We’re Going to Hogwarts!

Months ago, our class began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone together. Harry Potter is something my teacher and I share a passion for, and we both thought it would be a good way to help our not always kind children think more deeply about what it means to be a good person.

I can’t say that we changed any behaviors, but we did manage to inspire almost the entire class to become HP fans. Despite initial skepticism (like moans of “I hate Harry Potter”) some were enthralled by the time the snake’s glass disappeared. Others took longer, but almost all of them have become invested in the story. Several have already made it through Chamber of Secrets! They also managed, over the course of the year, to earn a full jar of marbles, given for a variety of reasons, but mostly for good behavior. We learned on the first day of school that as a reward for earning all of these marbles, they would get a “marble party” as determined by the teacher.

So what did we decide to do? Throw them a Harry Potter party, of course!

The party would be in the last full week of school and img_6656provided us an opportunity to go all out. We made them img_6659Hogwarts letters, complete with individualized desk locations, and presented them as though owls had dropped them off. We spent an hour block of writing time having them write back to Professor McGonagall with their responses. Most were thrilled, some merely smiled, but some (unexpectedly) shared fear. We had several kids who didn’t want to leave their families to attend, regardless of their magical abilities. It hadn’t occurred to us that any of our children would consider this as anything but imaginative play, but we swallowed any doubt and kept selling it.

We had a local actress (the teacher’s mother) dress up and visit the class playing ZuZu Trewlaney (Professor Trewlaney’s equally sighted sister), who identifies which muggle born children will have magical capabilities for Dumbledore. She did a phenomenal job, explaining to the children that they would be attending an orientation (Hogwarts has never had so many muggle borns from one place invited to attend, after all!) the next afternoon.

After countless questions about “when are we going to Hogwarts?” and “is this our marble party?” leading my teacher and I to seriously question whether we were messing with their minds a little too much, the party arrived.

Students entered the classroom via a fabricated Platform 9 3/4, rushing through a faux brick wall. They were sorted via cupcake (I colored frosting img_6683inside to indicate which house they would be in), though we got a witches hat from our music teacher to fully simulate the experience. Our kiddos got to try Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, don Harry Potter glasses, andimg_6666 wave plastic (or pretzel) wands. Before we could watch “a documentary about castle life” (the first Harry Potter movie), each child got a personalized Chocolate Frog.

This was my favorite project that we took on, though it ended up taking an excessive amount of time. Each child had their own picture on a img_6649chocolate frog card and the box was personalized to explain what had made img_6650them worthy of
such a wizard honor. We created fictional lives for each of them, from being a famous quidditch Chaser, or volunteering at a Unicorn Sanctuary, to becoming the Minister of Magic via groundbreaking work with Muggle Relations. We tried to personalize each story based on the students interests and what we thought they would most enjoy and it was a really fun reflection tool at the end of the year. 

Our students had a wonderful time feeling like witches and wizards and it was fulfilling to be able to bring them that joy. They were invested in the story and their imaginations, and we invested in their interests. While we could have made this adventure much more academic, the effort we gave and the immersion that came out of it is a good model for how kids could be learning at school every day, not just for an end of the year party.

Professionals

Read the following definition and consider whether you think that teachers are included in the category described.

Professionally exempt work – “Work which is predominantly intellectual, requires specialized education, and involves the exercise of discretion and judgment. Professionally exempt workers must have education beyond high school, and usually beyond college, in fields that are distinguished from (more “academic” than) the mechanical arts or skilled trades. Advanced degrees are the most common measure of this, but are not absolutely necessary if an employee has attained a similar level of advanced education through other means (and perform essentially the same kind of work as similar employees who do have advanced degrees).” (From http://www.flsa.com/coverage.html; as written in this Education Week article)

If you said yes, you would be right. It’s fairly easy to see how the role of a teacher fits within these parameters. Teachers exercise discretion and judgment constantly, they are expected to hold advanced degrees, and the work is mostly intellectual in nature.

However, there is certainly a case for arguing that, in the current state of the profession, teachers do not satisfy all three of these requirements. As standardized testing has taken root, and curriculum has become more and more dictated by external forces, the amount of thinking a teacher is expected to do has diminished. Even at my school, where we test once a year solely for the purposes of helping teachers assess where students are, teachers infrequently utilize their own creativity in a robust way. What they teach and how they teach it is often dictated to them; if not by the school, by their perceived limitations.

Instead of designing their own activities, I frequently watch teachers turn to Google to find a way to approach a lesson that hasn’t been written for them. Yes, it is good to avoid recreating the wheel and it is important to know how to use your resources, but rarely do the teachers seem to think, “hmm, let me come up with a way to teach this from the power of my brain.” Further conceded, teachers do an enormous amount of exactly that in an impromptu fashion, as they explain each concept repeatedly in new ways in an effort to get students to understand. But where did we lose the notion that teachers are truly professionals who have the preparation and skills to be able to figure out how to teach a concept from the beginning for themselves?

What concerns me most is that the political policies draining professionalization from teaching don’t match up with the political rhetoric professing that teachers are among the most professionalized in society. The excerpt above is taken from an Education Week article explaining why teachers will be exempt from President Obama’s update to the overtime law, just like doctors, engineers, and accountants, among others. For this policy, teachers are deemed capable professionals (likely because no one can imagine a feasible plan to pay teachers the overtime that would be required by the update to the rule).

I want this to be true; I believe that teachers have and should have the knowledge and freedom to perform their work to their best ability, just as professionally exempt employees in other fields do. But I just don’t think the current system actually supports that. Aside from the proof given by the enormous amount of regulation and standardization that teachers endure, teachers are paid significantly less than the other professional exempt employees. If society truly deemed teachers as on par with others in this classification, I have to believe their work lives and salaries would be comparable. Without reconciling the rhetoric and the policies, I believe we will continue to struggle to find great teachers, keep them, and give future generations the best possible education.

Full Circle

I have taken more than 20 trips around the sun since I first walked into Danville Montessori School, knowing little about what awaited me. I left feeling enormously grateful for the education I was afforded and have carried nuggets of the Montessori philosophy with me ever since.

Now, it is with great excitement that I share that I will be embarking on another Montessori journey in just a few short weeks — to become a teacher. I will spend most of my summer learning how to craft the Montessori environment and then spend next year as an intern in a classroom full of 25 four- and five-year-olds starting their own Montessori experience. I will have the opportunity to work side-by-side a veteran teacher while actively applying what I learned in the classroom to see how all of the Montessori pieces come together.

Despite feeling like I’m fulfilling a lifelong dream, I couldn’t have told you this was something I wanted five years ago. I’m still not confident that it’s what I want to do for the next 40 years, but I am absolutely certain that it’s a step in the right direction. So here’s to new adventures and bringing life full circle!

Being Good

3 hours.

Three hours is the approximate amount of time I had spent being responsible for children prior to starting as a teaching assistant. I accepted the job with a lump of uncertainty in my gut – was I even remotely good with kids? Would I enjoy working with them at all?

Just like I have with every role I’ve taken on, I worked hard to become competent at the work. But unlike the other work I’ve done, I find myself questioning whether the work is something I want to be good at. Daily, my fundamental beliefs about what is best for children are challenged. Daily, I am asked to interact with kids in a way that I believe limits their ability to be good citizens. Daily, I have to grapple with whether I am now part of the system I despise.

Early on, I came to terms with the idea that I was not actually doing harm to the children I teach, but that was a hurdle. My instinctual response to the constant discipline and the unnecessary rules was values turmoil and a gut check as to whether I could continue the work. But, I was reminded that millions have survived our school systems with little permanent damage (short of a distaste for learning) and that even if I might have a better way, the traditional way still produces capable humans.

As the school year went on, I stifled most of my disquiet in the routine of each week. But, in my school April brings showers of questions from colleagues about whether you will return in August. As I’ve struggled to nail down concrete plans to earn my Montessori teaching certification, colleagues and supervisors have urged me to stay in my current role, or to obtain my traditional teaching credential. With each piece of praise I receive, I am struck by the question looming in the back of my mind:

Is this something it’s good for me to be good at?

On the one hand, I’ve strived to incorporate as much of my own teaching philosophy as possible into my work with students. I try to respect their humanity, be patient beyond my perceived limits, give them choices as much as possible, and make learning as engaging as I can.

On the other, I have enforced rules that I find asinine, been frustrated with students reacting to their stifling environment, and voluntarily implemented learning systems that are terribly boring.

I want to believe that the former is what has helped me earn respect at my school, but I fear my willingness and skill for the later may be the biggest contributor. I am proud of my ability to deal with an exceptionally challenging group of students day after day, and my ability to do so with patience and kindness for them more often than not. But I’m less proud of my willingness to mold to the demands of the traditional environment, even when it challenges what I believe to be right.

Role Modeling

One of my most frequently used activities while working with college students (borrowed from Beverly Tatum) asks students to spend sixty seconds finishing the lead-in “I Am…”. Tatum designed the activity to highlight the invisibility of privileged identities (few students write “I am white”, but many write “I am black/latino/etc.”), but my favorite use is to help students consider what qualities they would like to model for the younger kids they mentored. Students analyze their list to see which they would like to share with their mentees and then develop actionable steps they could take to do so.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of role modeling lately, spurred by both my volleyball team and my students at school. Through these roles I can easily see how powerful modeling can be for children, whether intentional or not.

My spring volleyball team (the Pink Panthers) is full of focused, talented young women. They are quite good for their level, but the level doesn’t challenge them much. They win the majority of their points on serves, and doing more than returning a ball directly back over the net isn’t on our radar. Many of the core volleyball skills, like moving to the ball, getting set for passes, and sending the ball to teammates are rarely tested during a game. It is difficult to even explain these concepts as many of my girls have never seen high-level volleyball. So I model them instead. There’s rarely a day when my co-coach and I don’t leave the gym sweatier than the girls; we run laps with them, play scrimmages with them, and work hard to send them excellent passes and serves during drills. Our energy and drive to get to the ball or jog from one end of the court to the other during a drill encourages the Panthers to do the same. And it pays off each game as they continue to handily beat their opponents, and become better volleyball players to boot.

But not all modeling is so positive. The most glaring example comes from a third-grade parent on a recent field trip. Hearing the children’s desire to experience an earthquake simulator, this mom glanced around, unhooked the canvas barrier to the exhibit, and led eight kiddos into an obviously closed exhibit. Safety concerns aside, I was aghast at the example she set for these youngsters about entitlement and following rules. While I like to think I would never do something quite as bold, I’ve been struggling with the potential impacts of what I’m modeling when I interact with my class each day.

Reading How to Stop Yelling at Your Students reminded me of my disdain for the “discipline” my school expects me to impose upon my students. I rarely actually yell (aside from encouragement to the Pink Panthers in their noisy gym) but I imagine my frustration-laced scolding must feel like yelling to most of my third graders, just as it often does to me. I strive to contain my frustration, often taking several moments of silence before responding to a triggering situation, but the model of high expectation, low reward, low punishment schooling doesn’t leave many options for instructors. My school has few-to-no consequences for misbehavior — but what’s worse, there aren’t sufficient opportunities for students to truly engage in their work. Given that I discourage inappropriate outbursts from my students, I worry that my own spates of discipline send mixed messages.

Patience Please

Can I crawl under my desk? Can I storm out and tell the office staff that I don’t want to be the substitute teacher any more? Can I just break down and scream? Or can I calmly explain to my students that their behavior makes me question whether I can be a teacher?

I rapidly assessed each of these options as I considered how to respond to five students shouting at me for attention. Though my consciousness desperately sought a solution, none of these seemed like they would end well. So I pressed on as though nothing had happened, trying my best to hide my inner trauma.

Quitting is rarely an option that comes to mind when I’m frustrated, but it was high on my list as I battled through another solo-teaching day. I finally understood so many of the articles about the first year of teaching. It is hard. With teacher salaries so low, I’m surprised anyone stays past their first challenging group of students.

Initially, I tried to pin my struggle on tiredness from a long week without enough sleep. Certainly this was a factor, but there was something deeper that I imagine only teachers and parents can truly empathize with. It is exhausting to constantly put others needs before your own, particularly when their needs sound a lot more like wants — and you just want to eat the only food you’re going to see for eight hours. It is nearly impossible to care for the hundredth time about one person’s interpretation of a comment that may or may not have been intended to hurt their feelings. It is emotionally draining to repeatedly ask students to implement basic manners, and rather than correct their behavior they argue or negotiate with you instead. Add each student asking you questions that doubt whether you know what you’re doing or if you have their best interest at heart, and it’s surprising that few teachers ever throw things in their classrooms. Nowhere have I seen the limits of patience more tested than as a teacher.

And yet at the end of the day, even the really terrible ones, as we sigh and go home, we say, “they are good kids, they really are,” and we return the next morning. We see those children, all of them, as humans with the capacity for good. But there is no curriculum for guiding them to achieve their potential and to deal with their unique challenges, leaving teachers to simply do their best they can, grasping for any patience they can find.

The Book Whisperer

I come from a family of readers; a mom who taught me that books are as valuable as money, and a dad who would be content to never turn on the TV (except for UK basketball games – go Cats!) because he’s engrossed in his book. As a student affairs professional, I regularly referenced and recommended books that I hoped would speak to my students the way they did to me. When I entered my third-grade classroom, I was excited to continue that tradition.

Quickly, I realized that not all students feel like I do about books. I choose one and immediately feel committed to finish it; they give a book three or four pages (a chapter if they’re feeling generous) to decide its worth. I will read nearly anything; they have stronger preferences for genre and style. I care for books meticulously; they casually toss them, shove them, and accidentally tear pages. I am a reader; they are still deciding whether they will be.

And I had a startling realization that I knew few books that were appropriate for my third graders. Despite seeing hosts of books in the library that I have fond memories of, I quickly discovered them to be beyond most of their reading levels and maturity. Most of my favorite stories are written for middle schoolers, with themes over the heads of even my best readers. I simply lack the knowledge to provide valuable recommendations to my third graders, especially because their interests in books (and in general) are still developing.

I recently finished The Book Whisperer after a reader of this blog suggested it as an alternative to the Accelerated Reader approach to teaching reading. Donalyn Miller, a sixth-grade English teacher, argues that we approach reading all wrong. She advocates that allowing students to read books they enjoy is far more desirable than having them trudge through classics or works that are more meaningful than pleasurable. She creates this environment by expecting her students to read forty books per year and gives them time to read in class every day. The students choose their forty books from a simple list of genre requirements. Instead of focusing on the same book as a class, they regularly read different books and collaborate on projects using common themes or literary elements.

Miller, an extraordinary bibliophile, believes that molding students into readers is the most worthy of goals, and that through extensive reading they will gain the experience and knowledge needed to succeed in writing, English class, and standardized tests. She has some advantages in making the approach work: first and foremost, a supportive principal. She also teaches a combined English and Social Studies block (a great example of uncovering The Lost Subject!), giving her significantly more time with her students each day and the flexibility to interweave content from both subject areas seamlessly. Finally, she has a vast library of personal books that she’s familiar with to share with her students.

I greatly enjoyed The Book Whisperer and longed to be in such a classroom — as either a teacher or a student. I agree with Miller that giving students more time and freedom with reading exhibits the value of the skill and encourages them to take interest in books that they otherwise would not. Her alternative assessments — focusing on understanding and application of literary themes — strike me as superior to the class-wide novel study buttressed by page upon page of comprehension questions and a cumulative test weeks later. She even manages to incorporate common reading experiences through short stories and student-to-student recommendations. She laments how few books students have read before they arrive in her classroom, and her kids return to her year after year to bemoan how little reading time they receive in later grades.

I see challenges with implementing Miller’s approach, but mostly because the established system is so well-rooted. It’s difficult to imagine my students engaging with books in the manner Miller describes, but I suppose most of her students felt the same way on their first day in class. After experiencing a third-grade class this year, and the daily struggle to engage students in reading, it seems to me that Miller’s approach could successfully turn the focus back to inspiring students to become lifelong readers.

Real Learning

We entered Science class and took our seats. The children squirmed expectantly. A PowerPoint presentation fired up in the background. The teacher began.

“We’re going to do some real learning today, not an interactive activity, because sometimes we have to actually learn some things in Science.”

I tried to keep my jaw from dropping at these words, and settled in for some slides about types of clouds, with one eye on my students. After their initial disappointment, they handled the presentation well — most of them were engaged, even offering examples of the types of clouds they had seen that week. I have no problem with the presentation; it was short, sweet, and prepared the kids to make their own clouds in class next week. But the preface continues to rankle me days later.

It is my steadfast belief that learning should be engaging and fun almost all the time. Interactive activities are one of the best ways to achieve this goal. I honestly believe that the Science teacher knows this, as at least 90% of her classes are chock-full of activities and experiments. But she, like many teachers, has been socialized to think learning isn’t fun: learning is accepting information. Paulo Freire, the inspiration for my love of education, explains this model:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. (Chapter 2, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Freire argues that not only is this education model ineffective, but that it hinders development and makes us less human by stifling our creativity and critical thinking. Instead, he proposes that we eliminate the false dichotomy of student/teacher and empower each other to think critically, recognizing that only through communication can human life hold meaning.

By telling our students, whether through our words or actions, that real learning only happens when they receive information from an instructor, we limit their potential and further the “school sucks” narrative. Worse, we insinuate that learning itself is boring and painful, paralyzing many children before they really even have a chance to engage in the learning process.

The Purpose of Schools

In the last few weeks, I’ve read multiple perspectives on the role of schools in a community. Some argue that schools should be community centers, providing services well beyond educating pupils. For example, this district in Missouri that is going above and beyond, offering all of these services:

School districts don’t usually operate homeless shelters for their students. Nor do they often run food banks or have a system in place to provide whatever clothes kids need. Few offer regular access to pediatricians and mental health counselors, or make washers and dryers available to families desperate to get clean.

The other side of the argument suggests that America’s insistence on using schools to cure all ills is a significant factor in its current international education standing — well behind twenty-five OECD countries. In her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley argues that several of those countries have attained their success by focusing solely on academics. The countries she examined — Finland, South Korea, and Poland — are at the top of PISA national rankings, and spend substantially less per student than the U.S. does. Ripley posits that these countries, among other strategies, hold education in such high esteem that they don’t offer extras, deprioritizing everything from sports to school lunch to SMART Boards.

Reading the article closely, I see that the Jennings School District provides most of their extracurricular services in partnership with community organizations, which makes me more comfortable with the setup. But I fear that in too many cases, schools forego outside resources or services that already exist; rather, they try to be everything to everyone. Many argue that if our teachers are not even trained well enough to teach, how can we expect them to be successful social workers, nurses, and career counselors on top of their classroom responsibilities?

Historically, I’ve leaned toward the idea of using schools to support a variety of needs, particularly to combat the harm of poverty on a child’s education. But I see significant potential value in allowing schools to focus on their original purpose: educating. I think the real answer is that the role of schools in the community depends on the community. The service learning / leadership educator in me appreciates this conclusion, but I’m still torn on which way the U.S. should lean in the first place — I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Modeling the Growth Mindset

Growth mindset. If ever there was a hot topic in education, this would be it. Multiple times a week I come across articles discussing it, and have even written about it in ”Reconsidering the Avoiders”. One of the biggest factors of implementing the approach is modeling it for students: showing a growth mindset in ourselves and how we approach learning.

Quick summary: a growth mindset believes that learning is always possible, and that one’s ability is not dependent on or limited to innate qualities.

While my school talks about this mindset and encourages staff to foster it in students, I’ve noticed significant challenges in doing so. First, because of the nature of who is drawn to teaching, not all teachers have a growth mindset — or they forget it sometimes. Second, the intense time pressure of school makes implementing these practices tricky.

Teachers are, generally, people who like to be in control and the center of attention. While this manifests in a variety of ways, few people who don’t like to be in charge find themselves leading a classroom in a traditional school. This need for control can inhibit a growth mindset, and I think the struggle is particularly true for elementary teachers. As a third grade teacher, I share concepts that are considered simple by the rest of the population, and I often take for granted that I will either know the answer or will be able to immediately figure it out. Of course, this doesn’t always work out.

Sometimes, I discover that I have helped a child land on a wrong answer. On a recent math test, I counseled five different students through a particular problem before realizing that I wasn’t doing the problem right at all. Fortunately in this instance, I was able to call them back and share my mistake while helping them see the correct path. But other times, feeling duped by a worksheet or poorly phrased question, I go in a completely different direction, insisting that the seemingly odd answer is indeed correct. A recent matching sheet about Charlotte’s Web asked who pledged to save Wilbur and was missing the choice “Charlotte.” Rather than allow the flummoxed students to cross out Fern, I rationalized how Fern could have been the correct answer and argued with them until they relented. I try to employ a willingness to share my mistakes with students and let them see that I am frequently wrong, but in the moment it’s hard to do so.

This is especially true because we are constantly pressed for time. With the students I led astray in math, I wish I could have spent even more time explaining what went wrong and why the new way made sense. But with four other students in line and a limited window for the test, it didn’t seem possible. Daily, there are situations that could warrant a debate over a question or answer, but my schedule doesn’t allow for such discussion very often.

To adopt a growth mindset, my students need to change their attitude towards mistakes and new challenges. The phrase, “this makes no sense,” has become so prolific in my classroom, and causes me such anguish, that the students who hear it anticipate my reaction and start chuckling at my caricatured frustration. Some even respond to their classmates, “Ms. Schultz doesn’t like when you say that.” These words hurt my soul (almost as much as when they use library books for umbrellas), but we have yet to have a class conversation about why the phrase is so detrimental — there hasn’t been time.

Surely, helping our students vanquish this attitude has as much value as being right on a worksheet. We need to admit our own shortcomings if we are going to be the models our students need to adopt a growth mindset.