How Reflecting on the Year Makes Better Teachers

Every summer I do some serious reflection and self-criticism on how the school year went and start my initial planning for next school year while everything is fresh in my mind.  It’s easy to get complacent and, assuming you’re teaching the same thing the next year, to plan on doing many of the same activities (save you get super inspired on pinterest).  Here’s my take on that though.  That doesn’t do your future students any favors I would get bored doing the SAME thing in the SAME order just with a different set of kids.  Now yes, there are some activities I do each year, like a map activity for each war, but I try putting a slightly different spin on it from year to year so that it at least feels and looks different.

How and why I reflect on the school year that just ended before planning the next one.

How and why I reflect on the school year that just ended before planning the next one

To start the reflection process, I sit down with my planner, my binder of master copies of every project/activity/test/etc my kids did during the year, and a stack of sticky notes.  I then take a pretty honest look at it all and write my thoughts (positive, negative, anything) on a sticky note on each master copy.  One activity might have gone amazingly well with one group of kids but might have completely flopped with another and if I figure out why then I can improve it for next year.  Or, I can say something like I thought that would been really neat but really the kids didn’t get anything out of it and it is up to me to figure out how to improve it or to made the executive decision to scratch it.  With another resource I might say I can’t believe how successful this was and I should definitely do it again next year.  If something seemed like a flop across the board, I reflect on the whole unit and determine if that was because maybe I didn’t teach the material clearly enough, or maybe if I didn’t give the kids enough time to process everything, or maybe it was the style of activity itself, etc.  If I don’t challenge myself to make something more engaging, to fix what wasn’t great, what wasn’t rigorousness enough, or was too difficult for my kids, then I’ll end up being the same teacher the next year instead of a better teacher.

There are teachers who do the same activities the same way year after year and that might work for them.  They might work in a stable school district with similar students from year to year and might have such a handle on things that they can plan the next unit and say, “ok last year this took 12 days from start to finish so I’ll plan it for 12 days this year too…last year we did activity A on Tuesday, activity B on Thursday, and we discussed up to topic X on Friday so I’ll plan it the same way this year too.”  More power to those teachers (and I have known one of those and she was a fantastic teacher).  For many of us though, I don’t think that’s how we can be the best teachers for our kids.

For one thing, as of this coming school year I’ll have taught in 3 states in 7 years and each has slightly different standards and content area focuses, and the make-up of my classrooms were very different.  I had 5 honors classes one year from upper-middle class suburbia, another year in a different state I had students who were more focused on not getting sucked into gang activities than studying for a test, and this coming year I’ll be teaching middle school at an all girls’ private school.  So what was engaging to one of those groups, or the right amount of academically challenging, might not be to another group so I definitely can’t just press replay from year to year.

Not to mention, just because I thought activity A was amazing last year doesn’t mean there’s something better/more engaging/etc out there (like this past year I discovered gallery walks which my kids and I loved).  Your students last year may have had a cursory interest in spies during the Civil War but this years’ students might find the topic fascinating.  Taking an extra day or two to delve further into that topic for your students might not have been in your lesson plan book, but that’s what post-its are for.  Put a post-it over the next few days and push your plans back.  Other activities might seem to go over well each year, but given some space from the activity you might see a way to make it better.  Each time I taught the New Deal there was one activity in particular I did repeat each year.  It was a way to make a sometimes-blah-topic not so blah, and my kids got to use the school PA system so they always loved it, but the lack of “super-awesome-amazingness” of it always nagged at me.  It was good, but I knew it could be better.  So I stopped thinking about that activity for a few months, and when I revisited it I saw how to take it to the next level and now I’ll feel much better the next time I use it in class.

Is there anything in particular you do during the summer to make the transition from one school year to the next?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments 🙂

10 Things I Learned from My Students

So frequently in education you hear about what students need to learn, what and how teachers should be teaching, which standards need to be met and when, how learning should be assessed, etc.  However, every year I find myself learning FROM my kids.   I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who could say that, so I reached out to some teacher friends and they are here today in this “what I learned from my students” post.  (You can also check it out HERE on the TpT Blog!!!)

lessons teachers have learned from their students

10 Things Teachers Have Learned from Their Students

From Tara at Science in the City:
1.  Students make sure I learn about clothing and music trends, and which rappers and TV shows to watch.

2.  I have learned what it really means to live in poverty, and gained an appreciation for the drive, ambition, and pride that some students have, against all odds.

3.  I think the biggest thing that I have learned is how important positive feedback and recognition is. Students will work harder in your class if they feel successful.  How can you make students feel successful?  Compliment them on the skills that you want them to continue to utilize.   Reinforce the behavior that you want them to do and when they are doing well.  Praise them for using those skills and behaviors.  Its a win-win: they feel successful and are likely to continue or increase those behaviors.

From Ellen Weber:
4.  They show me how play opens doors beyond boredom and into learning adventures. When I follow their lead, play leapfrogs us all over stressors that default us back to boring routines otherwise.

5.  I’ve learned through teen and young adult learners how play nurtures curiosity and fuels well being much the way Einstein rode the curve of the arc in his imagination. Like play led Einstein to the theory of relativity, my students follow idea with a sense of wonder when fun finds its way in.  Whenever I pay attention to their seemingly silly banter, I’ve seen play favor risk chemicals that help us all to sidestep problems on the way to  explore new possibilities – all through fun and adventure.

From April at Cullom Corner:
6.  I learned that I have the gift to love other people’s children, seriously. I don’t have children of my own but I truly feel like my students are my kids. I worry about them, pray for them, advise them, get excited for them, etc. They may be “mine” for a year but they are forever in my heart. You don’t have to give birth to be a “mom” and I feel like I am a mother to so many.

7.  Just because I am the adult in the room, doesn’t mean that I have experienced more than the students have. Students deal with a lot more issues and adult problems than they should.  I honestly didn’t realize how many students dealt with such extreme issues until I started teaching. I have had so many students either in foster care, kicked out of their home, or having other serious adult problems that no teenager should have to deal with. Many of these students have dealt with issues that I have never even imagined dealing with.

8. I teach students, not history. Yes, I teach history and government but my first priority is my students.  I try to take moments when I can to teach them “life-lessons” and prepare them for the world.  Sometimes it means lecturing a class about the significance of being safe before prom or about how to handle a difficult situation with another student/teacher/administrator or even about how to be sweet to mom and dad because they are having trouble with the idea of their baby graduating high school. But my first priority is to teach students. They may not remember the content I taught them but I hope they remember the “life-lessons” that I have tried to instill.

And from myself, Stephanie’s History Store:
9.  The very first lesson I distinctly remember learning from my kids is that there’s a time and a place to be considerably more strict than I thought I could be, and that it’s ok to have different degrees of strictness in various aspects of the classroom.  My very first semester in the classroom, I was entirely too forgiving of late work.  I accepted it no matter what (though the later it was the more points I took off).  However, in my end of year feedback form, more than one student commented that I could, and should, be stricter with my late work policy.  That hit me hard.  I realized that just as I have high expectations for my students, they have high expectations of me too.

10.  I’ve also learned (a bit slower than I should have), that students can’t read your mind.  Especially in the first few weeks with each new group of kids, you have to be clear and direct.  I learned pretty quickly that I can’t assume students understand my abbreviations (such as using ppl for people), or that they know I expect them to write in complete sentences.  So in addition to going over classroom rules and expectation type things at the start of the year, I give them a “cheat sheet” as to what various abbreviations mean that they’ll encounter throughout the year (such as N Am for Native Americans, AJ for Andrew Jackson) and a list of frequently used proofreading marks that they might see from me on their research papers.

I really think to be a great/effective teacher you have to also be a constant and willing learner.  You have to be willing to learn more about your content area and new and emerging technologies, you have to become familiar with new trends in education (regardless of how you might feel about them), develop and practice new teaching strategies, and as the teachers above related, you have to be open to learning from your students.  What have you learned from your students?

*Special thanks to Sarah Pecorino Illustration for this post’s image*

Engage Students in Historical Fiction by Making Comics

Every once in a while I have a super artistically inclined kid in class (I think we’ve all had the kid who draws on everything at some point), or one who likes making comics out of what we’re learning, or one who turns everything into song lyrics.  But this year in my Thursday class, 4 out of the 9 kids LOVE LOVE LOVE making comics strips out of what we’re learning.  They do it on their own time and bring them back to class for me to see and they also try to do it as part of the assignments whenever they can.

Recently they were working on a Ben Franklin activity, and one of the tasks is to create a dialogue between Franklin and one of his sons.  There are a few prompts provided, but they can really use a significant amount of creativity in completing this particular part of the activity.  Well, one of my girls blew me away with her final product.

creating historical fiction out of comic strips

creating historical fiction out of comic strips

Not only did she complete the task (which let’s be real, that can be a huge win in and of itself sometimes), but she exceeded the minimum expectations, she made in a comic strip style, and on top of everything she drew each figure freehand (and yes that’s impressive to me since I can barely put a stick figure together).  And side note, this was a LOT more fun for me to read that night than traditional paragraph responses.

Most of the other kids turned in movie script style line dialogue–which was totally fine since that’s how I had originally envisioned that part of the assignment anyway–and one kid turned in a response along the lines of, “I can’t create this dialogue  because I’ve never met Franklin or his son so I don’t know how they would feel as the conversation progressed, and I don’t want to put words in their mouths.”  I assured him that as long as Franklin remained a patriot in the conversation and his son remained a Loyalist, it was ok to use some creative license in recreating a scene which likely happened multiple times in Franklin’s home.  He kept insisting that he couldn’t think of what they would discuss, and even though I clarified that he wasn’t “putting words in their mouths,” especially since this was just for the 10 of in class and not a historical panel, he was still totally uncomfortable so I let it go and he did an alternate assignment that I made up on the fly (one that was way less creative in nature and more academic to meet his comfort level).

This unintentionally became a lesson for me in finding a balance between pushing my kids a bit beyond their comfort level and respecting their comfort level (and of course that balance will be different with each group of kids I have).  I always try to make sure my kids aren’t “settling” for what they think their limits are, but in this particular instance with this particular student I decided to back down and let him work on an alternate assignment because I knew (based on previous experiences) if I kept pushing him he would completely shut down and I didn’t want that to happen.

Anyway, last week we talked about the Industrial Revolution and I asked the kids if they wanted to make comic strips and most said yes.  The same kid asked if his assignment could be turned in the usual way (traditional written responses) and I said yes, but he had to include one component that was out of his comfort zone (and I gave him a choice of 3).  Most used their comic strips to show someone coming up with an invention, presenting it to society for the first time, and its reception by society.  Probably the best part was how into their self-initiated debates they got about which comics were likely more historically plausible than others (and in some cases, why!!!).

I loved how they balanced historical possibility with creativity, and they enjoyed not writing formally.  Of course they write formally/academically throughout the year, but we only have 3 classes left so we have been getting a bit more creative to keep the kids as focused as possible.  I’m sure you can all relate to that  🙂

Traveling Tuesday #5: Keeping History Alive

Something that always strikes me when I am in other countries is how much history and the present live side by side.  I have always been a little jealous of people who get to live their daily lives where the signs say “established 1300” or “offering hospitality since 1411” (the picture below shows one of those signs from when I was in Salisbury, England).  To preserve the past keeps it from becoming something you only read about in textbook, if even that.  It would be irresponsible of us to erase the past from our daily lives, especially considering that it is because of the past that we are here.

Having a physical reminder of our history can also give us a greater appreciation for how people lived in the past (think hardwood, backless, benches instead of a reclining La-Z-Boy, or a communal bench toilet a la Pompeii versus individual bathroom stalls today with hot running water).  Keeping history alive in the present can also help make the past more real, or relatable.  If you walk through Pompeii you can see ancient graffiti for or against some gladiators…people still communicate via graffiti today.

how to keep history alive

keep history alive

Yes, in America we have a history, and in many places parts of it are preserved (like in Philadelphia and Boston), but more frequently the impetus is on being new and modern.  This is all within reason of course.  After the San Francisco earthquake, the city naturally had to be rebuilt.  After 9/11 there was a lengthy discussion about what to do at Ground Zero and ultimately the decision to rebuild was made. As new technologies and safety standards emerge, much of the time they should be integrated into daily life (think 1905 tenements versus today’s apartment buildings, or using electric lights instead of candles in a printshop).  However, there is definitely a time and place to preserve history and to keep it alive.

keeping history alive and relevant

So how can we keep history alive?  Don’t tear it down and don’t build over it.  Don’t act like it doesn’t matter just because it’s in the past, and don’t act like it didn’t happen even if it is a sensitive topic/event.  Teach it in school.  Understand how it relates to us, and affects us, in the present.  In Rwanada, some buildings still bear the scars of the genocide as a memorial to victims.  Fragments of the Berlin Wall remain; in London the outer walls of some museums still have the damage caused by bombs dropped during WW2 (as seen in the pictures above and below I took while studying abroad in London); Auschwitz still stands as a stark reminder of what people have done to each other and what we are capable of surviving.

Sometimes you need appreciate the dichotomy of standing in front of an 80-story skyscraper which is next to a bakery that has been operating for 150 years while retaining as much of its history and authenticity as possible.  It’s nice to have that reminder of how far we’ve come, yet how similar we are to our historical counterparts–who doesn’t like a cinnamon roll, whether in 1780 or 2016 🙂  It’s also nice to think that if we put a little effort into preserving even just a bit of history, and keeping a bit of the past alive, future generations might do the same for us.

how to keep history alive

keep history alive

You are Appreciated!

It’s that time of year again, teacher appreciation week!  Rather than sending you all virtual mugs that say “world’s greatest teacher” I thought the heads up about the Teachers Pay Teachers teacher appreciation sale would be a nice way to say you are appreciated!

Tomorrow, Wednesday, and in my store on Thursday too, you have the chance to get those big bundles you’ve been eyeing or to make a dent in your wish list–I know I’ve got my eye on a few resources for the next school year.

My whole store will be 20% off and if you use the code in the image below (CELEBRATE) you get an EXTRA 10% off!!!   If you are teaching a topic for the first time and don’t know quite how to make it fun and engaging for students, check out my Activities for ANY Topic.

Treat yourselves and happy shopping!!!

teacher appreciation week

teacher appreciation

Thank you Pitch Clips for the sale image 🙂