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Opinion, School Community, Teaching

I Got Schooled

Learning how to elementary-ify classroom and practices to meet kids where they are at

I got schooled yesterday. A team of behaviourial specialists and a learning assistance teacher descended into my room yesterday to elementary-ify me.

A few months ago I brought up one of my learners to school-based team (a meeting where we discuss children who need more support) because of a huge lack of organization skills and behaviours that were interfering with learning in the classroom – that of this learner’s and the others in the room.

The support team walked through my classroom, observed the student, and interviewed me about the management systems I have set in place. It was then resolved that a make-over was in order.

Now, I do not claim to be an expert at teaching but in my old life I was a fairly good secondary school teacher. My Advanced Placement Literature students and I got along great. We’d sit in a circle and discuss the ins and outs of character development, metaphor, and imagery for the whole hour while sipping our tea, hot chocolates or coffees. We’d revise paragraphs for entertainment. High school is my comfort zone.

By contrast, I am writing this blog from a desk in my new context: a grade six / seven classroom at a neighbouring elementary school.

The contrasts between then and now strike me often – to my amusement and sometimes to my slack-jawed astonishment.

For example, at the elementary school when a fire drill announces itself with a shrill screech the children line up in silence. Then, they follow the teachers in single file out of the building – still in silence – and line up on the field – still in silence – where they wait – in silence – for further instructions. At the high school 900 or so people follow their teachers in formations that do not resemble lines to the nearest exit then burst from the building and move en mass in a cacophonic roar to the field where teachers and students find one another again and chat until the “all-clear” bell rings.

I look up from the list of changes I need to make and consider my classroom. I have bulletin boards decorated with borders and a variety of tools to make learning visible. Prior to this year I had no idea how to design a bulletin board.

I have a “flow of the day” chart that a student or I update every day so as to make it clear what each period will hold – in addition to the agenda on the board to announce what will happen within each period.

This is as elementary as I have gotten. But, this learner that I brought up to school-based team makes me realize that this is not enough.

I need to teach organization, which means…

  • I am going to make friends with something I have avoided thus far: a label maker – and label each child’s cubby.
  • I am going to make a strategy board, something that the behavioural specialist introduced me today. Based on the work of Sarah Ward, my strategy board will boast a photo of my classroom set up perfectly. Then, when it’s time to clean up at the end of the day or a period, I will point to the picture and my learners will scuttle around to make the room match the image. The board will feature other visual expectations like what the cloakroom should look like (I have a cloakroom in my class! Gone are the days of lockers to keep student paraphernalia out of sight and out of mind).
  • I will acquire bins – then label them – so each child can have a place to keep all their learning tools.
  • I will require each student to have a binder with colour coded dividers: red for art, green for math, yellow for out units of inquiry, etc.
  • If I want to get really good at this elementary school thing I should photocopy handouts on coloured sheets to match the corresponding binder section. I don’t think I am ready for that.
  • I will stop class early at the end of each period, wait until all 28 or so children have their agendas in hand then circulate to ensure that each student has written the homework into his or her agenda – and double check that they have written it onto the correct page. It is not enough to say, “okay everyone, take out your calendars and write down what is due for next class.”
  • And, perhaps the biggest difference, I will create and use a marble jar so I can drop a marble into it to reward good behavior. Once the marbles reach certain markers on the jar, I will reward the class in some way which we all agree upon and are excited about.

Oh my.

I feel affronted by this list where each item points to a weakness I hadn’t known I had, weaknesses that would have passed unnoticed, perhaps, save for this student who needs something different. The result, of course, will be that all the students benefit.

I waver between being thankful that this student is providing me with such a well-supported opportunity to learn and bemused that I am constantly putting myself in these situations where I am vulnerable and taking a risk – and doing so in such a public way! It’s humbling.

Moving from high school to elementary school requires a growth mindset. Time to practice what I preach, roll up my sleeves and make a strategy board.