Taking a moment to breathe

This week in my classes we took a moment… moment to relax a bit, a moment to catch our breath, a moment to build community, a moment to move outside our normal classroom activity.

Day of the dead is a Mexican holiday devoted to honoring those that have come before us and left this world.  It is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, very close to Halloween.  We took this week to learn about the holiday (and how it is different than Halloween), work on cultural projects, and do a little bit of celebrating.

The project my students completed is based on the work of Mexican print maker José Guadalupe Posada.  He depicted skeletons going about their daily lives as if they were living.  Death is not something to be feared in Mexican culture, and this is one way to show the inevitable link between life and death.  My students were charged to make a skeleton themselves, depicting it as a living person, or a character we see as alive.  They chose who they wanted and let their creativity shine.  They captured the idea that Day of the dead teaches us all…life and death are hand in hand…each a part of the other.

Here are a few examples of their work:

Belle

Jack Frost

Sulley

The other side to this week was the fact that we did something different than the norm.  My students loved the opportunity to relax a bit, think creatively, and produce.  Many times we get so busy with the day to day work of Spanish class that creative thinking can get pushed to the back burner.  The quality of their work abounded when given the time and space to work autonomously.

At the end of the week as we were finishing up projects and final products were arriving to class, there was an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment in my students.  They were excited about their own work and the work of their peers.  They asked to see other projects and celebrated a job well done.

Building a sense of community is of paramount importance in the classroom, and last week played an enormous role in the continuous construction that goes on in my environment.  We can never stop building culture.  Everyone benefits from a moment to breathe.  I have a feeling that the intrinsic motivation levels for my students got recharged this past week, and I can’t wait to see what they produce in the coming days.

Let them own it

I got a glimpse into the true greatness of my students yesterday.

In my level 1 classes, we started with a meeting.  I had my students pull their chairs into a circle and let them know we had equity of voice.  I explained that overall things in class were going well, but we needed to make a few adjustments.  I could have easily just handed them the new way we were going to do things, but I decided to go a different route.  I decided to involve them in the decision making process.  No, I decided to give them the decision making process.  It is their learning – not mine, right?

I started by sharing a couple of observations…I had noticed that my students could improve at finding resources for practice.  I have many different ways for them to practice, but there are only a few that are being well utilized.  I also noticed that when independent work time is given that focus can be a problem.  We needed to change that.  We only spend 45 minutes together each day and time must be maximized.  My students agreed with me and shared some of their own observations, concerns, and comments.

Then I turned the floor over to the kids to figure out how to make it better.  I cannot tell you how proud I was of my kids.  They came up with a new, better model of independent work days.  Some of them asked for my opinion or suggestions, and I gave them.  They expressed that they would like more small group instruction rather than whole group and figured out how to make it happen.  They decided that each skill (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) would have its own place to practice.  There would also be a places to practice the skills together (integrated), to use technology, and to assess.

All I can say is that kids need to be in charge of their learning.  They are so capable and ready to take the reigns.  Their decisions may not be perfect, but I would love to find the teacher that makes perfect decisions.  I am sure we will have more tweaking to do as the year progresses, but you had better believe that when I see missteps, my students will be the ones to figure out how to get back on track.  It is their learning, it is their experience, it is their time.  It is not about me.

Ready, set…

The new school year is right around the corner, today is Friday and this coming Wednesday is opening day.  I am thrilled to welcome my new students, introduce them to my learning environment and start the journey.  I am working with my space a little differently this year; below are a couple before pictures of my classroom.  I always love to see the transition from plain walls and boards to a lively space ready to receive students, so this year I decided to take pictures and document a bit.

I am so fortunate to have a large room and tables to work with, and I want to make sure I arrange my room carefully for what I have planned.  I tend to move things around a lot depending on our needs, but to begin the year I need four groups, so that is my table configuration.  I also wanted to leave a lot of bulletin board space open for my students this year.  I moved all my other decorations (posters, etc.) to the walls to leave my largest board for student work and a smaller one for gamification stats.

When students arrive, they will get a ticket with two pipe cleaners attached as they walk in the door. The ticket is a glimpse of the adventure they are about to embark upon, and the pipe cleaners will soon let me know a bit more about them.  This year will be framed as one huge journey, with stops at each theme (unit), but the ultimate destination will be learning.  We will take different paths to the destination, but the expectation is that all will arrive in the end.  The pipe cleaners are mimicked off of Dave Burgess’ idea in his book Teach Like a Pirate, he uses play-doh the first day to have the kids mold an item that tells him something about themselves.  I will be doing the same thing with less messy pipe cleaners.  This gets all my learners engaged on the first day and helps me get to know them at the same time.  There is visual, auditory, and kinesthetic input, and a fun atmosphere on top of it all.

I look forward to seeing how the first day plays out and I am sure I will be blogging at some point during the first week to share my experiences.

Have you set up your learning environment yet?  Share and we will all benefit!

To open the year

The first few days of school are crucial to set the stage for the year. I have spent significant time thinking about how I want to open the year and what I would like my students to leave either saying or thinking about my class. Here are my thoughts…

  • This is going to be fun!
  • She actually knows my name and wants to learn about me.
  • I wonder what we are going to do tomorrow?
  • Is she that way everyday?
  • I will find success in this class.

Fun is first on the list because I want my kids to look forward to coming to class. We can absolutely accomplish our goals for the year while having a great time in the process. There will be smiles starting the first day and every day following (can you tell I am not one of those don’t smile until after Christmas people?). Not everything will be easy, but stress levels can be reduced for a difficult task by making the learning environment an enjoyable, fun place to be. Each day will start with music not only because I love it, but because music is such an important part of the adolescent life. I started this last year and my kids would tell me how it was like entering another world when they came in.

Relationships are of utmost importance  I get to know my kids names within the first couple of days but I must not stop there. The primary focus during the first week is to form those critical relationships. I need to get to know my students as fast as humanly possible and let them know that I am a person as well. I am not some entity that lives at school, but a mother, wife, reader, learner, runner, and more. If I can give them a window into my passions, hopefully they will give me a glimpse of theirs.

Keep ’em coming back for more! One thing I am trying for the first time this year is to leave them hanging a bit at the end of each day.  This has worked countless times in books, television shows, etc. Why not use a little anticipation in the classroom? I have seen my children in the days leading up to Christmas and the excitement is palpable. Now, I don’t expect that this will be to the same level, but the same principle applies.  I want my class to be engaging, interactive, and a little different each day. Do you remember from your school experiences the class that was the exact same each day? Was it your favorite?
  
I want my students to wonder if I can possibly keep my enthusiasm level up for 180 school days. I love teaching and this should be present in everything I do. I also love Spanish and can’t wait to introduce them to a new language, new cultures, and a more global perspective. Enthusiasm is contagious, and I am ready to let it spread and grow in my classroom  And on the days when my enthusiasm wanes? If I have worked this out correctly, my students will bring enough to share with me.

Success will need to be loosely defined in my class before we pursue it. I will give my students the standards and let them determine the path to achieve mastery. I say loosely because I don’t want to stifle my students creativity or achievement by setting the bar and just waiting for them to get there. I want to encourage them to go beyond, the possibilities are endless. There are only so many things that I can imagine for them, but they can go much farther.  I tell my students that we will find success no matter the struggle and that it is worth all their effort.

So, as I am planning the specific activities for the first few days of class, this is what I am going to keep in mind.

What do you want your students to say and think after your first week?

It’s not the destination, but the journey

As my family and I get going on our cross country minivan tour to Yellowstone, I am reminded that vacation is a great time to let your brain relax a bit, reflect, and let the creativity shine through.

We are taking this trip with my parents and my brother and his family, and I cannot help but notice the uncanny comparison to teaching.
We are all starting from different places, various parts of Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, even New York.  We are all going to end up at the same destination…hmmm, sound familiar?
What a great analogy to the differentiated classroom!  I will find out your starting place, and help you find your best route to the learning destination.  Each student will have a different path, which makes the process messy but fun.
How to travel?  That is an individual choice as well.  My parents are flying, we are driving our minivan, and my brother’s family is renting a 15 passenger van.  We are headed west first, then will head north.  Others will head north first, and I am not sure of the flight pattern the airplane will take!  The routes and means of travel mean nothing, all have chosen the best way to arrive at the destination.
There are various stops along the way for my family, but they are different for the other parts of the group.  We all take our own journey, taking care of individual needs whenever necessary.  I couldn’t be happy making all the stops that other pieces of our family are taking, and I am sure they wouldn’t be pleased with all our stops either.  We again must keep the end goal in mind while making the best individual decisions possible.
And when we all finally end up together, we can share our individual travels and reflect upon the journey.  It will be that much sweeter to reminisce together, much like it is for our students once a major learning target has been conquered.
This is something I will definitely share with my students as we get started this year.  What a great analogy of what their year should be like in my class.