What’s Working? Conversations!

This post was originally entitled “We Need To Ability Group” but after listening to the NBC Town hall on September 25, 2010 @johnccarver had the idea of asking “What’s Working?” on Twitter. I suggested we all go write a blog about what’s working and share them with the hashtag #educationnation. Here’s mine.

My 4th and 5th grade teachers are thinking reflectively through grouping, response to intervention and providing enrichment an quality learning experiences for all kids right now. They’re thinking though pre-assessments, flexible grouping and ways to differentiate that meet many different kinds of learning needs.

On Thursday, several of us were having a conversation about some of the issues we face when adding a SPED teacher and Gifted teacher into the mix. Both grades have math at the same time, and scheduling and flexible grouping brings many challenges. One of the teachers said, “We just need to ability group!”  and I responded, “Ability group, or achievement group?”  The teacher nods and says, “Yeah, I meant achievement group.”

The third teacher is looking at us quizzically, and I said, “There’s no way we can truly know the real ability of these students–we can only speak to their current level of achievement. We don’t know what these kids are capable of, giving the right situation and opportunities, so how could we possibly group that way?  If we say “these kids are the bottom kids,” then what do we doom them to believing about themselves? And what are we saying to parents about the potential of their children?”

She then nodded and said, “Oh, I see what you’re getting at–achievement grouping and NOT ability grouping–we all need to use that language as we talk about just how we’re going to meet the needs of all of our children!”

It’s not JUST about the language, but also the beliefs…and helping folks be aware of the beliefs they may accidentally portray by words is important. We haven’t decided just exactly how we’re going to split up the kids… but as we do, I know at least three of us will be thinking about the differences between achievement and ability as we talk.

Words do matter. When teachers confuse the language, how do we help parents understand education? Achievement and ability are two different things–let’s make sure we don’t confuse them, or use them interchangeably!

Related Posts by DJakes:

Words Matter

Words Matter: Game Changer

Once Upon a Time, I WAS That Newbie

Every year, at the beginning of the school year, I remember my first year in Albemarle County.  I remember it for a lot of reasons, but as our tenth day of school approaches, I remember back to when I was a newbie and I got a job AFTER school started–so the 2 established classes of 30 got to each lose 10 kids to my new class. The teachers were what I call Crozetians–which means they had been here, they knew the community and families and school volunteers and all that other stuff that good teachers know about the culture of their school. So when I was hired, the principal gave me a few days to set up my room while school was going on and I got to learn my way around a little.

I was excited to begin with the kids.  (There’s a skunk story in there, but I’ll save it for another time.) I was getting 20 4th graders and had done student teaching in 4th grade, so I felt like I knew a bit about what I was doing. Plus, I was young, confident, enthusiastic and idealistic (none of which I’ve lost, except the young part!)

I have a good memory, but as any of you who teach know, when you’ve done it for a while, the years somewhat blur together. I remember which grade I taught someone in, but probably not the exact year. However, I bet I could pretty much name almost every, if not every, kid in that class, it made such an impression on me. You see, the two teachers had total control over which kids they put in my class.  I got ten from each of them. Yep, those of you who are veterans can suspect which ten I got from each classroom.

It took me until about January to have enough experience with the other two classes through sharing math and reading groups to realize my homeroom class make up was quite different from the others. I had no gifted kids–had some bright ones, but NONE of the top kids in the grade level. I knew the resource teacher well, as she worked with quite a few of my kids. I had a disproportionately high group of free and reduced lunch kids. I had no PTO officer parents or regular school volunteers in that class. I had two kids who were stepbrothers–one’s father had married the other’s mother and the families were NOT friendly to each other. (Did these two veterans TALK to each other about the kids they gave me????) I had the kids who everyone in the school knew because of their behavior. (I still have a vivid memory and picture in my mind of one boy in line jumping up to touch the clock on the hall wall and it falling and shattering all over the floor. THAT was fun to go report to the principal as a first year teacher.) I quit sending home book orders–I never even got the minimum order, while the others classes collected hundreds of points each month with their orders. When we went on field trips, I had to scrounge for parents to join us–the other classes always took some of my allocated parent seats, as I couldn’t fill them.

But you know, if you looked at those kids on paper–reading groups, past scores, etc.,–the classes looked relatively even.  It was the cultural knowledge–the things we teachers think about as we get a new class each year to label it in our minds as “easy” or “good” –or not–that made mine different.  It’s the community things–parents who volunteer, families who are known to support their kids at home or not, parents who buy from the book orders, kids who work hard or who have a work ethic or not, talkers/chatterers, socially adept kids (or not), behavioral issues, combos of kids to put together or not, kids who eat heathily –or who are overweight and prone to teasing–and on and on.  The two veterans had to have known what they were doing when they gave me the combo of kids they did.

I had a great year with those kids anyway.  I loved them–they were my first class in this school system and they laughed with me as I learned how to run a classroom, and they cried with me–especially as I read aloud “Where the Red Fern Grows.” (I’ve NEVER read that book aloud again–I’m too quick to tears reading sad things!)  They let me teach them and they taught me. My principal let me individualize my math program and they worked through the book at their own pace, so I had plenty of time to work with kids who needed it.  These kids reacted to my enthusiasm, my forward thinking and my love to become a really cool group of kids. That’s one of my favorite groups ever, and I love hearing about what they are doing now. In fact, I get to have kids of those kids in my current school sometimes–and two years ago, I had the kid of that boy who broke that clock. . . we laughed about that incident because he remembered it too!  He remembered me NOT yelling at him, but just saying something like, “Oh, Johnny.  Please go get the custodian before someone gets cut.” Previously one of his favorite ways to get attention, he said he never tried to jump up again. He just hadn’t thought before of the potential consequences of his actions.

I’d like to believe that teachers don’t think either about what giving a newbie teacher a hard class does. I’d like to believe it isn’t deliberate. But every year, when the tenth day approaches and I know schools in our district will be hiring some teachers to take overloads off of some grade levels, I worry about those teachers coming in and what kind of class they’ll get. I hope they’ll get a fair shake, but I worry they won’t. Why do we do this to our own?  Why do we do this to teachers new to our school or our grade, or our community??

We teachers are our own worst enemies sometimes.

Do We Send Him to K or Wait a Year?

Last night @JonBecker and @BeckyFisher73 were tweeting and mentioned me, so I joined their conversation. Jon is struggling, as so many parents do, with whether to enter his son in Kindergarten when his age says he can go or wait a year. He’s tweeted often about his son, so I know a bit about his behavior in some situations.

I have spent over half of my career teaching early childhood, with 17 years specifically being in Kindergarten and/or First Grade or a K-1 combo (MOSTLY K). I have a Master’s in Early Childhood from the University of Virginia that I got in the early 90’s when they actually had an Early Childhood department. I am now a Gifted Resource Teacher and have taught in 6 different elementary schools in our division, from the smallest and poorest performing (at the time) to ones who are extremely advantaged (i.e., the principal can pretty much ask the parents to fund anything and someone will write a check) to ones who are succeeding in all traditional measures to ones with diversity and ones with little diversity.

So, when Jon tweeted that he was looking for opinions, I certainly have one, as I usually do.  🙂

In a series of tweets broken into 140 characters, poor Jon had to read over time as my slow connection allowed me to post.  Here’s what I shared (with some minor additional explanations sometimes):

Let me just say that young boys often enter at a disadvantage…sometimes due to teacher bias and/or inexperience, or traditional school expectations (the not-so-hidden curriculum of sit down, be quiet and listen) which is not only inappropriate, but getting worse and expected more in the schools I’ve seen. I counseled my daughter in law to NOT enter my grandson, an August birthday, into Kindergarten when he was just barely 5, but she did and he’s still struggling…not necessarily ONLY because of the early entrance, but also because he’s a gifted LD kid. He’s one of those who has only had the LD part worked with and most teachers do not give him a chance to show the brains because they can’t get past his disability–or worse yet, the label. He’s an incredibly frustrated kid who hates school, but loves learning OUT of school.

Jon’s next question: but what if I’m like every other parent and think my child is Uber-gifted “academically?”

Fact is, Jon, your kid has the rest of his life to learn in school-like situations. Do you push him into a system we, as educators, KNOW doesn’t typically meet the needs of the extremes, or do you enjoy him and make sure he gets to be a kid as long as he can before having to face the brutal realities of the world out there at age 5 or 6? Another fact is MANY parents are holding their kids out, so the age of kids in a grade is not only a wider span, but often has more older kids. So, if you enter a young one on time, he may be almost 2 years younger than some in his class. And, what do you do now for his uber-giftedness?  Can you not do that another year and let him grow socially into being comfortable with his emotions and other kids in more able ways?

Another fact is that gifted kids DO grow asynchronously and often their emotions are way behind their intellect–one of the challenges of parents of gifted kids is to remember that their ability to reason and talk and think at a high level is the anomaly-their behavior is often RIGHT ON TARGET for their age. When they temper tantrum or cry or act like a baby out of jealousy of a new sibling, they are simply acting their age. Parents often struggle when the kid talks so much like an adult, or can handle their own in a very sophisticated discussion but then acts in other situations like–OMG–a KID!

(Others joined the conversation here and the rest is a conglomeration of tweets to Jon and others, (with slight modifications to allow for context) and additional thoughts I have had since last night.)

It is CRUCIAL that early childhood teachers be nuturers FIRST and academians second–but GREAT academians who can meet those emotional needs WHILE fostering or extending a love of learning. MOSTLY you want an Early Childhood teacher who dwells on competence rather than deficits. They simply have to recognize the strengths of kids and make that public daily in ways that support the kid, and allow others to see those strengths as well.

Too many times kids, especially active young boys who don’t do the hidden curriculum well, get constantly fussed at for not sitting quietly, for asking questions out of turn, for blurting out answers, for fiddling with stuff, and those constant reprimands from the teacher say to the other kids that this kid isn’t smart. Think about it–isn’t it a sign of intelligence when one WANTS to engage, when one wants to ask questions, when one is so involved in the conversation that conversational turn-taking falls by the wayside, when one is constantly looking and fiddling with the stuff in one’s world to figure out how things work? Well, some K teachers–heck, some teachers in all grades–see their job as one where they are supposed to teach kids to play the game of school and learn how to sit down, shut up and listen. In many schools and most Kindergarten situations, kids are expected mostly to learn how to conform to the teacher’s (and parents’) traditional expectations for school behaviors.

Well, you and I both know smart people often DON’T conform. When that brilliant child needs that question answered and perseveres to ask it, s/he may get put in time out–or a safe spot–or sent away from the group for interrupting or not listening, or not doing what the teacher asked him/her to do. When that happens, tears may come as the kid is outraged at the injustice and/or may be hurt (crushed!) at the exclusion from the group. (Gifted kids also have an exaggerated sense of justice and fairness, too-and situations like this only amplify their outrage.) When other kids see that kid go to time out, or be fussed at constantly, or cry, they recognize these are NOT appropriate school behaviors–and no matter what the circumstances, the child who may be simply TRYING to engage is seen by others as perhaps a “bad boy”, a “crybaby”, “not smart”  or worse.

That’s why I say the teacher has to recognize strengths and display them publicly.  I can chastise my 5th grader in one moment for his misbehavior and in the next talk about WHY I perceive him shutting others out, explaining to the group that he’s involved in his own thinking and input from others may not allow him to work out HIS thinking just yet.I honor HIS style of learning while showing him he may need to adapt his behavior NOT to say “Shut up and leave me alone” to say “I need a few more moments to think, please. Can you be quiet and let me think?”

I spoke all the time to my K kids about how we are not in school by ourselves, but part of a group, so the conversations HAVE to involve turn-taking–and sometimes all of us will blurt out because of our excitement or enthusiasm, but it can’t happen all the time. I point out the REASONS behind the behavior and WHY some conformity is necessary. I speak to why I am asking the kid to leave the group–NOT because I am kicking him/her out, but because I need a few minutes to get the others going on something before we can have a private conversation. (Reread my first two blogs, “Why TZSTCHR? (Teasiest Teacher)” and Rules-Schools Have Too Many!” to see other ways I deal with shaping behaviors while respecting individualism.)

As parents,

As grandparents,

As people who LOVE our kids,

we all want to see our children grow up in happy situations, in places that will be safe emotionally and that will allow them to grow and stretch intellectually. Fact is, school is an institution and the social mores and groups determine (more often than not) which path we take in school.  Give your child the best chance by NOT sending them emotionally insecure to begin with–by enrolling them when they are ready and have the adaptability skills to handle the social/interactive piece of school and the various interactions they will encounter–and that includes traditional situations, various cultures, new situations, schedule changes and evolving routines. You can always push a bit later for the academic needs to be met, but let him/her grow, adapt, learn how to settle in a bit and adjust first. The social needs, for a young immature child, are paramount right now.

PS–the gifted teacher in me HAS to add, “Just don’t let go of the academic needs forever!”

Conferences

IT’S THAT TIME OF THE SCHOOL YEAR.

As we near the end of the first nine weeks, our system requires classroom teachers to have parent conferences for all students. Each year, that makes me reflect on past conferences, remembering the parent who called ahead of time to ask me what kind of flavored coffee I liked, or the parent who showed up in the middle of that marathon day with a picture their child had drawn for me, or the parent who brought me a bagel for our 7 AM meeting. I also remember some of the parents, who, at the time, I sometimes describe in my head, as just plain mean. They come in defensive, angry or hurt–and sometimes seem to attack me in their attempt to take care of their child. Sometimes the tone of voice simply puts me on edge–I hear criticism where there may be none (or there may be), but it is clear they are uncomfortable questioning the teacher and wanting change. These are the conferences we all struggle with–because it’s too easy for us all to walk away with disgruntled feelings that may affect future interactions.

Every teacher has their conference nightmares–or their fond memories of parent conferences. We remember the parent who brought us coffee or a treat just as much as we remember the parent who came in angry, defensive, accusatory or timid. Each has an opportunity to teach us something, if we can only step outside of ourselves to listen.

One of my most difficult ones happened with some GREAT parents several years ago, when I was a fairly new GRT. The parents smiled rarely, despite my sharing their child’s wonderful work and talking about what an amazing thinker and intuitive mathematician she was. There were no comments about the child sharing or enjoying at home what we do in class, other than questions about why we did this or that. Mom and Dad clearly wanted to support school and their daughter at home, and were asking for homework, asking for information about what we do each day, asking for information about how she would improve and continue to grow in arithmetic skills throughout that year.

I heard criticism. I heard dislike. I heard anger (the dad particularly had a tone I heard as upset, and I named it angry). These may not have been the parents’ feelings, but I heard and read those emotions in the parents’ body language, tone of voice, and lack of smiles and my perceptions are what I remember.

We had to end quickly because of a prior commitment (I had another meeting), so we didn’t come to a consensus or conclusion. It certainly ended unsatisfactorily for me, and I knew it did for the parents as well.

Both of these parents were active in the building, as both worked at home, and that year they volunteered in three different grade levels. They had a reputation for being extremely demanding, and frankly, for not being nice in conferences as well. I had known these parents were coming in with questions. I knew they were probably coming in with a different view of what is going on in my class than I have. I felt they were coming in looking for a more traditional approach to teaching and learning than I have. I prepared differently for this conference and slept poorly the night before for worrying about it.

As I pondered those interactions that year, and wondered what I could have done differently, several things came to mind–and I think of this conference (and others) each time conferences come round.  Here are my thoughts and suggestions. And if they help me–or another teacher–then my time writing this is well spent.

First, I almost always begin conferences by asking parents if they want to begin with their questions or if they want me to share their child’s work first. This allows the parents to feel some control and often gives me a feel for how intense or critical the questions might be. In this case, the parents asked me to go first. That left their questions to the end, and we didn’t have time to address them all, much less come to any common understandings or consensus on plans for the future.

Knowing they requested the conference, I should have asked them to go first.

Secondly, as a gifted resource teacher, my class is less centered on isolated arithmetic skills than many classrooms, and more focused on arithmetic skills within the context of problem solving, and so the work on skills is not as transparent to parents as it is in many classrooms. I felt like these parents walked away feeling like I don’t work on arithmetic, and that was a major question for them.

I should have set up a situation that explained how I do that more clearly.

Thirdly, they asked about homework, and my answer was incredibly lame, as I was trying to save time. I actually had a pretty complicated system going on, and this child completed hers in school most of the time.

I needed to address that with them-and my other parents. I also needed to make sure she took it home so they could see it.

This year, I am actually collaborating with a classroom teacher to do problem solving homework in a way that really is going to stretch my kids–and I haven’t taken the time to share that yet with my parents just because I have been so busy. That is no excuse to not communicate clearly with parents, and I need to take care of that!

Lastly, they asked for information as to what was happening in my class so they could follow up at home. That is a reasonable request and I know they left feeling like I wasn’t going to do that, because we just didn’t have time to make a plan.

I asked them to reschedule another time for us to talk, and we addressed the issues we didn’t have time to in the first conference. It was a MUCH more pleasant situation as it was not rushed.

Just because we experience things once doesn’t mean we never make those mistakes again.  As a teacher, I hope parents understand that we are human–and sometimes aren’t as good as we want to be.

A new teacher talked to me the other day (in WalMart, of all places!) about a conference that went similarly to the one I describe here. I counseled her to call the parents and ask if they wanted more time–something I often do, if the conference is rushed. I also counseled her to let it go and just make sure she does her part to encourage good communication for the rest of the time she has these students, (and others in the future).

Conferences are about communication–and if either side lets that not occur, then everyone may lose.

Why Tzst Teacher?

I believe in teaching kids to think, so when I taught Kindergarten, I would often play with them with language–if they asked “can I go to the bathroom?” I would respond, “I don’t know, can you?” They soon learned to ask “May I go to the bathroom?” I would then respond, “Of course you can, you don’t have to ask.” (We had a bathroom in our room.) They soon learned to just go when necessary.

Or, when a child would come up and say “Can I ask you a question?” My response would be “Of course not, You’re not allowed to ask questions in school.” Some little ‘uns would then turn to walk off. . . .(I would catch them) but some would stand there a second and look at me, pondering what to do. I would tease them a few more sentences worth and then let them ask their question. . . but what happened is that they began paying attention to how they phrased questions and thinking about my responses.

I would give silly answers whenever I could–especially to questions they already knew the answer to, so they would say “No, that’s not right.” I could then ask them why they asked me if they already knew the answer. My goal was to get them to think and engage the other person thoughtfully.

They would often say “Ms. White, you’re teasing again!” One child, Aynsley, called me the teasiest teacher. I was actually pretty proud of that label. 🙂

The next year I moved to another school and again taught Kindergarten. In that school, I had another child, Joseph, say almost the exact same words–“Ms. White, you’re the teasiest teacher in the whole world!” At that point I knew what my vanity license plates would be and promptly ordered them–VA license “tzstchr”.

The name has stuck, and when I began a blog, I knew that had to be the name of it.