Why Do I Feel So Scattered?

I teach grade 5/6 in a K-7 school. With the exception of French and music, I am responsible for teaching all other subjects: math, language arts, science, social studies, career and personal planning, art, physical education and “computers.” I also volunteer coach the Peewee girls.

Do I feel stretched? Just a tad.

As I work to embrace technology, I have been perusing the web. I can’t help noticing middle and high school teachers who specialize in a subject or two. Sometimes I envy their focus. Because I teach such a variety of things, I never seem to become an “expert” in any subject.

Let’s look inside my brain and see what I have been doing in order to prepare for my lessons this week:

Writing: the challenge I am facing is that students appear to have limited background knowledge and are reluctant to talk about their lives. They seem to be unsure about what is appropriate/safe to share (secrets?  Will need to talk to Sooz, my trusted colleague, about this).

Have found some great ideas in Adrienne Gear’s Writing Power. She uses picture books as writing mentor texts. Have folded over the corner on page 91: “Visualizing a Special Place.”  In library, found Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and Gary Paulson’s Canoe Days. My goal is to move from this lesson to teaching memoir.  Have found some inspiring lessons on teaching memoir from kenc18’s blog “RAMS English.”  Also revisited Writing Anchors (Jan Wells, Janine Reid) and What’s Next for this Beginning Writer? (Janine Reid, Betty Schultze, Ulla Peterson) in an attempt to piece it all together.

Literature Circles: Had to grab my Grand Conversations (Faye Brownlie) in order to review how to encourage conversations during lit circles.  I am actually pleased with the “writing in role” activity that students are working on.  At the beginning of the week, students were struggling, but then we did a “hot seat” drama activity where students answer questions in role. From there, they could transition to writing (should have seen that one coming…).

Science: Found a “Simple Machines” unit (with supplies) in the science closet. Also found a list of Simple Machines links on the Scholastic lesson planning site. Put their links onto a Symbaloo. (See how casually I threw that in? Name-dropping is so yesterday! Today it’s all about techno-jargon. Toss in the name of an app and suddenly—you are someone to be respected. Doesn’t matter if it took you hours, or even if the links work! Point is, you are a player. More on this later!) Things I still need to do: find wax paper and sandpaper. Also need to find a way to appear comfortable saying “screw” numerous times in front of adolescent learners. Also, will simply skip the lesson on “lubricant” as friction reducer.

Social studies: just finished an integrated unit on Ancient Egypt. Did focused research, a jigsaw activity, and mind maps (learned the basis of this technique from a great local teacher, Mary-Lyn Epps.) Students found it difficult, so I had to provide a lot of extra scaffolding and find many extra resources. Final results worth it though! Percolating ideas for next unit…

Math: trying to teach improper/mixed fractions.  Have found the fraction circles and Cuisinaire rods. Students need lot of hands-on work. Have been doing some reading on cognitive development—trying to understand how to best help struggling students understand abstract concepts. They CAN learn the concepts, it just takes longer. Also working to develop math confidence. As homework is rarely done, need to really focus on in-class time. Most frustrating thing: absenteeism. Need to look into technology to help me “fill in the gaps.” Have been trying to use the computer as much as possible. However, computers not always available. Also issues with band width. Will keep working this angle. As explained in a previous blog, math problem-solving is taught using a template.

PE: Aside from cooperative games, plan to focus on basketball—really want the kids to try out for the teams. Want them to perceive selves as athletic, able to learn new things.  Many scared to try out—too risky.  Note to self: start a drop-in basketball game after school Fridays. But back to the lesson: find some low-risk, fun skill-building games.

Art: Think I’ll work the hip-hop angle. Fab principal has organized a six-week afterschool hip hop class—and some are making fun of anyone who “dances.” So I really want to play up the “cool” factor. Saw a great activity on an Kids Artists, an art educator’s site. Thank god for the internet. Can integrate complementary colours and drawing circles with compass (the more math the better).

Other things on the go: the district laptops have arrived for six weeks, and we’ll need to figure out how to best use them. Also, Bayview staff reading Embedded formative assessment by Dylan Wiliam for our book club.

Once I actually list all the classes I need to plan for on a weekly basis, I can see why I often feel scattered. Throw in some moderate to severe behaviours (in addition to the wide range of abilities) and it can seem like quite a circus.

How about you? What are some ways you use to feel focused? Do you feel like an “expert” in what you do?

Students and Organization: Junk Drawers and Bento Boxes

A headline in this weekend’s Globe and Mail caught my eye: “Rethink your junk drawer,” exhorts Shirley Meisels, design and organizing expert. “Think of it as a Japanese bento box.”

Well, Shirley, you will be happy with my activities in the classroom this week.

I have been thinking a lot about students’ executive functioning (EF) skills, all those strategies that help students stay organized, think logically, and self-regulate. According to Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel (2008), the executive functions “are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”

As I teach in a school where almost 25% of the students have Individualized Education Programs (IEP’s), I spend considerable time helping students with weak executive functioning. For some, this will be a lifelong struggle (especially those students with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome).

But the cause is irrelevant. The reality is that many activities in school require executive functioning. So every lesson requires scaffolding that will help build mental order. Which brings me back to Shirley.

When Shirley first encountered the junk drawer, it was a jumbled mess. So she dumped it and installed compartments.  Then she sorted like with like. Alas, many of my students lack idea compartments. Their brains are one giant junk drawer of tangled information, and when asked to locate something, they are stymied.

So I work to create mental shelving. How?

First off, I consistently use templates (“shelving”) with higher level thinking skills. What this does is reduce the cognitive load: students only need to focus on thinking, not their thinking-and-how-they-are-going-to-organize-thinking. (Students with weak EF skills are not multi-taskers. Cognitive overload will cause the learning fuse to blow.)

So what does this look like in the classroom?

Let’s take math problem solving. At the beginning of the year, my students had no (remembered) strategies to organize their ideas. So I did some research and created a Math Problem Solving template. We glued this template inside a new notebook for easy reference and reviewed it numerous times. Then we numbered the notebook pages, allowing one page per problem.

Meanwhile, I copied a bunch of numbered word problems and made a little booklet for each student. We were ready to begin!

I modeled the steps, thinking out loud, while students watched me. (Don’t have them copy down at first—avoid multi-tasking! Just have them watch. Will it sometimes drive you crazy to go this slowly? Absolutely! But remember your ultimate goal.) At first, all I wanted the students to do was watch my thinking. The next day, I started with the same question. The students and I worked through the problem together, and they copied off the overhead. For a week, we did one problem a day together and it took about 30 minutes (per day–which might seem like a lot for one problem, but your patience will pay off!).

I gradually introduced independent think time at the beginning of class, encouraging students to set up their pages, find the facts, figure out the “Big Q,” and show their thinking. I repeated this mantra to the students: “You don’t need to SOLVE the problem! Your goal is to UNDERSTAND the problem and SHOW YOUR THINKING about the problem.”

After several months, I am now at the stage where student are keen to share their thinking. Volunteers come up the overhead (or Elmo) and share. Students compare and contrast their thinking. When problem-solving time is up (usually around 20 minutes now for one problem), I collect their notebooks and booklets. By far, this is their favourite math activity.

Watch for more “shelf-building” activities next week! And in the meanwhile, why not share how YOU build mental shelving?