Now that I'm back in the classroom teaching, I can honestly say there's plenty of things that have surprised, saddened and delighted me. Here are a few lessons I've learned in only 4 months:
It's Not The Administrators; It's The Parents.
Integrating Web 2.0 technology with 10 year olds is easy. They can learn very quickly and totally enjoy it. Feedback I've received over the last few years has been that school administrators are fearful and block teachers' attempts to integrate technology. My administrators have been supportive; for the most part. I don't believe my principal is aware of the extent of the "digital reach" I offer to my students because although I've shared links to projects, our blog, etc. I've not received any response. My assistant principal, on the other hand, has taken the time to let me know that she has checked out some of our work and thinks I'm providing some great learning opportunities.
The stumbling point for me has been the parents who have little connection with today's technology and hold on to mostly unsubstantiated fears. Parents are required to sign a district-approved form that allows online publishing of their children's work, picture, etc. Parents do not have to approve, but they must sign "approve" or "don't approve."100% of my students' parents signed "approve," however a few still express disatisfaction with my interest in having students do some classroom-to-classroom online communication.
- With regards to commenting on a VoiceThread; "I don't want my child 'chatting' with strangers."
- Commenting on our class blog; "How do you know who these other people [other commenters] really are?"
- "What's the big deal about posting my kid's work online?"
I don't blame the parents for protecting their children; I expect it. However, I'm honestly surprised at the concerns given the age-range of the parents. They are easily 10 years or more younger than I and I guess I thought they'd be more a part of the digital age then they are. At this point, I've only been somewhat successful convincing those few to weigh the benefits with the risks.
On the other hand, I have to say that most of the parents have been thrilled and have told me so. It's wonderful to hear from parents that their kids are enthusiastically doing their homework, simply because it's online or using a fresh new tool. Most parents would rather not see another worksheet come home.
They All Have Computers But They Have Even More Excuses.
I'm lucky enough to teach in an affluent area where 100% of my students have access to computers. Asking students to do some at-home assignments that require the use of computers has been a consistent challenge. I always give my students the opportunity to use the class computers, go to the Media Center or submit their assignment in an alternate form. However, like many kids, some leave their assignments for the last day and only then realize they are experiencing issues:
- "The place where I type in the web address disappeared, so I couldn't go to the site."
- "My father won't let me use his computer."
- (If Java, Shockwave, Quicktime or Windows Media Player requests an update) "My parents won't download anything onto their computers because of viruses."
- "My parents won't let me use the computer unless they are sitting there with me and my parents are out of town."
- "My computer won't work."
- "My dad told me to do this assignment (wrong assignment)."
There's No More Shame in Admitting We're Preparing Our Students For The Test
When I was last in the classroom, we weren't supposed to emphasize our state standardized test, the FCAT. Rarely did teachers use the word. Today, not a day goes by when you don't hear teachers AND school and/or district administrators talking about how we are getting our students ready for the test and what they need to do to be prepared for the test. There's no shame anymore in being quoted in the paper talking about test preparation or sending out emails or paper missives letting teachers know what our true purpose is. What happened to at least pretending we are trying to help our students "successfully master and apply the skills?"
It's Not The Little Stuff That Counts
Perhaps it's just my school, but just as a teacher rubber-stamps "Good Job!" on students' papers, I see Kudos coming from district and school admins in the form of a rubber stamp. Perhaps all that test preparation and data analysis takes up so much time, there's not enough time to take a moment to look for individual gifts. It spills over to teacher relationships with each other and how they perceive they are being treated. There's a lot of complaining going on. I'm very surprised at how much time and energy is spent on small stuff.
Giftedness is Everything
There is a real divide between the teachers (Gifted v. Regular) and you can hear it in the conversations. The implication communicated is often that only the gifted children experience certain issues and the "regular" teachers wouldn't understand. It saddens me incredibly when I listen to these conversations take place among equally talented educators who are all struggling to differentiate instruction in their classrooms.
Although these students may have special needs, my feelings are that any good teacher would provide for that enrichment as well as remediation as necessary. I am convinced that I am the same teacher I would be with any group of kids.
"B" is the new "D"
Perhaps a "gifted" student/parent thing, but it seems that as soon as a student receives a "B" on an assignment, the question of whether or not the child needs a tutor comes up. Of course, "Johnny puts a lot of pressure on himself and was extremely upset over this grade," is the standard reason for wanting a conference due to that particular assignment, however I'm not sure whatever happened to helping Johnny learn that a "B" is quite good, nothing to be ashamed of, and "get used to it, Buddy, there's gonna be more of these in your future!"
Being Flexible Requires a Willingness to Admit You're Wrong
Over the last few years, I've learned to be extremely accommodating. In my previous job, we would go to great lengths to resolve issues, in the most friendly manner, even if it wasn't "our jobs." If a parent has a concern, I don't mind explaining myself and asking if they have any suggestions. If there is a conflict of any kind, I believe my willingness to listen and adapt is serving me and my students very well. I believe the best way to communicate with someone who is defensive, is to ask them what you can do to help. I can see the difference in how parents react to teachers who dig in their heels. I used to be one of those teachers.
You Don't Need to Spend Hours At The Copy Machine
When I last taught, I remember spending hours copying pages of worksheets for my kids to work on as "seatwork." I remember having stacks of these worksheets prepared and on shelves so that as I did my planning, I just had to choose the next page in the pile and it was already there. I knew in advance that I'd be moving from one page to the next in that particular resource book. I also remember having stacks of papers to grade every week. Even if I didn't grade the papers, I felt the need to check every one and leave my mark.
Although I'm sure I do my fair share of copying, I don't have piles of papers pre-prepared. I only copy based on what I'm planning and I don't feel the need to grade every paper. I also find that most of my lessons don't involve seatwork on fancy worksheets with pretty pictures. Students can take notes or do a lab report or draw diagrams in spiral notebooks. I can give a "drive-by" glance as they are working and conversing to assess if they understand. I've discovered that by involving my students in my lessons, using engaging technology and providing for plenty of hands-on activities and opportunities for them to work together, there's no need to test them constantly or kill them with endless repetitive tasks.
Yeah, We Still Need Textbooks
I've been preaching about how we shouldn't need hard copies of books anymore. All of our textbooks are online, so "technically" the students don't need to take home any books. Unfortunately, the reality is that young (and many not-so-young) children don't always do well reading from a computer screen. Many still need that book to hold at different angles that fit right for their eyes. Kids still need to be able to study in the car and elsewhere there is no Internet connection.
We are told that the textbooks are not to be used as our curriculum (I agree). HOWEVER, when 10 year olds have a test coming up, their parents want to help them study. Giving them a chapter or prepared notes is only humane! These parents who want to be appropriately involved are trying to help their kids. No textbook? Try telling a parent that the test next Friday is on "levers" with no chapter from which to study. The alternative is for me to create a study guide for the students (which is a cheat-sheet for the lousy chapter in the first place). Sorry, but we're not there yet.
The Light Still Shines Bright
I've forgotten how easy it is to make a 10 year old laugh. And I've rediscovered the feeling inside when I witness kids learning something that may not be interesting or was difficult for them. I love how forgiving they are when I'm not perfect. And how willing they are to share their stories with me. Every day at least one of my student shares an extension of something we've done in class:
- At least 4 of my students created their own blogs.
- Every day one or more of my students comes in with their own version of Guess The Wordle for us to figure out.
- I receive emails from my kids with stories they are writing using some online tools and writing prompt generators I've shared with them.
- After I recently Elfed Myself on our class blog, many of my students couldn't resist and created their own.
- Students are finding their own online resources that support what we are learning in class.
I'm really proud that my kids are learning to be resourceful. They are learning how to interact appropriately online and they are discovering many ways to produce content that does not involve a piece of paper or a diorama.
I'm happy that I can now assign some technology-related homework assignments and receive a few less emails from parents who were initially shell-shocked. Even the parents are learning to be resourceful (or at least letting their kids take more ownership of their assignments).
I've been preaching to a choir over the last few years and immersing myself in an echo chamber of educators who think like I do. I'm convinced now that we need more diversity in our PLNs. We need more challenging voices to make us think and all of us should spend real time in the classroom now and then.
It's Easier Said Than Done