Why Classroom Management Falls Apart

Why Classroom Management Falls Apart

Middle School Choir

Recently I was sitting in my classroom and thought of sixth-grade choir. I don’t know why I randomly thought of it- but I did. In my middle school, everyone had to take a music class but you elected which one you took. There was band, choir, and music appreciation. My parents said no to band because I quit the piano in fifth grade. Music appreciation was a lot of work with tests and quizzes and presentations. No thank you! In choir, you had to sing and perform one song (as a group) during the band concert. That seemed manageable to me. Middle School Natasha was all about doing the least amount of work as possible. So were many other students in my grade.

It was so obvious that choir was the easiest of the three choices. Our class was packed full of trouble makers looking for an easy out to music class. Since choir was the most popular option there were the most students in that class. I would say there were about 35 but I could be very off.

I don’t remember the name of the music teacher. She was quite small and even while standing could barely see over the top of the piano. She had a great voice and was a great singer but could not handle our class. I haven’t taught middle school in years (if student teaching a semester of middle school even counts) but I do know that if you give them an inch they take a mile. Let’s talk about why her classroom management fell apart. 

A note on the term "Classroom Management"

I really don’t like it. I much prefer to think of my classroom as a community. A community where everyone is welcome and has a seat at the table. I don’t manage my students. Just today I was scolded by a student because I interrupted another student during a class conversation. It was true. I had gotten used to interrupting as a teacher and it was a bad habit I needed to break. She reminded me that it isn’t respectful to not let someone finish their idea. I apologized and worked on this as my goal for the rest of the day.

The term management makes it seem as though the teacher is working to control the students. As a teacher, I don’t have control of my students. Gasp! I explain to my students that they can only control themselves. They are just as important to our classroom community as I am. I follow a lot of Responsive Classroom’s practices and building a community of learners is one of them. I wouldn’t say I really have classroom management strategies I have relationship building strategies. 

A 45 Minute Period

Let me just paint a picture of a 45-minute choir class just so you know what we’re working with. It was the last period of the day and kids arrived to class around 5-7 minutes late no matter what. To be honest, I even arrived to class late because it didn’t really matter if I showed up on time or not. It’s true! 

After we all arrived our teacher would take attendance. This was a long process where she was trying to learn all of our names. I would say the first 15 minutes were settling in and taking attendance. That’s one third of our class time.

Once attendance finished we would warm up. She attempted to lead us through a vocal warm-up and some sassy kids would change the warm-up. They made everyone laugh and then we would all be in a bit of trouble. 

During warm-ups, someone would ask to go to the bathroom. I will say that during middle school we had a very strict no bathroom during class time policy. Let’s talk about that one day because it is absurd! So we weren’t allowed to use the bathroom in class… yeah. Once one kid asked kids cycled in and out of class in groups of 2 or 3 for the duration of the class period. 

After warm-ups, we would begin to sing. The songs we were singing weren’t particularly interesting to us middle schoolers. So we would change the words and sing silly nonsensical things. We would goof around and laugh and start talking with one another. Then came the yelling. Our teacher would start screaming at us and then we would straighten out for a few minutes only to start the chit-chat up again a little while later. 

We might sing a few songs and then it was 5 minutes before the bell was to ring and we would pack up and wait at the door. Our teacher always yelled at us and we always pushed closer and closer to the door. The bell would ring and class would end. We ran out of the room talking very loudly.

Now, maybe your classes aren’t as catastrophic as this one was but let’s analyze where classroom management falls off the tracks

The Break Down

There was no teacher student relationship

Relationships are everything. I like to follow a Responsive Classroom approach to management. I have no idea what my choir teacher’s name was. I didn’t know anything about her. She knew absolutely nothing about me. I showed up to choir, she took attendance and then stood behind the piano and attempted to teach. There were no relationships. Kids who might be considered class clowns tried to form a relationship with her- not in the best of ways. Any questions about her life or who she was were not answered and were ignored. Kids don’t need to know everything about their teacher but they do need some sort of connection.

Figure out what you’re willing to share. So you don’t want to divulge your whole life story, that’s ok. My kids know very crafted bits about my life. They know about my sister and my love for Target. They know about my naughty dog in the US. They know the names of my childhood friends. I know things about them. I know who likes unicorns and who prefers Messi to Ronaldo, I know who likes to read fiction and who likes to read nonfiction. There has to be some sort of teacher/student relationship. Learning is built on relationships. The stronger the relationship between the students and the teacher the better. Teachers- you have to think that each child in your class can accomplish the impossible. They have to know that you care for them and respect them. 

Rules were stated but never enforced

We knew the rules. Arrive on time. Listen while the teacher is talking. Sing the correct lyrics to the songs. Rules were stated but there was no enforcement of rules. I notice this a lot when I’m struggling with classroom community and when others are. If there are never redirections or logical consequences for breaking the rules the limits begin to be tested. If I sing the wrong word one time and nothing happens, I’ll do it again and again. If I mock the directions you’re giving and you don’t tell me to stop I will keep going. Kids are always looking for boundaries and when they can’t find them they continue to push the limits.

Instead of rules try building expectations together as a class. We do this in my first-grade classroom. We have three main rules that tie in with our school’s guiding statements be respectful, be responsible, strive for excellence. We also have other expectations. We set up expectations for the carpet, for the bathroom, for getting a drink. There are expectations and there are procedures. Just recently kids noticed that kids were throwing their paper towels on the ground instead of making sure they made it into the garbage can. They asked to hold a class meeting to talk about it. We did and it hasn’t been a problem since. Kids need ownership over their classroom and creating expectations (that are upheld all the time, not sometimes) together is a great way to start. 

Behaviors were never dealt with until they were too extreme 

15 kids all asking to go to the bathroom one right after the other wasn’t a problem until literally every kid in the class went to the bathroom and we just cycled in and out. True story- we had very strict bathroom rules in middle school. (I once peed my pants in 7th grade because of this policy and was denied going to the bathroom several times. This has stuck with me and I never ask kids to hold it. This is a story for another day. And, I wasn’t the only one that happened to. It was frequent in our middle school. Once the bathrooms were even locked… ok, saving it for later) Singing the wrong lyrics didn’t really matter until suddenly we were being yelled at. Small behavior problems were never stopped because they were small. Does it matter if one kid sings the wrong lyrics? Yes, it actually does. 

Try dealing with little problems on a daily basis. Deal with problems right when they occur no matter how small. Dealing with problems when they are small and manageable is much preferred to waiting until they get out of control. Once behaviors are extreme they’re harder to rein in. Even though a student talking at the same time as the teacher seems like a small problem, if it isn’t dealt with right away, it is going to turn into a big problem. Set boundaries and stick to them. Enforce expectations consistently. 

Students Talked At the Same Time As the Teacher

When students are talking at the same time as anyone no one’s really being heard. Teachers talk to share important information so if a student is talking at the same time they are missing something and so are other students. What may start as whispers will surely grow if it isn’t stopped. Students will then become frustrated with each other and could start suggesting classroom management strategies to deal with other students. No good will come from this. 

Teach that only one person can speak at a time. Students need to listen to you but they also need to listen to each other. Deal with these small behaviors right when they happen. Don’t wait until it is too late to course correct. Sometimes simple redirection is needed. Sometimes I have class conversations around listening. We need to teach listening skills and expectations in the classroom. If it isn’t going well then teach it again.  

Yelling was the Only Strategy For Anything

Yelling. Not the greatest tool to use. After some reflection on my own teaching, I realized that I yell when I am tired, when I am cranky, when I am unprepared, or when I need to take a break. Yelling doesn’t work. Maybe at the moment the first time you yell it works but not really. Did you notice that the situations when I yell were all because something was wrong with me not the students? We got screamed at for getting out of our seats.

Actually… I just remembered Freshman Year Chemistry. Our teacher was a chemist turned teacher with no teacher training. He yelled so much that we just tuned it out. Mr. C then resorted to bringing pots to throw at the ground to make a large bang to get our attention. It only worked for a little bit of time. Yelling and extreme actions only work for a short amount of time. They don’t fix the deeper issues. 

Take a deep breath. Do a little reflecting and notice the times when you yell. I know I can get short with students when I am stressed or when I am not as prepared as I should be. In college, I realized not getting enough sleep made me a cranky teacher. Once you know what triggers you to yell do your best to avoid those things. I now go to sleep at a respectable hour. I plan my lessons in advance and when things go wrong I learn for next time. I step away from my classroom if needed when I am stressed. Take care of yourself. Whatever you need to take care of yourself and remind yourself yelling just creates more chaos it doesn’t create solutions. 

Nothing Was Consistent

Sometimes rules were enforced. Sometimes we had to sing the songs. Sometimes you could do whatever you want. Somedays we followed a structure to class and sometimes we didn’t. Inconsistency is a huge problem. My first year teaching I wasn’t consistent at all. I didn’t always follow the schedule, I sometimes laughed at bad behavior when I should not have, and sometimes I didn’t enforce expectations. Listen we’re all a little inconsistent from time to time but that creates unpredictability in students. If one day you’re using compliments to encourage students and the next day they’re earning tickets and then they’re earning points- the classroom management isn’t consistent. Kids can’t follow along to inconsistent strategies. 

Create structure and stay consistent. Show your students that you are someone who is reliable. Someone who enforces every transgression in the same manner. If any kid shoves another kid the same thing happens. If any kids shout out in the middle of a lesson the same thing happens. Keep consistent and follow a structure. Providing your students with predictability is always a good thing. It allows them to focus on the task at hand and it helps them set boundaries to understand the class expectations. 

No Follow Through

There has to be follow through. Seriously, if I say that we will have a quick chat after I give directions then we are going to have a quick chat. If I say we are writing an email to mom and dad then we are writing the email to mom and dad. If I say you have to spit out your gum then you have to spit out your gum. Follow through is essential. I know that if I don’t follow through I lose credibility and if I lose that then I have nothing left. 

Make guarantees, not empty threats. In college, once I heard a campus safety officer explain to a woman that he doesn’t make empty promises, he makes guarantees. This needs to be the same motto for classroom management. Don’t tell a student something is going to happen and then not follow through. That creates inconsistencies. Follow through all the time, in similar ways, with every student. Don’t worry about being well liked. I’ve noticed that students like teachers who are reliable and fair. Be reliable and fair. 

Whole class punished for some

As one of the “good kids” most of my life when the whole group is punished because of one or a few students it is the absolute worst. The bathroom policy I mentioned before came about because some kids were always going to the bathroom and the punishment resulted in several kids peeing their pants in middle school. Why was I not allowed to use the bathroom because some other students abused the privilege? We experience this as teachers too. A whole staff meeting about abusing sick days when really only 2 teachers are doing it. A whole email chain about postings students on social media when it is really one person. It’s frustrating and it isn’t fair.

Try natural and logical consequences for those involved. At a school, I worked at we were trained on Love and Logic. I didn’t like the whole premise but I did like the natural and logical consequences piece. This also ties into Responsive Classroom. The consequence needs to fit the offense. First, determine if a consequence is really necessary. Sometimes procedures need to be retaught and there needs to be a teaching moment, not a consequence. Sometimes consequences are needed. Taking away recess from a student who refused to tie their shoes doesn’t make sense. Having a student clean up all the water they spilled on the ground is a logical consequence. Having them miss PE because of it doesn’t make sense. Make sure the consequence is needed and matches the offense. 

Reflections

What are your biggest classroom management tips?

Where have you shown the most growth in classroom management? (For me, it’s consistency!) 

Share your thoughts and experiences below and let’s grow together! 

Changing Our Thinking: Economy of Language

Changing Our Thinking: Economy of Language

There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing teachers using economy of language in the classroom.

 

Why We Talk

That seems like a very silly heading… why do teachers talk? Well, we talk because we need to say things to students. What sorts of things are teachers saying to students? The role of a teacher used to be primarily talking… talking as teaching. Teachers were viewed as the people who had the knowledge and students were viewed as the people who needed the knowledge. Classrooms were filled with teacher talk. In my head, I was just picturing a one-room schoolhouse with a teacher lecturing and having students repeat after her but even when I was in elementary school my teachers talked more than the students. 

My teachers talked and I listened, followed directions, took notes, completed assignments and talked at specific times. My talking wasn’t considered a priority in the classroom. Students talking was often considered a distraction or a waste of time.  

What's the Problem?

The person doing the talking is the person doing the learning. We are social beings and meaning is constructed through talk. Picture a young child around 3-4 all that child does is talk! Kids talk talk talk and as they talk they are making sense of the world around them. They’re figuring things out. People build meaning through talk.

Balanced literacy builds upon the child’s known and a child’s oral language is their known. When teachers are the only ones doing the talking or are the ones doing the majority of the talking children aren’t being given their own time to make meaning of what is happening in the classroom, of what they’re learning. 

Whoever is doing the talking is the one doing the learning. 

What to do Instead

Build in talk time. I build in time for conversations in every single period of every single day. Here is how I build it into my day.

Classroom Conversation- Each morning we have a conversation. We practice talking without raising hands. Together we set guidelines and we learn how to enter a conversation, how to encourage someone else to share in a conversation and how to end a conversation. These conversations are student-led and I do not speak during them. 

Turn and Talks- When teaching something new offer up time for the students to turn and talk with one another. Listen in as the students share ideas with one another. You’ll quickly be able to hear misconceptions, building upon ideas, and questions they might have. Allowing them to talk through things that are being taught allows them to build their understanding of what is being taught.

Read Aloud- Gosh! Let them talk during read aloud. Let them interrupt and ask their questions. Allow time for them to wonder. Ask questions to get them thinking and beginning to comprehend. Let them build meaning together.

Class Leaders- Give them a voice outside of learning time. In my classroom students frequently make announcements to one another. These announcements are as simple as, “someone didn’t push in their chair. We all need to push in our chairs so the classroom is safe.” or “I just found a marker without a cap. We need to find it and then we need to make sure our caps are clicked.” Teachers often make these sort of announcements but why not allow your kids to make them. They should feel empowered and want to take ownership of their classroom. 

Whispering In- During conversations, book clubs or even guided reading groups I often whisper to a student to share a question or idea instead of sharing in myself. This seems weird but it works. At first, when I was crawling around the edge of our conversation circle I felt so stupid. As I whispered in, “say why do you think Edward felt that way” during conversations and listening to kids parrot it out did not convince me I was doing what was best. BUT after a while, after coaching in with my quieter students and having them share what I was thinking they started sharing their own thoughts. As a conversation is going on I am listening in and I am also whispering a conversation with a student who might not chime in unless prompted. I am checking in on their learning and pushing them to share an idea. Any idea. When they are sharing an idea that isn’t their own they feel safer. If someone disagrees it is still ok. Whispering in has empowered my students who might just sit out to lean in. 

What I've Learned

Limiting my teacher voice in the classroom didn’t happen overnight. Let me tell you that there are still days where I do the majority of talking in my classroom. Nobody is perfect but on those days I am more conscious of what I am doing. I am reminding myself that I need to hear my students’ voices more than my own. I am checking in on student voices that I don’t always hear and together we are building community and growing in knowledge through conversation. 

How do you promote oral language and communication in your classroom? How do you ensure that students are talking and that you are listening? What questions do you have about limiting your teacher voice? Let me know in the comments below. 

…but are they engaged? Using An Engagement Survey

…but are they engaged? Using An Engagement Survey

Student Engagement is Essential

Student engagement is key to learning. I know that if my readers aren’t engaged in the work of readers they aren’t going to grow. The same goes for my writers, scientists, mathematicians… if they aren’t engaged they’re not going to grow. Student engagement can be difficult to study. Every once in a while I complete an engagement survey with my students. To complete this survey I usually just use a blank piece of paper sitting next to me but I have attached a freebie engagement survey sheet at the end of this post. 

Completing an Engagement Survey

Shown above is an example of an engagement survey. I keep mine simple. After all of my students have found spots to work I jot down their names along the left-hand side. I generally jot them down in the order they are sitting in. That makes it easy to do a quick sweep and record the information. Then I glance up about every 3-5 minutes and jot down what students are doing. This one I have detailed jots of what each child was doing. Sometimes I just use an x to mark off-task or a green crayon to mark on task. I switch it up depending on what I am looking for. In the made-up example above I was looking for engagement in the writing process. That’s why it is more detailed. During this time I’m not walking around and watching over all of my students I am carrying on business as usual. As I confer or lead small groups I look up and around and jot down what everyone is doing. Usually, I have a code for working with the teacher and take note of that too. 

Analyzing the Data & Determining Next Steps

Now that you have all the data you have to analyze it. Right now I want my first graders to sketch before they write. It is how they plan their stories. I can note right away that 9 students (half of this class) didn’t start with sketching. Four of them started with writing. I might want to pull a small group and remind them why sketching and making a plan is so important for authors. 

The last time I checked in on them all students were actively engaged in writing. Perhaps I notice that it takes some students 10 minutes before they engage in the work for the day. Maybe I am not setting them up for success at the end of my mini-lessons. Maybe I need to hold those students back at the carpet and send them off with a more concrete plan than the other students. 

Sharing the Data

I explain very clearly to my students that I don’t take secret notes on them. If I complete an engagement survey with them I always offer to share the results with those who are curious. Sometimes I choose to share with everyone. Usually, everyone is quite curious to see. The next day I might hold mini-conferences with each student to discuss their data together and work together to create a more successfully engaged class. 

Try It Out

Click here to download your own FREEBIE! 

This will help you complete your own engagement survey in your classroom. Pick a subject, maybe one where student engagement is lacking. You might notice something you hadn’t noticed before.

Let me know how it goes!

Balanced Literacy: Conferring

Balanced Literacy: Conferring

Welcome back to our balanced literacy series! Today the focus is on conferring. All the kids are independently reading and now it is your turn to teach! Let’s dive into how this works!

You might want to read Planning for Teaching During Independent Work Time before reading this post. It breaks down how to decide which teaching move to use during workshop. Conferring is just one option.

Don’t forget to stop by every Tuesday to gain a better insight into using a balanced literacy framework within your classroom! 

What is Conferring?

Conferring is one-on-one with just a student and a teacher. The teacher typically follows the research, decide, compliment, teach method. First, the teacher will observe and research the skills the reader has and does not have yet. The teacher will decide what teaching is best for this student next. Then the teacher will compliment the reader to reinforce a skill they have. Next, the teacher will teach a new skill and practice it a few times with the reader before the reader is left on their own. This lasts about 5-7 minutes. 

How Do I Start?

Grab a small post it and make a t-chart. On one side write notice and on the other side write teach. Now, choose a student to confer with. Sometimes I observe a bit before I walk over to the student. Do they have a book out, do they have a pencil, what are they doing with most of their time? I jot down any sort of observable behavior I see. 

Research

Research is the first phase of conferring. Here the teacher sees the student working independently. The teacher can see what skills, strategies, and behaviors the student knows,  almost knows and, doesn’t know yet. At times this last part will be the most obvious. Sometimes we research and just see lots and lots the student doesn’t know. The mini-lessons we’ve taught that they aren’t using or the previous conferring that isn’t being used. When this happens, look closer. You can’t build off of the unknown, only the known. Read more about the Zone of Proximal Development here

I like to observe a bit before I walk over and sit down next to the student. I also teach my readers and writers to keep working when I sit down next to them. Sometimes I dig in and read previous pages in their story or look at their reading log or post-its. After I’ve gotten a feel for what they’re doing it is time for me to talk to them. Usually, silent observation only takes about a minute. I like to ask what they’re working on as a reader or writer. I’ve found that opening line to bring forth the best conversations. Different teachers use different things. Try out a few lines to find your conferring style and see what works best for you. 

Sometimes I ask guiding questions related to our mini-lesson. At times I’ll ask what they’ve tried that didn’t work out recently or what they’ve tried out that was a big success. It all depends on the reader. The questions you want to ask will tell you what the reader can do and what they need help with. That is what you want to determine.

During the research phase (and every phase) jot down some notes. Record keeping is so important in balanced literacy… and all of teaching. I like to keep open notes. This means that I will always share my jots with the students. It can stress students out if they know you’re writing about them and you don’t show them what you’re writing. Imagine if your principal observed you and jotted down lots of things and then never shared them. It would frustrate me so I make sure not to do the same to my students. After sharing notes a few times students don’t continue to ask. 

Decide

This phase is sort of incorporated into research but it is significant enough to have its own section. Once you know what you can compliment and teach the research phase is over… and so is the decide phase! A lot of times this phase happens quickly at the end of research. You’ll see something the reader/writer is doing to reinforce and you’ll see something you want to teach them. 

The teaching point is something that the student is almost doing. They’re right on the edge but they just need some tips to finally do it. This teaching point is something you want the students to be able to complete independently forever and ever (with a bit of reinforcement) for the rest of their reading and writing lives. Keep that in mind as you choose the teaching point. It shouldn’t be something that they don’t know and aren’t even close to doing. That is much too big for conferring. Think what is one step this reader/writer can take toward this large goal today. One step they can take on today by themselves.

Sometimes you can’t decide on a teaching point. Sometimes you sit and observe a reader and jot down a lot but nothing comes to mind. If this happens, compliment and then walk away. Plan later for that reader/writer and then confer with them another day. Don’t waste their time. It happens to all of us. 

Compliment

The compliment serves several purposes during conferring. It helps build a positive relationship between you and your reader/writer. We all like to hear positive things about what we’re doing. It helps readers and writers recognize the good work they’re doing and encourages them to continue that good work. It also butters them up to hear something that they need to work on. Let’s be real, we all like to hear something good before we hear something that we need to work on. Sometimes my compliment will lead to my teach especially if I want to build off of the good things that are happening. 

Every teacher has a different way to document their compliments. I usually put a star by it on my conferring sheet. Sometimes I’ll circle it. Some teachers jot it under the teach and just know the first bullet is always the compliment. Everyone does it differently. Find what works for you. Below I jotted down the language I might use. Remember, this language might not feel natural to you- try out a bunch of stuff to figure out what works for you. You want to come off genuinely during the entire conference so using someone else’s words might not work out. You’ll get it with more and more practice.

Teach

Now the reader has heard a compliment and they are ready to hear something to work on. Our readers and writers will get the hang of the pattern of a conference so after the compliment they know they’ll get a tip to make them an even better reader or writer. I always use language to explain that all readers and writers are good but we can become even better. Also… a bit of a tangent here but I share my reading and writing life with my class so they can see my strengths and struggles too. Ok back to the teach. 

Your teaching point should follow the same sort of format as a mini-lesson teach. It should be quick, focused and explicit. 

Teacher: “I want to teach you one thing today that is going to help you as a reader. Readers pay attention to many details while they read a book. One thing they keep track of is the characters in a book. They get to know them just like they are old friends and can predict what they’re going to do before they do anything. To keep track of characters at the beginning of a book or series. You may want to make a post-it for each character, just in the beginning, to help you keep track. Let’s do that here. Who are the main characters?”

Student: “Jack and Annie” *inspired by Magic Tree House*

Teacher: “Ok, let’s list Jack here and Annie here. Let’s list down some things we know about Jack here. What do you know about Jack?”

Student: “I don’t know.” Here a student might say something. If you already know this is going to be the response skip the question.”

Teacher: “Let’s read a bit to help us figure out what we know about Jack. We can pay attention to what the characters say and how they act. That will teach us a bit about who they are.” 

This goes on until we have a few things for Jack. Then the teacher could prompt the student to try Annie on their own.

The teacher will want to circle back to this student at the end of the book but before the student reads the next book in the series. Students should know that Jack likes to follow the rules and complete the mission according to the rules every time. Annie is more impulsive. She likes to explore and is more adventurous than Jack. Annie always puts them into some sort of danger at the last moment and Jack is so worried. They always escape just in time. Knowing these things about Jack and Annie will help the reader of any Magic Tree House book. 

Knowing how to get to know book characters by paying attention to their actions and their words is a skill that a reader could use in every story they encounter.

Teacher: “I want to teach you one thing that will help you become a better writer. Writers use paragraphs when they write to organize information for their reader. Let’s take a look in this story to see how writers use paragraphs.” Here I would pull out a class read aloud or a familiar story to show paragraphs. 

Teacher: “You can see that each paragraph is about one topic. It helps to organize information so that the reader can read it easier. Can you imagine if this whole page was just words without breaks? It would be sort of hard to read. Do you see that each paragraph starts on its own line and the first word is pushed in a little bit, that’s called indented. Now, we won’t rewrite your whole story but let’s figure out where we could make a paragraph.” The teacher and student could reread the story so far and add a mark where each paragraph should begin. Perhaps this student is one sentence into what should be a new paragraph, then you might consider having the writer erase and start a new paragraph. Don’t make them erase lots and lots though, that’s discouraging. 

Circle back to this writer before the end of workshop to check in and see if they have paragraphs. You might even want to sit with them and watch them write until it is time for a new paragraph. It all depends on how much support the writer needs taking on this new knowledge. Make sure to compliment them when they do! 

Using paragraphs can be a hard thing to master. If we push students into paragraphs before they’re ready they use them infrequently and often incorrectly. Using paragraphs is a huge transferable skill. Often we teach students a number of sentences in a paragraph but writers don’t count sentences. Do you think J.K. Rowling went back through her paragraphs to make sure they were 3-5 sentences in length and somethings seven? No! That isn’t what writers do. Teaching paragraphs through writing conferences when a student is ready will ensure greater success and less formulaic understanding. We want writers to understand what they do and why so they can transfer that knowledge into new contexts. 

Link

Now you’ve complimented, taught and you’re ready to leave your reader/writer behind. You might want to leave behind a reminder of the conference. Sometimes I re-create a piece of our anchor chart to leave behind on a post-it. Other times I leave a small note of encouragement. I make sure the reader/writer can continue their work as I leave them with high levels of success. 

Now… I used educlips clipart here but I don’t just draw like this on the go. These would most likely (100%) be stick people. Don’t feel like your artifact has to look this beautiful! 

The lines here would probably be scribbles. I might want to label the new line and indent if I think the writer might need them. I also refer the writer to a page to check if they aren’t sure. This helps to create independence in the new skill. 

Are You Ready to Confer?

This week choose just one or two students in your class to confer with. Grab a post-it, make a t-chart and start. Your conferences won’t always go perfectly- I’ve been conferring for over 8 years and mine still don’t always go according to plan. Just try it and then keep going. I highly recommend starting out with compliment only conferences. These might be the least intimidating. All you have to do is find one thing to reinforce with the student through conferring. 

Click here to download free conferring templates!

Leave your questions and comments below! I can’t wait to hear how conferring is working out for you! 

Changing Our Thinking: Assessing, Not Assuming

Changing Our Thinking: Assessing, Not Assuming

There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing the importance of not making assumptions about students and using assessment to guide our instruction.

 

How We Discuss Students

Kevin is good at math. DaQuain is good at science. Kara is good at reading. Amaria is good at writing. Teachers used to define students by what they were good at and what they aren’t good at. Recently I heard a colleague say, “And she is really good in math… you know, even though she is a girl.” This came out not even moments after I was praised for including STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) in my class this year. “It is so good for the boys. They really need that time. The girls like it too…” There is a real danger in categorizing kids and then holding kids to the label that has been applied. This becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Teachers end up pushing kids harder in the subjects they are good at and creating excuses for them in the areas they aren’t so good at. I’m sure that as a child I was labeled good at reading and not good at math. I knew it. Teachers had lower expectations of me in math and I had lower expectations of myself. 

We need to believe that all students can learn every subject. All students can do challenging things. All students can learn. Our learners might have different learning styles and they might become proficient at different times but all learners can learn. 

What's the Problem?

Recently I completed an addition fact inventory of my students. We sat down one on one and I asked them different facts. What is one plus four? What is six plus zero? I took note of what they did. Could they answer the question? Could they answer the question within five seconds? This is part of our schools definition of fluent. Could they explain how they solved the fact? What strategy did they use? This information was so helpful to me as a teacher. My role in the assessment process was simply to document- yes they did, no they did not, what did they do. I was as objective as I could be. Later I was asked by a peer why I assessed everyone. Why didn’t I just assess the kids who were bad at math? 

The assumption that some of my students are bad at math and some are not is inherently problematic BUT the fact that we would assess students only based on our assumptions is extremely problematic. Listen, there is a saying about assuming things. Do you know it? If you assume you make an ass out of you and me. Just look at the spelling… Ok, inappropriate jokes aside, assuming is so harmful to student learning. 

While completing this fact inventory one of the students who might be considered the highest struggled the most. Had I assumed this student knew because he almost always has an answer first would have meant I missed gaping holes in his understanding of numeracy. One of my students who takes the longest to answer math problems and might be considered low actually had the best strategies for solving. This student consistently structured to five or ten and could always explain how they arrived at an answer. 

In reading, the same applies. I have a student who is quite a high decoder but while reading has very limited comprehension. This child would be considered a good reader and might not be assessed because she can decode. When kids miss comprehension questions while doing B.A.S. I can’t say, “Oh they know. They just made a mistake.” If kids actually know, they’ll do it. Sure, everyone has off days but, is this mistake due to an off day or a lack of understanding somewhere. I always try act as though it is a lack of understanding. Giving the benefit of the doubt during assessments doesn’t help student learning. 

The problem with making assumptions about our students is that we’ll usually get it wrong. When we make incorrect assumptions we are missing out on opportunities to teach. 

What to do Instead

Remain Objective

The most important thing I know about assessing students is go in with an empty mind. Try to be as objective as possible. Notice what students can and cannot do. Act as though this student belongs to another teacher. What do you notice? What can this child do independently? What understandings does this child have? What partial understandings does this child have? Are there any misunderstandings? These are the questions that will assist us as teachers. 

Assess Everyone

Don’t skip over kids because you’re sure they know. Assess all of your students. If you think they have an understanding and then see that they do have understanding- great! If you think they have an understanding but see that there are some misunderstandings- great! Now you can use this information to guide your instruction. Just the other day I noticed a student drawing tallies to solve a math problem but then counting by ones. This is information I can use to teach. I now know we need to work on structuring to fives. What do you know, this student doesn’t know how to count by fives past 20. Ok, now we’re talking. Now this is information that I can use. Imagine if I saw tallies and then just assumed this student knew how to use them. 

Don’t Give Kids the Benefit of the Doubt

Just, please. Recently during reading assessments I had a student who retold every story backwards. The student always started with the ending and then retold back to the beginning. This is something I hadn’t noticed before. I immediately thought, he must know. Why is he doing this today? If had just made an assumption and given him the points on the assessment he didn’t earn I would have missed this opportunity. Later while speaking with him he said he likes to start with what he remembers first. We later read a story about how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Being able to retell a story in the order it happened is an important skill. We can work on this skill now. Giving him the benefit of the doubt would have meant a missed opportunity for learning. 

Understand That a Single Assessment is a Snapshot

I know this is totally cliché. I know but I am still going to say it. One assessment is just a single picture of learning in one particular moment and setting. You need to take each assessment as fact but don’t forget to put it back into the larger context of learning. 

Maybe today one of my students didn’t know four divided by two when I asked on the fact inventory but can always do it in class. I watch for the next few days and notice that this student consistently demonstrates proficiency. After observing I notice that the student does know how to divide by two. I can ask him the problem again and see or maybe I just decide he knows based on what I have observed and move on. Just make sure that this decision is based on something concrete and not an assumption. It is never bad to give additional practice just to check.

What I've Learned

Assessing students can be a tricky thing. I know that it is best to try to remove all bias when assessing. Look into their misunderstandings and try to understand where they are coming from. It’s tricky but I know that with practice it gets easier.