Observing Students

Today I was reminded of the importance of taking a step back to observe students. Yetta Goodman calls it kid watching. Others may call it listening in. Whatever you call it make sure to take a few minutes every day to observe and record your observations while students are working and interacting with each other. You will discover things you had not noticed before and you will get insights that will help your teaching go more smoothly giving you the perspective you need to be a better teacher.

Today I watched my class interacting with our artist-in-residence. I was particularly interested in one student who often has a difficult time controlling his responses when we are working in a whole group setting. I rarely get to finish what I am saying before this child will interrupt with a comment of his own. Often these comments are funny or silly and they don’t contribute to our collective learning process. When he is not interrupting, he is off to the side seemingly withdrawn. Today as I watched I noticed how this child’s attention was controlled by his own running commentary on everything the artist was saying. These comments were often accompanied by gestures and sounds that oddly enough did not distract the rest of the class from focusing on the artist’s lesson.

After the children sat down this student was able to complete the art assignment as well as anybody else in the class. The artist, who has worked at our school for a number of years, commented that he thought this child was a good artist despite a comment early on by him that his illustration was “terrible”.

Later in the day I decided to ignore the interruptions of my student and to keep going with the lesson. Surprise! Everyone was focused on what we were doing and I wasn’t distracted by correcting this child every two minutes. In the end, he did no better and no worse than anybody else in the practice part of the lesson. I also noticed how focused he is during our writing workshop. He can stay with one story over a few days and is always proud of what he has done.

Although I know that ignoring isn’t always the best solution, and certainly not the only solution with this child, I have learned that his interruptions may be his way of dealing with school. There are times when my student is focused and on task and produces wonderful work. This was important for me to affirm since I have been focusing too much on the negatives and not enough on the positives.

After the children had gone home and a colleague asked me how my day had gone I could honestly say, “Great!”

Even in Australia

After my last blog entry, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what’s working and what’s not working in my class and, by extension, what needs to change. Part of the (my) problem is that everything always feels rushed; this particular group of children needs more time to explore and ease into learning. Instead, I keep pushing them along; the clock is always my worst enemy.

When I looked at our class schedule I was reminded of my tendency towards being dogmatic. Although I understand that ideas and structures are just that – ideas and structures – I tend to want to replicate them religiously even though I am as nonreligious as they come. If the “experts” say, “thou shalt do morning meeting every day for 30 minutes”, then that’s what I try to do first, instead of thinking about what my students need and what I know is important about teaching and learning. The adjusting and tweaking needs to come first given the constraints of an elementary school schedule and the previously mentioned attention to children and learning. Although this is what I will always tell the protege I am mentoring this year, I am hard pressed to follow my own advice.

So, for now, I have rearranged our schedule for a better flow between activities – fewer interruptions and lost opportunities for leaning (there’s that mighty clock again) – so that there’s more room for sharing, which my students love. Classroom frameworks such as morning meeting and class meetings are useful and need to be intentional and purposeful. But, when the children don’t know why we are doing something then even a good idea can be cause for disruptions and unintended outcomes.

I need to rethink the language I am using with my students. It’s time to take out Choice Words by Peter Johnston for another look at at how the language we use impacts the children we teach. And, it’s time to read Alfie Kohn for inspiration and a good dose of chutzpah.

I need to slow things down. Although I don’t feel pressured by the threat of standardized testing, it’s the self-imposed pressures that I need to do battle with. Gratefully, I love the challenge of teaching and I am always looking for a better way. Sometimes this can be exhausting but the smile of a child who “gets it”, or has just discovered she loves to read, or has felt what it’s like to “get lost in a book”, is priceless.

That’s why I’m a teacher and that’s why I keep coming back day after day after day.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Have you ever had one of those days where everything seems to go wrong and nothing you do seems to work? No matter how hard you try you feel like you’re just bumbling along?

What do you do when you feel like the worst teacher that walked the planet? How do you take back a bad day? How do you make it up to your students and to yourself so that you can continue on a healthy path to learning?

How do you call up the courage to listen to what your heart and mind tells you is the right path to take with a challenging student at the same time that you acknowledge that you might need help? How do you listen to yourself and others without losing sight of the most important person, the child?

These are the questions I am going to be reflecting on in my teacher journal today, Remembrance Day. Seems fitting since, in some ways, this is a day to think about how we can create and practice peace in our professional and personal lives on a day to day basis.

I welcome your thoughts.