Friday, February 26, 2016

Just Tell Students What You Want and How You Want It

Okay - well I might just be old-fashioned, but I truly believe when it come to writing, students just need to be told what should be done and how it should be done.  I had a conversation with a brand new, fresh from college teacher  about writing.  She said that students don’t need lots of instruction; they just need time to create.  My question was how do the student know what to create if you don’t tell them - I was truly confused.

I teach 7th and 8th grade Language Arts.  When I give a writing assignment, I tell the students what I actually expect them to do.  For example, my students write a letter to the editor for composition assignment.  I tell them that I expect it to be in a business letter format, with a persuasive focus, and have a call to action in the conclusion.  I tell them that I expect that they revise for clarity and edit using CUPS - capitalization, usage, punctuation, and spelling (Step Up to Writing).  I give them a model of exactly what I am looking for them to do. I give them the rubric of how I am going to grade them. I have taken a generic 6 Traits rubric and adapted it to my own assignments.  The only aspect of the assignment that I don’t give is the topic.  I let them choose their own topics for two reasons:  first, students are more likely to write if they like the topic; and two, I like variety and don’t really want to read 50 compositions about the same topic.  

When I explain this to the new teacher, she was truly befuddled because she was taught that students need to explore how to do assignments and have freedom to interpret the assignment.  I have found that students, regardless of the age group,  get very stressed and parents get very confused if assignments are not clear. Also, I find myself very stressed and confused if I don’t know what is expected.  I mean, really, how am I to grade an assignment if I don’t know what is expected from the students?

Now I understand that students need time to be creative and explore.  I love free writing, journaling, creative writing, but only if it is not a graded assignment.   I also have found that once students have been given the basics, then they are more comfortable taking risks because they feel they have a firm command of the basics. I feel that my job is to give them the basics, then they can be as creative they want.  

Auman, Maureen E. Step up to Writing. Longmont, CO: Sopris West, 2003. Print.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

How do We Teachers Sharpen the Saw

The program that I work in is BIG on the 7 Traits of Highly Effective Students, which is a Stephen Covey program.  We spend each month working on a trait with the students- being proactive, keeping the end in mind, putting first things first, win-win, seeking first to understand and then be understood, synergy, and sharpen the saw.  We expect our students to learn and live the habits.  It is in our common language.  We see wonderful things happen because of the habits.  More students are proactive by asking for help.  They learn to use the Google calendars to keep the end in mind and to put first things first.  They look for win-win situations instead of just failing.  They listen to seek first to understand.  Group work helps with synergy.   I purposely do not assign any homework or projects over winter or spring break so that students can sharpen their saws. We are a virtual program, so it is easy for students to keep working in the curriculum without teachers. I encourage students to turn off the computers and do ANYTHING besides the school work.

Teacher are pretty good at most of the habits.  The teachers with whom I work are proactive with their curriculum.  They keep a calendar for students so that they keep the end in mind and put first things first.  They are constantly working with students for win-win situations.  They listen to the parents to seek understanding before being understood.  PLC takes care of all synergy.  

What we are terrible at is sharpening the saw.  We talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.  We spend our after school time and/or plan time in PLCs and meetings.  We spend our weekends grading what we could get done during our plan time because we were in PLCs and meetings. We spend our 3-day weekends catching up or trying to get ahead.  We spend winter break getting fall semester grades done.  We spend spring break trying to figure out what we need to get done now that state testing is done.  We spend summer working on changes for the next year.

Teachers need to sharpen the saw. This is really hard because the stack of papers, the email, the lesson plans are always staring at us.  Even when I am with my family, in the back of my mind are the things that I feel I need to get done.  I haven’t read a book that I wasn’t teaching in YEARS!  However, there are some things that I do to try to sharpen the saw.  I knit in the evenings instead of grade papers.  I am a 4H leader (okay, that may not be exactly leaving the "job" behind because I am still with kids).  I play hand bells our the church's hand bell choir, so once a week for 90 minutes I am not in charge of anything or anyone.

One of the things that I have done to sharpen my saw that is the hardest thing to do is to go tech free for a weekend.  I leave the papers behind, turn the laptop off, and turn the phone off.  I don’t turn on anything that might tempt me to work.  This is INCREDIBLY hard.  But it is as INCREDIBLY necessary. Not only as a model for students, but for our own sanity.

I still can’t go all of a winter break, spring break, or summer break without working.  I doubt that I ever will be.  However, baby steps and taking time to sharpen my saw helps me to be able to live the other 6 habits with a more positive attitude.  

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. London: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Covey, Stephen R. The Leader in Me: How Extraordinary, Everyday Schools Are Inspiring
Greatness, One Child at a Time. New York: Free, 2008. Print