Saturday, October 22, 2016

How Loud Is Your Classroom?

Next week is my first formal observation (we have two per year as tenured teachers). The administrator observing me is pretty new to our building. I’m getting to know her and she’s stopped into my room a few times just to chat with the kids, but she’s never observed me before. When completing my pre-observation questionnaire, I always pause at the question: “Is there anything else you want me to know about your classroom?” but I especially give pause if it’s a new administrator coming into my room.

After a few moments, I write, “My room is kind of loud. In the forty minutes you are with me, you will experience periods where there is lots and lots of talking. Please know, that this is how I like it. When they are talking, I know they are learning. Yes, you will hear, ‘What are you wearing to the dance on Friday?’ and ‘Are you going to the game tonight?’ But, if you focus on everything they say between those statements, you can see that their talking leads to learning. They are sorting out their thoughts, using the words of their peers to build their own thinking, using others’ ideas to fill in the gaps of their own understanding. They are looking for assurance that others think similarly to them. They are learning to gain confidence in and defend themselves when someone doesn’t agree. This cannot be done in silence. Please know, I create and encourage the space where this can happen. I know it can get a bit loud at times and I know that for some, the noise level can be a bit… uncomfortable. Sometimes I worry that it looks like I don’t have any control over them, but I’ve watched my classroom for years now and I know FOR SURE that their talking is a good sign that learning is happening.”

Two students reading and "text-mapping" together.

I didn’t always feel this way…

For a million reasons, my first few years of teaching were difficult. Looking back, I attribute much of that difficulty to my interpretations of my students’ behavior. See, I went to a small, Catholic school. One class each of grades K-8, with no room having more than 20 students. We wore uniforms. We went to weekly mass. We were issued demerits. We wrote our spelling words 3x each nightly (more for cursive practice than spelling practice). We all stood and greeted every adult who entered the room in unison (“Good morning, Sister Melanie”; “Good afternoon, Father Frank”). We walked in lines everywhere. We had no special education/basic skills/ESL (likely a result from no teachers or programs for such rather than a true assessment of our student body). And we didn’t talk – ever! Like ever, ever – unless directed to do so.

When I started my first real teaching job – 6th grade – in a public school, it was a bit of a shock to my system. My grade school experience, combined with that tricky little filter known as “nostalgia,” made me pretty uncomfortable with what I was seeing, or should I say hearing. In a word, my kids were LOUD. Loud, and with a seemingly endless verbal word count for a school day!

It didn’t seem to matter what I did: shhh-ing, asking politely, giving “the eyes,” reinforcing positive behaviors (“I like the way Johnny put his math books away and got out his reading books without talking.”), yelling, threatening, punishing. There seemed to be nothing that I could do that made the talking stop.

Now, I want to explain that it wasn’t that my students were being disrespectful. They weren’t ignoring me when I was standing in front of the class giving instructions. They’d sit quietly for that. They didn’t talk during tests (at least not often!). But, anytime – and I mean anytime – they saw a break in my talking, their mouths were moving.

And this drove me absolutely crazy.

You see, somewhere along the way, I fell under the impression that all-day-long silence meant I was in control, so therefore, their talking meant that I was not. And more than that, I believed that silence meant engagement and so their talking meant a lack thereof. As a teacher, especially a brand-new one, this was just simply the worst. I mean here I was, working my tail off to do a good job. I was staying at school until 6-7pm at night; I spent all day on Sundays lesson planning; I was reading professional books and working toward my Master’s. I was trying so hard, and I was failing. My students, though sweet as could be, were disengaged and running the show in my classroom.

I was so bothered at what I was seeing, that I invited our districts’ TLFs (Teaching and Learning Facilitators) into my room to observe. I wanted some help on getting them quiet, especially during their independent working time when I was pulling small groups. Instead, what I got was one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a teacher.

After observing for a few hours, we met to discuss what they saw. “You know,” one of the TLFs said, “I know the noise is bothering you, but have you ever stopped to listen to what they are saying?”

“Um, no,” I said. “Does it even matter? They chatter all the time. It’s got to stop.”

“Yes,” she replied, “I know that it’s making you uncomfortable, but I think if you stopped and listened to what they were saying, you’d be much happier about the noise level.”

The other TLF spoke. “I was walking around listening to the kids doing their workbook page while you met with your small group.” (This was during a math class.) She continued, “They were not off-task. In fact, each and every student I watched and heard was completely ON-TASK. They were working through the problems together. They were talking out their ideas on how to solve one complicated problem in particular. They were trying different strategies and comparing their results. They were using each other as tools to help them problem solve.”

“This is what you want to be happening in your classroom,” the first TLF responded. “What you are hearing is the sound of learning.”

The sound of learning. How does learning have a sound? I thought learning could only happen in your head, in silence. How can this be?

Students working on a Venn diagram and constructed response question together.

The next day, I didn’t pull any small groups. Instead, I gave their kids their independent work tasks and walked around listening. I was so surprised by what I heard. Sure, there were off-task comments, but a lot of what I was hearing was relevant to the activity they were doing. They were learning! They were engaged! And more, when I came across a kid who was sitting silently, more often than not s/he was staring off into space, completely disengaged from what was going on! Oh, the irony! The kids doing what I had thought was “right” were actually the ones that I needed to be worrying about!

My classroom hasn’t been the same since. Yes, there are times when the noise makes me uncomfortable… it’s so hard to shake a belief that’s been with you for most of your life, but mostly the noise makes me happy. I know now that the noise is what learning sounds like.

Two students writing collaboratively.

So, tell me about your classroom? What does learning sound like in your room? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Teaching!!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

"The Whole is Less Than the Sum of Its Parts" - Focusing on the Small Stuff

A few weeks ago, we received our students’ PARCC scores (PARCC is the standardized test we take here in NJ). Thankfully, I work in a district where TEACHING is celebrated over TESTING, so opening the email was not a pressing matter. Rather, it’s there for us to check out, at our convenience, in the hopes of sparking reflection on how last year’s students performed and gaining a bit of insight about our current students.

Nevertheless, that email took my breath away. My legs started to tingle and my stomach got queasy. I vowed that I wouldn’t open it, but my resolve lasted no more than 20 minutes. Before I knew it, I had printed it out and was pouring over it, with highlighters and Post-Its at hand. There were some great surprises! Kids who I knew had it in them, pulled it out… maybe not hitting it out of the park, but holding their own. But, unfortunately, those surprises could not wash away the letdowns. 

Those kids. Those kids who – despite our best efforts (mine and theirs) – just couldn’t hang come test day. They tried. Oh, did they try. I watched them. Taking their time. Making little notes on their scrap paper. Using every minute of the testing window. Oh, did they try. But… they only “partially met” or just “did not yet meet” expectations. (I do applaud PARCC for putting in that little “yet.” Kudos to appreciating the value of a growth mindset!)

Although I can honestly say that I’ve never felt any direct pressure about my students’ scores from anyone in particular – not my students’ parents, not my colleagues, not my administrators – the pressure is there. It is always there. It’s hard to explain… in fact, as I write this, I’m struggling to put into words what our “testing culture” has done to me, to my practice.

When I first started teaching, standardized testing was around, but it was of little concern. Every year, come May, we’d spend our mornings filling in some scantrons and our afternoons playing kickball outside. It was slightly inconvenient – the testing, not the kickball! – but really, no big deal. The following October we’d get our former students’ scores. Again, no big deal. Maybe (if we really looked) we’d find a pattern that might lead to a little reflection on our practice, but mostly, we’d look at the scores, nod in agreement – because honestly, any good teacher can tell you exactly how their kids will perform after knowing them for about a month! – and then file them away somewhere safe, waiting to be shredded when we clean out our desks the following June.

My how things have changed.

Despite my district’s belief that teaching matters more than testing, for whatever reason, I feel squeezed. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about how well I’ve covered a standard, or if that assignment was “PARCC-like” enough to provide adequate practice for the big test, or how I can improve their typing skills. Not a day goes by where I don’t stress over how that answer would be scored by PARCC or if that response could be deemed “off topic.” And not a day goes by, where I don’t look at a kid and think (gulp!) about all the things that he CAN’T do yet, rather than celebrate how far he’s come. Ooh, admitting that hurts. But, it’s my truth.

I’d say that maybe it’s just my ultra Type-A perfectionist personality. But, pretty much every teacher I meet – even those enviable Type-Bers who manage to maneuver seamlessly through the day despite their desk being covered, literally covered, in papers – these days feels the same.

Recently, I was talking to one of my favorite mentor/colleagues and she commented that, in her 30+ years of teaching experience, she’s come to find one thing to be true: in teaching, when it comes to kids and their performance: “The whole is LESS than the sum of its parts.”

I reflected on this idea. And before long, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is absolutely true. When I think about all the papers and tests and projects that I’ve graded over the years, they pale in comparison to what I watched a kid learn in the process of writing/taking/creating them. Final products, I realized, are always a bit of a letdown when you compare them to journey you watched a kid take to put it together.

Immediately, I refocused myself. I decided to be present for those little moments that occur along a kid’s journey and to stop staring at the destination on the horizon. The test is the test is the test. I can’t change it. I can’t beat it. I can’t fight it. It’s there. But, I don’t have to make myself crazy staring at it looming in the distance. Instead, I can focus on all those little wins throughout the day and celebrate all the things my kids CAN do.


When she wrote this, I overheard her say, "I wish the bucket was bigger. I have so many hopes and dreams!" Agh! My heart strings! So what if she struggled to write about every.single.idea that she had listed here! It sure was fun and eye-opening to listen to her dream about them.

And this...
Despite the fact that their final papers were just so-so, watching these two initial strangers work together, help each other, and become friends in the process, was everything. Overhearing things like, "I like your opening. Can you help me with mine?" and "It's cool how you started all your paragraphs with one word. I'm gonna do that, too!" is why I became a teacher!

And this...
Student: "When I was leaving my house this morning, I got the best idea for the last paragraph of my paper. I didn't have any real paper so I just grabbed this from my counter and wrote it down so I wouldn't forget."

Me: "Today is the day you became a writer."

It doesn't even matter how her paper will turn out! From this day forward, she is a writer, and nothing, certainly no grade or PARCC score, can ever take that from her.

* * * * * * * * * *

These moments... these PARTS are most certainly greater than their SUM. These everyday lessons, experiences, moments... no test score could ever measure them. And so, from now on, I simply will not let them.

Hope October is treating you all well. I have progress reports due next week. GAH! Where is the time going!

Happy Teaching!!