Monday, January 23, 2012

Schedules and routines

We have two weeks left of intensive French before we switch over to the English half of the year. I'm excited for the change and I think most of my students are too, though I was surprized and a little pleased when a few of my students today said that they wanted to stay in French.

In anticipation of the change-over, I started looking at my schedule for teaching the Compacted Curriculum. I had to decide when I was going to teach what and how to squeeze all those subjects into what seemed like too few minutes. There were two possibilities that I came up with and after talking it over with Mrs. W, I'm happy with what I've chosen to do, even though it sounds a little odd at first.

In order to explain my new schedule, I have to tell you that I love routine. I like starting the day the same way every day and I like knowing what is coming next and I know that my students do too. I try to be aware of which students are able to handle changes easily and which have a hard time with even the smallest change in our routine. When I move my seating plan around, I try to keep some students in similar spot while others get moved around the room.

I have a dream schedule in a lot of ways this year. Right now I teach Intensive French to my class all morning, uninterrupted by anything other than recess. After lunch each day (other than Wednesday because the students don't have school Wednesday afternoons) my class has Math with another teacher while I go to teach pre-intensive French to one of the two grade 4 classes until 2pm. Other than Tuesdays, they then go to gym and/or music and I have my hour of prep time. Tuesdays we go to the library and then have art for the last half hour.

It's a little hard because all of my preps are at the end of the day and I have no prep on Tuesday or Wednesday. But all of my preps are an hour and my time with my students is uninterrupted by taking them out in the middle of a block somewhere. And it's very routine. We do the same thing or almost the same thing every day. I wanted to continue to be able to do that after the change over.

The grade 3 and 4 classes have their literacy block after recess. We may do some flexible grouping across our grades so I wanted to have my literacy at the same time, so it was easy enough to put literacy every day from recess until lunch. I was left with the time from first bell until recess and I somehow had to fit in 150 minutes of Science, Social Studies and French and 75 minutes of Health/PDCP. My first draft had blocks of 45 minutes or an hour of each subject in frustratingly random spots. I tried to make it somewhat uniform but it just wouldn't work. It annoyed me to have French two days in a row with different subjects after each time.

In the end, what I've decided to do is to schedule 30 minutes of Social Studies each morning followed by 75 minutes of either Science, French or Health. I'm a little concerned about the short amount of time for Social Studies. I'm worried that it's such a short time that we'll just get into something and then we'll be moving on, but at the same time, my plan, like the last time I taught this, is to give out a project assignment on Monday and have them present on Friday so they'll be able to come in first thing every morning and work on their projects. I'm happy with this schedule and I think it will work well for almost everyone, the exception being those students who are chronically late and will invariably miss a lot of Social Studies time, however, I'm hoping that the projects will get them interested enough that it will encourage them to be to school on time more often.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The hard days

How do you get through the hard days?

Today was a hard day. Not in the way that days in September were hard, but it was hard on me emotionally. I try to keep the tone of this blog upbeat generally. I don't like talking about the hard things in a public forum and I am very aware of trying to keep my public posts very professional as well but today I had to deal with a few things that I need to share because I know that many teachers deal with the same things.

Grade 5 is a very emotional year for many students. They are going to be leaving Elementary in half a year. For some, this is the first time they will be changing schools and they're the oldest in the school. Also, their hormones are starting to ramp up as early puberty rears its head so I hear a lot of drama from my students. Sometimes the smallest slight can become a huge issue. I sometimes wish I took more courses on Psychology just so I could better navigate the twists and turns of pre-teen emotions.

And sometimes their dramas are not small. Sometimes what they are dealing with, either in school or outside of school is enough to bring me close to tears. Sometimes I need to take deep breaths, close my eyes, and be glad that I can offer them a space at school where they are safe, with a set routine and clear expectations. I can give them a listening ear and a hug. I can give them space to write what they need to say without pressure of evaluation or judgment.

My students are amazing, each and every one of them. I hope that I do enough to let them know how much I value having them in my class.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Test Prep?

I read a few teacher blogs of teachers from the States and when things like test prep or State testing come up I am very thankful that I teach in Canada. The insanity of some of the testing just makes me want to take someone and shake them. Luckily, Provincial testing in Canada hasn't become quite that bad. We only have, generally, one Provincial test per year, though Grade 5 Intensive French has two, one of which is coming up in two and a half weeks.

Also luckily, the prosperity of my school and my job do not hang in the balance over the results of this assessment, in fact, in the past two years where I've had my class write this assessment I have yet to see any of the results of how my classes have done. I want my class to do well, but I'm not spending all of my time prepping my students for it either. Good thing too because that would defeat the purpose of Intensive French.

In a nutshell, the point of the Intensive French program is to have an intense period of only French to help our Anglophone students get to a level of French where they aren't going to be sliding back in levels every year. Researchers found that with the old Core French program, especially in the older grades, the same concepts had to be taught and re-taught every year. Some students would make some progress, but the majority never did. Intensive French is centred around using and re-using phrases until they become ingrained. We also do reading and writing in French but the majority of our mornings are meant to be spent talking in French.

Some classes are assessed orally, but everyone is given a written assessment at the end of the Intensive French block. They're given a story starter and are asked to write a fictional story based on the story starter. My opinion of this particular assessment and it's validity is beside the point. I need to get my students ready to write this assessment.

My main focus to prepare them for this isn't that I need them to do well either. I do want them to do well, of course, but my main focus this year is that I don't want them to feel over-whelmed and stressed this year. My first year of teaching I had my class for three weeks before the assessment. I didn't know what the assessment was going to be like and I did very little to prepare my class. I thought they might do okay on it but I wasn't prepared for the tears and the frustration that both they and I felt. Last year was a little better because I knew what was coming so we could talk about it before. But still, they were frustrated. There were tears. They wanted me to be able to help them like I did normally when they were writing. I realized that I had failed them. I had talked about how to do this assessment, we had done practice stories, but I hadn't had them practice writing independently. They were lost without me as their guide and as "Mme leDictionnaire".

So this year, against my judgement, I decided to introduce independent writing, just like I do with Daily 5 in English Language Arts. We did an I-Chart, talked about what to do when they're stuck, and I enforced the idea that they needed to stay where they were, working in their spot, using the resources around them, but not asking me for help. I would walk around and conference with them, but I was not going to translate every sentence for them. They can write about whatever they want. We did model stories together and model brainstorming and I let them go.

And they amazed me.

Their writing is not perfect. There are lots of mistakes and most of them wrote more descriptions of people or pets than actual stories (my mini-lesson for tomorrow is going to be on the difference) but they wrote. Not all of them wrote their own stories, some copied the model story and that's fine. It's a stage of learning, but they did it and some of them did an amazing job. Not only that, some of them ask for time to write and I happily give it to them.

We'll continue with our "assessment prep" over the next two and a half weeks, enjoying their new-found independence and I will hope that there will be fewer tears this year.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dressing like a teacher

It's back to school tomorrow.

I have had a wonderful and well deserved vacation and I feel like I took advantage of every minute of it. I read a few books, went out to TWO movies (that never happens) spent time with my family and my friends, got lots of exercise and lots of sleep. I slept at least 8 hours every night that I was home. It was heaven. In fact, it felt like longer than two weeks which is amazing because normally the time passes so quickly that it seems like it's over before it has begun.

So tonight I'm getting back into my routine of making sure everything is ready for the morning. My nightly routine involves making sure everything I need is in my school bag, my lunch is all packed in my lunch box (yes, I have a lunch box, in fact, I have four) and my clothes are all ready to go in the bathroom.

I'm not sure if I'm being quite accurate by saying I'm not a morning person. If absolutely necessary, I am capable of getting up and being in a decent mood and getting going at a decent pace. I don't hit the snooze button. I get out of bed right when my alarm goes off, but I don't like making decisions in the morning so I set my clothes, my lunch, my school bag all out and ready for the morning. And I eat pretty much the same breakfast, granola with frozen blueberries and almond milk, every morning.

As I was setting out my clothes tonight I was thinking about how it's been nice wearing jeans for the past two weeks, but I'm looking forward to putting on my teacher clothes again. I would say that I dress relatively formally for an elementary teacher. I wear blazers or jackets almost every day, dress pants and blouses. Sometimes, when it's warm, I like to wear skirts or dresses. I've always enjoyed getting dressed up nicely. I like how it makes me feel about myself. It's like putting on a character. When I wear these clothes, I become a teacher, I put on my teacher costume and mask. I stop being Jeannie and start being Mme Chiasson.

I'm going to miss being able to lie around the house and read all day or staying in bed past 10 if I want to, but I'm looking forward to going back to school, seeing all my students and co-workers, hearing about their vacations and getting back into the swing of my routine. I, like my students, enjoy having that daily routine to fall back into. I'm hopeful that some of the routines that I've started on vacation, like exercising every day and taking time for myself, will continue with school as well.

What routines do you have to get yourself ready for the next day? Do you feel different in your teacher clothes than in your regular clothes? Are you back to school tomorrow to or already back?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Exploring new classroom management ideas

I finally got around to downloading TweetDeck on my new computer and set it all up with my columns the way I like it. It's a newer version than the one that I have on my school laptop and I'm not used to the size of it yet. On my school laptop I can see, I think, five columns at a time and it's easier to slide from one to the next but I think I'll get used to the new format eventually.

While I was sorting through some of the tweets, I saw one by @haleon in #elemchat and #edchat, two of the most popular education hashtags, about something called ClassDojo, a program that uses game theory to help with classroom management. I decided to check out the website and shot off a few tweets to @ClassDojo as well about the program. It appeals to the gamer in me. I like the idea of the kids working towards goals and getting badges and going up levels, but I'm not convinced about it.

One of my main reasons for hesitating is that I'm the only one in the classroom with a laptop. I have my laptop and my SMART board and that's it.  The students don't have laptops or netbooks or iPads or anything. So I asked @ClassDojo how well this program would work in a "low tech" classroom like mine. She/He responded that I could easily project the results onto the board for the class to see or I could show the kids their results as they leave. And I could, it's true, but then it becomes "he got this and I got that and I did this but you didn't see and she did that and you didn't mark it down." I was hoping that they system would be a little more about self monitoring rather than having me do all the monitoring and them seeing and comparing their results with everyone else's.

Has anyone used a system like this before? Any ideas about how this could work effectively in a classroom like mine?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Habits and goals

2012 is here. It doesn't sound like a date that could describe the present. I sounds more like a date from a sci-fi novel describing either a world full of robots and flying cars or a dystopian future after some terrible disaster, human kind is faced with extinction. Well 2012 is now the present. We do have some robots, we even have one in our house. It's a vacuum and it's been broken for a few years and I haven't replaced it. I have an idea that cars could fly but they would be too expensive and would cause too many complications. As for the terrible disaster, we've had lots of those and we are still carrying on.

But that's all off topic. Today I wanted to talk about how my goals for myself are going. So far I've been exercising every day. I've been drinking 8-10 glasses of water (I'm not sure if I'll be able to keep that up when I go back to school though because it means having to go to the bathroom way more than I have time for) I've made and kept to my meal plan, I've been writing daily and I'm feeling pretty good.

After my last post about my goals, my father sent me a link to this site about how no one can stick to their resolutions and that fitness programs that promise quick results are worthless. Instead, it advocates choosing one habit that you want to change and focusing on it for one month. I agree with that idea and I have been mostly focusing on my fitness goal so far but I also want to re-start my other goals as well. The Zen Habits site has 5 big pointers for forming habits and the second is:
Do one habit at a time only. People often skip this one because they think they are different than everyone else, but I’ve found this to be extremely effective. You increase your odds of success with just one habit at a time, for many reasons: habits are hard to form because they require lots of focus and energy, having many habits means you’re spreading yourself too thin, and if you can’t commit to one habit at a time, you’re not fully committed.
Now I agree with this statement. I really do. But, the goals (habits) that I want to focus on are ones that I have done before but have let fall to the way side. I don't want to not write just because I'm focusing on increasing my fitness. And I'm not going to wait three months before I start meal planning either. But perhaps this month I will focus on my fitness while writing and meal planning but not put as much energy into the other habits that I'm trying to form while I work on making sure that I'm exercising every day this month.

Another suggestion on this site was to use Fitocracy to help track your exercise and to make getting fit more social. It's essentially a social networking site that promotes fitness. There are challenges and points awarded and all of those fun little carrots to help keep you motivated. I've joined up and am enjoying it a great deal.

I think that this idea of forming habits, focusing on one at a time and putting a lot of energy into making sure that habit becomes ingrained is very important in the classroom. Daily 5 is a perfect example of this. The way that read to self is introduced for example, is all about forming good reading habits. It's done slowly and deliberately. None of the other components are introduced until the class has good read to self habits and high stamina for independent reading. After that is going then another component, maybe write to self or read to a friend is introduced and again, the class builds stamina, forms good independent habits before moving on to another.

In December, I decided to take a risk and try to introduce independent writing in my classroom. Why is this a risk? Well, they're only 3 months in to learning French and independence is not something that comes easily when learning a new language. But their habits from learning to read to self independently in French were so strong that they surprised me. It took a lot of work and modeling and problem solving as a group, but they were very quickly able to take those skills and write independently.  So now Mrs. W and I are able to go around and conference with students without being interrupted by students who want me to be Mme LaDictionnaire. I'm hoping that when we switch over to English in a month and I officially introduce the Daily 5 to them that they will be able to take the skills and habits that they are learning now and apply them to our English Language Arts classes, but I won't expect that they will all be able to do that on their own so I will help them, through explicit teaching and modelling, to develop those habits slowly and thoroughly so that they will have them forever.

What sorts of habits are most important for your students? For yourself? What do you do in your life to try to build your positive habits?