The Whiteboard Speaks

In my classes I rely a lot on my whiteboard. I put up an agenda for each grade level. Maybe agenda isn’t quite the right word. It’s a list of what I have planned. It’s some words and sometimes a few numbers that lets kids know what they can/should do, what’s next and what comes after that. Even my very young students learn to recognize “Tag” or “Awesome Gym Day” pretty quickly.

I use the whiteboard plans for a few reasons:

  • My students feel informed.
  • Having a written plan keeps me on track. (Even if I change my mind about something, my students can call me to account.)
  • Both I and my students do better with a common structure as a reference point.
  • I can assign independent activities.
  • Written directions keep me from talking too much.

Today in 4th grade I had the following on the board:

Jog 2 laps

Long Jump rope warm-up (4 per rope)

Stations: 1. Balance beam, 2. Climbing wall, 3. Ball balance, 4. Cartwheels, 5. Bear walk/forward roll

That means students arrived from the changing room, read the board, jogged the 2 laps and then looked for a group to begin jumping. Later arrivals may have needed a reminder to read the board and to do the jogging first but easily found their way. Groups formed, long jump ropes were turning, kids were jumping and I had said very little. We were 15 minutes into our 40 minute class before I called them all in to talk a bit about jumping in the rope. I gave each group the assignment to see that each person in their group jump 10-15 jumps in the rope to get a sense of where we are. They completed that task, put orange tickets in if they completed the assigned number (or more) and we moved on to the stations.

I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary here but I experienced this lesson and others like it as a tremendous relief to have helped students (and myself) through a lesson where I didn’t need to talk that much. And even better I think my students appreciate it if I keep my whole-group word interventions down to a minimum. This system allows us both more mental bandwidth for action, observation and individual exchanges which typically feel much more rewarding and valuable.

I guess this is part of a longer process in my teaching journey – learning to turn matters over to my kids. Most often they get it. They have fantastic ideas, creative and unusual ideas and they need space and opportunities to test them out. When I remember to open up that space, the results speak for themselves.

We started basketball in 5th grade this week and after having kids arrive, do some dynamic flex drills and shooting on their own (for about 10-15 minutes) I called them in and asked them what they wanted to learn about, what they considered most important to cover in this unit. Of course they were on it! Shooting, ball handling, how to defend, lay ups, rules… Based on that I then suggested that we focus on one of their priorities first (i.e., lay ups) and then return to mine (chest passes) a little later.

Afterwards I realized that I simply don’t do this enough. And that led me to this tweet which sprang from a challenge to capture our pedagogy in a haiku:

I definitely do not have this teaching game figured out. And that’s also the fun part. Me talking less is a plus. It appears that making space for student input is never a mistake. Student independence in class is worth cultivating.

Odd to put the whiteboard out there as my go-to teaching resource. It’s not an app, doesn’t require a subscription or even electricity but for my purposes it works a charm.

 

 

Keeping Kids in Mind

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Two posts I want to recommend off the bat:

Jesse Stommel: Why I Dont’ Grade

Pernille Ripp: A Call For Common Sense Reading Instruction

Teachers who actually teach and also engage on social media often have plenty to say about what they do and how they do it and also why. There is no shortage of resources in the form of tips, videos, or printable lesson plans to choose from.

Not so long ago, blogger Jon Andrews raised this question on  Twitter:

I am still thinking this over. I read a lot but this question asks about what happened as a result. This question reminds us as educators what purposeful reading can do for us. I have yet to respond directly to Jon’s question but the responses generated are a fantastic starting point for fresh perspectives.

When I read Jesse Stommel’s essay on why he doesn’t grade student work I found myself both nodding in agreement and pausing to ask myself how much of this I can/would/try to actually practice. Grading is a practice we teachers tend to assume to be a non-negotiable in schools at all levels. Thus, the very suggestion that we can leave this practice behind sounds radical which Jesse insists that it “doesn’t feel like a radical pedagogy for me.”

Well, that’s fine for Jesse, you say, but listen up (and please read the entire post):

I have previously condensed my own pedagogy into these four words: “Start by trusting students.”

My approach to assessment arises from this. While I’ve experimented with many alternatives to traditional assessment, I have primarily relied on self-assessment. I turn in final grades at the end of the term, but those grades usually match the grades students have given themselves.

If trusting your students sounds radical to you, then there’s a different conversation we can have at a later date. If, however, you take it upon yourself to first know and then learn to trust your students in the space of a semester or year or years, then perhaps the idea of engaging your students directly in the conversation about their work does more than appeal. Perhaps the option of not grading or using alternative assessments emerges as a real-life, can-do-in-many-little-ways-that-really-add-up possibility.

In response to Jon’s query I see that Jesse’s essay invigorates and bolsters my own thinking about the kinds of learning experiences I am creating and designing for my young students (PK-5th grade). And it opens me up to investigate new territory – handing more of the assessment process over to my kids.

Next, I happened upon a wonderful post by Pernille Ripp who has a significant body of work advocating for developing joyful readers and willing writers. A tweet by John Spencer, who moved from middle school to higher ed teaching, drew my attention. I mention this because these connections matter. How we come to read a blog post or article often has a lot to do with who is referring whom. Here are 2 edubloggers I have come to trust and who, despite growing audiences, have remained true to some fundamental messages about what matters for the kids we teach.

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It’s interesting to read a call for common sense in education practices that in the current political moment almost sounds anti-establishment. Pernille laments the degree to which we seem to have lost our way as profession to do what we know works well for and with children:

It appears that in our quest to make sure students can comprehend what they read that we have lost our common sense. That we have started listening much more to programs, politicians, and shoddy research than the very kids who the programs are happening to. That we have pushed the ideas of teachers aside, of best practices, and solid pedagogy, and gotten so lost in the process that we turn to more experts to tell us what we used to know.

In this eloquent post she offers us reminders of “what we used to know”:  that students, all students, need choices as to what they may read, and time to read in class; they need access to books in their classrooms and those books should offer the representation of diversity that exists in the world at large. She encourages us to get to know our students as the readers that they are rather than as the readers we tell them they ought to be and to trust them when they tell us what and how much they’ve read (or haven’t).

We have reached a point in time where advocating for student agency and choice have become radical ideas in education. Even if you don’t inhabit that mindset, rest assured there are plenty who do and in Western late capitalist societies, the likelihood that those who hold these beliefs also hold the primary purse strings and political power is high. Do not underestimate their will to counter and muffle these initiatives where they crop up.

Resistance means finding ways to help our students take themselves seriously as advocates and partners in their own learning. What both Jesse and Pernille offer us are avenues for making that happen all along our students’ paths. There is no single method. As teachers we can cultivate our ability to see varied options and recognize that our students have ideas. We need to be brave enough not only to ask them but also to listen.

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In closing, Pernille gives us this piece of wisdom that is worth holding onto:

Ask your students how you can be a better teacher for them. Ask them what makes reading amazing and what makes it awful. Question your own practices and admit when you need to grow. We are only as good as our last decision to change.

This is what our education world can look like. And we need to make those decisions to change – always keeping our kids in mind.

 

Stretch Yourself

It’s surprising but I have more to say about my teaching this week. Well, perhaps not exactly about my teaching, rather more about my students’ doings. I guess this is likely going to be a post about what students do with the directions I give them.

Typically, in most of my physical education classes we spend a few minutes on stretching – hopefully building our flexibility and movement vocabulary as we go. At the beginning of the year my colleague and I usually introduce this routine in a traditional teacher-at-the-front, all-kids-follow-along arrangement. That’s fine for getting things started, for setting up routines and providing everyone with a basic stock of stretches they can use. But it doesn’t take long for this ritual to become boring for a number of kids.

(This is also a fine opportunity to discover who my more divergent thinkers in the group may be – they tend to resist teacher-led whole group stretching with remarkable consistency and I get it now.)

So within a couple of weeks we try to release kids to lead their own stretching in a few different ways:

  • in 1st grade selecting 3 leaders who each share 3 stretches with the whole group
  • in 2nd – 5th asking students to make small groups of 4-6 and be responsible for completing a total number of stretches (8 -12).
  • At any grade level, partner stretching for the length of a song. (We use a lot of Kidz Bop).

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The main thing is that kids learn to organize themselves. They decide who will begin, they learn to offer each other ideas, and sort out their own disagreements. It also means that I can step back and observe, give pointers and a few reminders. They are not reliant on me to deliver ideas but I’m visible enough to provide the occasional nudge.

The quality of the stretching can vary widely which it would in any case, I suppose. But I no longer get hung up on those kinds of details. I may temporarily join a group and demonstrate a more accurate version of a stretch rather than say something. More important is that students can show me that they understand what kinds of movements count as stretching, that they have their own internal repertoire of these movements to draw upon and can work with others safely and cooperatively.

My colleague have been using this method for a few years now which means that we also have an increasing number of veterans who take up a lot of the slack in helping new students figure out how it all works.

Again, stretching is just a short episode in a whole lesson – maybe 5-6 minutes tops. At the same time it’s another space for student choice and autonomy that still requires negotiating with others! Every time I watch a group of 1st or 2nd or 3rd graders accomplish this task successfully, I imagine one less soft tissue injury in the world is suffered on that day. And my teacher hear does a little victory dance to Kidz Bop tunes.

Open for Tweaking

Veteran teachers, have you ever suddenly decided to put a little twist on something that you have been doing for a long time more or less the same way and have it feel like you just rediscovered fire?

*pause*

No?

Me neither.

I did, however, recently notice that by tweaking my approach to certain things I might make my teaching life a little more enjoyable and my students’ experiences a little less teacher-mandated. Here’s what I did:

I like to set up fairly simple obstacle courses that include things like speed ladders, benches, maybe a couple of tires, and a soft balance beam. I try to insure when I plan it that there is always ample space for us to do other things like stretching or tossing and catching with a partner before or afterwards. For most of my students, this kind of activity is familiar and many of them already have some ideas about what they will likely be asked to do.

Today, instead of going through and demonstrating what needs to be done, I offered a few parameters to students and let them make it up as they went. I told them:

  • in the speed ladders you should stay on your feet at a high level and aim to hit the spaces between the rungs. You can skip, run, grapevine, hop, jump or move in another way as long as you stay upright and use the spaces.
  • On the benches, you can decide which movements you want to do but you need to put your hands on the benches. You might try a bear, seal or crab walk; or jump side to side, or pull yourself forward on your tummy. It’s up to you.
  • You may step into the tires or on top of them.
  • Be sure to leave space between yourself and the person in front of you. You may have to wait at some points.
  • You may start wherever you like and we’re all traveling counter-clockwise.

Guess what?

My students knew what to do. They had ideas and tried things out. Different children made different choices. Some hopped while others skipped and tiptoed through the ladders. I saw a few kids change their movement every time they arrived at a ladder or a bench. No one was bored. No one complained. And aside from the occasional safety warning (usually about maintaining space), I spent much more time and energy observing than policing behavior and jogging memories.

Which grade levels?

Here’s a surprise – I used it with Pre-Kindergarten through 4th grade today! It worked for each group because 1) all groups had some previous obstacle course experience and 2) all children have ideas about how they want to do things and many are only waiting for a chance to show and try and experiment.

So, while I didn’t rediscover fire in my classroom, per se, I did reconnect with some creative energy in myself that let me give up some control and recognize which gifts my students are dying to share. The obstacle course piece didn’t take up a whole lesson but it provided that middle ground for me and my students to meet each other halfway. By letting them go rather than constantly applying the brakes, my brakes, they showed me how much farther they are willing to go.

Kids are awesome!

 

 

 

Catching Standards

I had a talk with my 4th graders about tossing and catching. We were also talking about grading and report cards and what those things mean.

Yesterday when I presented them with an obstacle course which included some benches, speed ladders (the flexible kind you put on the floor), a couple of mat spaces, a few micro hurdles and a low Swedish box, I didn’t instruct them on how to travel. They made it up as they went and showed both creativity as well as control. One or two students asked me: Is this going to be on the report card? I frowned-smiled and shook my head, “no” wondering where on earth that question had come from.

Today I took the opportunity to ask them.

Me: How could I put an obstacle course on the report card?

You could write it in.

Me: And then say what?

If we were good or bad.

You could say if a person could do the moves.

Me: Aha, so being able to do the moves would be good and not being able to do the moves would be bad?

But maybe someone could practice and learn how to do the moves.

Me: Practice sounds like a good idea.

Me: Well, what about catching today? I notice that everyone is working with a partner, there’s lots of tossing and catching but I don’t see very many orange tickets yet. (Students put in orange tickets for doing 30 catches in a row with a partner.) Why is that?

*A brief hush and several looks over to the white board where this is written down.*

Me: I believe that you are all capable of doing 30 catches with a partner and there are lots of ways you could do it. You can decide how far apart you want to stand, you can decide which kind of thing you want to toss – a beanbag, a ragball (like a small soft football) or a letter ball (volleyball sized foam dodecahedron (12 sides)). But this is also a chance for me to see how you will challenge yourself. Are you going to stand super close to each other like playing hot potato? Or what if you stand way across the room from each other, how long do you think it might take you to get to 30 catches?

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Catches were made, orange tickets added. (c)edifiedlistener

The conversation was illuminating. I see that my students have a lot on their minds in the gym. And I’m pretty sure that grades and skill performance are not their first priorities upon arrival. At the same time, after they’ve found a friend to work with and determined which part of the lesson they are psyched about, they do care about succeeding. They want to be seen as “good” at something. They try to avoid looking “bad.” They want to have a good time and experience some level of satisfaction. How each child goes about achieving this can look wildly different, even within the same assigned task. This is what makes teaching and learning in groups, in classes, in schools unbelievably complex and ultimately difficult.

I tell my kids I am focusing on catching. That’s what I am planning on assessing. But there’s so much else going on: long haul throws that overshoot the mark, extremely creative attempts to change things up – by twirling, bending over, tossing under a leg; there are a couple of students who need half the time to locate a new partner and then to get restarted; equipment gets lost in the rafters and student lose a couple more pieces trying to knock the first piece down. They are catching and tossing and throwing and missing, dropping and pitching. My students are showing me a host of behaviors, affinities, capabilities, weak points. And I’m trying to focus on catching.

I repeat this exercise over several lessons. I’ve taught the major skill points. We know that catching involves more than just trapping an object between our hands. The point is, that students, as young humans, inevitably are going to show me more than the skill itself. They will demonstrate the art of the catch. Their art of the catch. And over the years, this is the part that I seem to be able to see better and often more clearly than the catching itself.

According to the standards, most of my students meet the grade level expectation for catching. Some students also exceed the grade level expectation for catching, while others are approaching the grade level expectation.

Thankfully for my students and me, we can have space and appreciation for all the things that are going on in class that do not belong to assessments or grading. Sometimes we’re  practicing. Sometimes we’re experimenting and trying out our ideas. We’re trying to be nice to each other. We play old games and make up new rules. We lose track of time. We talk to each other. Many of us believe running and screaming are inseparable. We are in a hurry and some of us have all the time in the world. We’re getting stronger and more flexible. We’re singing and dancing because we know these songs. We freeze when the music stops. Or not.

It’s all happening. These moments of happenings make up the fabric of my teaching days. Altogether it’s far too much to register, note, document. But the impressions they leave are real and substantial over days, weeks, months, years.

I rarely remember what a student got on their PE part of the report card years after I have had them as a student. I can usually recall, however, what she liked, where he struggled and what we discovered in our time together.

 

(Un)Prepared.

Nine contact days in and I’m ok. The kids are great, my colleagues are helpful, our schedule is more or less settled, the year is truly underway. I’ve done this ritual at least 20 times before: started a school year of teaching elementary physical education. At this same school. I have experience. One might even say I’m a seasoned faculty member.

And yet.

My plans are rough. Not vague, but rough although we have a fairly detailed curriculum map with plenty of supporting documents and resources. The google doc planning sheet that I share with my team colleague is prepared week for week. Every class, I write my agenda on the board for students to read and work with. I prepare.

And yet.

It seems no matter how long I work at this, how many students I shepherd through a school year’s worth of physical education, I never, ever feel well prepared. Into every class, each section, in contact with each student, there’s a portion of doubt that stays in attendance. Like a spying question mark that sits heavily on my shoulder, at times whispering: “Was that really necessary?” “What makes you think that idea will work?” or “That’s your best solution?”

This heap of doubt I carry around lives to judge and dissemble.

I have thousands of class periods under my belt; by now also hundreds of students whom I’ve taught for multiple years. I know some stuff and I’m constantly learning and evolving. Every group is different, each child so wonderfully unique, and I of course have changed, too. In this way I have dedicated a significant portion of my life and livelihood to coping with and courting change; to making the most of and coming to terms with development.

My little heap of doubt is resilient, reliable and robust. Teaspoon sized today, boulder heavy the next, my heap can grow or shrink as the context and my reactions warrant.

So I plan and envision. I record and document. Confer and rehash. I also improvise on the spot. Change my mind in the moment. I decide to run the risk of failing miserably, succeeding wildly or both. I watch what happens. I encounter the unexpected along with the strongly probable and respond to the best of my ability. At the end of the day, we all emerge on the other side: the experience behind us and our options for reflection before us. We choose. (And even when we don’t choose we’re making a choice.)

I believe my students are going to be all right. Some of them, no, many of them will be fabulous. We are going to make some discoveries this year. We’ll run into some surprises. We’ll reach an impasse or two and get beyond it. I’ll make some mistakes right before their very eyes. Some of the mistakes they’ll notice and others they won’t.

The year won’t be perfect. It will be full of learning and growth and doubt for me and my students. It will be entirely our year. We are prepared and we’re not. It’s on, ready or not.

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Learning involves stretching…still, again.

image:  (c) @edifiedlistener Sherri Spelic

Pay Dirt in Advance

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I don’t know how you start off your school year but I’m just realizing that my colleague and I manage a small miracle with our first few classes. Let me explain.

I teach in an international school where elementary students enjoy the benefit of several specialists. In our schedule Physical Education is taught opposite German language and English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes. Strings classes also enter the scheduling mix for all 2nd graders and some 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students. We see most of our students 4 days out of a six day cycle (which is to say frequently) and on some days with strings classes, my colleague and I will collapse two sections into one.

The schedule is complex and confusing, has lots of moving parts and amazingly it works pretty well for kids.

At the start of the year, as a team of specialists, the EAL and German teachers only have partial information about new students so that they need a couple of days in the first week to screen and place students into the correct levels. What this means is that in the 2-3 days of the school year, my colleague and I welcome a whole grade level  (45-60+ students) into the gym for 60 minutes while our three German-speaking colleagues work with small groups in a nearby room. This is a process we adopted some years ago and it has a some real advantages.

Right now I want to focus on that miracle I mentioned: 45-60 kids in a gym with 2 teachers for 1 hour on the first and/or second day of school. We introduce ourselves as the PE teachers, clarify a few essential cues they will need to participate successfully (start, stop & ‘come in’ signals; toilet locations) and slowly we get started. We practice finding a space, checking it at different levels, moving safely without bumping. We play stop and go with the music signal and have them try different locomotor movements. We do a round of whole group stretching and then practice making groups of different sizes. In a nutshell my colleague and I run an introductory class almost as if we were on our own with a group of 12-18 students (normal ratio).

The miracle is that this is possible. Not once, not twice, but every time, with every grade level. On their first day in the gym.

It’s possible because…

  • the majority of the students are returning and entirely familiar with our protocols.
  • new students take their cues from veterans and see among their peers that PE is something to look forward to and celebrate.
  • new students find a culture of inclusion where they find partners and groups who are welcoming and kind.
  • there is consistency from teacher to teacher. Whether returning students had me or my colleague the year before, the general expectations are the same so kids can feel confident in their anticipation of how things will work.
  • My colleague and I are comfortable sharing the planning, the “mic”, the follow-up work.
  • My colleague and I share an appreciation for what kids need during the lesson (i.e. time to talk and have fun with their friends and make new ones; more action and less talk).
  • We’ve built this program over several years and while my current colleague and I are only on our 2nd year of direct collaboration, the pattern of team teaching and shared planning has been in place for almost a decade.
  • My colleague and I like our jobs, enjoy kids, understand fun and build on each others’ strengths.

The results are actually amazing and worth highlighting. They are not accidental; rather they provide clear evidence that sustained teacher collaboration and team consistency are fruitful endeavors that benefit students and teachers.

In another day we will separate big groups into class sections and assign ourselves as teachers. Students will know who their teacher is and the school year will proceed as planned (more or less). They will also be happy and able to combine into big groups again from time to time. We’ll stride ahead knowing that they and we can handle both kinds of classes.

Beginning the year with this generous show of student trust, enthusiasm and relative clarity about what we are about in PE bolsters my confidence and stokes my desire to deliver on the promise we’ve already laid out. Pay Dirt in advance – may not happen often in our teaching lives but when it does, it is glorious.

 

image via Pixabay CC0