Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Back to School : Creating a Safe Environment

It's that wonderful time of "Back to School, " and today was day 6 with my Kindergarten class. It's quite amazing how quickly I am getting to know these little people, with all of their quirks and unique personalities. I actually feel like this year I am observing more and gaining valuable insight on how to reach and teach these curious, wide-eyed beings.
One of the most important goals in the beginning of the year is creating a safe and effective classroom climate. Everything I do is centered around helping kids feel comfortable, engaged, and able to conquer new challenges. This may seem easy, but trust me, with 22 five year olds ( some actually only four!) all wanting individual attention,
easy is not even in my vocabulary.
Here are some tips for making the environment calming, less threatening, and more engaging for all students:
1) Take pictures of students and put them up in the room as soon as possible. I used my digital camera on the first day, ( which even stopped some kids in their teary-eyed tracks when they saw I wanted to take their picture and show it to them on the little screen!) and on the second day, (after a quick trip to the local drugstore for 1 hour printing,) the students were so excited to see their pictures posted on a chart with their names.
2) Relax! Make sure you are giving off a calming, confident vibe. Students are like animals: they sense your fear or anxiety and many react to it! Make sure you are getting enough rest and are eating a healthy, fuel-filled diet to ensure consistent energy levels.
3) Use play to engage! On the first day, I spontaneously took one of my puppets, a white fluffy monkey with long dangly arms, and used the monkey to engage the students in reading the morning message. The students now ask each morning if they can "wake up the monkey" to help us read. Mr. Monkey loves to put my pointer in his mouth as he points to the words and as I look out at the delighted giggles of my class I can tell that this playful gesture lightens the mood and enhances attentiveness.
4) Review the rules frequently at the beginning of the school year. Take pictures of your students modeling how to follow the rules. My students love looking at themselves modeling the rules and I often see them looking at the rules just to see themselves. This is continuous positive reinforcement.
5) Praise students when they make big "efforts." For some students, especially those completely new to school, even writing their name is a huge effort.
6) Incorporate lots of movement to calm the wigglers and to get the oxygen going.
7) Use humor! According to researcher, Dr. Barbara Frederickson, the "Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions" confirms that inducing positive emotions such as joy, increases the brain's capacity to make new connections. It also helps individuals develop resources and skills that can later combat stress and depression. Other research has shown that by smiling purposefully one can induce a feeling of happiness.
8) Encourage students who struggle socially or academically to help with classroom jobs. One of my students who is the oldest of many siblings at home, struggles with writing her name. She is excellent at helping other students find their way to the office or knowing where to put things away.When she can be helpful and successful, her resistance to completing her academic tasks diminishes.
9) In the heat of these first weeks of school, make sure students are hydrated. Dehydration is a huge issue and leads to lethargy, inattention and other issues.
10) Have fun and delight in finding the strengths of your students. Each student possesses unique gifts to bring to the class. Let them know you are excited to help them discover these gifts.
And with those little tidbits I will close for now. Teachers are lucky to share in the gift of learning. I feel incredibly fortunate to spend my days with interested, hopeful little people who want to grow and learn together.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

All Fired Up!

I suppose it's no surprise to those who know me that I get upset when people make generalizations that affect kids. My aim is not to criticize, but to turn the lens a bit to refocus and present a different perspective. I react intensely when people throw something out there as if it is indisputable "fact", when it's their interpretation of what someone else said. Today I was reading the ASCD blogs when I came across a recommendation to read a blog written by a journalist who actually hails from San Jose,CA just near where I teach. The blog entry, "No Evidence for Learning Styles", at http://joannejacobs.com/2007/08/03/professor-pans-learning-style/ is a brief critique of learning styles theory that quotes one "expert", a pharmacologist from the UK, who stated that there is no independent evidence that using a learning styles inventory has any direct educational benefit. Now, it appears a bit ironic to me that we are using a pencil/paper inventory to test children's strengths or preferences in learning. How can we really know a child's primary modality or modalities? Teacher observation, parent reports,and child's answers themselves would lend themselves to more information on how a child learns best than an inventory that requires a certain proficiency in verbal ability to answer the questions themselves! The point is this: When we teach, we want kids to be able to assimilate the information and connect it to their prior knowledge or schema. We want our students to become engaged, confident, and intrinsically driven. If we find that it takes engaging multiple modalities to reach all of the students, and our teaching is effective, then I say we are doing our jobs! I believe that the descriptions of "learning style" addressed in this blog are extremes: I don't expect a kinesthetic student to "dance her answer" and I don't expect children to have only "one" learning style that works in isolation. But children who "learn about the way they learn" gain valuable insights about themselves. If we teach them to understand that their brain has it's unique ways of inputting and linking new information and that they can employ strategies to help themselves be more efficient in studying, then we are on our way to creating independent more motivated, engaged learners. This motivation and self-efficacy propel a student when facing newer, more challenging material. Understanding learning styles means that a "one size fits all" approach to teaching is not the answer; we are told this in our teaching methodology courses again and again. Do we need to prove that each person has a genetic place where their preference is located? Not for me! Do I need to see test scores increase the years following the use of a Learning Styles Inventory to believe that using multiple modalities makes sense? I think not. The proof is in the excited, self-confident learners who have found their own way to make their efforts worthwhile. Understanding learning Styles does not mean that I present every lesson in 4 different and mutually exclusive formats; however, when a lesson presented in a traditional manner of visual or auditory doesn't seem to be working, I use my reflective understanding that some children learn kinesthetically to integrate a kinesthetic activity into my "re-teaching." Or I can use such an activity, like a nature walk, to "frontload" a concept and initiate excitement about my new topic. I can even integrate music with the visual modality and engage learners in a joyful learning experience, which, research says, leads to a calmer and more effective learning environment.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

It's About Time

I have been talking about doing this for some time now. I love to write and explore ideas for reaching kids through a variety of learning modalities and have enjoyed the success of sharing my Silly Songs for Sight Words with Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers across the state of CA. When I go to conferences, I am energized by my conversations with passionate, dedicated teachers, committed to using an ever-growing toolbox of creative teaching strategies. I enjoy the open collaboration, and the process of shared insight into the complexity of meeting the needs of so many different learners. Not only do we have the challenges of children whose basic needs are often neglected due to the social and economic issues of their families, but we have cultural and language factors that impact us in a huge way. What amazes me is the growth and resilience of children as they come to school each day truly wanting to learn. Sure, we all have our challenges, those who inspire us to talk under our breath: the ones who jump off cabinets and throw chairs! We have the hygiene issues, anger issues, emotional rollercoasters, along with the incredibly hopeful moments when we see the lightbulb go on and we witness the "aha" moments of learning. My goal for this blog is to explore how using kids strengths can help them become successful, independent, engaged learners. I look forward to collaborating with other teachers; there is definitely a synergy that comes from sharing experiences with fellow teachers. We must always remember our potential impact on the precious young minds on loan to us each day; we are important and it's not only what we do, but how we do it that impacts our students. It's both a gift and a responsibility to be a teacher. Here is what one of my heroes, Carl Gustav Jung has to say about teachers: "An understanding heart is everything is a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child." - Carl Gustav Jung