Remembering That One Child …

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach at many different public schools as well as in a private school environment. I’ve taught numerous children that range in age from 3 to 14. This summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about one child.  

  • He had so many interesting ideas to share with the class.
  • He was very social, and was always finding topics to discuss with others.
  • He loved sports, and engaged in many organized sports as well as recess games with friends.
  • He had a small group of close friends, but also numerous acquaintances.
  • He was a strong student, but disliked reading and writing, and was very reluctant to complete any work in these areas. He could read and write at grade level though. 
  • He was very emotional, and for different reasons, would react with tears, screaming, kicking, hitting, and even throwing items in the classroom. 

It’s these last two points that have been on my mind lately. At the time, I thought that I was doing everything I could to support this student. 

  • I let him write using a device.
  • I gave him some choices of topics.
  • I broke up reading and writing activities with more preferred activities (such as some iPad and computer activities).
  • I always gave him opportunities to work in groups with peers, as he liked this better than working alone.
  • I used a reward system.
  • I was firm and consistent. 
  • I removed students from the room if there was a problem, and I kept talking to him to try and calm him down. 

A couple of different times during the year, I needed to contact the office for some additional support. He was sent home. I supported this decision because of his behaviour, and I tried hard to make things better the next day … but now I wonder if I should have acted differently in the first place.

I taught this student before I read Stuart Shanker‘s Calm, Alert, and Learning, and before I took the Foundations courses. At the time, I really didn’t understand self-regulation, and what I interpreted as misbehaviour then, I question now if it was really stress behaviour. I also wonder if, inadvertently, I was at times to blame. 

  • While he was more willing to read and write on an iPad, did the regular use of a device, make him more up-regulated? Did this make it more challenging for him to get to “calm?”
  • Did the preferred activities, which were also usually on a device, further up-regulate him and make it more of a challenge for him to focus on work afterwards?
  • While he liked working with peers, sometimes the social interaction was also a challenge, as he found it hard when others had different ideas than him. He also struggled when other children knew something that he didn’t know and/or didn’t understand. Did this group work only increase this child’s stress?
  • While he liked receiving a reward, he found it hard when he couldn’t get one, which only increased the problems. Did the reward system actually produce more stress and increase the behaviour that I was actually trying to decrease?
  • While I think that there’s value to being consistent (and in this case, routine), I think that I was sometimes harder than I needed to be. When I saw that this child was struggling, did I actually need a gentler/calmer response? Would a softer tone and more space have worked better than my firmer response?
  • While I may not have had a choice about removing students from the classroom (for everyone’s safety), I wonder if the changes that I discussed above would have reduced the severity of his responses. I also thought that talking to him was helping, but if he was this angry and upset, was he really hearing me? Maybe I needed to give him the time and space to calm down, so that we could later problem solve together.

I can’t go back now and change what I did back then, but with learning (and continuing to learn) about self-regulation, I can change what I do in the future. I’m sure that we’ve all taught children that stick with us as this child did for me. Think about this child of yours. How might you change things to make things different for the next child (with similar needs) that walks through your door? The summer is a great time for reflection, and I continue to reflect as I remember this child from many years ago.


Could it be “about the comments?”

This morning, I started my day as I always do, reading Doug Peterson‘s recent blog post. Doug has started writing a Whatever Happened To … post every Sunday, and I quite enjoy looking back at some things that I remember and others that I can start to learn about. Today, Doug took on handwritten report cards, and his questions and comments —as well as a comment from another educator — gave me a lot to think about. Doug and I discussed different points about this post through the comment section on his blog as well as through numerous tweetsIt was the comment by Mr. Mepham though that made me realize I needed to write a post of my own. 

One thing that I didn’t include in any of my comments is that Doug’s blog post surprised me. When I saw that his topic for this week was “handwritten report cards,” I expected to hear about the personalized report cards of days gone by. When I started teaching, we were already into using electronic report cards, but I remember receiving the handwritten ones when I was a child. I even remember some of the comments. While there were some generic ones such as, “good job,” or “Aviva works hard,” there were also specific ones connected to skills I demonstrated and projects I submitted. I often thought about the teachers that spent so much time crafting these comments and writing them out with their perfect blue or black pens (I don’t think my trusty Sharpie marker would do 🙂 ) versus typing them on a computer. I heard colleagues talk about how there were “no comment banks back then,” so I guess that I took this to mean that the comments were more personal than they are today. But were they?

All of this takes me back to my first commentand big question — on Doug’s post: do the format of the report cards need to impact on how personalized we make our comments? Just because we have a comment bank doesn’t mean that we need to use it. Even if we do use it, this doesn’t mean that we can’t change examples or modify words (something that I know is quite common for educators to do). Yes, we have space restrictions on our electronic report cards, and these restrictions also existed for the handwritten ones. As Mr. Mepham mentions in his comment, the look of our current report card is somewhat “sterile or uninviting.” This doesn’t mean that the content in it needs to be. In fact, Growing Success suggests quite the opposite. I also know though that a big part of the challenge comes from balancing personalized statements with limited room for sharing. This is something that causes me much stress during report card writing time, and sometimes leads me to settle on a comment that I don’t think tells the full story. This is never an easy decision to make.

As I read Doug’s post though and all of the comments that followed, I couldn’t help but think about this blog post by Kristi Keery-Bishop. While Kristi’s post discusses why we shouldn’t avoid inquiry just because we have to mark it, I think that some of the same logic holds true when it comes to personalized comments. Yes, we often need to get creative with our word choice, and we may not be able to include all examples in our finite number of lines, but we can still paint a picture of each child in each report card. I think about many generic comments that I’ve written in the not-so-distant past, and I wonder if we’ve all become accustomed to them (parents included). Is this why parents might stop reading the comments (as Mr. Mepham mentions)? If each report card was a learning story starring the child, would parents view the comments differently? Would we? We may not be able to get rid of the marks. We may always have space restrictions. The comment bank might always exist. But I would like to think that we can work past these problems to make a report card more than just a couple of pieces of paper that go home so many times a year. Maybe this is my Utopian ideal, but I’m hoping that it could happen — and I think that it already is happening in some cases. What do you think?


My Evolving #OneWord Goal

Last week, I read Kristi Keery-Bishop‘s blog post, where she reflected on her one word goal for this year. With just over half of the year done, and with summer vacation now here, it’s a great time to look back, think about what worked and what didn’t, and set some new/updated/modified goals for the next school year. Among other things, Kristi’s post got me re-reading my one word blog post from the end of December, and drawing some conclusions.

Looking back now, I realize that while my goal was to focus on hearing, I think that I made the assumption that the only people that I really needed to hear were colleagues. I did spend a lot of time this past school year focusing on this list of points when interacting with adults.

Screenshot 2016-07-17 at 19.19.46

As a Kindergarten teacher in Ontario, I share the classroom with another adult — something that I’ve done before, but under very different circumstances — and it’s been great learning for me to not be the only one making the decisions. In fact, many times during the school year, my partner had more experience with our current problem/issue, and she took the lead in developing a solution, proposing a plan of action, and exploring implementation options. Yes, we still brainstormed ideas together. And yes, I still asked questions that sometimes changed the plan, but I learnt that I needed to listen more, and I got better at doing so. I am not (and was not) perfect! 

  • Sometimes I interrupted.
  • Sometimes I made assumptions before hearing the whole plan.
  • And sometimes I tried to modify ideas before we tried them out, when really there was value in trying them out first. (With many thanks to my wonderful partner, she was great at reminding me of this, and we did start to do this more as the year went on.)

As I start teaching at a new school with a new teaching partner, these are all areas that I will continue to work on in the new school year. I think it takes time and practice to hear more and talk less. 

This past school year though, I realized that it’s not just adults that I need to make sure that I hear, it’s also the students. I know that it seems almost obvious to draw this conclusion, but it’s unbelievable how easy it is to forget about this. I actually thought about this idea more when I recently read Stuart Shanker‘s Self-Reg: How To Help Your Child (And You) Break The Stress Cycle And Successfully Engage With LifeThis book reminded me that children don’t always tell us what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and what they need in the best of ways. In fact, sometimes we observe them and see “misbehaviour,” when really it’s a case of “stress behaviour.” The four Foundations Courses that I just finished, really helped me view behaviour differently, but even so, it wasn’t until I looked critically at my one word goal that I realized the tremendous importance in hearing kids: both in what they say and in what they do

  • If they cry … why?
  • If they get physical (hitting, kicking, punching, etc.) … why?
  • If they scream … why?
  • If they struggle with sitting and listening … why?
  • If they can’t join a big group … why?
  • If they can’t engage in a small group … why?
  • If they float from one activity to another one … why?
  • If they call people names … why?
  • If their behaviour changes throughout the school day … why?

It really is about asking, “Why this child and why now?,” on a regular basis, so that we can help problem solve for greater success. While I think that I’ve improved at asking this question after the fact, I really want to focus on asking myself this question in the midst of the problem so that I respond differently. Maybe my different, calmer response will also lead to a different outcome.

I’m excited to start a new year at a new school with a new class and a new terrific partner. In the midst of all of this new, it will be good to still focus on my old one word goal, but with the addition of actively listening to students as well as staff. How have you done with your one word goal? What changes will you make for the 2016/2017 school year? I would love to hear your reflections!


I Failed. Have You?

This afternoon, I received an email telling me that Kristi Keery-Bishop published a new blog post. The title of the post, #Fail, had me quickly clicking to read it, even though I only had a few minutes to do so. There are many things that I appreciate about Kristi as a blogger, an educator, and an administrator, and one thing is her honesty … even when it may be a challenge to share. Kristi’s post has inspired me to be honest too.

This post of mine is not about failure connected to my “one word goal” (reflections on that goal are for another post), but it is about failure. My confession: I’ve failed a lot, both in my child and adult life. These are just some of my failures …

  • There was my failure in Visual Arts when my work products — no matter how hard I worked — never met expectations.
  • There was my failure in instrumental music, when I decided to choose the tuba to play because nobody else picked it, and doesn’t tuba sound like a wonderful word?! Little did I know that the tuba is a massive instrument and that walking it home to our family condo each week was way beyond my capabilities. Nobody that lives in a condo complex wanted to hear me play the tuba either. After a year of struggles, the music teacher gave me the bells the next year. When I say “bells,” I mean that I got “a bell” that I rang when she pointed at me. That was failure.
  • There was the failure in geography, when I couldn’t even find Ontario on a map. It took nights of tears and hours of time with my step-dad to just memorize the map locations to pass the test. Even today, I struggle with finding Ontario on a map (more #ConfessionsOfAviva).
  • There was my grown-up failure in winter parking. Every time the snow fell, and I couldn’t find the lines in the parking lot, I managed to park in multiple spots and mess up the entire parking lot. Eventually the whole staff at one of my previous schools needed to meet the expectations in my Parking I.E.P., and shift assigned spots on those days when we couldn’t see the lines. Parking failures is one of my favourite blogging topics. 🙂 
  • Then there was a failure where I didn’t meet a classroom goal that I wanted to meet. When someone pointed out to me what I could have done to meet this goal, and what I really should consider for another year, I felt like a failure. While she offered her help, and her ideas might very well work, the fact that I didn’t come close to meeting this goal, made me feel even worse about myself. 

While some of these failures may cause a chuckle from me now, the truth is — at the time at least — I agree with Kristi that “failing sucks.” And although I do believe that we can learn a lot from many of our failures, maybe one thing that we can also learn — and should learn — is that sometimes we will failBlog posts and Twitter conversations have almost turned every failure into something great. As Kristi mentions, terms like grit, perseverance, and even cute acronyms like F.A.I.L. (First Attempt In Learning), make us see the positive side of failure. Yes, we should learn from our mistakes. Yes, there is value in trying again. And yes, not every initial mistake is going to lead to a life-long failure … but maybe, sometimes, it will. Maybe we do need to teach children how to also deal with the upset that comes from this kind of failure, so that they can also move past it to a success.

I think about the failures that I shared above. No matter how hard I may work, how many times I try again, and how many different strategies I use,

  • My art work will never be used as a model for others — except for maybe what not to do.
  • My tuba playing will cause many children and adults to plug their ears.
  • My map reading skills will either lead you into the ocean or onto the wrong road.
  • I will never be hired as a parking valet.
  • And I cannot go back and meet the classroom goal that I didn’t meet … at least not for that particular class.

Some may see this as a pessimistic outlook. I see it instead as reality, but with the knowledge, that there are many more things that I can do — and have done — well. If we make students and ourselves believe that “failure is not an option,” do we only increase the anxiety (and feelings of upset) of those people that have tried and have failed? I think we’ve all experienced failure, and I wonder how much we could learn from each other (and teach our children) if we all shared these experiences. (As an aside, yes, these thoughts are uncomfortable ones to write because it seems strange to talk about failure in this way.) What do you think?


Left Wondering, “Am I Getting Better?”

This morning, I read a recent blog post by Sue Dunlop called Two Essential Questions For Reflection. In this post, Sue talks about her reflection process. She shares two questions that Steven Katz, a psychologist, teacher, and researcher, uses to measure improvements.

Screenshot 2016-07-09 at 15.04.36

I attended EdCamp Mississauga with Sue and some other educators and administrators in our Board, and I remember her speaking about these two questions during one of our conversations there. For weeks, I’ve been mulling them over. My problem is that I’m very conflicted on the answers.

I think that I’m struggling the most because for 14 years, I judged my improvement/growth/success almost solely on a child’s attainment of academic skills. I focused on school and Board benchmark goals. I knew them, and I worked hard to get children to meet them. Some years, I was more successful than others, but almost always, I saw tremendous growth in the students. Almost always, the scores made me happy

Then in my fifteenth year of teaching, something changed. After conversations with my teaching partner, curriculum consultants, and school support staff, we realized that academics couldn’t come first. Our students needed to develop social skills (including self-regulation) and problem solving skills, so that they were ready and able to learn. This didn’t mean that we ignored the academics, but we reinforced a lot of these literacy and math skills through play, while also modelling and reinforcing the other skills that are essential for children to become learners and leaders in school and in life. 

By the end of the year, overall the students made great gains in our areas of focus.

  • The classroom was calmer.
  • Students engaged in tasks for longer periods of time.
  • Children started to share materials and interact with each other.
  • Students began to problem solve independently, instead of just with adult support.
  • Many children learned how to SELF-regulate (e.g., noticing that they needed to calm down and choosing a book to look at in a quiet area, a song to dance to on the SMART Board, or the Theraband to pull on the door).

Observing this growth in the students, helped me believe that I was “improving as a teacher,” as it was due to many of our changes and supports in the classroom environment that impacted on this student success. Or, at least, student success in social skills and problem solving …

Then comes the part that makes me uncomfortable: what about academic growth? Overall, the students improved in their understanding of phonemic awareness skills and the alphabetic principle. Some made very significant gains. A few students even exceeded expectations. But what about those students that didn’t meet the benchmark? Is there more that I could have done? I sit back now and think about what we did throughout the year.

  • I think about our small group instruction.
  • I think about how we developed phonemic awareness skills during transitional times.
  • I think about the resources we accessed: print resources and people resources.
  • I think about our focus on oral language skills and developing these skills so that students were ready to read and write.
  • I think about the feedback that we asked for and got all year long, and the changes we made as a result. 

While I think about what we did, I also wonder, is there something I missed that would have improved results? 

This past week, I attended a two-day inservice on emergent and early reading. I heard many ideas for developing oral language, reading, and writing skills in the classroom. Some ideas are new ones and some ideas reinforce what I’ve heard before. This September, I will be teaching Kindergarten at a different school in a very different area of our Board. While I’m hoping that my interactions with the new Kindergarten team, various educators online, and my new professional learning (through reading and inservices) will help me continue to improve, I wonder how to judge this growth. Do different results in a different environment truly equate to an improvement in skills? Even as you examine your growth, how do you know that you’ve achieved “your best?” How do you determine what else you could have done and/or what to do next? Our students all deserve our very best, and as the summertime starts, I keep thinking about what this looks like and what my next best move could be.