Friday, May 11, 2018

Relationships Matter

It's Friday after school...I'm exhausted...blogging has been waaaay in the back of my mind.

But I was sitting here thinking about a couple of experiences of this (oh-so-long, trying) week, and a blog post was born.

I work hard on student relationships. I don't always get it right. Some days I really blow it. But, overall, I am proud of the rapport I have with kids. I have found that if they know I am on their side and have their backs, they will pretty much walk through walls for me. I can usually crack even my toughest cases. I have had a couple of students for whom it took most of the year, but eventually, I feel I become allies with all my students.

Yesterday was a tough day. Teacher-Monster was just below the surface and attempting to make a full-fledged appearance. I think I might start calling her Teacher-Hulk. My patience was thin, and kids seemed to be doing everything they could to break it. On purpose. :)

One such kid is one of my students, and we have been working on a positive relationship all year. He hasn't been a particularly tough case, but he occasionally surprises me with brief defiance or saying things without first running them through a filter. We've had many good discussions about what kind of responses - to a teacher, in particular - are appropriate.  He's come a long way.

But there's been this one issue that he keeps pushing. And pushing. And pushing. I've talked to him. Other teachers have talked to him. Administration has talked to him.

And yesterday, I'd had enough. The issue surfaced between classes in the hall, and I called him out. I told him to come with me to the office. He begged me the entire way to not do it. It was not pretty.

After it was over, I worried I had destroyed what we had worked on all year. I worried what today would be like when I saw him again.

Between classes this morning I was standing in the hall looking nowhere in particular. I was in my own little world, and I heard, "Hey, Mrs. Gibbs." It was him as he was walking by me. I called him to me.

"Are we ok?"

"Yeah, we're ok."

"I'm sorry I went off on you. You know I love you. I just want what's best for you."

"I love you, too, Mrs. Gibbs."

When he came to class a little later, everything was good. Yesterday was forgiven. Today was a new day.

Every act of every day that builds a positive relationship with students matters. And the foundation that is built every day can help withstand the rough days.

Fresh starts matter. New beginnings matter. Forgiveness matters.

Relationships matter.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

An Improvement in Feedback

Timely, efficient feedback is an area I consistently find challenging. I believe I have improved over the years, but I could often be so much better.

A flipped classroom obviously allows for better feedback. I am with students as they work with content, and I am able to give frequent, verbal feedback as I walk around and watch students work.

I struggle with stuff I take up. Things I would like to look at, make comments on, and return to students. The turn-around on these things is seldom quick enough to make a difference. And students aren't keen on reading comments I've written on something they completed yesterday (or...before yesterday).

I want them to learn from feedback. I want them to be able to try and try again until they get something right.

A few weeks ago I had a mini A-Ha.

I gave a warm-up on material from previous days' content. When students finished they were to let me check their work. If everything was correct, they moved on to the next thing in the day's agenda (I love self-paced days, and kids do, too). If they missed anything, I returned the paper to them, and they continued to work.

My feedback got more specific the more I returned to a student. At first, I told them which problems they missed. The next time, I would give them something more specific about where they were missing a problem. Eventually, we might have some one-on-one instruction about difficulties they were having.

Students worked until they got everything correct.

They received immediate, meaningful feedback.

They acted on the feedback. Immediately.

I've used the process a few times since then, and I like it. Students are improving at finding their mistakes. They are developing perseverance. I think the process helps with stress levels, as they know they can work with problems until they get them right. I am able to give lots of high-fives as students conquer a problem that is giving them difficulties.

The only issue I saw is that one issue that permeates every aspect of what I would like to accomplish in class: time. A few students (not many) have spent most of the class on a few problems and not had a lot of time with the new material for the day. It hasn't been a deal-breaker, but it is something I will have to continue to look at and see if there's something I can do to make it better.

Overall, though, I like this way of delivering feedback. Anytime I can tell students right NOW what they need to work on, and they can work on those things right NOW, students will make progress and deepen their learning.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Retention Conundrum


While it's always been an issue and something I deal with as a teacher of middle school students (who - in the words of one of my interviewers years ago - wake up in a new world every morning), lately I have found myself particularly frustrated by it. Confused, even.

It doesn't seem to matter if we covered a topic last week, last month, or last semester. It doesn't seem to matter if it's something we spent a good deal of time with or how successful they were when we covered it (solving equations). It doesn't seem to matter if it's something we've been on for months, step away for a lesson or two, and return to (graphing linear equations). Sometimes it doesn't matter if we were working on it yesterday.

I find myself saying things such as, "We've covered this!" "You knew how to do this _____ long ago!" "You learned this in ______ grade!" All in an increasingly exasperated tone and more often than I would like.

Before the end of the first semester, I was determined to figure out a plan for spiral review for the start of the second semester.

I have NEVER been happy with the times I have tried to incorporate spiral review. Most of the time the process has involved students being given a few minutes to work a few problems. There is a handful of students in each class who will sit through the time allotted and not attempt anything, waiting for me to work the problems. After the designated time, I work the problems, and those who sat there for five minutes copy what I write, learning very little.

I found an eighth-grade spiral review product I liked and tweaked it some for my classes. Students have four problems to work, four days a week.

When I first started, I told students, "This is review material. You know how to do this. Look things up you don't remember. I'm not working the problems for you. Try SOMEthing." My goal was to check their work at the end of the week, highlight mistakes, and then work through problem areas together.

This was met with a little success in my Algebra 1 classes, but my Pre-Algebra classes were really struggling with the work. And checking all the papers of all my classes every week proved to not be my best plan.

So, I softened my approach a bit. I walk around and answer questions as students work. At the end of the allotted time, I ask for questions and will work a problem or two (but I seldom work all of them). Problems through the week are similar with a few included from previous weeks (hence the spiral, LOL), and students are seeing things over and over.

This week I had the idea of giving a "quiz" with a few problems similar to the ones students had been working to see how they are doing with the concepts we are reviewing.

I am seeing some progress.

Concepts that I would not have thought students would lose - like determining how many solutions an equation has - have been reviewed and strengthened.

Students are coming up with strategies that might not be the process I taught them the first time, but the "new" strategies are ones they understand and, therefore, will have a better chance of remembering.

I am learning - and am surprised by - how many times students must be exposed to material before it "sticks."

Rather than continuing to be frustrated, I am trying to figure out what I need to do to ensure students REALLY learn concepts for the long haul.

During this same process, I am in the middle of solving systems of equations with my Algebra 1 students, and I have seen that students need spiral review within a unit on top of the spiral review they need for topics from throughout the year.

And then I'm hit with the constant amidst all the variables of my day: I have 50 minutes a class period. My students need spiral review from older topics, spiral review from current topics, introduction to and practice with new material all within those 50 minutes.


Flipped lessons help. Self-pacing helps.

But it still feels very overwhelming. Insurmountable, at times.

I don't have it all figured out, yet. But the wheels are turning, and I will continue to work on keeping topics in front of students until we don't feel like we're starting over every time a concept reappears.