You Make the Rules

Kline, Patrick. img_0204.jpg. August 26, 2014. Pics4Learning. 5 Apr 2015

Kline, Patrick. img_0204.jpg. August 26, 2014. Pics4Learning. 5 Apr 2015 <http://pics.tech4learning.com>

There are lots of fancy-schmancy documents that guide what educators do each day and each year.  It starts with federal guidelines for using federal monies, heads down to state mandates, and gets to the nitty gritty when it comes to board policy, local association agreements and contracts, and evaluations.

This year, it seems, more than ever, so many Ohio educators have spent their calories discussing arguing many of these documents.  I won’t open that political battle in this post, so I’ll steer clear of specifics.

But what if you had the chance to make the rules?

What if you could write your own contract with your board?  What would you include?  What would you commit to them?  What would you request of your boss?

What if you could write your own evaluation template?  What do you want your evaluator to look for?

Rocking Your Evaluation in One Easy Step

IMG_4449As we wrap up our second full year of implementation of the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, or OTES, I’m still struggling to determine the overall effectiveness of the typing-intensive, conversation-weak approach to teacher evaluation.  One challenge I’ve faced has simply been the organization of pre-conferences, observations, and post-conferences.  Email and shared calendars have helped this, but putting together an observation schedule for each of the 28 OTES’d teachers can be challenging.

Unfortunately, still overshadowing many of these observations for some teachers is this negative cloud of doom! When they received my memo indicating I’d like to begin scheduling their observation, they seem to interpret it as, “Your teaching career has been sentenced to death unless you completely fret about this observation for days and lose tons of sleep and focus putting together The Perfect Lesson.”  Regardless of how much I try to convince this handful of teachers that I’m still completely here to support them and am looking forward to seeing the great things going on in their rooms, all I hear about from them is how stressed they are about their observation and how much they can’t wait until it’s over.

Then there’s the other type.

Earlier this year, in an email exchange of potential observation dates and times that followed my observation memo, one teacher replied with two simple sentences that completely set the tone for her observation (and reflected her feelings toward the evaluation):

“It’s on my calendar! Prepare to be amazed!”

Boom!  With those two sentences, the tone, the bar, and the challenge had been set.  She was ready to rock her evaluation!

How do you face your evaluation?  What does your attitude say about you?

For the love!

A few months ago, in the depth of Christmas Music Season, my wife and I were having a conversation about our favorite Christmas songs. I shared that most of my favorites are specific renditions of certain Christmas songs. Of course, like you, I always tear up reminiscing about Carol Brady singing “Oh Holy Night” at the end of the Very Brady Christmas Special. But there are others on the list, too.

A couple years ago, I stumbled on a new favorite. Take a second and watch Canadian musician Sean Quigley:

So what is it about watching this video that I like so much? What is it in this video that warms my heart and shines a Linus-like spirit into My Christmas each year? It’s his joy! What a beacon of happiness! Does this guy look like he loves what he’s doing, loves his life, and is adoring each breath exhales! And by watching him shine his happiness, I’m drawn to this rendition each each. Now hold that thought.

Part of my role in the enrollment process for new students at our school involves selecting a home room and a teacher for the new students. It’s funny to me how different teachers respond differently to this news. I remember one time reviewing the file of three new incoming family members.  As I looked at current class lists and determined these students’ new homeroom teachers, I planned my trip through the elementary wing to explain to their new teachers that they would be receiving a new kiddo the next morning.  I won’t go into the details of how the first two teachers went, but I’ll just say it was the typical reaction.

What I want to focus on is teacher #3.  The conversation unfolded something like this:

Me:  “Mrs. So and So, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to let you know you’ll have a new young lady joining your class tomorrow.  I wanted to tell you before the end of the day so you could let your class know they will have a new friend in the morning.”

This is where I brace for the “I just put up a new bulletin board with my kids’ names on it!  Now I’ll have to add another one!” or “Well, I’ll need another desk in here!”

Teacher: “Great!!  That’s exciting!  Can you tell me anything about her?  Hey guy – we’re getting a new student  tomorrow morning!”

Wait.  What?!  I was thrown by how enthusiastic she was about getting the student!  Here is a teacher who already has a tough load and plenty of challenges in her personal and professional life…yet she’s completely excited to have the chance to get to know a new student!  

THAT’S who I want teaching my girls.  THAT’S who I want impacting change in our building.  THAT’S someone who exhibits the same passion, enthusiasm, and straight-up JOY that we want leading our students through academic experiences!  

Like the drummer, Sean Quigley, her love for what she does shines to those around her!  What do people say when they talk about your lasting impact?

Choose Your Management System Carefully

Over breakfast this morning, my Flipboard journey helped me stumble upon Pernille Ripp’s (@pernilleripp) great post on giving up “traditional” classroom discipline systems.  It appears, we share similar views on leaving behind regularly implemented management systems for something more effective for our teaching styles.

For the first four years of my teaching career (sixth and seventh grade kiddos!), I was, for the most part, in situations where I had the freedom to do my own gig.  My “system” was simple:

Follow these four rules:

  1. Respect Yourself
  2. Respect Others
  3. Respect the Teachers
  4. Respect the School

We spent the first few weeks of school revisiting these guidelines regularly and constantly discussed what it meant to “respect” each of these groups.  When problems did arise, I always tried to bring it back to its respective rule.  Not gonna lie – it worked pretty well.  I had the occasional infraction that required a little more itnervention, but I loved that the rules weren’t beat into kids and they had some ownership of defining what each “rule” meant to them and their class period.  If I remember correctly, I think I eventually got rid of #3 and “covered it” in #2.

Then I moved to Elementary Land.

As I met with my new departmentalized team, we discussed what we wanted our team’s manamgment system to be.  Our building, unofficially, seemed to all use “card” systems.  We purchased overpriced mobile pocket charts, printed labels for each block, and filled them with a rainbow of slick, laminated color cards.

I have three gripes with this system.

First, it was a system – a heck of a system.  It had to be explained and maintained.  It had to be transported and documented and reset and noisily picked up in the hallway by twelve helpful kids when Steven or Alex or Mackenzie would accidently carry it upside-down!  The last thing I needed was something else to take time away from…you know…learning.

Second, the way we implemented it, once your card was “turned” (Did lightening flash and thunder just boom outside your window, too?!), it was turned for the day.  That means, because Rachel made a poor choice in the gym twenty minutes before the first bell even rang, her card was turned for the day.  At 1:55, when she walked back in the room from Specials, ready and enthusiastic to have a positive learning experience, there was that reminder up on the wall for everyone to see: Alert!  Alert!  Rachel is having a bad day!

Finally, I don’t like the message on respect that it sends.  If Eddie is sitting at his desk and looks up to see that he is “still” on green, what message does that send?  I contend that it says, “Eddie…you haven’t messed up…yet.  But when you do, there’s a yellow, red, and blue card just waiting to make an appearance for you!”  How about we trust and respect kids (or in the least, let them think we do) that they won’t “mess up”?

The first year I used this clearly defined and organized system, I had the the most discipline problems I’ve ever had.

Now, I’m sure there is lots of statistical research out there that supports the value for this type of system.  And, I’m sure it totally works for some educators and can be used to run very managed learning environments well.  What I’m saying is that it didn’t work for me.  Maybe I wasn’t implementing it correctly.  Maybe I needed more professional development on it.  Or maybe I needed a system that was more aligned to how I taught.

What happens when we spend more time preparing and implementing engaging lessons than on managing management?

Long story, short (thanks for sticking with me up till this point!), the next year I reverted back to modified version of my original management plan.  I asked the kiddos to respect three stakeholders, we revisited what that means, we practiced, we discussed, and most importantly, instead of managing and documenting complex systems, we were engaged and we learned.

I began to walk through some of the classrooms of my new building this week, exploring the walls and bulliten boards and yes, management systems.  I’m really excited to watch the school year unfold and see how teachers use some of these very creative-looking systems!

I’m not at all saying my system will work for everyone.  I’m also not at all saying the card systems don’t work.  I’m saying that as we are all preparing for the upcoming school year, choose your managment system carefully.  Make sure it reflects your beliefs about management, learning, and kids…and not necesarily in that order!
 

 

Vandalism in the Classroom

There are countless things that fifth graders do that make me smile.  Sometimes it’s even part of a lesson!

Every now and then, as I’m scanning the classroom, I notice a few too many glazed-over eyes looking back at me.  It’s time to whip something special out of ol’ toolbox.

Raising the volume a little and probably jumping onto a chair or bookshelf, I exclaim in my best adventurous voice, “Now, reach deep into your pocket [as I act out that my pocket might be four miles deep] and pull out…your imaginary pencil!”  Suddenly heads snap off of elbows and grins appear on faces.  Without hesitation, they all reach deep for their own pencil.

“Now, on your giant imaginary paper in the sky [I’m near-yelling at this point], please write your answer to this question:  What type of figurative language is, ‘The light is as bright as the sun!'”  On cue, 23 kiddos start making giant letters in the air holding their imaginary pencils with perfect, yet imaginary, grip and precision.  Each letter is narrated in unison: “S-I-M-I-L-E.”  Next, comes the predictable student who exclaims, “Ah, mine broke!” and runs to the pencil sharpener.  Everyone gets in a good laugh.

Then we take it up a level.

“Now, everyone take out your imaginary…paintbrush!”  Again, they reach deep for both their imaginations and and their paintbrushes.  We spend the next few minutes painting our imaginary canvases with answers to figurative language questions – forcing both an understanding of types of figurative language and correct spellings of relevant vocabulary.

Then we take it up a level.

Credit: HiResSquad @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/hiressquad/

“And now…[At this point, I’m definitely atop a bookshelf and crouched down for effect]…reach deeeeeep in your pocket…and pull out…[they’re about as fixated on my next words as you hopefully are!]…YOUR IMAGINARY….SPRAY PAINT!”

Cheers erupt and figurative language vandalism ensues.  I usually end up getting chased around the classroom by Landon as he attacks me silly string-style with his imaginary spray paint cans.  When it gets too loud or it’s time to wrap it up, I just drop to the ground while clutching my face.  As they get quiet and gather around, I sob, “Alright, that got out of hand.  I got paint in my eye!”

“Aw, Mr. Malany!” they yell and return to their seats.

Bad Words

Most years, during the First-Week-Here’s-How-I-Roll speeches, I write a list of words on the board.  It’s the Mr. Malany Bad Word List.  It goes without saying that certain four-letter words are banned in my classroom, but this list spells out a few additional naughty vocabulary words.  They include your “retards”, “shut ups”, “gays”, “sucks”, “screws”, “butts”, etc.  Basically, the you-shouldn’t-say-them-in-front-of-your-mother list.  I let them get their chuckle in, then from that point forward, we don’t hear them.  Every now and then a student may need a friendly reminder, and occasionally a deeper “here’s why” conversation, but for the most part, those words don’t enter my classroom.

This year I want to add to the list.  I’m not going to write these words on the board though…I just don’t want the kids to know them.  They’re teacher words.  I paid lots of money to go to college.  In fact, I spent a lot of time doing it.  And I worked hard doing it.  And I like to think that there are a few things I got out of college that I wouldn’t know otherwise:  teacher words.

In education, we seem to throw around buzz words to/at/in front of/near/around/toward students.  The more buzz words we throw, the better teachers we are, right?  And surely, the more syllables in the buzz words…well…we just have the ammo to put John Keating to shame!

Hogwash!

So here is my list of words that originated as “teacher-only” words…and..in my opinion, need to return there:

1.  objective

2.  assessment

3.  formative

4.  summative

5.  intervention

6.  differentiated instruction

7.  indicator

8.  standard

9.  benchmark

10.  learning target

11.  critical thinking

12.  divergent

13.  classroom management

14.  graphic organizer

15.  21st Century __________

16.  integrated

17.  data analysis

18.  scaffolding

19.  supplemental

Don’t get me wrong!  I’ll DO these things.  Oh, I’ll do these things constantly!  But can’t ten-year old kids DO without knowing they’re DOING something?  I know, I know…kids need to know learning targets so they have clear objectives to accomplish during a lesson…blah, blah blah.  I call that teaching.  Integrate it.  (Oooh look – a buzz word!)  Integrate it deeply into a conversation or a self-directed activity or a discovery lesson or a technology experience.

I don’t care how you use your fancy buzz words.  Just integrate them.  And don’t tell the kids you’re doing it!

 

 

So Long, Farewell!

This summer, as I did the What-To-Chuck Walk around my classroom, my eyes kept returning to an entire bookshelf filled with giant Merriam-Webster Dictionaries.

We’re not talking five or six of them.  We’re talking an entire class set.  The collection was one of those inherited things that another teacher offered to me, and I was too much of a naive, young, greedy teacher to turn them down.  They were still in near-perfect condition, each with a $22.99 sticker stuck to the front cover.

Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/60437

Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/60437

So I began the analysis: Do my students use them? Was in because of accessibility issues?  Could I put them anywhere else?  What else could I put there?  Would something else on that shelf serve the students better?

Then I remembered one of my students from the last school year: Ellie.  I think it was during our work on books for the Young Authors’ Conference.  I remember her words and actions specifically.  She was working at her table, located near the wall of computers in my room.  She must have still been drafting or editing.  Nearby, students were typing their drafts on GoogleDocs, preparing to copy and paste into StoryJumper for publication.

Ellie came across a difficult word to spell.  She asked her neighbors, to no avail.  Then she flipped on her lightbulb and exclaimed aloud, “Let’s look it up on GoogleDocs!”  Within seconds she was leaning over a friend’s keyboard, typing her best guess and waiting for for “The Red Squiggly Line.”  With a flash of the line and a quick right click, she had her correct spelling and was back to writing.

Meanwhile, four pieces of dust fell atop the dictionaries on the bookshelf.

So during that reflection, I had my answer.  I loaded up the dictionaries on a chair with wheels and scooted my way to the storage book room.  It was tough to stack perfectly good dictionaries (and their price tags!) on a dark shelf in the corner of the book room, knowing well that they would remain their until the end of time.  But alas, it is a different time.  Ellie, and all of my students, have coping mechanisms to assist them.  [Rest assure, I’m about to right-click on my spelling of “mechanisims” instead of heading to my bookshelf for a dictionary.]

Thanks for leading the way, Ellie!

Think, boys. Think!

Remember that line from “The Music Man“?

And remember the dark day when I yelled at my students for being too creative?

It came back to bite me.

After state testing finishes, all teachers, regardless of if we should or not, feel a weight off their shoulders.  Some teachers even remark, “Now I can start teaching!”

During the fifth grade intervention time, my awesome team of coworkers decided to spend the last few fragmented (assemblies, field trips, traditions…oh my!) weeks of school doing book groups.  We left the structure open – allowing each of us to choose a novel and a group of students based on our hearts – not data.  Gasp.

I had a group of hybrid ability-levels and interests.  I chose Jerry Spinelli’s, “Maniac Magee.”  If you’re not familiar with the story, it involves a runaway boy who deals with death, racial tension, and family.  It’s a great one-of-the-first-coming-of-age-books kids should read.

Long story, short: as we read the book each day, we discussed some of the more mature, underlying themes in the story.  One major issue, race, kept coming up.  With one African American student in my group, it was a very significant issue that needed dissected.  At one point in the story, we had a few “heavy hitter” racial-based paragraphs – the kind that put a lump in the teacher’s throat as he’s trying to read aloud.  When I finished the chapter for the day, the room was silent.  With ten or so minutes left during the intervention period, I asked the students to take out a sheet of paper and gave these instructions:

“Wow, that was some heavy stuff!  Why don’t you take a few minutes and write a reflection of how these paragraphs made you feel?”  Just a general reflection on the end of the chapter will be fine.”

I walked toward my desk.

“Huh?”  “What?”  “What are we supposed to write about?” “What do you mean?”

The questions erupted from the previously shell-shocked group.

As all good teachers do when students ask clarifying questions, I repeated the instructions, verbatim, only louder.

The students must have sensed the frustration in my voice and began to [attempt to] work.  I collected the papers at the end of the time, paper clipped them, and stuck them in my take-home bag to read that night.

As I sat down to read them that evening, I was excited to see how the chapter had impacted the students.  I was excited to hear from their hearts.  I was excited to see them freely write about their emotions, their depths, their values.  And here’s what I got:

“The main idea of this chapter was mainly about…”

“I know that this chapter was mainly about Maniac because in the story it said…”

“The chapter is mainly about Maniac.  I know this because…”

“The theme of the chapter is about feelings.”

“Maniac Magee is the main character in the story.  I know this because…”

For the second time that day, I got a lump in my throat.  I had failed my students.  They didn’t reflect.  They didn’t think.  They didn’t feel.  They performed.  And it was disgusting.

It was a bad day, make no mistake.  But hopefully, through the lesson that they taught me that morning, I can change how I teach – maybe even change why I teach – and provide for my future students what it is that I want them to receive: passion.

The Real “Bad Teacher”

Teaching in the 21st Century…and blogging about it, requires that we’re willing to share the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Many of us share the good with the hopes of allowing others to replicate our successes.  But we can also learn from the bad and the ugly.  Here’s mine:

We all have our low moments in teaching.  One of mine surfaced last spring, just before our state assessments.  First, let me say that my teaching philosophy juggles, 1) the authenticity of real teaching – meeting the students at their level and interests, and 2) preparing students for these tests.  If everything goes well and I have mastered the former of the two, the latter will fall into place.

It was just a couple weeks before the reading test.  As the only reading comprehension teacher for my 70 fifth graders, their reading scores would fall on my shoulders.  This particular day, I was working with an intervention group with a passage about the history of chocolate.  The students sat, reading the practice passage and responding to comprehension questions about cause and effect, main idea, theme, fact/opinion, etc.

I had worked with the students on constructed response questions a zillion times.  One way was to give the students past released test questions as well as the official rubric that was used to grade said questions.  The students had to assess a variety of responses to the question using the rubric.  Scaffolding on up, I then had them create rubrics for questions.  No passage, no responses…just questions and rubrics.  “What are they looking for?” I’d say.  It [earily] is really just a formula.  If the question is, “What is the main idea of this selection?  On your answer docuement, explain the main idea and use three supporting details from the selection to support your answer,” then the students get one point for their correct main idea, and one point for each correct supporting detail.  Congratulations: 4/4.

Side note: For the previous part of the year, we had worked on good writing form.  This included topic sentences, supporting details, and concluding sentences.

So back to the bad day.  The students began to read their responses out loud to the class:

“There are several important things to know when it…”

“Chocolate is very interesting for many reaso…”

“When learning about chocolate, it is…”

“No, no, no!” I cried, cutting off each student!  And then I said it:  “STOP BEING CREATIVE!  JUST GIVE THEM THE ANSWER THAT THEY WANT!

Silence rushed the room.  I fell back in my chair, shocked, disgusted at the teacher who had the audacity to borrow my mouth.

I dismissed my intervention group a few minutes early that day.  It was only 45 minutes into the school day.  I needed time to regroup.  I had a full day of interacting with kids in front of me, and I had just told a group of them to, “Stop being creative.”  I spent a few minutes sitting alone at my desk.  I looked in the mirror in my closet.  I got a drink of water.  And when my next class came in, I started over, doing that thing I love to do: teaching.

Did my mistake that day come back to bite me?  You betcha!

Good Peer Pressure, You Say?

As I move into my sixth year of teaching, I’m excited my Toolbox of Effective Teaching Phrases continues to grow!  Here’s one of my favorites:

As I have spent the first five years teaching fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, I’m well aware and probably overly-sensitive to the effect of peer pressure on my students.  But is it always a bad thing?

Every now and then, when there is that one concept that I just don’t have a good way to teach, I drop the following line:

“Listen carefully…you don’t want to be that guy or girl who writes ______________ on ______________!” Insert the commonly used wrong answer and assessment name, respectively.

There’s nothing that perks of sleepy ears or wandering minds faster than the threat of looking vulnerable in front of peers.  Make no mistake: this is one of those don’t-use-it-too-often-or-it-will-never-work concepts.  But every now and then, I throw it out in an attempt grab a few unengaged students and use the [positive] power of peer pressure to be heard.  Also, rest assure, I don’t publicly tease students for incorrect answers on assessment, but the thought of me doing so is enough to grab a few wandering minds every now and then.