As we come to the end of another school year, it’s often a moment to pause and imagine what new and innovative things we can experiment with next year. Given our interconnected lives and the many urgent and contested issues facing our world today, reconsidering how to prepare our students to participate in democracy and in society seems warranted.
What skills, capacities, and dispositions do your students need to thoughtfully and productively navigate the world around them — and how might you support them in new ways?
Of course, students often have many skills when it comes to using digital platforms and tools. But they may not feel confident about using them to learn about issues they care about, engage in productive online dialogue, voice their perspectives in powerful ways, and take informed action.
As another school year comes to a close, I’d bet that you and your students are looking forward to summer break. While these last days of school can be crazy, they’re often reflective as well.
You’ve probably asked students to self-assess their learning, and you’ve probably been busy assessing their learning in final projects, portfolios, and report cards. Of course, all of this assessment of student learning is important — but remember, you were the one who guided them on their learning journey!
As an educator, it’s just as important to take time to ask yourself about your year.
- What went well?
- What will you change next year?
And, while you still have your students in the classroom, why not ask them for a little feedback? Sure, this idea may seem scary at first, but with the right setup, you can truly learn a lot from your students.
Have you ever taught a lesson and realized too few of your students learned what you taught? You’re not alone! We’ve experienced this numerous times in our years as classroom teachers and in our current roles. In this blog post, Gabe shares his experiences from teaching and his role as elementary school principal. Together, we share insights from our collaboration and shared experiences.
After 20 years of working with elementary school children, I finally started to find answers to the pedagogical questions nagging me since my first days teaching mathematics. I also realized how powerful it is to expand my understanding of math concepts beyond the narrow scope I’d experienced — and taught — my entire life.
As a systems thinker, I’d constrained math instruction to a series of prescribed steps, completely disconnected from the mathematical concept. I streamlined tasks into a sequence that could be introduced and modeled — steps that students could rehearse as many times as necessary. Most lessons were a version of,
“Here’s the lesson objective, relevant vocabulary, and the steps we need to follow. Now, we will practice these steps as many times as we can before lunch.”
Over the past two years, I began to emerge from my constrained view of math instruction. More than any other aspect of teaching, math instruction is the domain I would revise if I could revisit my years as a classroom teacher. Now, as the principal of an elementary school, my role is to be the lead learner. To me, this means I must first experience the steps it takes to learn new instructional strategies and implement them in classrooms at various grade levels. To do this, I schedule the time to co-teach math lessons in classrooms at the school where I work.
We all enter the teaching profession with a number of hopes and goals for the kind of classroom community we want to create and the kinds of learning in which we want to engage our students. For most teachers, this includes a classroom community where students can:
- Feel they belong.
- Learn about issues that matter to them and that affect their lives.
- Voice their perspectives and expertise.
- Talk to and work with others across differences.
- Participate as active community members in shaping the learning environment.
- Connect what they’re learning to the community and the broader society in powerful and authentic ways.
While these goals continue to drive many of us and our passion for working with young people, they are hard to achieve.
In fact, the ideals for building an authentic, democratic, and just classroom can continue to serve as a reflection point and a lamp post for what we want to continue to strive toward in our classrooms every day and every year. Having a network of other educators to connect to, reflect with, and gather ideas from is invaluable in this pursuit.
For this reason, I’m thrilled to introduce Heather Van Benthuysen — the latest Teacher Laureate at Teaching Channel. She will be sharing resources and tools as well as provocative questions for us to grapple with, focusing on how to build democratic classrooms and integrate civic engagement across grade levels and content areas.
Heather is a veteran of experimenting with and developing powerful civic school cultures and learning experiences. She is a National Board Certified English educator with almost 20 years experience as a teacher, coach, and youth advocate. Heather is currently the Civic Education Manager at Chicago Public Schools. In this role, she supports teachers across the district to integrate civic learning into their classrooms and schools in a variety of ways. From setting up democratic classrooms, to teaching a civics course, to supporting students in developing media literacy skills, and the capacities needed to navigate civic and political participation in the digital age, Heather has done it all.
Question for you: If the health of our democracy depends on the people, then when do we learn the skills of participation?
Hopefully, your answer was the most transformative space on earth… school! Since the inception of American public schooling, we have considered school to be where participatory citizens were made. You probably have the words “community” or “citizen” in your school mission statement. Yet, preparing students for college and careers tends to take priority over that “third C”… civic life. Our schools develop the people, we are the people, and it’s time that we fully realize our role in revitalizing civic life.
We can start by looking at how our schools and classrooms model democracy every day. We can’t expect to fully prepare young people to participate in a democracy from within undemocratic systems. That would be like teaching someone how to swim without ever putting them in the water. Developing a civic identity, like any complex skill, takes time and practice in varied contexts to achieve mastery.
If we want our young people to participate effectively, then we need to get them in the water early and often.
As educators, we often come into the field with the perfect grade level in mind. I thought it would be ideal to teach second grade. Not too young, where students are still gaining independence and learning basic skills. Not too old, where they’re bigger than me (an ongoing short joke for myself, as I’m only 5’3”).
When I actually began to teach second grade, I quickly realized that this was going to be tougher than I expected. My second grade students were great. I enjoyed my interactions with them. I enjoyed planning engaging lessons around stories such as Stone Soup, and teaching how to tell time. My students were independent enough to complete tasks given to them, but still wanted input and help with their work.
One of the most challenging aspects for educators of English language learners (ELLs) is accurately assessing language development over time — oral language, in particular. Due to the conversational nature of language, it can be incredibly difficult to assess oral language while simultaneously engaging in conversation, not to mention recording the data as you go.
While the speaking and listening domains can be the hardest to objectively assess over time, reading and writing shouldn’t be overlooked. ELL educators are always looking through two lenses — content knowledge and English language development (ELD).
A few savvy strategies coupled with technology integration can enhance not only English language learning within the four domains (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) of ELD, but your assessment of language development over time as well.
Think back to your undergrad work. If you’re like me, you probably can still remember the first lesson you ever created for a methods class. “Caring for Commas” — that was my first lesson (I guess I was a grammar geek even back then). I spent countless hours planning this 15-minute mini-lesson, working tirelessly to ensure all the variables were considered before delivering this masterpiece to my college classmates.
We can all think back to that first lesson, and the hundreds of lessons that we’ve planned with a similar focus and fervor throughout our careers. But there are so many more lessons that we plan with less intensity, less excitement, and that’s okay. However, I’ve recently been thinking about the ways that I’ve grown as a planner, and how I’m able to save time and energy, while still planning purposeful, precise, and passionate lessons for students.
These four tips may help you plan better lessons on purpose, too.
Your students just won’t stop talking. You feel like you’re constantly talking over people just to be heard. We’ve all been there!
If your classroom has become too chatty, start by figuring out if the talk is productive or not. Sometimes talking is actually a good thing. If students are talking about the task at hand, you may want to encourage them to continue (just at a quieter volume!). But if students are off task and chatty, this requires a different approach.
Use these tips to help your classroom become more peaceful:
Two seemingly innocent words that cause both teachers and students alike to tremble with apprehension. The ghosts of bad group work past conjure haunting memories of disagreements, distractions, and indifference. Yet, as educators we know student-to-student interaction is a crucial component in increasing both engagement and academic language development.
So, how do we avoid the pitfalls of bad group work and foster an environment of stimulating discussion and student collaboration?