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?

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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What Do Your Students Think?

If you think you have an accurate assessment of how your school is doing, but you haven’t asked your students… you don’t have an accurate assessment.

-Amy Fast, @fastcranny

When we discuss the bigger picture of teaching and why we do what we do, we generally talk about how the central element is the students. We plan for our students, we assess our students’ learning and our own professional development is often for the sake of enhancing our students’ experiences. However, when it comes to thinking about what to improve or how our schools and teachers can get stronger, we don’t collect students’ thoughts as often as we should. If our kids are the reason we’re here, then why not ask them what we can do better?

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Bringing the World into Our Classrooms

There is a LOT going on in our world today from ongoing conflicts to extreme violence to protests for various causes to controversial political decisions. In this environment, especially when your context only allows you to interact with your students once a week, it can be difficult trying to find the time and the words to discuss what’s happening to our world.

As a human being, I’ve never been interested in politics and although I have felt deep sadness at the violence that is committed around the world, I have never gotten involved in any way myself. It was not until the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. that I told myself I needed to do something, no matter how small. Why now? Well, now it’s something that is affecting my identity in several ways: as a woman, a Muslim, an American.

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Education at Summer Camp

For the past two years, I have been spending my summers helping out at a couple different camps and it has made me wonder why summer camp experiences are so much different than our yearly classrooms in terms of how content is delivered as well as the impact it has. The two are clearly very different contexts, but why is it that being at a summer camp ensures that a participant walks away with a life-changing experience while being in a classroom at least once a week for 9 months leaves nothing but bitterness and boredom?*

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