Hallowe’en Decorations

I finally put up my Canadian Tire Halloween decorations up in the classroom today! Nothing too fancy, just a trail of plastic spiders, as well some mini pumpkins hanging from the ceiling.

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I initially didn’t mean to write too much other than that, but I had a realization … during my first few years in the north, I felt too stressed to care about this kind of stuff.

It was my first time teaching as a full-year teacher in a public school. I had four courses in total: one which I had previously taught, but three others I was unfamiliar with. I struggled on a daily basis with classroom management and was constantly tired. There were many days I absolutely dreaded  going to work.

I can`t say that I liked my job much at this point. Part of this was a lack of confidence too, as I was intimidated by `perfect teachers` who always had perfect-looking classrooms. I knew I had a knack for the actual process of teaching kids, but being able to juggling it all – running a full classroom with minimal issues, always having everything properly laminated and hole-punched, having beautifully decorated doors every month – none of these things were even in my peripheral vision. I was just trying to figure out my job!

It slowly dawned on me that it was silly for me to compare myself to others. In fact, I realized that it was simply crippling to do so. Only when I decided to stop comparing myself could I start feeling relaxed. And as long as I performed at my best, that`s what counts. We wouldn`t be able to progress anywhere if we constantly used other colleagues as a professional yardstick.
Fast forward to today, my high school classroom is running much more smoothly. My students are more independent, there’s less shouting and I have very few behaviour issues to deal with. I don’t spend my recess picking up everything off the floor (although I still have to deal with candy wrappers). My stinkeye works quite well and my students trust me. Altogether, my skills as a classroom teacher are becoming more well-rounded. I can confidently say I feel happier on a day-to-day basis and WANT to decorate. And why not? A little bit of colour does brighten up the room!

Reshaping an Environment and Reshaping Behaviour

Our computer lab has not had a very good reputation the past few years. Kids will goof off and play games towards the end of the school day. This happens most frequently towards the end of the year, when teachers are exhausted and burnt out. Substitute teachers might also use the room when they are at a loss of what to do.

Poor design can also shape poor behaviour too. The computers were previously arranged in two long, cumbersome rows. Therefore, instructors often awkwardly run back and forth, down the narrow alleys, with kids switching to games the moment the teacher was far away in the next row.

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ABOVE: Image from Yok Artik Ya

During the summer, the computer technician rearranged the computers; he created a better configuration that made it more conducive to monitoring delinquent behaviours. The technician placed all the machines along the walls with only two in the middle so that a supervisor can – at a quick glance or turn of the head – see who is working and who is not!

This environment places all students at an equal level and makes them accountable to each other. No one receives more attention from the teacher because they are physically more accessible nor can any individual hide away in a corner.

Clarkson Elementary Computer Lab
Image from Ninjas in Pyjamas

 

Since the end of August, I have worked tirelessly to reset the tone of our lab; I make it explicit each and every time we enter the computer lab that we ONLY do hard work and learning. We never, ever go to the computer lab to goof off. All the designated periods I choose are in the morning, when your mind is at it’s best state to tackle a difficult job. If they want to play a game, they are allowed to once all their work is complete.

Like the classroom, I’ve also created a protocol as we enter the space; each student picks up their “independent study” booklets from a basket, according to their individualized “ninja  numbers”.

The booklets are simply a piece of folded construction paper:

Students always refer to the booklets and not the teacher for instructions. This is considered independent study time (as the booklets are titled). If they ask me what they’re working on, I will silently point at their papers. It may sound harsh, but I am conditioning them not to rely on me.*

Each week, there are a set of tasks for them to complete. Often, they are either reviewing vocabulary card set on Quizlet.com or going through the science modules on Facile Learning:

You can see that I don’t give more than 2 or 3 tasks. The tasks mainly require students to review concepts they’ve recently learned, but they will never be asked to teach themselves from scratch. A well-chosen task helps put their minds in the zone of proximal learning. The “sandbox” time also allows them to reassess information that they learned and to strengthen or create neural connections.

Again, I try hard not to help or prompt them. What ends up happening is that they start off independently, but begin to discuss and help each other when they are stuck. I allow them to discuss questions and possible solutions, as they will get randomized questions when their quiz starts (to prevent copying and cheating). Giving these ELLs an opportunity to practice and articulate scientific and mathematical ideas in both their first** and second language really allows them to deepen their understanding more than I ever could, in my nagging, annoying voice!

On occasion, we do a fun open-ended Desmos activity together, just to switch things up. Additional opportunities to explore math concepts through play and gamified activities reinforce a growth mindset, since these activities are open-ended tasks that do not have concrete solutions.

So after I have explained all the intention that goes into these periods, I have to share a silly anecdote!

This morning, I reminded the Grade 10s there are 9 days left until term 1 report cards. I told them to finish their science modules #1.1 to #1.5, as the multiple choice quizzes are a part of my assessments.

Now, as a teacher, you learn from experience to expect trouble. You are trained to imagine the worst case scenario and be prepared at a moment’s notice. You have kids cutting their fingers off with safety scissors or wrestling each other when you least expect it (sometimes you get an eraser in your eye and you burst into tears and run out due to embarrassment).

And I have to say, I don’t think I’m normally on edge. But I kept expecting something to happen … rather in an anxious and frenzied state! When was chaos going to start?!

Yet as I looked around me, however, I found myself in disbelief, amazed at how quiet, focused and hardworking the entire class was! I kept expecting them to start complain and give up, possibly leave the classroom in a huff.

And they just chugged on. Nearly everyone was sitting quietly, focused on the screen. Very few students were looking at their smartphones. A few wandered around chatting and helping each other out. I heard the word ‘boron’ and ‘valence electrons’ being muttered. It was incredible.

It was like I wasn’t even there.

So things were good, I kept reassuring myself. The waters are calm.

It’s really important to be thankful for the days like this, because good teaching is invisible and we often forget this when all that pays off.

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*In the classroom, I have a rule called “Ask 3 Before Me”. I will not answer simple questions and tell them to check with their table partners.

**East James Bay Cree

How Far We’ve Come

About six years ago, I was a naive teacher who was starting out my formal teacher career in an inner-city school in east end Toronto. My first lesson involved showing Grade 7 students that the interior angles of any triangle add up to 180 degrees. I made lots of newbie mistakes. I gave out the scissors first. I didn’t instruct the kids not to make straight cuts on the angles. In the end, no one was listening and everyone had hacked up triangles, but not a single child knew what was going on! It was a pretty big disaster and I laugh now when I think back on it.

Fast forward to 2016.

I pull this lesson out for a Friday morning before the bell. I know what to do and how to execute it all without needing to write it down. I know what materials I need and I can see all the pitfalls ahead before they even happen. A lot happens subconsciously now.

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And it’s amazing to be reminded of how far you’ve come. Often, we don’t realize our own progress. We can take our skills for granted. At the odd moment, you are reminded of how long you’ve been in the classroom.

It was nice to have a reminder of my progress this morning when B., a tutor who has been helping in my math classes for the past three weeks, gave me a compliment.  I don’t recall what was said prior, but he told me that my classroom was the best math class he had ever been to. My students are engaged and are listening. They are focused and they are working. That is not the norm, he said.

I felt flattered and to be honest, I can’t remember if I said thank you in return! To be clear, I enjoy positive feedback, but I have, in the past, a terrible habit of dismissing compliments when I receive them. I will brush them off, I won’t look people in the eye or I will silently stare back awkwardly in silence. Of course, we all like compliments. I simply just don’t know how to react to them!

But it was nice. I appreciated it. And it just made it that much more of an excellent teaching day!