It's been almost a year since my last blog post. For a variety of reasons, both personal and professional, I was stuck and unable to share what was going on in my classroom and experiences. This year, however, is off to such a great start that I couldn't help but blog about it! Thank you to those past readers who stuck around! Hopefully this year will bring a lot of inspirational posts for you.
There are so many ideas running through my mind about what should be my first-in-awhile post. I think the biggest one that affects all of the rest is my class itself. Let's start with size. As a teacher in California, I have had an average class size of 30. Some years were as high as 38 (though thankfully only for a few weeks), while a couple of others had as low as 18 (My first class, had no idea how good I had it back then!) Because of a special grant, this year I am lucky to have a class of 22. Even though we have been in school a whole THREE days(!), I can already tell the difference it makes. Here are just a few reasons why.
1) Room arrangement - I see posts constantly of rooms a lot smaller than mine crammed with furniture, but with classes over 30, mine never seemed to have enough room. While having flexible seating helps, having less students means I have less furniture. We are able to spread out without having to worry about bumping into the next person just to walk across the room. I was able to keep the best of what I had to offer the students rather than making sure I had enough places for each student to sit or stand.
2) Activities- While I always try new things, it was a concern of too many students to be able to do it. For example, I have heard of classes doing morning meetings or community circles over the last few years. Having the ability to allow for all students to be able to share took on a whole new meaning with large class sizes when searching for an appropriate time period to squeeze it in. Not this year! We were able to do our first community circle the other day (saving that for it's own post!). In 20 minutes we were able to allow everyone the chance to answer three separate questions. There is very little chance I could have done it in the past with so many students. For other activities, I realize that mixing students in groups by personality will be harder due to smaller numbers, but that is such a small thing compared to what I WILL be able to do.
3) Student contact - I saved this one for last because I think it is the most important reason. I have tried to make contact with every student everyday as much as possible. Last year I implemented a morning greeting (high five, hand shake or fist bump) with each student as they come in. It was a start, but some days it was the most contact I would get with EVERY student. Now I have the ability to not only check on each one, but have full interactions with ALL of them every day. Students are no longer able to blend into the background. The other morning a student was having a hard time understanding what he was supposed to do. He was used to a very traditional way of thinking, and I was stretching his abilities. While he was academically able to do it, he wasn't comfortable with the change and it really affected his social-emotional ability to do it. With a larger class I would have noticed him, but wouldn't necessarily have been able to address exactly what was happening with him. Not only was I able to get to him, but I was able to spend enough time with him to show that he was not only capable of doing it, but that it could turn into something he was really good at. This made such a difference in his belief in himself and my thoughts on class size.
There have been a few articles that give research that shows class size doesn't make a difference. I have always been of the mind that it's the teacher that makes the biggest factor based on class management ability. While I do think it is still a big influence, so far my class this year is proving me wrong about the number. What I have been able to do with them in just the first three days has shown me that size really does matter!
It has been a very busy school year already. I’m not talking about all the activities happening in my classroom, those are saved for other posts and social media shares. I’m talking about how busy my weekends have been. It seems that many groups feel the fall is a great time to inspire educators with things to try in the classroom. I have spent hours sharing ideas for others to try in their own classrooms. While it is a lot of what should be my downtime, it’s why I share that matters the most.
At the last conference I attended, I spent time trying to convince a good friend of mine that she could easily present like I do. She has attended a few conferences with me over the years and always complains that there aren’t enough sessions for people who teach what she does. She is a rockstar teacher who does a lot with her class that is innovative, while maintaining the heart of what her kids need and deserve. She’s not shy so I have often wondered why she doesn’t share. Her reply, “because what do I have to share that others don’t already know or want to listen to?” Oh how wrong she is.
Often times teachers have been part of the culture of the teaching island or silo. Close your door and do your thing. While I completely think this is changing, many are still reluctant to share what they are doing. They love getting new information from others, but don’t think they are doing anything special.
When I started presenting outside my own staff, it was one of the scariest things I was thinking of doing. I’m one of those introverted people who can fake it pretty well IF I am talking about education. Like many teachers, talking in front of kids is a piece of cake, but other adults I didn’t know, was horrifying. My body reacted when my brain was saying I could do it. After the first time, I was still so uncomfortable I didn’t put in for anything outside my district for another 3 years. If I stayed within my area, there was a high chance I knew at least one person in the audience and then I could get through it. Even for my first presentation at a big conference, I kind of guilted my friends to attend so I could focus on them. (See Worth the Risk blog post) I just presented my 17th in person presentation (with another 10 online video sessions) and I still wonder if people will like what I have to say.
Through speaking with my friend, I realized there are a couple of reasons I do this. First, if I am not stepping out of my comfort zone, how can I ask the students to? It is something I continue to use in my class. (See Ok to Fail? Blog post) While my zone is getting bigger, I continue to stretch by presenting out of state and with ed tech companies. I bring these experiences to my class. Kids need to see that their teachers take risks as much as we ask them to.
The second reason is for the teachers. We all have something to say. A lot of times I learn just as much from the conversations in the hallways as the sessions I attend. It doesn’t matter if I am talking to a first year teacher or another veteran. We all have something to share with each other. There are pay for lesson sites created by because there is a need for those in the classrooms to share their ideas. Without our voices, education isn’t likely to change. We got into the profession to help students. It’s time we helped each other. It’s why I share.
Every year teachers make goals to help inform and improve their classroom practices. This year I decided to focus on the non-academic side of my teaching. Specifically, how our classroom can be a place where the kids feel supported both academically and emotionally. While this could be one more thing added to my teacher plate, I am finding little things often can make a big difference.
As I do every August, I was preparing for new activities that I hope would make my class more engaging/run smoother/etc… I came across an Edutopia article discussing a teacher who greeted her students at the door with special handshakes. It was not the first time I’d seen the article. But for some reason this year it stuck. I could so do this without affecting the flow of morning routine, an important part of the day. As parents watched on the first day of school, I explained to the students how we were going to personally greet each other one on one before they went into the classroom. It wasn’t going to be a lot, just a handshake or high five (student choice) and a good morning. Not a lot of effort, but a big reward. Students seemed a little unsure, parents seemed happy. Fast forward a month and a half into the school year. Students are no longer unsure. Most greet me enthusiastically every morning. I watch those who don’t carefully. Is it a shy student still struggling with eye contact or just a sleepy morning? Maybe it’s already a bad day and the student needs an extra special good morning from me. Who knew I would be able to gage a whole lot about each child with such a little thing. Ok, maybe a lot of people, but for me it was eye-opening. (Note to my readers, make sure to use hand sanitizer afterwards. Pretty sure this sped up my first cold of the school year, but didn’t stop me from continuing afterward!)
A new thing for this year was “Things I Wish My Teacher Knew About Me”. Every year I spend some time having the students play “get to know each other” activities. This year I spent time for them to share with me and my sharing with them. It was a simple Google Form where they told me three things about themselves and asked one question about me. It took less than 10 minutes for them to complete the form and another 5 minutes for me to answer their questions. There were so many things I got to learn that would have taken months of small interactions that I learned within minutes. The questions they asked me were enlightening as well. Many asked the easy questions like my favorite color. (Pink, but not the basic pink, but the color of pink when the sun is setting on the ocean. They were blown away. Great way to introduce writing with details!) Other questions centered on school specific activities like how much homework we would have or did we have to do AR points (No to both brought several cheers). There were a few more personal questions that hinted at anxieties students had about the upcoming school year. Another “get to know you” activity that I changed up this year was mentioned in a previous blog, Frayer A Classmate. Normally I would have the students interview each other and then keep the paper. By having them give it to me I found out things students might share with each other but not necessarily the teacher. Again a little thing that made a big difference.
Teachers are always seeking how to motivate students that don’t stretch our already thin budgets. One of the ways I do this is by creating passes for various activities, like go to recess early or listen to music while working. Cost me nothing but mean a whole lot. Something I used to do that I brought back this year was the Lunch With Teacher pass. Kids can “purchase” the pass through class points. One of my girls bought the pass last week and decided to cash it in. She brought a friend and the three of us sat eating lunch in the classroom. What a great experience. They shared about themselves and asked me questions. It took 20 minutes of my time but gave me more insight into these two girls than I would have found in months on classroom interaction. Because these girls have relatives in other classes, I got even more out of it. Not sure why I gave up the practice years ago. Probably something about needing my break time more than spending time with the students. Boy was I wrong.
One of the most meaningful changes I made came from #ThankfulThursday. Because of some things going on outside my classroom and multiple social media posts I had been seeing about how thankless teaching has become, I decided to bring some thankfulness into my class. Each Thursday students write a thankful note to someone showing how they are thankful for that person. They can sign it or make it anonymous. We write to adults in our lives, sometimes specifically on our campus and other times anyone they know, children and even ourselves. The ones to ourselves are the most meaningful to me. I write my letter to myself and share it with the class as well. These kids are so insightful. It’s the ones who don’t know what to write that I focus on. I can give them an extra praise or ask more meaningful questions when I see them. For the letters written to adults on our campus, I have been quietly passing them out into staff mailboxes. Staff are pleasantly surprised when they get these notes, many of them anonymous. They want to do something back for those students. I quietly explain how that is thoughtful, the point of the activity is to get students to realize how their is positivity in the world. Brings a smile to the teacher and to me as they try to figure out who sent it. So far students have been loving it and remind me if I forget what day of the week it is. Funny that the mostly tech classroom is using a paper and pencil activity to bring her class together in all the best ways.
As the year progresses, I hope to bring more positivity and strong class culture into the classroom to benefit everyone. Would love to hear your ideas on how you have brought it into your classroom!
20+ year teacher, mother of 2 kids and 2 dogs, wife, lover of all things M&M, interested in tech in the classroom, and changing up my teaching