Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Students and Teachers: Worthy Investments

I recently read that one of the greatest determining factors of a student's success is the student's perception of whether or not the system believes he/she is a good investment.  What? I had never considered the idea that students might think that we - teachers, parents, administrators, even the general public - do not believe they are a worthy investment. Public education is an enormous machine.  Millions of dollars and thousands of hours are spent preparing curriculum and lessons for mastery of concepts.   How could these kids not know how much faith we have in them? How could they not see how hard we are working to help them prepare for success in life?

And then it hit me.  Of course they may question how much we believe in them.  For some time now, educators, parents, policy makers, and business leaders have been preoccupied with conversations surrounding standards, assessments, and evaluations.  Schools have been graded publicly, our own nation's failing scores have been emphasized, and the common denominator in all of this is, yes, the students themselves.  How often do we consider how the students are interpreting this debate?  Even a young child listening to his parents discuss the new assessments at the dinner table may receive a much different message than was intended.  When a parent opts out of the year-end assessments, what message might that send the child... We don't think you can pass these tests, so we don't want you to take them.  While a parent may have different reasons to remove the child from the testing experience, the child may come away thinking his parents did not believe he was ready for the challenge.

How do we let our students know how much we believe in them and their abilities?  Yes, new standards are challenging. Even though we know it is typical for test scores to dip the first few years after standards are raised, it can be discouraging to see those lower scores. It can be tempting to complain about unfairly published school grades and class test results that don't demonstrate an accurate picture of our students' life challenges. It is dangerously easy to feed the negative attitudes of many colleagues and parents.  We must, however, be sure to covey to our students a message of unwavering belief in their abilities.

As educators, in order to effectively communicate our confidence in our students' abilities, we must believe first in our own abilities.  Some 25 years years ago, I went to a job action protest at a park in downtown SLC. I was a second year teacher, and I have to admit I did not yet appreciate the concerns of the teachers who had assembled. I remember a teacher up on the stage with a guitar rallied the crowd while singing.  I can't remember the words to that song, but I will never forget what she said after her song: "I am a good teacher!" Her confidence inspired me.  I was so new at this, and I didn't know if I would ever be able to say that aloud.  That teacher, 1989 Utah Teacher of the Year Lily Eskelsen, moved on to inspire more educators as the UEA President. We appreciate her efforts now as our NEA President.
3 Utah STOYS: '14 Allison Riddle, '89 Lily Eskelsen, '09 Sharon Gallagher Fishbaugh
After 27 years in the classroom, I can now say the same, that no matter how the standards change, I know that I am a good teacher! I am a strong investment! My confidence in my understanding of best practices and my willingness to work hard are critical to each one of my student's self confidence and growth.  I also have support from colleagues, administrators, union leaders, and family.  In fact, my favorite two students - who were never in my own class - remind me every day of my teaching abilities. I believe in myself in part because my own two children, Charley and Abby, believe in me. As a parent I had no doubt of both of my kids' potential.  I taught them to work hard, and that I would work hard alongside them. Their determination and accomplishments now as adults inspire me.

We must communicate that message of tenacity and resiliency amidst change to our students and parents.  We do believe our students are a worthy investment, and we must let them know that our efforts each day are evidence of that belief.  No matter what the conversation among policy makers, educators, neighbors, or colleagues, we teach because we believe that each one of our students can learn and succeed.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

From Lift Off to Splash Down

Reflections from Space Camp

As a 5th grade teacher, outer space and principals of aeronautics are not part of the science curriculum I am responsible to teach.  So what could a week at Space Camp possible offer me? Wow. A better question would be, What did it not offer me?  My week in Huntsville, AL at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center has left me with greater insight into what my students often experience in the classroom and how important it is for me to focus more on non-cognitive skills.

What Did You Say? 

My group - Team Kibo - was made up of 12 teachers: 7 U.S. teachers and 5 international teachers from Bangladesh, Belgium, Germany, and Norway. Initially we struggled to communicate, partially because of accent barriers, and partially because we were somewhat timid.  Our conversations were polite, and we were slow to really get to know each other. During our first mission, however, we quickly learned that it would take a focused effort to communicate in order to complete our mission successfully.  

How often do we include activities in our lessons designed specifically to increase meaningful conversations between students? How can we teach students to ask questions about each other that will increase an appreciation of cultural differences? During my Space Camp missions, I very quickly learned to appreciate how awkward it must be for my students to complete group tasks with students they don't know very well.  Students whose background and language may seem different to them.

                        I Only do Two Shows a Week                            

During our missions, when we were given 'anomalies' to solve, things were tense.  We had to rely on each other to find the solution in our mission books, which was difficult for some of our 'aging eyes'.   I found myself whispering silly phrases into my headset such as "Talk to me, Goose," or "Ground Control to Major Tom," or the inevitable, "Houston, we have a problem."  The humor helped break the tension, and we were able to ask questions as to where we were in regards to the solution.

 Do we encourage students to use humor in problem solving situations? Do we use and model humor appropriately in the classroom? Do we partner up less social students purposely to create comfortable dialogue, giving them a safe place to reason aloud and critique the reasoning of others? Once I got to know every one of my team members better, I felt so much more comfortable pairing up with them and sharing my ideas in both our missions and lab activities. The experience reminded me just how awkward situations can be for our students, and how helpful humor can be to alleviate stress.

Believing in Every Student

During our lunar mission, just about everything that could go wrong did.  Our shuttle team could not find the solution for an anomaly, and the Space Camp people had to tell us what to do. I was a Mission Specialist with Cordelia, one of the German teachers, and she was very nervous about the mission.  At times we struggled to communicate with each other. When we suited up to go aboard the lunar base camp Aurora, my headset failed within 5 minutes.  It was extremely hot, and the low lighting made it hard to see what I was doing.  At one point I was thinking, "Really? This is a simulation... what am I doing here?" I was ready to quit, but Cordelia saved the day. She was a champ.  With her limited English, she communicated with Mission Control and was able to relay to me (both verbally and nonverbally) all that we needed to do to fix the staged problems and get back to the shuttle and out of our hot astronaut gear.
How often do we underestimate the abilities of our ELL students? Do we pair them up with strong students who do too much for them? I am convinced that we should frequently let them know that we believe in their abilities and put them in situations that encourage them to shine.  

 Even Smart People can be Kind

What a thrill to be invited to a traditional Southern dinner by the ladies of the Huntsville du Midi Social Club.  I was seated with Janice Allison and her husband, former NASA Rocket Scientist, Paul Allison.  I also sat by Bennie Jacks, another retired NASA rock star.  They were all so gracious to answer my questions and tell me all about their amazing careers with NASA.  I never felt like a small elementary school teacher. They were so charming and seemed equally interested in what I do each day at school.  How important it is for us to make connections with not just parents, but also with business owners and policy makers in our communities. We should never assume others in the community are unavailable or uninterested in what we do in public schools.  We must reach out to make the connections with them.

It's not about Tolerance... It's about Appreciating the Differences in Others

At Space Camp it's traditional to represent your state or territory with a costume.  How much fun it was to see what each person chose. I wanted to showcase Utah's amazing National Parks, so I dressed as a hiker under Delicate Arch. To be honest, I got a few smart aleck remarks such as, "Oh, I thought that was an intestine above your head,".  Nevertheless, I was proud to represent Arches NP, and it was so fun to learn something new about the history and culture of each state.
How do we encourage our students to appreciate the differences in each other rather than just tolerating what they don't understand?  Things can be tolerated: bad weather, a dog barking all night, burnt food.  But people... people should not be tolerated... we should appreciate what makes them different from us.  How often do we purposely open discussions in our classrooms about differences in culture, language and traditions that make people unique? What opportunities can we take to integrate cultural differences into our science and history curriculum?

Focus on Non-Cognitives

My experience at Space Camp was, for the most part, a precious chance for me to experience the role of student again... to remember what it's like to feel unsure of myself and uncomfortable in new situations.  It was also amazing to feel childlike and curious about the job of an astronaut or rocket scientist. I got to use my own creativity while working alongside eleven of the most wonderful people on the planet. 

 While I won't return to teach concepts of outer space, I will go back to my class with a renewed effort to focus on those non-cognitive skills that are so vital to success at school and in life. I am referring to skills like curiosity, resilience, work ethic, creativity, empathy, communication, and of course, TEAM WORK! Our students need us to provide the application of these skills every day in class. The work force demands these so called 'soft skills', but there is nothing soft or passive about them.  These skills are necessary for our students to successfully apply the content they learn in school to situations throughout their lives.

To my surprise, Team Kibo ended up winning an award for best Shuttle Mission! No matter the challenges, our team worked hard and succeeded.  I won't be quitting my day job, but I did enjoy my week as Allison Riddle, Astronaut in Training!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Line Up and GO!

One of my favorite ways to get my class lined up and ready to go is to use an echo.  There are lots of fun echoes teachers use, such as "One two three, eyes on me - One, two, eyes on you!"  I found a way to use echoes that promote a sense of team spirit.  I use the cheers of the four major universities in my state.  I have chosen to present them in backwards alphabetical order so that my alma mater is first!

Weber State University

Utah State University

University of Utah

Brigham Young University

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Joking Around with The President

May 1, 2014

Each day during our week in Washington D.C. was amazing, but this was the day we had most anticipated.   It was the day we would spend as guests at the White House, and it was the chance for each one of us to meet the President of the United States.  We were able to mill around the main floor for over an hour before the ceremony.  All of the STOY's walked in and out of the Dining Hall, the Red Room, the Green Room, and of course, the room we would eventually meet the President in, the Blue Room.

They had us line up as a group from tallest to shortest and practice walking into the East Room where the ceremony honoring the National Teacher of the Year would take place.  The atmosphere was light; we were all so excited and ready to finally get that handshake from President Obama.  I was just focusing on walking across the wooden floor of the East Room without slipping!

After we finished practicing we still had a while to take more photos and make sure the hair looked good.  Seriously, this part of the day was so much fun!  I wasn't nervous.  I was happy and felt blessed to have this amazing opportunity! Finally they lined us up again, and we began the long wait as each one of us got our chance to meet the President in the Blue Room.  
While I was in line, I peeked ahead and could see glimpses of the President reaching out to shake each teacher's hand.  It reminded me of seeing skits on Saturday Night Live where someone plays the President.  But this was really him!  That's when I started to get a little nervous.

As I reached the Blue Room, two Marines stood at the doorway.  One of them asked if we were excited.  (Duh!)  A young Marine came and took the card in my hand that had Utah and my name printed on it.  He told me specifics of what to do when it was my turn. 

Finally, I saw the two flashes from Jane's (WI) photo, and I walked forward.  The Marine said, "From Utah, Allison Riddle."   The President turned to me, put out his hand, and said, "Hi Allison, what grade do you teach?"  "It's an honor to meet you, Mr. President," I said, "I teach 5th grade."  He spoke to me for a quick minute about how 5th graders must be easier than 7th or 8th graders, and then we posed for the photo.

At that point, my visit would have ended, but I thought to myself, Why not?  I'm never going to be invited back! It's obvious my state didn't give him any electoral votes, so I decided to have some fun with him.  Ya him, the leader of the free world.

I turned to the President, looked at him directly and smiled. He looked at me very seriously.  I said, "Mr. President, I bring you greetings - from me,(I put my hand to my chest), and the 12 other democrats in my state!" 

At that point the President laughed so loudly that I got scared.  What if the secret service or one of these Marines hauls me off for making him laugh so hard?  He grabbed my hand while he was laughing and shook it - hard - about three times.  

The President stopped, leaned in close to my face, and said very sarcastically, "I think there's 20!"

We both laughed and I said, "Thank you, Mr. President."  I turned and left the room. As another Marine announced my name and I walked very carefully into the East Room, I was busting with joy.  I had shared a moment of humor with the President of the United States! Me! Little old Utah! The state I'm sure he rarely thinks of!  

After each teacher had finally been announced and walked up to the stage, President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Sean McComb, National Teacher of the Year, entered and joined us on stage. The ceremony was just as exciting, in part because I was standing on the EDGE of the riser, and I was anxious about falling off the edge in my high heels!! It was surreal and humbling to stand behind the President as he spoke to the guests and media assembled there about the value of teachers in our country. Our new National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb, gave an inspiring speech, and I was so proud to stand and represent Utah's teachers with him and the 52 other incredible teachers by me. I was also so happy that my son Charley was there to be a part of this moment! This was truly a day I will never forget!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Perfecting Procedures

Moving students to a new activity can create challenges.  Whether I need to transition to a new lesson or take my class to another part of the building, the procedure needs to be clean, or precious instructional time is wasted.  

No matter how well a teacher describes what a transition should look like, many students still don't share the same vision. To help with this problem, I designed a poster that illustrates what each procedure should look like. The procedure is shown on the poster using a rubric of performance from a 1 (poor) to a 3 (excellent).

As the students get ready for the procedure, I hold up my hand indicating where they are in their performance (1,2, or 3). They know we don't move on until they reach a 3.

These posters are displayed in my room in places that will remind the students of what is expected during that procedure.  I make these posters every year with each new class, and the students LOVE being the stars in each poster.  

I use music or another signal to begin these transitions.  It's exciting to watch each class work as a team while running the procedures. Periodically during the year I may find the class getting 'relaxed' with the procedures, and that's the best time to review them. Procedures are like any skill taught at school; they should be reviewed and practiced when needed. When procedures run smoothly, I have more instructional time, and more learning takes place.

I am a huge fan of cooperative learning, and I use Kagan strategies daily in my instructional planning.  I find that students who are used to working in groups, sharing responsibilities, and listening to others are better able to complete tasks and run through daily procedures with less problems.

Individual procedures such as lunch count can take away precious moments from instructional time as well.  By using a chart like this one, the students each mark their own lunch count as they arrive that morning. I am able to quickly see who is absent and figure the lunch count without asking questions to the whole class.  The students are working, the procedure is done, and we are on our way to something great that day!

These are just a few of the ideas I have for running procedures.  Next up - line up 'cheers'! 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Finding the Best Strategies for Herding Cats

Classroom management can be one of the most challenging parts of teaching.  I have found it's all about the expectations I set and how consistent I am with those expectations.  For me, classroom management isn't just a lesson you teach once in a while.  It's a set of strategies you 'pepper in' while teaching every lesson during the day.  I am often asked to share some of the strategies I have developed over the years.  I am a huge fan of Rick Smith, author of Conscious Classroom Management, and Harry Wong, author of The First Days of School.  Many of my ideas were inspired by these two great educators.   My next few blogs will cover some of the strategies I use in my class that help me so I don't feel like I'm herding cats all day.

Music Transitions

I enjoy using music as a signal for procedures.  These kids have heard my voice all day, and I am sure it ends up sounding a lot like the teacher on the Peanuts cartoon.  Rather than telling my students what to do repeatedly, I use music to signal transitions.  This takes some time at the beginning of the year to teach, but once the procedure is practiced and mastered, the results are amazing.  Transitions are smooth, quick, and calm.

Here are a few of the procedures I use music for:
  • Morning starters 
  • Quick writes in journals
  • To begin or end a group or partner activity
  • Class clean up
  • Rotating tables or centers
  • Lining up for lunch
  • Leaving for a break such as recess
  • End of the day reflections

The music I choose has to have clean lyrics, obviously, so I use a lot of oldies.  Classical is also a must, along with any other instrumental music that fits the intensity of the activity.  I'm a big fan of classical guitar.  A clean up song is going to have a strong beat, while a journal writing song is going to be more soft and reflective.  Any song involving movement needs a beat, but also a message that's positive and in control.

The playlist on my iPod is long, but here are a few of my favorites:
  • The Hustle (my favorite clean up song)
  • Listen to the Music
  • Help!
  • Like to Get to Know You Well
  • We are Family
  • Respect
  • Takin' Care of Business
  • Sweet Home Alabama
  • ABC
  • Celebration
  • That's The Way I like It

The list goes on, but those are just a few of my favorites.  For me, transitions go well with music.  Next blog... visual signals for transitions.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

2014 Utah Teacher of the Year

This blog is my chance to express my passion for teaching and learning.  I love to teach, but I'm the first to admit it - teaching can be tough.  There are so many elements that make up the science of instructional practice, and it can be difficult to put the elements together in the right combination. Some days are smooth, the energy is amazing, and I feel incredible.  Other days are more frustrating, the elements are off, and the results I wanted are out of reach. Those days teaching can seem like a riddle that can't be solved.                                            

As I embark on the journey of representing the teachers in my state, I want to begin sharing some of the ways I have solved the riddle.  I have seen so many amazing changes in education in my 26 years in the classroom. Innovations in technology, printing, school architecture, even basic classroom equipment have all helped make teaching easier. All of that is worth nothing, of course, without a great teacher in the classroom.  Here's to the joy of a day spent working hard and having fun in the greatest profession in the world!