Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Teaching the Art of Listening in Today's Classroom

"Click, Click, Click, Click" goes the thumbs of my fellow graduate students, as I present my class research assignment on “diversity in the classroom” one chilly January evening.
My eyes open and alert, I glance around the classroom, and to my amazement all I see are the tops of their heads. "Wow!" I think to myself, "I guess this will be a tough crowd! How can I compete over a smart phone?" I continue my presentation walking through the aisles, throwing out questions to the audience, but only a few take the bait. Finally, I finish, take my seat, happy that it is over, but also a little frustrated. "Why did the Professor allow the other students to text during the presentations?"
Today, many people, adults and students find it difficult to sit through a presentation. The desire to constantly multitask whether it be to make out a grocery list, text a friend, or play a game on their smart phones draws them in like Pooh Bear to that last bit of honey. Despite the desire, many listeners don't realize the damaging message that they are sending to the presenters.

Furthermore, it seems that this problem has broadened into the realm of the corporate workplace. An article printed by The New York Times entitled, “Mind Your Blackberry or Mind Your Manners,” states, “It is customary now for professionals to lay BlackBerrys or iPhones on a conference table before a meeting — like gunfighters placing their Colt revolvers on the card tables in a saloon. It’s a not-so-subtle way of signaling ‘I’m connected. I’m busy. I’m important. And if this meeting doesn’t hold my interest, I’ve got 10 other things I can do instead.’ ”

With these struggles going on within the walls of college campuses as well as the corporate boardrooms of America, how can we, as teachers seeking excellence, translate the importance of quality listening skills to the classroom?
To be sure, we must first look to the standards.  The common core standards require that all students be required to present and listen effectively within the classroom.  Many times, the focus within the classroom tends to lean toward the speaking component; requiring students to get up in front of an audience and be graded on their ability to present well. However, with so much attention applied to the speaker, it can be easy to overlook what it means to be an effective listener. The common core addresses this by stating, “All students should prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.” Therefore, the listening standards must be met.
Additionally, to meet these standards, teachers must incorporate the listening standards into the lesson plans daily. This can be accomplished through a number of ways, and there are numerous resources to help in accomplishing this goal. One great resource is the Teaching Channel. Recently, one particular video caught my eye that would be great in any classroom.
Teaching Channel
This video demonstrates the proper use of the Socratic seminar, but also emphasizes the need to create a safe culture where students feel free to share their thoughts, which is important for successful speaking and listening. According to the article, “10 Tips to Effective and Active Listening Skills," written by Susie Cortright, “Active listening is really an extension of the Golden Rule. To know how to listen to someone else, think about how you would want to be listened to.” 
Finally, as teachers seeking excellence, we must model effective listening skills ourselves every day in and outside of the classroom. Within the classroom, we should be in the habit of listening to our students as best we can. They need to feel that what they say has value.  Of course, this must be done appropriately, but it is important that students feel that their opinions count. Furthermore, what we do outside the classroom matters, too. Students are always watching us, and we must set the example by listening and collaborating with our colleagues respectfully, staying off our phones during meetings unless necessary to the agenda, and always keeping the golden rule of listening in mind, “always listen to others the way you would want to be listened to.”

 Other resources used for this blog post include:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

First Year Teachers: Beware of "Just Winging It"

"I read a lot of non-fiction, especially parenting books. John Rosemund and Dr. James Dobson are my favorites, " I stated enthusiastically to a colleague and fellow parent one sunny afternoon.

"Oh, really, that's cool. Well, I just prefer to wing it," he retorted quickly. "Hmmmm," I thought, "Ok, that might work, but is it really the best strategy to parenting?"

As a mother, I never believed that I was an expert. From day one, I devoured parenting book after parenting book, such as Dare to Discipline by James Dobson or The Six Point Plan for Raising Healthy Happy Children by John Rosemund. I diligently followed Your Baby's First Year by The American Academy of Pediatrics for each one of my children. I was devastated to find out that the AAP did not publish a book for year two. I thought, "Wait, what do I feed this child? Help!"

Yes, winging it, was never my thing, and I believe as parents, we need guidance. Parents, alone, do not have all the answers.

As a first year teacher, it feels like I am a first time parent all over again. If I decide to take the "I'll just wing it" philosophy, I may be putting myself and my students in grave danger of being unprepared. Why? Because this philosophy makes the claim that I don't need to learn from anyone else. I'm good enough on my own.

Well, how do we as educators keep from subscribing to this "playing it cool" philosophy?

First, as teachers seeking excellence, we must realize that the education and training attained in college programs are just the beginning, but they are in no way the end. All teachers, young and old, should continually delve into various educational texts, always with the mission that their own education is not sealed in a vacuum. Furthermore, we cannot blame our teacher education programs for whether we succeed or don't succeed in the classroom. We must be accountable for our own growth, and be willing to accept ideas and criticisms from more experienced educators.

According to the NCATE: The Standard of Excellence in Teacher Preparation, "Studies on unprepared and underprepared teachers versus fully prepared teachers consistently show that the students of teachers who are prepared show stronger learning gains." It further states, "What makes a teacher effective? Research indicates that teacher preparation/knowledge of teaching and learning, subject matter knowledge, experience, and the combined set of qualifications measured by teacher licensure are all leading factors in teacher effectiveness." Therefore, teachers should be growing all the time, working to stay accountable for their own education, lesson preparedness, and experiences in the classroom.

Secondly, as teachers, we must continue to keep expectations high for ourselves and our students. Over the last few weeks, with the CRCT approaching, I have been pushing my students harder. Rigorous classwork and nightly homework are the norm. Do I hear whines and moans? You bet! Every single day, but my response to the complainers are, "Boys and girls, are we going to keep our expectations low?" I say this while gesturing my hand low to the floor, and continue by saying, "Or, are we going to keep our expectations high-all the way to the sky!" Sometimes I will have them gesture their hands to the floor, and we will say it together. Students need to internalize how their moans and groans effect the classroom environment and their overall attitude toward achievement. As their teacher, I must set high expectations for every student, and believe that each and every one is capable of complex work. The article, "The Stigma of Low Expectations" by Peter Dewitt states, "We underestimate students when they come to us with skills and experiences that differ from the ones we expected and we conclude they're incapable of complex work". As a teacher seeking excellence, I want all my students to know that I believe they are capable of high achievement.

In closing, as a first year teacher, I will continue to research and learn new teaching strategies and content, collaborate with experienced educators and seek their advice, keep the expectations high for myself and my students every day in the classroom. And understand, that the "Just Winging It" philosophy will never create a teacher of excellence.

Warning: Too Much "Winging It" May Lead to This....                                                 

Excellence Comes From Being.....

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Links to articles used in this blog:                                                                                                                                                                         

Saturday, March 16, 2013

First Year Teacher: Bringing Your Best Every Day


As a new teacher, the first year is somewhat of a mystery. I plan my lessons, and work hard to implement them, but the flow of the year, and how I personally feel everyday in the classroom can be hard to predict.

Right now, as CRCT season approaches, and my students have serious spring fever, I am beginning to feel a little drained. Some of it is from worry, and not knowing if I will prepare my students adequately for the CRCT, and some of it is from the daily routine of getting up early, seeing my kids off to school, chores at home, and the list goes on. Ok. Ok. Enough whining! This weeks reflection brings to light my most important goal as a classroom teacher: Always Bring My Best Self to the Classroom.

First, as a teacher I never want my personal feelings to enter the classroom. My students should never see me have a bad day. My goal is to greet them every morning with a smile on my face, while also projecting security and calm. I want my students to feel safe knowing that I am here to support them. We all have problems, my students included. They stroll in with frowns on their faces, moaning about wanting to go back to bed. Some days, I want to say, "Well, yeah, join the club!" But, instead, I say, "Boys and girls, today is a beautiful day, and I am so happy to see each and everyone of you. I know that you are going to do great things today. So, let's sit up straight and tall, put a smile on our faces, and set our sights high. Who's with me this morning?"

That usually does the trick. A few students still look at me with smirks, but I know deep down they are happy, and ready to begin their day.

Secondly, to ensure that I always bring my best self everyday, I look to other educators for inspiration. A few months ago, my principal afforded me the opportunity to visit the Ron Clark Academy. I enjoyed every moment of it, and Mr. Clark is truly an educator that inspires me. What stands out to me the most about him is his enthusiasm for classroom teaching. He states in his book, The Excellent 11: Qualities Teachers and Parents Use to Motivate, Inspire and Educate Children, "Children are impressionable, and when they look to adults for guidance, we must inspire, and motivate them to want to learn, to have a desire to achieve, and to want to be the best person they can be." He has kept his motivation and enthusiasm for teaching going year after year. That is awesome, and motivates me to be my best, too.

Finally, movies can also be inspiring. I had the opportunity to watch the movie, October Sky, recently. What a wonderful film for motivating teachers! Miss Riley, a young teacher in a poor coal mining town, motivated a young student to dream big, and not give up. She found books for him to read about Science, and gave him the inspiration he needed to achieve his dreams.

Check out this clip below from the movie, October Sky!

So, as I finish my year, this reflection stands as a testimony, that I will continue to bring my best self everyday. I will finish strong!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Teachers: Step Out of the Comfort Zone

"What? You play the flute. Oh, wow, so do I!"

This was the beginning of a conversation that I had with a fellow special needs teacher at my school recently. At the time I did not realize it would evolve into a special opportunity to bond with other students at my school and in my classroom.

The other teacher invited me to play in her room for a few minutes in the morning before school when I could. At first, I wasn't sure because I knew that would mean spending a few minutes more in the afternoon making certain I was ready for my students. However, after she purchased me a flute duet book, I just couldn't say no, and honestly, I didn't want to. Playing the flute is a part of who I am, and when I play, especially with someone else, I feel whole and more at peace.

We played together for about ten minutes for a few mornings. I also practiced at home, so I was getting back into to shape pretty quickly. Then, my fellow teacher dropped a bomb on me.

"You want me to what?" I asked her, as my mouth dropped open.

"Let's play for the kids in the cafeteria in the morning, C'mon, it'll be fun!"

 Just then I realized, we were taking this duet thing to an entirely new level. As a first year teacher, I was panicked. Thoughts were racing through my head like, "What will my students think of me? Will they pay attention to me after seeing me play? Will I be a joke to them?" Beginning teachers work so hard to learn all of the tricks and maneuvers of maintaining classroom behavior, I worried that this one thing might hurt what I'd already built.

But, then my heart said, "Do it, Laura! Go big or go home. Show those kids that it's good to put yourself out there." So, I agreed and we played the following morning.

Well, the next morning, I woke up at 4:30, my palms sweaty. I am going to play today! I was excited and nervous. I hurried with my morning duties and by the time I got to school, the other teacher had our stand and chairs set up. "O.K., here we go."

I sat down with her, and I could hear a few students whispering, "Mrs. Farmer...Mrs. Farmer...she's going to play!" Well, my flute partner and I played about four duets, and luckily we sounded good, and for the most part the kids just continued with their breakfast, not paying us too much attention. I was thankful, and quickly and quietly went back to my classroom.

Well, I must say that I did not expect the reaction that I received at lockers that morning. "Mrs. Farmer, you play the flute? So, do I!" Many young band students came to me so excited that I played an instrument too. I was thrilled that they were thrilled, but I still wasn't expecting what would come next.

That afternoon after connections, a herd of students stormed into my room. "Mrs. Farmer! Mrs. Farmer! We spoke with our band director, and can you PLEASE come play with us tomorrow? Please! Please!"

Oh my, I had not expected this reaction. "Yes," I told them enthusiastically, "I would be honored to play with you tomorrow."

The next day, I strolled into the band room at the appointed time. I winked at several of my students, but not wanting to disturb the lesson I sat down quickly. The flute section had saved me a seat. I guess I would have been considered fifth chair. The band teacher gave me a set of music. I was thinking, "Oh my goodness...I'm totally on their level. It's like I'm a student, too." At first, honestly, it felt a little weird. But, I decided to show these little flute girls, several who were my own students, what being a fabulous flute player was all about. So, I sat up tall. I fingered the notes, while the band teacher worked with other students. I studied the music, making notes when needed. I showed the band teacher absolute respect and attention as she guided us through the music. The kids watched my every move, and followed along. I ended up staying the entire class period.

Many of these students came into my afternoon class, beaming great smiles. They didn't say a word, like they didn't know what to say. And, really, I didn't know what to say either. So, we didn't say anything. We just began the lesson, and carried on as usual.

The lesson that I took from this experience is that as new teachers we can show a bit of ourselves to our students, and find different ways to connect with them. We don't have to be afraid to play along side of them, as I did that day in the band room. There does come a time, when we, as first year teachers, realize that no matter what, we are the teacher. And, by making ourselves a bit uncomfortable, we might just grow a little, too.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Middle Grades Students: Building Character

Relationships can be difficult, especially in the classroom. As a new teacher, I am often trying to paddle my way through the sea of emotions that are felt by middle grades children. Girls, especially, can be difficult at times. And rightfully so. They struggle every day with various hormonal changes that were not apparent just a few months previously.

I feel that middle grades teachers have a deeper calling in some ways, because they have to be understanding of those changes, and work with them, not against them. This does not mean that these brooding young girls get there way. It only means that as teachers we must continue to treat them as individuals, and respect the changes that are apparently developing.

Yesterday, I tackled this problem head on when one young girl became increasingly sassy with me. I will tell this story, but I have changed the student's name.

 The students and I were all in the computer lab, watching and listening to a presentation by another student. I quietly asked "Kimberly" to come closer so that she could support her fellow student, and be a good listener. She responded with a quick argument stating that she had already seen the presentation before, and that she was not interested. I quickly retorted back that it didn't matter to me whether she had or not, she better scoot up and look interested. Again, she got sassy with me. I began to argue back with her, and I stopped. She did scoot forward, but began mumbling under her breathe. I quickly gave her a disapproving look, and then dropped it for the moment. I was fuming inside, but I tried not to let it show.

After everyone had presented their presentations, I had all the students stand around me. With a firm and commanding tone, I offered a quick lesson on what it means to be a good listener, and be supportive of others. I reminded them of the fact that I always work to respect and value them as individuals by listening and helping them in any way that I can. As a result, I expect the same from them, and for them to show that to their classmates. Now, I will tell you, I did not say this in a "pre-school" teacher voice. No, I laid into them, not wavering for a moment.

The following day this same young lady, "Kimberly" came into my classroom and brought me this note:

I understand sometimes I may be bad;
and I'm sorry if you ever got mad,
I don't mean to talk back;
Sometimes I just get off track.

What I'm trying to say is I'm not the greatest kid ever,
And that you may see me as clever,
but underneath it all; I'm really really small.

Sometimes I'm left alone in the dark,
And it really hurts me so,
Like a child being left in the park,
And sometimes I don't really know.

Please forgive me for what I said,
You are no longer blue but instead red,
I'll try and be more prominent to you,
and be more respectful, too!

(P.S. I did poetry because you said you like poetry)

Oh! Those sweet moments that make teaching so rewarding! I was stunned that she took the time to write me a poem. That is why I love middle grades so much. As teachers, we get those opportunities to really change and mold young adolescents by demonstrating what it truly means to be the best person we can be to ourselves and others.

I will end with this quote because I think as teachers we must remember that our students are not our enemies. Yes, we have to be firm and disciplined with them, but always through our desire to see them succeed and become better people.

Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.