Ending the Year with Sanity

As the school year comes to an end, our work and our students tend to go a little nuts. We’re trying to wrap up the year, grade assignments and pull together end of year progress reports, keep students engaged and still learning, and keep ourselves sane as we focus on the light at the end of the tunnel (summer!).

In this tumultuous time, it’s important that educators take some time to focus in on the big things and not go crazy like everything else. As we prepare for the end of this school year (which has flown by way too quickly), let’s check out some tips for ending strong:

  • Autopilot is not an option. Some of us get caught in just treading water so we can get through until the summer. A better option, offered by Linda Kardamis at teach4theheart.com, is to be intentional and set a couple of goals to achieve by the end of the year. By doing this, we can put in our effort to continue to impact our students and do our work to the best of our ability.
  • Keep communication going with families until the end of the year. Kardamis also discusses how important it is to continue showing how much we care for our students by ending the year off with strong communication with parents with advice on what students can work on over the summer and things they’ve achieved during the year.
  • Find time to celebrate all of your students. This could be through writing notes to them individually, as ASCD’s Mike Anderson recommends or chatting with them informally. Another suggestion by Anderson is to have students recognize each other for their accomplishments; sometimes, this means more to them than anything we could ever do.
  • Anderson also discusses reflection: individually for students and as a class. This helps us think through all the awesome things we’ve done as a class and helps students understand their own growth through the year.
  • Based on the above idea, I also suggest individual teacher reflection. It’s so important at this time of year to think through what we have accomplished with our students through the year, the struggles we’ve faced and overcome and ideas we have for the next school year.
  • To keep students engaged, Edutopia’s Larry Ferlazzo suggests cooperative learning projects. In my class, I am having students create a board game incorporating the content we’ve learned throughout the year. Last year, my students got really creative and I was amazed at their games. I hope they get the same chance to work together and go crazy on their game (rather than in their behavior).
  • Lastly, as an uber-organized individual, I recommend getting things ready to go for next year (similar to what Kardamis mentions). You may not know exactly what you’re teaching or how you’re planning for it, but spring cleaning happens in spring for a reason; this a great time, especially as teachers, for us to clean out the year and prepare ourselves for another, wonderful year of madness.

I’m sure there are many other things that educators do to fulfill their responsibilities and take care of themselves and students at this time of year, but I believe this list offers a good way to start thinking about closing down.

Do you have any other suggestions that help you at this time of year?



Collaboration or Individual Work?

In a class of 29, there’s bound to be one student who challenges me. This year, that student and I and his family have had many conversations about what he needs in the classroom and how we can ensure his time there is useful for everyone involved. This particular student does not much care for the subjects we study, has a bit of trouble academically and has several friends in the class whom he would rather chat with. Thus, it’s been a struggle to figure out how to keep him engaged and focused so we can lessen distraction all around.

My support teacher and I have tried different strategies throughout the year and their success has varied. In Friday’s class, we decided we had enough room in the room to give this student his own table to work at, alone, and away from his friends. Although he was reluctant, he moved to his new seat in the front of the room. This lesson turned out to be one his best in the year so far; he participated, engaged in the main activity and presented well! I made sure to congratulate him on his effort and share my hope that he’ll be able to keep it up for the next few weeks as we close out the year.

As I reflected on this lesson, I wondered what might have made it different. Honestly, just like any human, this student has his good and bad days and this may have just been a better one than usual. However, I also feel that working on his own made a difference in how much he participated and the effort he put in. I know that there are many arguments for collaboration and group work in the classroom; many students learn better and work better with their peers than on their own. However, when taking into account student needs, sometimes, we just need to give them lots of time on their own so they’re able to stay focused.

I hope I am able to keep this student engaged throughout the rest of the year, but in the meantime, he’s given me a lot to think about when it comes to collaboration and/or individual work in my classroom…

Getting Artsy

My idea of art in my personal life is stick figure drawings and adult coloring books. I have always said I’m not very artistic, whatever that means. This lack of skill or interest in my life doesn’t impact me, but I have noticed that I tend to veer away from using art in the classroom because of my inexperience in it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Ismaili Muslim community of the United States is preparing for a historic event: the visit of our Imam, the Aga Khan, for his Diamond Jubilee. As we get ready for this event, we have been implementing special lesson plans in our classes to help our students understand the historical and spiritual significance of this event for our community and for ourselves as individuals.

In the first couple of lessons, I was unable to even get to the crafty activities due to the multitude of questions that students had as well as some behavioral issues. In the third lesson, however, I wanted to ensure I left time for some artistic expression to take place. My students each got a small 4×4 canvas and were asked to express in writing and drawing and colors their understanding of this upcoming event and what it means to them.

Overall, the activity went well; students were engaged and many put in a true effort in reflecting, internalizing and articulating their thoughts and emotions. The success of the activity made me reflect on the role of art in the classroom. Although the activity took at least 30 minutes and required a bit of scaffolding and support, I believe there are valid reasons for incorporating this type of expression and articulation more regularly (based on the subject and content of the class, of course).

The Teaching Channel (Mariah Rankine-Landers) discusses four reasons for arts integration:

  • development of critical thinking skills
  • the use of collaboration
  • based on the use of collaboration, communication skills are also built
  • development of creative inquiry

This list of skills is not only relevant to art activities, but also to the general growth and development of our students. These are all life skills that are needed in any subject, in any field.

Adding to these, Edutopia’s Susan Riley shares other valid reasons for using art:

  • Art can help students focus more on the process than the product which can connect to math skills as well as the habits of mind
  • The various forms of art can help different students access the content in their own way and connect their personal lives to the classroom
  • Art provides an equitable way for each student to engage
  • Art can help develop analysis and synthesis skills

As with the Teaching Channel article above, these reasons provide not only reasons that relate to the engagement of students, but also reasons that connect to the content and general skill development of our students. My students may have felt more engaged and may have enjoyed the activity, but hopefully it also helped them reflect, synthesize their learning from the previous weeks and articulate their understanding of a big event relating to their religious education.

Do you use art on a regular basis? What are your reasons for or against incorporating art more often?

What Do I Do With Student Work?

As teachers, we collect all kinds of student work: worksheets, drawings, comic strips, quizzes/tests, writing samples, etc. Some of this work gets graded immediately and recorded to be used to gauge student progress. Other pieces of work are stored away or returned to students to live in folders for the rest of the year. What are we supposed to do with all of this evidence? Is there a need to do anything with it at all?

Most say the answer to the latter question is a resounding “Yes!” The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) discusses the importance of collaborative analysis – they encourage teachers to work together to discuss student work. The document states,

This process encourages teachers to consider:

  • What are my students’ strengths with regard to the required knowledge and skills?
  • What are my students’ learning needs with regard to the required knowledge and skills?
  • Do students have sufficient foundational content and process skills to approach new learning?
  • How can I support student learning through scaffolding and differentiation?

These questions help teachers reflect on what students have learned and compare their learning with the intended objectives set for a lesson or unit. Not only do teachers get the chance to develop clearer objectives and ensure lessons are scaffolded, but student learning is also said to increase through this process.

I know the benefits of analyzing student work and I can understand how powerful this process might be, but what does the process actually look like? Many teacher evaluation rubrics say something along the lines of: “Is able to use student work analysis to adjust and plan future instruction.” What does that mean?!

There are many, many different ways to analyze the work that our students produce. RIDE discusses a group process that involves:

  • analyzing the assessment and rubric itself to see what the expectations were
  • looking through student work and separating into high, average and low piles
  • delving deeply into each of these piles to see what students demonstrated and what they didn’t
  • analyzing next steps based on results

Another protocol, shared by Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC on Edutopia, shares a group process where teachers come together to analyze one teacher’s student work. They quietly reflect on the task, how they would respond, how students would respond and any “notices or wonders” that come up in their minds. Then, during the sharing portion, teachers share thoughts and provide ideas to the teacher for enhancing student learning. Taryn Peacock, a third grade lead teacher from the school explains,

“We never say, ‘These students got it. We’ll just let them do whatever’…And we never say, ‘These students were behind, but we need to move on.’ It’s always, ‘How can we push the student, regardless of where they are?'”

For a more detailed explanation of their protocol, check out their notes document. If you’re looking for more cool protocols and unique ways of analyzing student work, check out this chapter from an ASCD book titled “Protocols for Professional Learning.”

If protocols aren’t your thing or you don’t have a collaborative group to work with, do what I do:

  1. Grade student work based on your rubric
  2. Analyze patterns: what did students demonstrate well? what was a complete miss?
  3. Reflect on how to push strong learners to the next level and how to re-teach or review with learners who still have a ways to go
  4. Adjust the next lesson accordingly, bringing in extensions for those who are ready for them and reviews of concepts that could stand to be emphasized once again

Whatever your process is, take the time to look through the work that your students put their effort into. It’ll help you be a stronger, more reflective teacher and plus, you never know what you’ll find!

The Power of Community

As the Ismaili Muslim community in the United States prepares for a special event, the national community has mobilized rapidly and strongly. In the past 48 hours alone, various teams handling different aspects of the event have pulled together, started meetings and webinars and sessions for members of the community. They have put together schedules and timings and roles and responsibilities. It is absolutely amazing to see the huge amounts of effort that everyone is putting in to make this event a complete success.

Before things get crazier than they already are, I have been taking time to reflect on the upcoming occasion. Seeing the way in which my community comes together to work with each other and the excitement with which members of the community give up sleep, time and energy to help one another is inspiring, to say the least. It also makes me think about the power that a community like this can have on its youth. A 7 year old boy approached me after a session I conducted last night to talk about how he was going to volunteer for this upcoming event and was excited to be a part of it. I can only imagine how many other youth are caught up in the excitement and the opportunities they have to participate.

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Intellectual Humility

As educators, we walk into a room bearing knowledge. Some of may have more knowledge than others, some of us may have different types of knowledge, and some of us may just be starting on our journey of gaining knowledge. The most important thing to keep in mind, I believe, is that we never know everything. Whether we are in a classroom of youth, in front of a group of community members, or in a group of educators, there is ALWAYS something to learn and some new way of understanding.

Sometimes, especially when we’re surrounded by other educators, it is easy to get defensive or feel that we need to prove ourselves or show that we know everything. It is in these moments that we lose sight of what we can be learning from others. However difficult it is, it’s crucial in moments of defensiveness or embarrassment, to take a mental step back and just listen. Listen to others’ perspectives & knowledge and reflect before responding.

There will be moments when we will be required to correct someone in their knowledge or to share our different knowledge with others. In these situations, I believe there are certain ways of sharing that alienate audiences and that can make us seem harsh, judgmental and conceited. Just because we have knowledge that others may not, does not make us any better than anyone else; it makes us blessed and should inspire gratitude. This change of perspective can help our sharing of knowledge come from a kinder, more humble place.

I believe that educators must be learners throughout their lives. As learners, we must walk into every situation with an open mind. We must be ready to take in whatever we can and be ready to share our thoughts with kindness and humility. To me, that is intellectual humility.

Lesson Planning: The Collaboration Aspect

Lesson planning is arguably one of the key skills that any educator needs to know. It helps us break down the curriculum, clearly articulate what we want our students to know and figure out how we’re going to get them there. It guides what we do in our classrooms every day. However, the way in which lesson planning is done varies greatly.

Some of us are co-teachers who plan and implement lessons with other educators. Some of us teach completely individually and plan everything on our own (while maybe getting feedback on our planning from a coach or mentor). Some of us hate lesson plans and don’t write them regularly, but naturally know where we want to guide our students. Some of us are still trying to figure out what works best for us when it comes to planning.

I have spent a majority of my 5.5 years planning alone. At first, it was simply because I wanted to ensure my plans were done on time (or ahead of time) and finding time to plan by myself was easier than working with others’ schedules. Sometimes, I’d be a couple weeks ahead in my planning and so was working with different pieces of curriculum than other teachers. Since I’ve become a coach, my meeting schedule has rarely allowed me to have time to plan with others, even if I want to.

It gets lonely planning by yourself. I work very hard to be the best educator I can be for my students, but my ideas are limited, and creativity tends to come when I can bounce back and forth in conversation with others. Throughout this school year so far, I have kept working on my own…until I got stuck on a lesson a few weeks ago.

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New Teachers

In the past 6 years of teaching, I have supported teachers in completing their research and theses, mentoring them through their first years of teaching and supporting through practicum classes. I love working with teachers, generally, but there’s something about new teachers that just brings me so much hope and excitement. Along with that, there’s a lot that older teachers can learn from working with new teachers.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned and reflected on in my work with new teachers:

  • Teaching is a truly exciting profession with lots of lightbulb moments and lots of challenges
  • Our students are so amazing if we give them the opportunity to be…and we should give them every opportunity we can
  • Teaching is a lot of work and, until you get the hang of the responsibilities, it is super overwhelming
  • I should probably try to put in more of an effort to look nice for classes (our new teachers come in from studying in London, so clearly they’re more fashionable than the rest of us)
  • There are so many tiny things that go into making a class run smoothly – it’s much easier to break these down when we’re beginner teachers
  • It takes time to figure out our own teacher personalities and it’s important to keep trying to find that, even while we learn and take ideas from other educators
  • There is always something we can learn from every other teacher we come across and our minds and attitudes should always be open to that

Any time you’re feeling iffy about your career choice as an educator, I’d suggest talking to a new teacher about their experiences and their reasons for being where they are. It will open your eyes, teach you something and help you remember why teaching is the best profession there is.

Wellness & Well-being

I’ve heard of the practice of choosing a word as a New Year’s resolution or intention for a few years now, but I’ve never tried it. Up until this year, I’ve been a resolution person…however, with all the negative consequences of resolutions and the amount that people talk about how no one is able to keep them, I decided to give this up. I’ve set goals instead and have been trying hard to stick to them over the past two weeks.

I’ve also chosen two words for my 2018, words that will hopefully help me make intentional choices and continue pursuing my goals. My words this year are:

Wellness and Well-being

I’ve been thinking for a long time that my health (mental, physical, emotional) needs to be my focus. It’s always in the back of my head, but other things tend to get in the way: lesson plans need to be written or given feedback on, housework needs to be done, or sometimes I just need to feel like I have a life and can enjoy myself. In all of this, my health has never really been a priority. You know what I mean…it has never been the one thing that’s always in the forefront when I make decisions and I never consider it when I am stuck in a rut.

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New Year’s Eve 2017

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul…”

-G.K. Chesterton

The last day of the year always hits hard for me. It’s a whirlwind of emotion – excitement that the year is over, nostalgia for the good moments that I’ve experienced, anxiety about the future, a bit of loneliness, gratitude for the wonderful life I have…and the list goes on. I don’t know when this particular holiday became such an important thing for me, but it has been my favorite for a long while.

The concept of being able to start fresh, with a clean slate, appeals to me. Having set many goals for myself and having failed at achieving many of them, I like the idea of having a fixed moment when I can reset and feel like I’m being given a chance to start over. I know that many people would disagree and say that I don’t need to wait until NYE to make this happen, that I can, in fact, start over with every new sunrise. I agree, but NYE offers a specific calendar moment that stands out and happens to be a day  when the world slows down just a bit to pause and celebrate and reflect – and that’s what I love about it. I’m surrounded (well, virtually at least) by people who are taking some time to think through the year, to “close out the books” (a phrase I heard recently on The Good Life Project podcast), and to set intentions for the upcoming year. There’s a much bigger movement taking place around the world at this time and I love being a part of it.

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