Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Some of These Things Are Not Like the Others, Some of These Things Are Very the Same

This year my 4th grade teammate and I have been out of the classroom for a variety of meetings and other professional obligations, but we always make sure to greet the kids with an email first thing in the morning to give them any documents, directions, and reminders they may need for the day. Often times I will also send individual emails to a few of my students to remind them to make good choices and to let them know I am available by email if they need to check in throughout the day. A few weeks ago we happened to be off-site at one of these meetings, so that morning I sent my students an email:

Good Morning, Awesome 4th Graders!

IF you are one of the kids taking the SMI test this morning (you know who you are), please use this link: (link was inserted here).

Everyone else should be working on Khan Academy or Hour of Code. Be AMAZING for your guest teacher and check your email once in a while or email me if you need anything (as long as it isn't distracting from your work).

I heart you!!

-Mrs. Raleigh

Within 10 minutes of school starting I received several emails back from my students. Some were confused as to whether they were supposed to take their test again, so I quickly logged in to my Google Spreadsheet and copied the student names into another email to send to them all. One student told me he was having trouble logging in and using Code.org for his programming assignment, so I jumped onto the website and threw together a quick How-To with some screenshots to walk him through the process. Other students asked if they could listen to music while they worked or simply wanted to say hi or to let me know they had been late because a bus was delayed. As I look back through the email thread I see a dialogue of 23 different replies from my students, some of my favorites being, “Thanks, Mrs. R. I heart you too.” and “Heart you back, Mrs. R!”

As I waited for the meeting to get started I checked another email account and saw I had been sent a link to a new Hour of Code activity that had just opened up. Knowing that my students had the option to work on some computer programming when they finished their math assignment for the day I quickly popped off another email to the class with the link and a message that read:

Hello My Wonderful Coders!

I just received this email today and thought you may enjoy trying Tynker as another fun way to try some new coding. Click on the yellow button below for the link. 

Try it out and let me know how it goes!

-Mrs. Raleigh

As I sat in my meeting I was struck by how lucky I am to have this opportunity to communicate with my students outside the limitations of a face-to-face, 8:45-4:00 schedule. I regularly tell them, “I am always here for you, whenever you need me and for anything” - but in our current 1:1 environment I am really able to show them that. My reach now extends beyond a sticky note in my mailbox that I may not see as I run out the door to a meeting or show choir rehearsal. I can have a meaningful conversation, a dialogue back and forth, with my students whenever they need it.

In past years I’ve often encouraged students to use a journal to write or draw their thoughts and feelings out in the moment so they can feel more grounded and be able to re-focus on their academics. I always try my best to check in and have conversations with them about what they’ve created that day, but a teacher’s time is rarely as flexible as they’d like to meet the needs of their 30 students within the confines of a day or week. As much as I would love, and try as I might, to devote time to each and every student it just isn’t possible every day.

Does this mean my students and I don’t connect face to face on a daily basis? Absolutely not. I greet my kids every morning when they walk in, listen to them share at morning and closing meetings every day, and try to sit next to each and every one of them at least once a day to give them a high five after completing an assignment, a reassuring smile when they are struggling, or a hug when they are feeling down. But having the ability to communicate asynchronously and provide more timely feedback means I can make sure that all my kids are receiving the equal amount of my time they deserve. The students who are shy or have a hard time processing information quickly are able to stop and take the time they need to think more deeply and reflect before responding. The quiet kiddos who are perceptive to a teacher’s chaotic days can still share their thoughts and feelings without being worried they are interrupting. The second language learners can use their devices to see and hear a question in English and in their native language before contributing their own thoughts. Some students are more introverted and can have a harder time connecting to their teacher or peers within the classroom setting, but an email or shared assignment on the computer allows their strengths to come out and for them to share their interests more readily.

The seemingly small gestures can often have the biggest impact on relationships, and consequently a positive impact on learning. “Hey Mrs. R, I got this neat present for my birthday. Here’s a picture of it.” and my reply of, “Oh wow, J, I didn’t know you liked fashion design so much! Have you seen this artist that I love? Here’s a link.” At first glance these conversations may not seem relevant to academic achievement or to the growth my students desperately need to make each year, but I’ve always held firm to my belief that developing a relationship with each student is the key to their academic success in our classroom. Everything I ask of my students hinges on having a relationship with them. Students need to know they are respected, that their voice matters, and that their teachers believe in them and want to see them succeed.

As I left my meeting I was excited to get home and take a look at the work my students had done while I was out. I was able to log in to the teacher dashboard of TenMarks.com and see the scores they received on their math assignments so I could quickly create their mini-lesson groups for the next day’s instruction. I opened our class Google folder and read through the writing they did, adding feedback on their newest paragraphs using the comment feature and taking note of the successes and what they still needed help with. I had an email in my inbox from each student with a summary they wrote using evidence from their reading for the day, as well as a reflection about their behavior and how they thought things went with the guest teacher. I couldn’t be in the same physical space as them but I still knew exactly where they were at the end of the day and felt confident that the learning had not stopped just because I was out of the building.

So many things have changed for my students and me this year now that we have 1:1 Chromebooks, but the core values are still very much the same. I’ve always believed in creating a student-centered learning environment where children’s voices are an integral part of our community. For years I’ve strived to meet each student where they are, instead of expecting them to meet me (or the curriculum) somewhere they aren’t. I’ve struggled in numerous situations being told to “teach to the middle” because I would burn myself out trying to accommodate such a variety of needs and allowing 30 different students choice and autonomy. None of these ideals are new to my philosophy, but the drastic shift this year is that for the first time I am able to provide what I believe every student deserves. The technology in our classroom is enabling me to follow through with what I have always wanted for my students, to see them take complete ownership of their learning and acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be successful, lifelong learners far beyond the time I am privileged to be their teacher.