Saturday, January 4, 2014

Let Me Count the Ways!

The things I have observed that worked at my school to make it easier for everyone to learn. We are not necessarily still using them.

1. Reading and talking about good literature.
That includes teacher read alouds, and author studies, and literature groups. Even the Kindergarten classes did author studies with children’s writers like Ezra Jack Keats, Richard Scarry, etc. I used Roald Dahl books to get the kids hooked on author studies, His writing is so deliciously decadent and the kids love his fifth-grade-type humor. Another author we studied was Gary Paulsen who wrote one of the best books we used that year, Woodsong. We read The Monument also. And then there is Beverly Cleary (Beezus, Henry, et al), James Howe (Bunnicula and friends) and my low readers got to read a series of books about kids with various disabilities written by The Fonz, Henry Winkler himself! It was amazing when the kids could speak about themes and similar characters, as well as compare and contrast the way the protagonists solved problems. That is what reading is supposed to do – make you think.

2. Writing about things that matter to the students.
Many of the teachers at our school had the privilege of attending at least one summer Writing Institute at Columbia University’s Teachers College in NYC. I know for Eileen Burton and I, it was a life-changing experience. Eileen states that she hated writing until she went to the Summer Writing Institute My husband says I was a different person after the, someone with more passion about teaching and writing. I saw much better writing from my students after I applied the lessons I learned to their writing. It was lovely to see their transition from anguish to pride when they wrote a memoir. The main thing was they wrote about the things that interested them, not about the prompt I presented. Usually, after that week at Teachers College, more than half of my students scored at the proficient level in the State Writing test. We examined good writing, tried to emulate what we liked, and made it ours.

3. The Children’s Literacy Project.
Our Kindergarten teachers began teaching all the primary grade teachers the strategies for reading that the Children’s Literacy organization presented.  It really got the little kids thinking about words and writing. And the teachers’ passions about reading and writing were ignited.

4. A Buddy system.
Every teacher at our school had a buddy that would help out in the times when you were super frustrated with a child and needed a break. We didn’t use our buddies ever day, or even every week, but having one sure helped when we were about to lose it.

5. Faculty trust and collaboration.
Our 7th and 8th grade teachers were truly collaborators. They met weekly about what was going on with the students, thought of special programs for the kids, created and revised behavior programs that were for the most part self-contained in those grades. They supported each other, were flexible and truly cared about the students. They’d come early, stay late, work through lunch to make it work. In fact that was true of all the teachers at our school. We were there because we loved doing what we did and wanted to show the kids that they could succeed.

6. We had a principal who allowed us to fail. If something wasn’t going well and we had a suggestion of another thing we could try, she allowed us to try it. If it failed, she had us examine the reasons why and begin again. She had enough confidence in us to give us some breathing room. As long as you were teaching the curriculum and the kids were progressing, you were okay. I taught many things through songs, but could always demonstrate how the use of the song fulfilled the Language Arts, Social Studies or Science curriculum.

7. We were not afraid to buck the system. Of course, that worked well only when we had a principal who was willing to back us up. Lucky for us, we had one of those for more than a dozen years, We didn’t know how much she shielded us from until she left. I left shortly after she did, and most of the teachers were gone in the next three years. It’s a shame because we had a little paradise in the middle of West Philly for a while.

I hope they continue to buck the system and fight for their students forever.

Still learning!

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