This past week we had parent conferences. While there were many great things to share on both sides of the conversation, one of the things many talked about was the community circle. Why I was resistant to the idea in the beginning, the result has amazed me.
For those unfamiliar with the community circle, let me briefly explain. Our class gathers around to share about different things going on in our classroom, school or lives. We have all agreed on some basic ideas that allow us to share freely without judgement or fear. Some of the agreements we have include agreeing to keep what is shared among ourselves (with the exception of telling trusted adults like parents) and no using of names of others. We start by sharing a fun, quick topic such as what is your favorite number or color. Then comes the bigger topic. These range from tell about a time you have been bullied to when have you been dishonest and how did it make you feel. We always try to end on a more positive note such as what is your favorite food or superhero.
While I can't go into details about what is shared in the circle, I can tell you the difference it has made in the students, the class and the teachers. First, the students have opened up in ways that were completely unexpected. We now keep a tissue box in the middle of our circle. It's not always the topic you think will bring the tears that makes the students cry (sometimes sobbing happy tears). They are willing to share their sad thoughts/experiences as well as what they find happiness in, and it has changed how they feel about school in general. The kids are now talking more in front of their classmates outside the circle, even the shy ones who previously wouldn't have said a word. (At the conferences one of the parents even shared that her daughter has asked that they now have a circle at home. Love it!)
This has also allowed the class to become so much closer. I have a class of some pretty quirky (in all the best ways!) kids. The year started with a few grumblings of "I don't want to be in the group with ____" as they always say. We no longer hear that. I truly feel that having the trust that has come from the community circle has changed how they perceive each other. They are willing to work with others that were once "different" from them. The shared experiences brought about through the community circle topics has created a true community within our classroom.
The other change has been with the teachers. While I can't totally speak for my amazing student teacher (who I know enjoys the community circle as much as I do), I am different because of this shared experience. I am much more invested in what the students share. This is not to say that I didn't listen to them before this year. It creates a different understanding when you see kids being so raw in front of their peers and you get to be a part of it. More students are reaching out to me outside of the circle when life seems too tough for them. The teachers share in the circle as well, usually about our experiences when we were kids that go with the topic. Recently I opened up about my current life so the kids could see the adult perspective. I can tell you I teared up as much as the kids did.
No matter how big my class gets in future years or how tight the schedule becomes, I will find a way to fit in the community circle. In this day and age, I don't see how we can go without providing our students an outlet for their emotional needs. And I don't know how I can continue to teach them without being able to know them on this level any more.
Every few years I end up teaming with another teacher for various reasons and take a break from teaching one subject or another. For the last two years I took a break from math and science. Now that I am back to teaching these again, I wanted to change it things up.
Last school year I attended a PD session with John Stevens (of Classroom Chef and Table Talk Math). There were so many ideas to use in the classroom. Some that I have incorporated this year already are Estimation 180 (which gets the kids thinking about not only estimating, but how numbers work in the real world), Would You Rather Math (trying to decide between the large chocolate bunny for the sale price or 3 smaller bunnies for a low price each is such a great critical thinking problem!), and Which One Doesn't Belong (Hint: they're all special in math and non-math ways!). The students look forward to our 10-15 minutes of these each day. There is no worry about working out a problem or even showing our work. Just talking about the math they used to pick their answer. They love it. AND they're increasing their ability to solve math problems. (We also tried a few Jo Boaler activities as well, but that's a whole other post by itself!)
One of the biggest ways I am changing is to run math rotations instead of whole class teaching. For each part, the students are focusing on a different skill. Center one is our technology focus. They work on a website that allows them to work on the current set of standards we are using at their level (whether that be intervention, on grade level or enrichment) and basic fact practices. Center two is our PBL (project based learning activity). This center is the only reason that my rotations are grade level specific. The current PBL is a combination of social studies and math. Since 4th grade is about California and 5th is the United States the groups are separated. This is not something I do for most of our subjects or activities. The third center is math games. Last week the students played three digit war. They had a blast and focused on place value without even thinking about it. This week they are going to play Factor Captor, focusing on factors, prime/composite numbers, and multiplication facts. The last center is run by me. Sometimes this will be skill based, sometimes it will focus on number sense math talk. (Yes, it takes a LOT of class management and a few extra adults to be able to successfully run all of this!)
Over the summer I had the chance to participate in the Build Math Minds online tech conference. A big theme of the conference was about math talk. One of my favorites was from Steve Wyborney. I immediately decided to put what I had learned in his session into practice during my teacher center. We play the Splat game (see his website linked above for more information!). What I love about the game is that I have already figured out where my students are in their ability to understand math sense and we have only done this three rounds. Some students (both 4th and 5th grade) are only comfortable using addition and subtraction, some have moved to multiplication and division. Some are great with visuals but struggle when you ask them to put the same idea into a number sentence. Some of the students are great with the math but can only see it in their head and struggle with both visual or number representations of how they got their answers. Having students share in a small group has shown them that everyone can have a different way of getting the same answer and that we all have value. All of that in a 20 minute rotation! WOW!
The best part of all of this so far has come from our back to school night last week though. Three separate sets of parents came up to me saying that their child came home saying that they love math and that is something that has never happened. While three doesn't sound like a lot, it's three students who have previously felt they weren't "math" people in the past. That's enough of a reason to continue what I'm doing. I can't wait to see how they progress as we continue with our math talk.
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!
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