As this semester draws to a close, it is natural to begin to evaluate it for its successes and challenges. I start thinking about the changes I want to make to next semester and what I wish I had done differently and reviewing new tools that I have found over the past months.
I feel like this is a natural process that all teachers go through as we approach the ending of semester or school year. Being reflective is something that is ingrained in us by our desire to do better for the students and any teaching program I have ever heard of. We recognize the importance of being reflective and intuitively practice it.
My semester has been one of challenges to be frank. I have had personal challenges and professional challenges that have really highlighted the need to be purposeful in the classroom, my reflections, and reactions to my reflections.
I feel like this year I fell into the trap of reflecting but not acting. I was thinking a lot about what was happening in my classroom, but not taking the time to process my reflections and create an action plan around them. Those last two steps are really important to being purposeful as a teacher and reflective professional. The failure of not processing and acting on my reflections is one of the reasons, I continued to struggle.
The impact this had on my classroom
Reading this, it probably seems like I am being really hard on myself and that it could just be one of the groups of students that struggle and no matter what I did in the classroom, those students were going to struggle. That could very well be true, but I also feel like this semester was a humbling, challenge that reminded me of two very important things about teaching.
My plan Moving Forward
I do not want to make the same mistakes I made this semester, so I have reflected, processed, and developed this action plan for next semester to make sure that I am being the best reflective and purposeful teacher I can be.
Teaching is hard, but it is also amazing, fulfilling, and incredibly important. I want to be the best I possibly can be for my students and I think that doing these things will help me do that. I hope that you take away from this post that it is O.K. to struggle, because when we struggle we learn things about ourselves. That when you find yourself struggling at school take time to reflect on what is happening, but don’t just stop there. Take the next steps. Process your reflections and develop an action to help or celebrate if needed. Lastly, don’t forget to keep learning. Learning is essential to great teaching!
Our first day back from Thanksgiving break and I had a sub. No, I wasn’t sick, I was at a curriculum meeting. It’s at this point must of us are rolling our eyes and thinking, was that really necessary? Could we have met for an hour or just used email and Google Apps to communicate? I’m right there with you. I hate missing a school day unless I can be sure that what I have learned or accomplished will positively and directly impact students.last Monday was one of those days and I think there were some really important components necessary for any department who wants to have quality curriculum that result in tangible accomplishments.
Have a clear goal.
We were trying to find a better way to place kids in the correct class as freshmen. We had way too many students who were moving to a lower track and a few moving to a higher track of math during the first semester of school. When almost 20% of your freshmen class are changing tracks, something is wrong with the placement method. We all knew that it was an issue and needed to find a better way to help transition students into the correct high school math course.
Include all the key players AND be sure they have a voice.
How many of us have been given notes from a meeting we weren’t present for containing some sort of directive or decision that directly impacted us? I’m sure there are some out there that are totally fine with this but I’d argue that making real change means all parties involved in implementing the change need to be present and in agreement about the changes made. How can we be 100% clear and in agreement, ready to implement or enforce something when we weren’t there?
This particular curriculum meeting was great because all of the freshmen math teachers were there as well as the 8th grade math teachers from each feeder middle school. Even better, we were trusted to get the goal accomplished, which brings me to the next point-
Remember, it isn't an admin meeting.
I have nothing against administrators. I would love to be an administrator one day! In fact, great administrators helped this meeting happen! Most would admit however that admin meetings have a reputation for being a lot of talk and jumping through the hoops states put on public schools. This meeting wasn't like that. We started by talking about how each of us grade and what students need to know before they enter our classes in order to be successful. We used Google docs and collaborated. There was one goal and that was to understand the expectations for enterering high school math classes and to create a placement test and criteria for placing students correctly. We had an entire day to complete the task and our administrators simply poked their head in every now and then to see if we needed anything. We weren't given additional tasks. No one walked in and said they would have to check with another higher up before we'd have an official answer. We had the autonomy to make final decisions and simply report back how the day went!
Give mutual respect and desire open communication.
During the first hour of the meeting, we were trying to sort out how best to spend the day and accomplish the goal. We began to discuss the gaps we were seeing at the high school. Kids didn't know the difference between slope and plotting an ordered pair or they were lacking number sense, etc. It would have been really easy for for the 8th grade teachers to take it personally and shut down but they didn't. We were not attacking them and they trusted that. We knew they had pressure to teach the standards and push kids the same way that we did and we were determined to respect and work together to do what was best for our students.
Make decisions with kids in mind.
Again, near the beginning of the morning we were talking about the standards assigned to each of our courses and the amount of pressure we felt to speed through it in order to "cover" everything. I know we are not alone in this feeling and the fact that none of the schools were accountable to each other by being in the same district could have made the conversation worse. Instead, we were able to communicate respectfully and come to the conclusion that we were professionals who could take responsibility for specific standards and be accountable to each other. We didn't work in the same town or within the same district but we served the same kids. In the end, what was best for them was for us to trust that the person coming next would do what they said they would do. For example, I will teach students how to solve multi-step equations. The 8th grade teachers who have the students who will enter my track would then be sure that the students have become masters of solving one step equations and using the order of operations. Rather than pushing those kids through solving different equations, they would leave that to me and spend the time being sure they had the prerequisite skills mastered. No more rushing kids through standards. They need to become masters of the material and that doesn't happen by reviewing fractions for one week every year. As hard as it is to make these decisions, they have to be made because it is what is best for kids.
Communication doesn't end after the meeting does.
Finally, one of the most important steps to a curriculum meeting is that the discussion that began does not end. After completing our goal for the day and creating a placement test that we agreed on, we discussed what we needed to do as a follow up.
When would it be given? How would students review? How would it be graded consistently across three different middle schools? How will they be sure their prerequisite standards would be mastered before students got to 8th grade?
We set a date to meet again after the test would be given so that we could grade it all together and agree. The 8th grade teachers said they planned on speaking with the lower grades to have similar meetings about mastering standards.
The key here is that it wasn't over. We didn't pat ourselves on the back and move on. We gave each other high fives for the day and planned to meet again and email in between meetings.
Why do we even need a curriculum meeting?
Curriculum is the plan for what we will teach kids. If we don't discuss it and work to make it the very best it can be, what are we doing? We owe it to our profession and to our students and community to talk to each other. We need to be willing to have the hard conversations about what we are doing and whether or not it is the best for our students. We may feel like we have kids all the time but in reality, that 45 minutes that I see students 5 times a week and 9 months of the year flies by.
It's no secret that I'm pretty competitive. I also love logic games. Brain teasers are my fave. When I heard about escape rooms, I was so pumped.
What is an escape room?
An escape room is an activity where participants are put through a search and find like challenge that include puzzles and locks. There is usually a given scenario to help engage participants such as: you are the survivors of a zombie apocolypse but you've all been contaminated. You are locked in a laboratory where they were creating an antidote. Find the antidote within an hour and save yourselves!....You can see how decorating and creating a story helps engage you in the game! Clues can be out in the open or hard to find (invisible ink, random numbers on the wall, etc.). Participants "win" if they can unlock all of the boxes - usually one is containing whatever you are trying to find (example: the antidote). When you find that box, you win!
There are a lot of scenarios where I would use an escape room! This blog explores a couple of times that I used (or would suggest using) an escape room!
the first week of school
Day one - I introduced myself and did a welcome activity.
Day two - I showed the syllabus and the classroom rules/expectations.
Day three - I gave a pretest (yuck)
Day four - BREAKOUT EDU!!!!!
First of all, pretests are not fun but for my class, they are necessary. Because we are on a three track system, it helps me to be sure students are in the right class and allows me to gauge the right starting point for the following week. After three days, they know a little bit about me and my classroom but now I want to know about them. Other than their academic work, I want to know their personalities - enter Breakout Edu.
Breakout Edu has a lot of team building pre-made escape rooms. I had ordered their breakout box (you can also make your own!), picked a scenario, and set up my room. That first Friday, students came into the room and I simply introduced them to the scenario (you need to unlock the box within 40 minutes in order to get the prize!), and started the timer. There were a million questions. But that was my plan all along! I answered some basic structure questions but didn't answer anything that would help them solve the puzzles included with the escape room. I was looking for
As I've said in previous posts, I ask students to choose a project that shows they know the material. They have to present (or in this case facilitate) the project for the class. My Geometry class loved creating escape rooms for their congruent triangles unit. Even more helpful, it ended up creating a couple of days of review for my students before the unit test! They loved watching their classmates struggle through problems and they loved being sneaky about creating it. I definitely saw more engagement for this project choice than any other I've done so far!
Lucky for us, Breakout Edu provides a template for teachers to create their own escape rooms. It walks you through the process so nicely that of course my students can figure it out!
I highly encourage you to have your students create escape rooms. Something I will be trying during my next unit will be splitting the class into two groups and having them create escape rooms for each other to try. That should amp up the competition! :)
The new breakout edu or