachers, take note:  Being proactive in building a “squad” is an essential task.

Your “squad” should be a diverse support team assembled to make life easier, provide encouragement, and keep you sane when the stress of teaching builds.  squad

Look for immediate support in the form of other teachers (in your grade level and out) and the key staff members at your building (custodian, secretary, technology, nurse, counselor, cafeteria workers, etc.)  Sharing ideas and getting feedback is an obvious benefit, but just having friendly coworkers to chat with about life and outside activities is just as important.

Developing friendships outside of school is crucial too;  having a safe and objective listener to hear your concerns is vital.  This helps you avoid the temptation to “vent” to your fellow teachers or parents.  Those conversations are dangerous; they can quickly escalate into negativity, gossip or insubordination.

Develop a healthy and proactive rapport with parents.  You don’t want your first interaction with a parent to be a discipline issue or a discussion over a child’s poor performance.  Create consistent and positive touch points where you engage with parents early and often. (I will be posting more suggestions about this in a future blog post.)

At times teachers build a wall between themselves and the administration.  They see the Principal as the “enemy,” and prefer to keep their distance, believing that “out of sight, out of mind” is a smart strategy.  Working to include administrators on your squad may be tough, but it can have great rewards.  If your administrators are receptive, here are some ways to include them on your squad as well:

  • Ask the Principal or Assistant Principal to suggest some times when sending students to the office is most convenient.  During these times, you can make a regular practice of having children share their writing, journal entries, artwork, or special projects.  If a student is struggling in an area, getting help from the Principal or Assistant Principal can be helpful, and in some ways, it might even be a refreshing change of pace for someone whose days in the classroom are in the past. Administrators have things that come up unexpectedly, but for the most part, they are happy to set aside time for brief student visits.
  • Ask your administrator to come and read a story or share an experience with your children. This will not only make them feel closer to you, but it will also help reduce the intimidation factor for your students.  They will also have a chance to better understand what you are teaching and have an appreciation for your classroom management skills.  (And you probably don’t want your Principal’s first visit to your class to be during a formal observation, do you?)
  • If you have special occasions when parents or grandparents are “guest starring” in the class (like career day or a child’s birthday party), you might reach out to your Administrators to sub in for a parent whose work schedule prevents them from participating.  Being the ‘honored guest’ of those children helps build their self esteem. (The same tactic can work with other members of the staff too.)

Ask administrative assistants, custodians, cafeteria workers or counselors to visit your room regularly too. Students see their faces every day but they may rarely interact with them. Having them share with your students is a great way to open your classroom to a new world and build positive relationships.  Other adults in your school might be able to reach and impact a student’s behavior in a positive way that as the teacher you are not able.

Living in a learning environment

Teachers must live in a learning environment to create a learning environment for their students. As a teacher, you can never stop learning; the rules of the game are constantly changing. Students, information, technology, family structures, the way we communicate,  and the way we measure success are all in flux.

Even if your curriculum does not change from year to year; your students will, and you must too.

  • You need to be able to adapt the strategies you use for each unique group of learners and their needs. Evaluate your teaching methods; find time to reflect on recently taught lessons and review their effectiveness. Grade yourself, not just your students.
  • Technology is always changing. To be able to equip Owl sitting on books.students to learn from and with technology, you must be proficient in your knowledge and usage of the latest in technical gear, software, and web & multimedia standards.  Having an appreciation for social media and your students’ favorite games and apps is important too.
  • Family dynamics change and you must be sensitive when children face challenges at home.  Marital strife, a new baby, job changes, new living arrangements, and illness will impact each child uniquely. Blended families and divorce can also present an intense juggling act for the teacher.  Working to appropriately include both parents of a split family takes effort and sensitivity.
  • Paper and pencil assessments have their place in the classroom, but it’s more vital to teach students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.  A child that can regurgitate facts will ace a trivia quiz, but they will struggle to apply that data to the real world. Promoting inquiry and project-based assessments better prepares students for the long term.
  • Pick the brains of your grade-level colleagues on how they are approaching similar material.  Work together to adapt lessons and improve on each other’s work.  Ask a teacher, friend or trusted parent to give feedback on your teaching materials, unit ideas, and methodology.
  • Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses.  Video tape yourself presenting lessons so you (or a third party) can critique it later.  In this age of iPads and smartphones it’s easy to do; there’s no excuse for not seeing yourself in action.  Ask the students themselves for feedback — you can create a simple survey using emoticons (smiley face, bored face, frowny face) about your delivery or the content of your instruction. Or simply ask open-ended questions, encouraging the kids to point out things that might have been confusing or times when you lost their interest.  Most children will be brutally honest when asked, which is what you want.

In every school there is a wealth of information. Learn from each other and find ways to improve and hone your teaching skills.

Here are a few sites to help get the learning juices flowing:

http://edtechreview.in/news/1037-7-tricks-to-improve-your-teaching-skills

http://www.teach-nology.com/tutorials/teaching/teachingskills.html

http://www.educationalleadership-digital.com/educationalleadership/201306/?pm=2&u1=friend&pg=41#pg41

 

A Rose Is a Rose…

To a young child the teacher is like a rose.  The first day of school is a special roseoccasion where the flower of learning is presented.  As the classroom leader turns his or her attention to the student, a relationship blooms.  Wisdom and guidance radiate from the teacher, and a sweet connection is formed with a willing mind.  At times, the teacher’s correction and discipline can be sharp like a thorn, but necessary to insure growth and maturity.  As the student moves on to a new classroom, the relationship wilts a bit, but the memory of the blooming rose lives on forever.