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Let’s try that again! 5th Grade, year two.

This year is my first year ever being able to reuse a lesson plan!  I spent the last 6ish years full time (9ish including subbing) writing new plans, changing grade levels, changing schools, and changing curriculum.

Last summer I designed the 5th grade science and social studies curriculum for my Masters in Educational Program Design at University of the the Arts.  The curriculum was also designed to be taught for our first 5th grade year at my school, Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter school.

I presented my design to other teachers at a professional development seminar through Rubicon in Pittsburgh, PA.

Since then, a few changes have occurred.

Leveled Reading

Starting in Unit 4 (out of 15) last year, I started creating leveled reading packets to go along with each science and social studies unit.  I gather at least 4 stories or articles on 5 different reading levels to meet the needs of my students, who come to me reading between 1st and 7th grade reading level.

I also changed the way I instruct my inclusion class.  Most of my students in that class are reading between 1st and 3rd grade reading level.  The Ed Support teacher and I split the class into small groups and focus the core of instruction on reading texts on their level.  (Yay for having that support this year!) We start off each class the same as my other classes (journal entry, vocabulary, objective, some short videos).

My other two classes work on their leveled readers during WIN (Whatever Is Needed) block or at home.  Our school monitors reading steps, so reading the science and social studies leveled readers also counts toward their reading steps.

#observeme

My school has a flexible PD system, where teachers are able to choose from a list of PD sessions to sign up for.  This year, proficient teachers were able to sign up for a new PD called #observeme.

What I THOUGHT the PD would be about was NOT how it turned out.  Basically, you focus on the areas where you personally need improvement.  Cool.  I met with admin to discuss which categories to focus on as my targets.  Still cool.  But then I had to hang those targets up outside my door. Um… my anxieties are not happy with this.  The idea is that I invite people to come observe me, specifically looking for improvements in those targets.  It is a good idea overall, but as someone who is very hard on herself, as well as a super over-thinker, it is a little rough.

Targets

§Target #1: 2.E.1- Product
§Teacher differentiates products to meet the needs of students.
§Teacher accesses directors, case managers, and co-teachers for support.
§Teacher adjusts products for higher level students using tiering and compacting.
I was confused with target #1.  I mean, what science and social studies teacher do you know that gathers text on level, as well as on 5 different reading levels, in order to meet the needs of their students?  Come on!  But here’s the thing- with those leveled readers I differentiate the reading level, not the content.
What about CAFE?  CAFE has a “must do” and a “pick two” menu.  That should count, right?  Not enough.
So target #1 requires me to collect data on the needs of the students and differentiate content further.  This is not an easy task when teaching 15 different units/topics that build, but are generally unrelated.  On top of that, my students lack a lot of background knowledge in social studies.  They have a little background in science, but not necessarily in the content I am covering.  So how can I reliably track something to differentiate content?
I observed a high school math teacher to see how she does it.  She gathered data through formative assignments on each skill that was going to be on the test.  Then students got a print-out of their performance on the skills and offered individualized practice.  Basically, she made a worksheet to practice each skill, but the students only picked up the sheets they needed.
Okay, so that is a lot, but also not a lot.  I can manage that.  But how do I get the data?  As mentioned before in my curriculum, I use essays as my “test” grades.  Since each unit is on it’s own as far as content is concerned, I can’t use my formative assessments as much.  So I thought about the SKILLS needed in science and social studies, which can be observed and practice with any topic.
Compare and Contrast
Main Idea and Details/Comprehension
Cause and Effect
Interpret Data
Fact and Opinion
Procedure/Sequence/Timeline
Measurement
Draw Conclusions
Scientific Process
Map Skills
Point of View
So I designed a benchmark-style test that I would use to check their proficiency in these skills.  They will take the same exact test at the end of each quarter.  But how do I know they aren’t just making good guesses?  I made it all open-ended (grading hell).  Students are given a target score to reach each quarter.
The “skills check” as I called it, is broken up into two halves.  Skills Check 1 was science, and Skills Check 2 was social studies.  Of course, there is a differentiated version for my inclusion class.
Students will be offered “personal practice” sheets as a part of their CAFE menus.  For example, students who struggled in compare and contrast would then get extra practice in compare and contrast during CAFE, whereas someone who was strong in compare and contrast would skip that practice.  The first CAFE that includes “personal practice” is set for December 7th-11th.
§Target #2: 3.B.2- Response Quality
§Teacher holds high expectations for students.
§Teacher enables students to learn how to evaluate and articulate success of their responses.
§Students use rubrics or backwards checking to guide their work.
Have you seen a 5th grader look at a rubric and prior assessments as a guide WITHOUT the teacher instructing them to do so?  I haven’t.  But that is “proficient” in this target!  So how do I get there?
For one, students reflect on their skills check data and graph how they are doing, comparing for each quarter.  Students will also now be selecting “personal practice” based on needs from their skills check.
The rest blends with target 3.  The two really go hand-in-hand.
§Target #3: 3.B.5- Student Self-Assessment
§Students frequently assess and monitor the quality of their work.
§Students apply their assessment data to their learning.
I designed an end of unit reflection called #selfie. Here students reflect by summarizing and rating how they did academically and behaviorally in each unit.  Students also set goals for improvement for the next quarter.
This is the only item that has been observed by another teacher so far.  She suggested having the students share out some of their responses and having a small group work with me on it, rather than completely independent.
Do you have any ideas in meeting these targets? Let me know!

Other Changes

I adjusted the way I do journals.  The journals now get handed out at the beginning of each week and they have their own section in their binders.  I decided to cancel journals on Wednesdays (every other Wednesday is a half day).  We use those days for mindful mediation or nature journals.  Nature journals came from a summer PD I did with John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.  The seminar enabled me to get a free field trip and classroom visit as well!

I also added emojis to each item in my classroom to help keep students’ work organized as well as indicators in my agenda and unit schedules.

Our vocabulary also changed a bit, after the nightmare of having vocabulary cards all over the place last year.  Students now create a glossary in the back of their binder with all of their words.

I also started forcing myself to do more experiments and activities.  This is something I struggle with because of the potential chaos involved and experienced chaos in the past.  Each day, the class gets a check mark or an X (strike) based on class behavior.  If students are able to avoid 3 strikes in a unit, they are rewarded by doing an extension activity at the end of the unit.  Unit 1- Pennsylvania’s Land and People ended with making a Native American treat- hasty pudding.  Unit 2- The Nature of Science ended with designing and making wind vanes.  Unit 3- Design and Function (New Nation) will end with prototyping and testing bubble solutions.

I’m sure more changes will develop as the year progresses, but I am feeling good about where I am now.

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Utilizing Science and Social Studies to Support Language Arts (Truncated)

Research- What’s the Problem?

My full capstone project: TEACHING THE URBAN STUDENT AS A WHOLE: UTILIZING UNIVERSAL SKILLS IN SCIENCE AND SOCIAL STUDIES INTERDISCIPLINARY CURRICULA

Science and social studies have been swept to the side in the yearly race for AYP, especially in elementary classrooms. This means that students are often underprepared for science and social studies courses in Middle and High school. Rather than cut time for science and social studies, schools could use these subjects as a means of supporting language arts.

Proposed Curriculum

Using the available materials our school provides, as well as external materials I purchased on  my own, I developed a curriculum to help align my science and social studies content to the skills and concepts being covered in the language arts and math classes.  The idea was to create a smooth transition throughout the students’ day in which the concepts they were learning had a more unified feeling, rather than the traditional silos.  Having separate teachers for different content areas can often result in a lack of transfer of skills and knowledge.

Integrated Curriculum Map

currmappng

I went through the English Language Arts materials (Wonders Program) and the math materials (Go Math!) and designed my units in a way that could blend their topics and pacing. For example, Unit 1 Week 1 in 5th grade Wonders is Getting Things We Need. The essential question for that week is, “How do people get the things that they need?” I designed my first social studies unit to be about the early people of Pennsylvania and how they got what they needed to survive.

My main resources for social studies were the Pennsylvania Studies text and a few books from the My World series. My main resource for science is the Interactive Science text. I have used this science program in 7th, 11th-12th, and 9th grade in the past. Students respond well to the interactive notebook format.

Unit Schedule

Journals (Daily)

Each day begins with a journal entry. The journal entry helps to promote writing as well as gain access to prior knowledge or review of content. Students write what they believe the answer is to the journal question at the beginning of every class. I remind students that I am not checking if it is right, I am checking what they think. The questions are often worded as an opinion question to avoid too much anxiety. At the end of each class, students write a rating for how they felt in class that day.journal

1512594395653-986489063

Current Events- Day 1

On the first day of each cycle, the students will read a news article that relates to the content of that cycle. It helps keep students aware of what is happening currently and how that applies to what they are learning. When covering the unit on Ecosystems, the current event article would be on the current issues we are seeing with bee populations. A great resource for this is Newsela, which provides multiple reading levels for the articles as well!

news

New Content- Day 1-4

For the first few days of each cycle, students will get direct instruction and small group practice on the new content. This part of the cycle is heavy on text annotation, note taking, reading, and writing comprehension questions. Each day, students learn 2-3 new vocabulary words that are integral to the lesson. This is also when students would be conducting experiments and watching short videos on content.

new content

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CAFE- Day 5-7

This is where students are able to break out of the traditional mold seen in their classes, particularly with classes like social studies. I used the idea mapped out in The Daily CAFE, which is a Language Arts design for student engagement, but applied it to science and social studies. I really like the way students are able to make choices about their learning, and I have watched this implemented in Elementary classrooms with students on various levels.

cafe

In my version of the CAFE, students only do CAFE after having learned something about the topic in the new content days at the beginning of the cycle. During CAFE, students get a Menu that lists out the tasks they need to complete. The menu goes through new vocabulary, new people, reading practice, comprehension practice, skill practice, and word problem practice.

20171206_142734_001

Students also have the opportunity to read a nonfiction text with the topic of their choice for each CAFE. I have a large selection of leveled reader books sorted by content that students can choose from. The students then write a short review of the book they read.

book review20171206_121619

Summative Assessment

The students have a Summative assessment for each unit, which falls during the CAFE days as well. Students will answer the essential question for the unit in an essay format using a modified version of the Step Up to Writing format. The essay includes 2 pieces of text evidence to support their response to the question. Students write their essays during CAFE, giving a flexible schedule to their assessment. Since the students are given very little science and social studies instruction during their years in K-3, they often feel stressed and unprepared when they reach those classes in middle school. The fear of failure and the unknown can easily break a student’s confidence in science and social studies classes. This low-pressure writing assignment helps avoid the anxiety students can develop for science and social studies tests.

writing

Questions for Consideration

  • What challenges would you expect to see with implementing this curriculum?
  • What modifications would you think were needed once the school year began?
  • What curriculum have you used in your classroom in the past?
  • Who made the decisions about your curriculum?
  • How could you use this curriculum format for your classroom?
  • What ideas do you have for future implementation of a curriculum like this?

Conclusion

I have seen a positive response with this method so far. However, I had to make some adjustments as I got to know my students.

  • Varied reading levels for new content and CAFE days (K-6th reading level)
  • Menu shortened: 4-5 “Must Do” and 3-4 “Pick Two” items
  • Added 8th day to the cycle for starting the essay, before starting CAFE

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So far, the students have expressed enjoying CAFE choices, as well as being able to annotate on their new content articles and texts. I coupled the freedom of CAFE with flexible seating, giving students a truly nuanced experience.

The ELA teacher has expressed that the students are coming to her class prepared with background knowledge needed to better comprehend the stories they are reading.  Many of the students have shown growth in reading levels (using the IRLA system) and have shown improvement and confidence in their writing.

Utilizing Science and Social Studies to Support Language Arts

Experience

I have been through a lot of changes in my experience as an educator.  I started out thinking I would be a kindergarten teacher after taking a career survey in 11th grade.  I decided in my freshman year of college that I would rather teach first grade, after witnessing and understanding the chaos that is kindergarten in the fall.  My Field Theory and Exploration class included observations in a first grade class.  I did my Reading Practicum with first and second graders, pulling out for reading level testing and practice.  My student teaching was in a first grade class.

Then I started substituting, and I was thrown in front of K-12 students on a day to day basis.  I landed a Long Term Substitute (LTS) position as a 3rd grade ESL inclusion teacher for 6 weeks.  I was recommended for a 4th grade LTS for an 8-month leave for learning and emotional support.  That summer, Reading SD cut 80 teachers, not including LTS or temporary staff.  I was unable to get a full time job, despite being highly requested as a substitute for Reading, Exeter, Muhlenberg, Downingtown, Oxford, and Avon Grove School Districts in Pennsylvania.  I was still interested in teaching 5th or 6th grade science and math.

I interviewed in Philadelphia for a 5th grade science position, which was actually filled just prior to the start of the interview.  They recommended me to a 7th grade science position.  The students had been with daily substitutes from January through April.  Their teacher had died, putting me in a very awkward step-mom-like position for my first full-time job.  I stayed there for about 2 years.  I helped rewrite the science curriculum K-5 and 7 for the 11 schools in the charter company.  I had helped with an increase in both math and reading scores, mirroring techniques and skills in my science class as best as I could.  We collaborated regularly to help make the transition for students from class to class as easy as possible.

I then taught for 2 years in an alternative-education school in Philadelphia.  Teachers never overlapped content from one class to another, working largely in a content-specific silo.  I taught biology, chemistry, health, physical science, and geometry.  Again, I tried to incorporate literacy and math skills in my classes.  There was no collaboration from class to class, and classes were 8-week sessions.  I had a new group of 16-23 year old students every 8 weeks, with a total of approximately 150 students in each group.

Last year, I started teaching 9th grade environmental science in Philadelphia.  Again, I incorporated math and literacy skills in my lessons.  I even included Keystone-style prep questions in our daily warm-up activities.  This year I was asked to teach 5th grade science and social studies.  My team includes the previous 8th grade English teacher and the 8th grade math teacher, who happened to be the 7th grade math teacher I worked with in my first position.  I think this transition, although adding yet another to the list, could be the point where all of my experiences lead to a peak in my career.

For my Masters capstone project, I spent the spring and summer of 2017 researching multidisciplinary lessons and developing the 5th grade science and social studies curriculum for this school year.  This blog will summarize the research and curriculum design.  My presentation on February 9th at the Rubicon Curriculum Summit will go in depth as to how the plan is being implemented, modifications that needed to be made, and ideas for further implementation.

Research- What’s the Problem?

My full capstone project: TEACHING THE URBAN STUDENT AS A WHOLE: UTILIZING UNIVERSAL SKILLS IN SCIENCE AND SOCIAL STUDIES INTERDISCIPLINARY CURRICULA

Excerpt from the capstone project:

      Problem Statement

            The emphasis on reading and mathematics test scores brought on in the wake of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002 have pushed science and social studies to the background in many elementary schools, leaving children without the critical thinking skills and content knowledge these subjects develop.  With the pressures of standardized testing linked to federal funding, the low income schools most dependent on that funding cram their days with reading and math in the elementary classes (Olson, 2006; Stedman, 2010; Winstead, 2011).  Many states, like Pennsylvania, give standardized tests in mathematics and reading each year from grade 3 to 8 (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2016). The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) website neglects to even mention the Science PSSA on their own website description.  Science is tested in the PSSAs for fourth and eighth grade only.  There are no elementary standardized tests for social studies at all in Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2016). According to the World History Center, a project of University of Pittsburgh, only South Carolina and Delaware have reported a standardized test for social studies in elementary grades (World History Center, 2010).  Since science and social studies are largely absent in high-stakes testing, they often get put on the back burner in elementary curriculum, leaving children without both the skills and content knowledge learned in these courses (Pederson, 2007).

The gap in reading and mathematic abilities for high-poverty schools causes stress for passing the standardized tests, which are often linked to federal funding. Standardized tests are used as a means of a performance comparison to determine grades, teacher job security, and school funding (Ladd, 2009: Winstead, 2011). According to Winstead (2011), in NCLB, low performing schools end up with lower funding for resources, putting them at a disadvantage in their attempt for students to reach proficiency.

“High-performing schools or schools that meet appropriate and significant gains yearly on standardized tests, as noted in gains achieved in overall student and subgroup scores, are awarded additional funding by the federal government. Those schools that continue to under perform are labeled for school improvement and can eventually be closed if they do not make specific gains in scores from year to year” (Winstead, 2011, p.221).

In 2014, over half of the nation fell below proficiency in reading, and there was is a clear gap in between income levels as well, showing a 26% increase in the number of fourth graders in high-poverty schools performing below proficiency, in comparison to low-poverty schools (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014).  Reaching proficiency is a constant uphill battle for students who come to school already behind (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2014).  Despite how hard a student may have worked all year, a student can remain behind for the rest of their educational career (Silvernail, et al, 2014).  If the student has an independent reading level of first grade equivalent starting in fourth grade, they would need to make four years’ growth in reading by Spring to make proficiency.  By the time that student reached summer break, they would be expected to reach 5th grade reading level, adding yet another year’s growth to their workload.  This Sisyphean task leads to schools cutting back on social studies and science to make time for remedial reading and mathematics, hoping students can reach proficiency (Olson, 2006; Winstead, 2011; Fitchett, Heafner & VanFossen, 2014).  Under NCLB, schools were required to make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) to at least show growth in their goal towards proficiency (Winstead, 2011). Science and social studies content could be used to help support reading and math skills, rather than being bumped out of the curriculum time.

Noting flaws in NCLB, the laws in education have shifted to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which is set to go into effect in the 2017-2018 school year.  States are currently submitting their plans for the next school year on how they will demonstrate growth and accountability aligning to the new ESSA.  Under ESSA, elementary schools must submit information for rating the school including an academic achievement indicator, a second academic indicator, English language proficiency, and an indicator of school quality or student success (Klein, 2017).  The academic achievement indicator is the reading and math test scores through standardized tests, while the second academic indicator can be reading and math growth, closing academic gaps, or science and social studies test scores (Klein, 2017).  The science and social studies scores can also be included as a part of school quality and student success (Klein, 2017).  This change in accountability may help address the lack of support science and social studies received in the wake of NCLB.  However, this would require more standardized testing for Pennsylvania, which only tests science twice and never tests social studies (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2016).  More standardized testing for students who already spending 18+ hours on standardized testing yearly is not necessarily the route education should move toward (Strauss, 2015).  However, the ability to include science and social studies, though optional, provides a silver lining for science and social studies teachers and supporters (Klein, 2017).

With the introduction of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) launched in 2009, a shift was made in the Language Arts standards toward inclusion of informational text, rather than focusing on literature alone. The CCSS are intended to prepare students for access to information in college and career settings, practicing comprehension and communication of informational text, including science and social studies (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2017).

“With the ELA standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary nonfiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.,” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2017, para 18).

In the newer curriculum sets tied to Common Core, science and social studies are starting to make a dent in the reading block through nonfiction stories and expository text in comparison to older curricula (Moss & Newton, 2002). As students are exposed to more nonfiction stories and informational text in their language arts classes, we may see an increase in their content knowledge of science and social studies (Leal, 1993).  However, the increase in exposure to random topics does not replace the skills learned in science and social studies courses.  Science and social studies help practice and apply meaningful skills that help students understand the world around them through asking questions, testing theories, analyzing ideas, and drawing conclusions about what they uncover (Husni & Rouadi, 2016).

Significance

Science and social studies teach meaningful skills and provide context for math and reading, so they are crucial elements that deserve curricular space (Duncan, 2011; Husni & Rouadi, 2016). With the achievement gap seen between lower income and higher income students, a greater divide is established as students lose out on the application of skills in science and social studies (Winstead, 2011).  Science and social studies teach our students valuable skills that they will need as adults. In science, students learn to ask questions, investigate, think critically, and problem solve.  According to Bill Nye (2016, para 1), “Everybody in the space program, everybody who’s a doctor, got interested in science when he or she was seven or eight years old… not when they were 16 or 18. That’s where you spend your money: science education in elementary levels.”  The most important thing that science education can do is teach our children to think through problems (Grant & Fisher, 2014).  Instruction should be designed so students can practice the development of questions and design a process to answer their question through inquiry (Grant & Fisher, 2014). Science can teach students to think, question, analyze, and draw conclusions to help them make informed decisions about their world.  Although the 21st Century is already underway, schools are finally adopting ‘21st Century skills’ to better prepare students for their future careers.  According to Thoughtful Learning (2017), students need more problem solving and critical thinking practice in order to be prepare for the future workforce.

“To hold information-age jobs, though, students also need to think deeply about issues, solve problems creatively, work in teams, communicate clearly in many media, learn ever-changing technologies, and deal with a flood of information. The rapid changes in our world require students to be flexible, to take the initiative and lead when necessary, and to produce something new and useful,” (Thoughtful Learning, 2017, para 4).

Schools are now trying to integrate these 21st Century Skills into the classroom.  Science instruction is a great area for teachers to help students practice these integral skills, easily aiming toward problem solving, communication, teamwork, and technology.

In social studies, students learn about the past, various cultures, government, and current history in the making.  According to the National Council for the Social Studies (1988, para 16), “Basic skills of reading, writing, and computing are necessary but not sufficient to participate or even survive in a world demanding independent and cooperative problem solving to address complex social, economic, ethical, and personal concerns.” Teachers need to use science and social studies to help students develop skills needed in everyday decision making (Yali & Hoge, 2005).  With social media, information is shared faster than ever.  People aren’t stopping to check the validity of what we read before clicking “share.”  Educators need to teach students about the successes and mistakes of the past and how systems like the government and economics work so they can make informed decisions as an active member of society.  Current and future generations need to know how to compare sources and check information given online and in interviews.  According to Mendez Hinojosa (2015), students need to learn to critically assimilate the information they are given.

“The risk of substituting knowledge for the information. Simplifying messages, after ensuring the speed, economy and intelligible transmissions, can lead to the trivialization of the events and the shallowness of the interactions. It’s not enough knowing how to access information; it requires a cognitive work that allows its transformation into real knowledge and the development of powerful cognitive resources to turn reflection, critical assimilation and creation into new information,” (Mendez Hinojosa, 2015, p. 185).

Propaganda thrives when the civilians are uninformed and blindly follow any source given (Snow, 2014).  Students need to learn how to find information, but also how to decide the relevance and credibility of sources they find.  Science and social studies can enable students to think critically and ask questions about the world around them.

In order to teach a student to the best of our abilities, schools need to teach the child as a whole.  The education system has broken content into silos that do not communicate or transfer skills from one to another (Aulls, 2003). As high stakes assessments have given priority to the math and reading silos, science and social studies have less time in the curriculum and important skills are being left out.  Valuable skills are gathered and practiced across all of the content areas taught in school, so why not support and blend them as much as possible?  Schools have already made steps away from test-only and lecture-only classrooms by including visual learning in the classroom (Raiyn, 2016).  The next step in reaching new learners is to utilize multidisciplinary lessons to help foster connections the content areas have in the real world.  Students do not go into the world and have an hour of math followed by a block of reading.  Students will need to apply various skills and subject-based concepts at the same time.  A simple trip to the store will include science and geography while driving a car, reading signs and labels, and math while paying for the purchased goods. While there have been some existing problems, the proposed curriculum attempts to repair these problems.

Proposed Curriculum

Using the available materials our school provides, as well as external materials I purchased on  my own, I developed a curriculum to help align my science and social studies content to the skills and concepts being covered in the language arts and math classes.  The idea was to create a smooth transition throughout the students’ day where the concepts they were learning had a more unified feeling, rather than the traditional silos.  Having 3 separate teachers for different content areas can result in a lack of transfer of skills and knowledge.  In my presentation, we will discuss how that was worked in practice so far this school  year.

currmappng

I went through the English Language Arts materials (Wonders Program) and the math materials (Go Math!) and designed my units in a way that could blend in with their topics and pacing.  For example, Unit 1 Week 1 in 5th grade Wonders is Getting Things We Need.  The essential question for that week is, “How do people get the things that they need?”  I designed my first social studies unit to be about the early people of Pennsylvania and how they got what they needed to survive.

My main resources for social studies were the Pennsylvania Studies text and a few books from the My World series.  My main resource for science is the Interactive Science text.  I have used this science program in 7th, 11th-12th, and 9th grade in the past.  Students respond well to the interactive notebook format.

Unit Schedule

I designed 16 science and social studies units, providing 4 units per quarter.  I broke down some of the units into 2 parts.  Each part consisted of a 7-day cycle.  Many teachers who have used the Wonders program have expressed that the “one week” in Wonders is longer than a school week.  I used the 7-day cycle to help accommodate that need for extra days.

Journals (Daily)

Each day begins with a journal entry.  The journal entry helps to promote writing as well as gain access to prior knowledge or review of content.  Students write what they believe the answer is to the journal question at the beginning of every class.  I encourage students that I am not checking if it is right, I am checking what they think.  The questions are often worded as an opinion question to avoid too much anxiety.

At the end of each class, students write a rating for how they felt in class that day.

  • 1- I’m lost in the sauce. (I didn’t feel too good.)
  • 2- I can do this with help.
  • 3- I’m good.
  • 4- I’m a BOSS! I got this.

I then read and respond to their journals at the end of each week.journal

Current Events- Day 1

 

On the first day of each cycle, the students will read a news article that relates to the content of that cycle.  It helps keep students aware of what is happening currently and how that applies to what they are learning.  A great resource for this is Newsela, which provides multiple reading levels for the articles as well!

news

New Content- Day 1-4

For the first few days of each cycle, students will get direct instruction and small group practice on the new content.  This part of the cycle is heavy on note taking, reading, and writing comprehension questions.  This is also when students would be conducting labs and watching short videos on content.

new content

CAFE- Day 5-7

This is where students are able to break out of the traditional mold seen in their classes, particularly with classes like social studies.  I used the idea mapped out in The Daily CAFE, which is a Language Arts design for student engagement, but applied it to science and social studies.  I had done a workshop on The Daily CAFE and the Daily 5 back in 2010.  I really liked the way students were able to make choices about their learning.  I watched this implemented in Elementary classrooms with students on various levels.

cafe

In my version of the CAFE, students only do CAFE after having learned something about the topic in the new content days at the beginning of the cycle.  During CAFE, students get a Menu that lists out the tasks they need to complete. The menu goes through new vocabulary, new people, reading practice, comprehension practice, skill practice, and word problem practice.

Students also have the opportunity to read a nonfiction text with the topic of their choice for each CAFE.  I have a large selection of leveled reader books sorted by content that students can choose from.  The students then write a short review of the book they read.

book review

The students have a Summative assessment for each unit, which falls during the CAFE days as well.  Students will answer the essential question for the unit in an essay format using a modified version of the Step Up to Writing format.  This low-pressure writing assignment helps avoid the anxiety students can develop for science and social studies tests.  Since the students are given very little science and social studies instruction during their years in K-3, they often feel stressed and unprepared when they reach those classes in middle school.  The fear of failure and the unknown can easily break a student’s confidence in science and social studies classes.  Students are allowed to work on the essay over the CAFE days.  They just can’t have the same answers as any of their classmates.

During part 1 of the unit, students will have a short writing assignment.  For part 2, the students will write the Summative Essential Question Essay.  The essay includes 2 pieces of text evidence to support their response to the question.

writing

Pre- and Post-Tests

In order to see how students have grown in content knowledge throughout the class, students will take a quarterly pre- and post-test on 4 units.  The students take the Unit 1-4 Pre-Test during the first week of school, with reassurance that we are just trying to find out what they already know so I know what they need.  The test consists of multiple choice questions from the 4 units covered.  Students do NOT get the pre-test back, but they do get scores.  After Unit 1-4 is taught, students will receive the same test as the Unit 1-4 Post-Test.  Scores can then be compared to see how students grew in content knowledge.  This would be repeated for Unit 5-8, 9-12, and 13-16.  This helps practice standardized test-taking, but not as often as it is typically drilled for students.

Unit List

  • Unit 1 (SS)- Pennsylvania’s Land and People
  • Unit 2 (Sci)- The Nature of Science
  • Unit 3 (Blend)- Design and Function (A New Nation)
  • Unit 4 (Sci)- Growth and Survival
  • Unit 5 (SS)- Growth and Expansion
  • Unit 6 (Sci)- Ecosystems
  • Unit 7 (SS)- The Civil War
  • Unit 8 (Sci)- Weather
  • Unit 9 (SS)- Historical Figures
  • Unit 10 (Blend)- Resources and Landforms
  • Unit 11 (SS)- Pennsylvania Industry and Change
  • Unit 12 (Sci)- Protecting the Environment
  • Unit 13 (Sci)- Earth and Space
  • Unit 14 (SS)- Pennsylvania Today
  • Unit 15 (Sci)- Properties of Matter
  • Unit 16 (Sci)- Force and Motion

Discussion Questions for the Curriculum Summit

  • What challenges would you expect to see with implementing this curriculum?
  • What modifications would you think were needed once the school year began?
  • What curriculum have you used in your classroom in the past?
  • Who made the decisions about your curriculum?
  • How could you use this curriculum format for your classroom?
  • What ideas do you have for future implementation of a curriculum like this?

Classroom Management in an Urban Environment

Introduction

Try googling “urban classroom management.”  You will get about 3,680,000 results.  Of these results, you will get a combination of idealistic classrooms and public shaming of students.  Anyone can post an article and anyone can like it.  So how do we, as urban educators, find the appropriate techniques and procedures to have a Danielson Framework approved classroom?  After all, in the Charlotte Danielson Framework for Effective Teaching, the highest scores are awarded to teachers where the students generally run the classroom. She had intended for her framework to be used as an inspirational guide to inspire teachers.  Of course, the tool fell into the hands of lawmakers who control schools with no first-hand knowledge of the classroom.

I surveyed teachers in different grade levels and schools who currently teach in an urban environment. The following article is based on my experience, teacher responses, and links for tools teachers are using.  I will be exploring different faucets of classroom management as it pertains to the urban environment.

Myself: High School Science Teacher, 7 years (3 years subbing) in urban settings, 3 years subbing in non-urban settings.

Teacher 1: High School Math Teacher and Math Curriculum Coordinator, 7 years in urban settings, 1 year subbing in non-urban settings.

Teacher 2: High School Science Teacher and Science Curriculum Coordinator, 9 years in urban settings, no experience in non-urban settings.

Teacher 3: High School English Teacher and Grade Level Lead Teacher, did not disclose years of experience.

Teacher 4: High School Math Inclusion, 2 years in urban settings, no experience in non-urban settings.

Teacher 5: 5th Grade Math and Science teacher, 1.5 years in Title 1 Non-urban setting.

Teacher 6: 4th Grade Teacher, did not disclose years of experience.

Teacher 7: 1st Grade Teacher, 5 years in an urban setting, no experience in non-urban settings.

Do you feel your classroom management

classes prepared you for the classroom?

I started with this question because I really felt that I was not prepared to truly deal with teaching until I was thrown into it.  I feel West Chester University did a very good job overall of preparing me to be an educator.  However, the one-size-fits-all approach the classroom management professor had gone by was simply not valid.  We spent most of the class creating back to school letters, classroom rules, etc.  We didn’t really get into case-scenarios  of behaviors in the classroom.

A lot of what I learned came with student teaching, substituting, long-term substituting, and my beginning years of teaching.  It was really down to observations and trial and error. As I interviewed the other teachers, I noticed some of the differences in how we all got to the classroom.

Teacher 1:

“I got my certification in conjunction with my M.Ed.  Since I was a straight math major in undergrad I did not take any education courses.  The M.Ed. program I took did not have a class that talked about classroom management.  I would say that bulk of classroom management was learned in one difficult section I had when student teaching.”

Teacher 3:

“Not really- it gave me a baseline but actual experience is what was needed.  There’s no substitute to observing and actual practice- theory is helpful to a point (I did TFA).”

Teacher 4:

“Because I came through TFA I have not have any traditional classroom management class. They provided us training over the summer that was extremely limited and I would say that it did not prepare me at all.”

Teacher 5:

“I do not feel that my classroom management class prepared me well enough for the title 1/urban classroom.  Most of the conversations were pointed at a middle-upper class student body where students automatically respected their teacher because they were the person in charge of the room.  My internship/experiences in a title 1/urban setting is what really helped me get a hold of how a “real” classroom worked.  I was getting real world examples of managing a classroom from an experienced teacher instead of hypothetical examples from a college instructor.”

Teacher 6:

“No I do not. Although, there isn’t much a class can prepare you for when you’re dealing with different every year or every class. I feel that I learn best just working with students and watching answers and other teachers and their classroom management strategies.”

Teacher 7:

“Yes, my classroom management classes prepared me for the classroom. I went to college in Philly and my instructor was a teacher in Philadelphia so he prepared us well.”

Notice 4 of the teachers I interviewed came from a non-traditional teaching path.  Teacher 1 started as a math major, adding education later on in her masters.  Teachers 2, 3, and 4 all came through TFA- which is Teach for America.  Teach for America is a program that strives to fill the poverty and cultural gaps in education.  I do feel my undergraduate, and even current graduate program, are more focused on suburban education.

Most of us, despite how we got here, didn’t feel prepared until we started to dive into our own experiences.  How do we resolve this?  Should student teaching be longer?  West Chester University had me start getting into the classroom in my Sophomore year.  WCU also required that at least one of your settings had to be urban.  They at least made an effort in getting the experiences in, but is it enough?  Teacher 7 felt prepared because she was prepared by an Urban Teacher.  Should more city teachers become professors?

What resources have you used to support your classroom management?

I have used Class Dojo, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids, and my own twists on observations I have made in other classes to help manage my classrooms.  We have all seen the stoplight, popsicle sticks, cards, demerits, reward bucks, etc. used time and time again in the classroom.  I remember I had a clothespin I had to move in my kindergarten class when I was 5.  There are different twists on these methods, but they are pretty much all the same visual method of behavior tracking.

The method I have found most successful is rewarding the positive behavior.  Student of the Week gets the comfy chair or a prize from the prize box.  Winning table groups (based on behavioral expectations) get extra credit.  The one motivator that really worked for my 16-23yr olds in an alternative school was extra credit.  Stickers and detention didn’t do anything, despite what the classroom management books had to say.  Parent phone calls were not allowed (as many of the students were parents themselves).

Restorative practices are particularly helpful for urban students.  It’s all about saving face.  You can’t get played.  You can’t look like a punk.  Hallway conferences allow for the teacher and student to communicate without an audience.  Giving warnings and reminders help teach the desired behavior, rather than immediately punish the unwanted behavior. The only issue I found is the restorative practices can seem disingenuous at times.  If I am not feeling it, the students can tell.  Sometimes, both parties need a breather.  This is where recovery comes in.  In our school, we use “recovery” as a tool to have students leave the environment, write down their thoughts and feelings, and come back with a clearer head.

Teacher 1:

“Our merit/demerit system was a huge help when I first started teaching.  Since then I have almost stopped using the system and have incorporated relationship building and use of recovery to manage any behavior problems that I encounter.”

The students all carry merit and demerit cards in their lanyards throughout the day.  Students earn positive consequences for filling merit cards and negative consequences for demerit cards being filled.

Teacher 2:

“Class dojo, bloomz, merits & demerits, table points, class rewards, behavior trackers, parents.”

I had never heard of Bloomz until this survey response!  Again, another example of learning best from our peers.  Bloomz is an app for communicating with parents. It shares a lot of the same features as Class Dojo and Remind, allowing for quick conversations about assignments due and behaviors being observed in class.

Teacher 3:

“Books like Teach Like A Champion were helpful.  Wong’s book too. Observations.  Merit/demerit system.”

Teach Like A Champion strives to bridge the achievement gap in urban schools as well.  Unfortunately, this is another resource I had no idea about, despite my time in urban schools.  This should be handed to you when you walk into an urban classroom.  This should be a text used in a classroom management course.

Teacher 4:

“I have tried to use the resources that [the Assistant principal] has provided us at new teacher induction (Fred Jones tools for teaching). I like that it emphasizes the positive as opposed to the negative.”

As a mid-year start, I missed this resource.  Fred Jones focuses on managing behavior through consistency and lesson planning.  Motivation and productivity derive from a well-designed lesson.

Teacher 5:

“I’m lucky to have two teachers on my team who have excellent classroom management skills. So during my first year I’d call on them often for advice. I’ve also had discussions with our Dean to brainstorm ideas to reach the particularly difficult child.”

Teacher 6:

“Fellow teachers, Pinterest, teacher blogs.”

Teacher 7:

“I really used a lot of ideas from the classroom and a lot of books that I had read in college. I had a really great text book (I forget the name now).”

Again, despite a lack of a common background, we all seem to pick up tools learned from other teachers.  Websites like Super Teacher Worksheets and Teachers Pay Teachers are commonly used for sharing lesson plans, but media also helps to provide a giant brainstorm for effective classroom management.  It is also important to note that no one single tool was the cure-all for any of these classrooms.  Tools and techniques need to be blended and tweaked to fit your classroom’s individual needs.

How does organizing physical space affect the management in your class?

I have re-hashed my classroom set-up time and time again until I stumbled upon a method that works best for me and my classroom.  I wrote a blog about this process with my current classroom.  What I have found works best is to have anything and everything the students could possibly need in the most easily accessible and organized way possible. This often means spending money out of pocket (since this is not included in urban school budgets).  Everything has a place and a label.

My blue table has blue folders for each period to collect and return work.  Each table is assigned a color.  There is a blue sharpener, a blue stapler, blue calculators, and a blue eraser.  The bin is also marked in blue, as are the tables where they sit.  There is no question as to where those materials must go.  Markers and crayons are also provided, with full accepting that they will be used/stolen/destroyed.  I help manage that materials are limited by only replacing them each quarter.  Did your table break all of the crayons?  Did someone take the black marker?  This object permanence helps with respecting the remaining materials, as well as the new materials when they arrive.

I am extremely particular about keeping my physical space exactly as it was when the class arrived.  This helps not only with expectations, but with confusion as well.  My objective is always written in the exact same color marker in the exact same space each day.  My agenda is written in colors depending on the activity.  Warm up and Closure are green.  Direct instruction is written in red.  Small group is written in orange.  Independent Practice is written in blue, etc.  Everything is set up in the exact same way each day, even though the actual activity varies.

In the students’ world of chaos and uncertainty, I remain stable and predictable.  I create calendars with due dates and activities listed, so they know what to expect and what they will miss if they are out.  I keep bins for students to take their own responsibility in getting the work they missed.

Teacher 1:

“Having everything organized so that the students know where to find what they need frees me up to actually help students with content and complete other administrative tasks (attendance, etc.) with little interruption.  I have a Do Now bin at the front of my room where students pick up their Do Now every day.  This procedure, coupled with directions posted on the white board make the start of class smooth.  I also use a bin system for collecting work.  Students are aware that all work that is being turned into me goes into that bin and makes it easier for me to complete other tasks.”

Teacher 2:

“The physical space can either invite collaboration or discourage it, it can influence the tone of the class as well as what the students feel they can get away with. I think carefully about how to orient my students to work together and focus on a lesson or new information.”

Teacher 3:

“Depending on the activity, the space can have a significant impact.  This is something I’d like to explore more to be honest.  Rows vs. groups, different arrangements, etc.”

Teacher 4:

“I hate to admit it, but I think that classroom management is more effective when students desks are in rows. Recently we’ve grouped students into fours in one of my classes and the behavior and side conversations are off the wall. Theoretically I’d love to be able to have students in groups all the time so that cooperative learning can happen but it doesn’t seem to work that well for me.”

As a new teacher and an inclusion teacher, some strategies do not work immediately.  Students in the urban schools I have worked in often test the waters with new teachers, despite their years of experience in other schools.  You have to “prove yourself” so to speak, then the techniques work better.  This is particularly stressful when the techniques taught before entering the classroom are not working.  In my first long-term placement I tried EVERYTHING I could think of and everything people suggested.  I was ready to quit teaching.  Sometimes we have to start out with the old-school techniques in order to establish that classroom environment.

Teacher 5:

“In an urban setting, the students come to you with more respect for their shoes than for your classroom materials. I have to teach them new skills to use and respect materials bought by someone else. Otherwise materials and other supplies would scattered and broken.”

Teacher 6:

“It does a lot. You need to be in a vantage point where you can see students at any part of the day what are you teaching small group or whole group. The layout of the classroom is essential.”

Teacher 7:

“Organizing the space helps in your room because I’ve always thought that the more organized and prepared you are, the better that your class and kids respond. I think that my classroom has evolved over the past three years and it’s really become a more kid friendly space and they have really incorporated themselves into my classroom.”

All of the responses indicated that the way we set up our rooms can set our day up for success or failure.  Classroom design can be used to encourage group work and responsibility or to encourage attention to the speaker.  I try to get my classroom up so that both are accomplished at once.  All of the seats are arranged in a way that it is easy to look up front/at the board.  However, they are also in groups, to encourage collaboration as needed.

How you set up your room also indicates to the students the effort you put into THEM.  I remember basically bare walls in my high school classes.  The teacher don’t shift from room to room, yet the room looks like it was being used temporarily.  Students pick up on this.  My 16-23yr olds would point out that my room felt warm and inviting because of the colors and the effort I put into it.  I’ve been accidentally called mom more times than I can remember.  Students need to feel safe, cared about, and welcome in your classroom.  They need that stable environment.  So many city teachers get burnt out and quit.  So many adults in their lives fail them.  We need to be consistent.

How does building rapport with students affect the management in your class?

The old adage that you “don’t smile ’til Christmas” is outdated.  Building rapport is crucial to classroom management.  However, what do you do when you have a room full of teens who are trying to give off the impression to their peers that they are tough or they don’t care?  A negative vibe in your classroom can quickly cause a mob mentality- and you will lose.  I have fallen victim to the terrible plan of punishing the class as a whole.  This does not and will not work.  You have to build relationships with your students.  I often say, “I do not need 9th grade friends.”  That is true and my bond with them isn’t that of a friend.  However, you have to be able to get through that you genuinely care about their thoughts, feelings, and interests.  This doesn’t mean adding basketball to your math problem.  You can’t just go for the superficial, stereotypical connections you THINK will get them.  The easiest way to achieve rapport is to simply be yourself.  I let my students know what movies I like, what shows I watch, what books I have read, etc.  I have pictures of my pets.  I talk about growing up and share stories.  This is how you genuinely make connections.

Teacher 1:

“Building rapport with the kids is key to having a semi-stress free day.  Getting to know the kids and what makes them tick makes it easy to spot when a students is having a bad day or when they are being disrespectful.  When you get to know the students on a personal level it’s easier to redirect minor behaviors without blow ups.  Building rapport with all kids isn’t always easy, however, one of my first lines of defense is to learn their names within the first two days of having them.  Making this a priority shows the kids that I know who they are and helps with management.  From there I try to talk with students in class when I notice they are having a bad day and congratulating them when they have done well on an assessment.  I also share with the kids a little bit about me so that they understand that I am a person too and have the chance to get to know me.”

When you teach 90+ students a day, the simple task of learning names can be difficult.  However, forgetting a student’s name or calling them the wrong name can quickly escalate into an issue.  How would a student believe you respect them and care about them if you can’t even remember their name?

Teacher 2:

“This used to be more essential than it is now. I still try to build rapport through consistency and showing interest in who my students are. I also try to set up a class around respecting my students’ contributions to the class. Still, at this point I find my management happens more easily because I am known in the school and have strong lessons.”

Sometimes just being in a school long enough helps build some rapport with the students.  You are demonstrating that you are not going to leave them and that you are a member of their community.

Teacher 3:

“Rapport is everything.  If you set the foundation, things are not a battle and you are then just giving reminders to keep things on track.  I build rapport through humor, asking questions, trying to be real and authentic with students, and building in choice when possible.”

Choice boards or menus are a great way to give the students a sense of freedom, while also ensuring that the learning you would like to see is accomplished.

Teacher 4:

“It’s pretty much been the only thing I’ve found effective. […] I try to build rapport with students by hearing them out when they have issues either with the content, me, or other students. I think it’s been effective to repeat back to them what they’re telling me to let them know I’m hearing them and then to respond directly and concisely.”

I statements and other ways to effectively communicate are a great way to build rapport with anyone- including students.

Teacher 5:

“Rapport with my students is definitely the MOST important piece of my classroom management plan. If these children don’t like and respect you, they will not work for anything. Everything becomes 10x more difficult and the students will start to purposefully disrupt everyday procedures. I build rapport with my students by first treating them like little humans instead of children. So many adults in their lives talk down to them or discount their opinions or experiences and they can feel it. I go out of my way to consider their point of view and how I’m treating them. I value everything they want to share with me. I also have a daily ‘relationship journal’ with my students where they share anything with me every morning. Some days I ask them fun questions like ‘what’s their favorite tv show/movie’ and sometimes big questions dealing with honesty and self respect. Everyday I write back to them. We have a dialogue. It helps the shy kids open up and gives them a safe space to vent with no judgement.”

I love this idea of journal writing with the students!  It is a slightly easier task if class sizes are smaller, but this communication could also happen when students are working independently.  I would consider this as a warm-up activity as students get to class.  This does require immediate response- so if the teacher is able to keep up with it, this could break the relationship just as much as it can build it.

My high school English teacher had a similar assignment where we had to journal about the novels we were reading.  He would journal back to us, making connections to the characters and asking thought-provoking questions.  I still remember this because it was a way of building rapport with me as a student.

Teacher 6:

“By using humor, but asking personal questions and finding out as much as you can about the student. By taking an interest in their outside school interest. I let them know they can trust you.”

Teacher 7:

“The rapport helps with one-on-one relationships and shows the kids that you respect them. I always get to know each student before the year starts and then I recall those things throughout the year. The more I know, the better our relationship becomes. I am also very big on talking to the kids one-on-one, making sure that they know that whatever they have to say is important to me. A lot of my kids will tell me that they love me and I’ll say it back because I honestly want them to feel like I do and to feel that I am always a listening ear. I also think that continuing that relationship with them outside of the classroom helps. Basketball and baseball games are fun to go to and also checking in with them after they’ve moved to different grades is helpful.”

Each teacher responded that they try to get to know their students in some way.  This has to go beyond an “All About Me” sheet in September.  This semester, I have been working on conferencing with every student each week.  We go over their strengths, areas for improvement, and an action plan for success.  Students are never unsure of how they are doing in my class or what they can do to fix it if they need to.  This has helped me with pointing out the positives in the students who are frequently behavioral issues or who are failing.  This helps me recognize the good quiet student who tend to go unnoticed.

What procedures do you set up to help your class run smoothly?

As I mentioned previously, everything in my classroom has a place and a purpose.  Everything runs in such a way that the student could be absent for 3 days, yet still know the expectation upon walking in the room.

A Typical Day in My Classroom:

  • Warm Up work is in the bin as you walk in the door.
  • Any other items that need to be picked up (calendars, new weekly reflections, vocabulary lists) will also be in bins as you walk in.
  • On the weekly reflection sheet, students must write the objective for the day.
  • Then the student needs to make their best guess on the warm up questions (which are typically Keystone style test questions).
  • I call out colors and the reporter at each table lets me know who is absent that day.
  • After attendance is in, we go over the warm up question(s).
  • The students make annotations to the questions and place them in the warm up envelope in their binder.
  • Any work that is due that day goes in the “IN” pocket of the table folder.
  • Any work I have returned is the in “OUT” pocket of the folder.
  • Each item has a binder item number, which is a numerical order for students to keep their assignments in their binder, before and after they have been graded.
  • All new items are assigned a binder item number and recorded on their table of contents.
  • Any new papers are passed out by a volunteer.
  • Any new leveled papers are gathered and passed out by the paper distributor at each table. (Leveled work based on reading levels, identified by shapes.)
  • We will usually do some whole group reading or whole group activity.
  • We then do some whole group and small group questions/writing.
  • Students have individual reading level work to complete on their own after whole group and small group is finished.
  • At the end of the period, students do the closure.  The closure has 3 parts.
  • Did you meet today’s target? (Draw an arrow on the target.)
  • What did you learn today? (Write a brief description of something you learned.)
  • What is your rating for today? (Students write a number from 1-4 on how they felt about the lesson that day. 1- I’m lost in the sauce. 2- I can do this with help.  3- I’m good.  4- I’m a BOSS!  I got this.)
  • Students either take their binders with them or place them in the table drawer.
  • Materials manager at each table makes sure the materials are back in their appropriate places.
  • All students stand behind their chair with their chair pushed in.

Every day, despite a change of the particular activity happening, runs generally the same. Again, the stability and predictability helps students with feeling comfortable and responsible in the classroom.

Teacher 1:

“The use of the Do Now bin and work bin helps with collecting work.  Students can pick up what they need on the way in and turn in what I need on their way out.  It completely removes me from the collecting process leaving me free to do other things during class.  In addition, each table has a container containing dry erase markers, glue, scissors, highlighters and colored pencils.  Students can freely go in and out of the bins when they need materials to color code notes, glue things into their notebooks, etc.  Again the students have the power to do all of this without me freeing me up to focus on helping students and preserves learning time.”

Teacher 2:

“Entry procedure, work turn in procedure, Kagan strategies to work together, bathroom procedure, quiz and test procedures, retake and makeup procedures.”

Kagan Cooperative Learning gives structure to small group work.  The Kagan structures really just revamp the turn and talk sort of procedures used typically. This is an area where I need more practice, as it is one of the mandates of my school.

Teacher 3:

“Entrance, exit, checking out books, pencils, bathroom, transitions.”

Having a classroom library involves a whole separate process for checking out, maintaining, getting late or lost books, damages, etc.  His library also has colored labels for the reading levels of each book, which helps a student determine if the book will be a good fit for them or not.

Teacher 6:

“I set procedures for every single activity. Everything must have an organized procedure to make a class run smoothly.”

Teacher 7:

“Procedures for almost everything – morning procedures, hanging their things up, pencils procedure, how to line up, where to walk, how to come safely to the carpet, how to walk in line, my famous hallway poem that we say before moving from a place, how to pack up, how to speak in the classroom with different voice levels.”

There is no question to what behaviors are shown when the behaviors are taught and practiced.  Setting procedures doesn’t mean your class will run smoothly on day 2. However, the more procedures are practiced and followed through, the smoother your days will run once the class has settled in.  The challenge here is with spotty attendance and turnover of student populations.  It doesn’t hurt to review the expectations every now and then.  I had a particularly rough start to my 5th period class last Monday.  We did a “reset” where we went out in the hallway and started over, with a reminder of expectations.  This would have been more effective if I had students model the “reset” or identify where things were going wrong.  In the wrong light, this activity could be viewed as a whole group punishment, which throws off the mood for the remainder of the class.

How do you establish a learning environment in your classroom?

I try to establish a culture of learning by encouraging participation and putting emphasis on trying rather than perfection.  I avoid responding to questions with a simple “no” or “wrong.”  I usually respond in a way such as “I see where you’re coming from…”  I try to validate their opinions and thoughts.  The struggles I see here are the students are sometimes used to failure.  They are used to being made to feel stupid or slow.  I have also noticed there is a mentality of “if I leave it blank, the answer isn’t wrong.”  Pretending not to care is a lot easier than allowing others to see you’re confused or struggling.  I see this more with my inclusion and my general education classes than I do with my honors sections.

One thing I really struggle with is the lack of prior knowledge or passion students tend to bring to the science classroom.  In elementary school, science and social studies take the back seat to reading and math.  In middle school, students may struggle with science but get pushed through to the next grade level anyway.  I know some teachers are working really hard to fight this trend, but it is something that has happened in the past.  All I can think to do is to try to make the science content as relevant as possible.  I also focus on reading, writing, and math problems within my science class, to help students at least feel successful in some part of my class.  The Keystone for science is in 10th grade, which seems so far away to the students, even though they are finishing up 9th grade.  I try to incorporate practice for both the Biology and Algebra 1 Keystone, which is a graduation requirement in Pennsylvania now.

Teacher 1:

“My class is designed to run from bell to bell.  There is very little down time and assignments are planned for students who finish early.  When students enter my room they know that they will be working from the beginning to the end which helps instill in them the importance of academic achievement in the classroom.  Since I teach Algebra 1 I also talk a lot about the Keystone Exam and the graduation requirement that comes with the Keystone Exam.  Everything we do is framed in terms of this so students know that there is a larger purpose for what we do in class.”

Teacher 2:

“I start with getting students to share the why behind rules and expectations as well as what they think the purpose of a class is. We review these regularly for the first 2 weeks. I hold them accountable for even the small stuff within those first two weeks as well. If the class or an individual disrespects the learning environment, we have a conversation whole class or individually about why and how they are hurting themselves and others. I use love and logic to hold my students accountable.”

Teacher 3:

“I try to weave in real-world examples/scenarios whenever I can, develop specific goals for each activity, and reinforce progress via timely feedback and praise!”

Teacher 4:

“I like to be super encouraging about students successes however small they may be to let them know that they’re making growth. Also, since I teach mostly older students I like to put responsibility back on them by explaining to them that any time wasted is really only hurting them in the long run.”

Teacher 7:

“The learning environment in my room is all about talking it out. Sometimes the students incorporate their own stories or I share a story that I have that goes along with the topic. My kids know that they are always welcome to share and have the freedom to do so. It is important to show the students that risks are apart of learning and talking out ideas is important because then they know if they are right and it gives me a chance to see how they are thinking and what’s going on in their heads.”

Reinforcing the positive helps maintain a positive environment in the classroom.  The student who is acting out is usually either frustrated or seeking attention.  Give them the attention in a positive way and help with the work that is frustrating them.

What challenges do you face as an urban teacher that you believe are unique to that environment?

What I have noticed really goes back to Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. A student cannot learn about the chemical compounds involved in cellular respiration when they are hungry, tired, or feel unsafe.  When I was still a substitute teacher, I had a 1st grader who simply could not stay awake.  Her friend told me, “Her baby sister was crying all night.  She had to take care of her.  Her mom was at work.”  I’m not sure how I was able to hold back tears.  A 1st grader taking care of a baby?  Alone?  This seemed like an impossible story, but I could tell it was true.  It wasn’t the first I had seen.  I have filled backpacks with food for the weekend.  I have given a shirt to a student who needed one.  I have seen students have their clothes washed in school for them on many occasions.  This is not an exclusively urban issue, but it is certainly more prevalent in impoverished communities.

Teacher 1:

“Most of my struggles surround feeling like there is never enough time to get everything done.  I would imagine that this also plagues teachers in suburban schools, but feel like my to do list often is filled with things that most urban teachers do not deal with.  Students who are frequently absent need to be caught up, and students who are significantly behind but still taking Algebra 1 are a unique challenge that I did not encounter when I student taught in the suburbs.  I left […] for a semester to teach in […], while it is technically a suburban district it is an urban population.  I took the job thinking that I would get access to the best of both words (teaching an urban population with the security of a union and guaranteed raises).  I struggled significantly in that setting.  I contribute this to the lack of a consistent behavior system.  I certainly did not realize the benefits of our merit and demerit system until I did not have it.  I also think that the different demographic (mostly African American and African immigrants compared to […]’s mostly Latino Population) played a role in my struggles.  Managing a classroom at […] was significantly different than managing one at […].  The many strategies I use […] that work well didn’t work as effectively.”

Teacher 2:

“Students are navigating  very real and often overwhelming real world challenges. As teachers and schools we are under resourced and overburdened while having emotionally troubled children to care for. Like all humans, students react in sometimes negative, often confusing, and unexpected ways when they are faced with emotions they cannot process. Many of our students are doing the best they can, but they need additional help to succeed and focus on education.”

Teacher 3:

“Varying [reading] levels adds to the challenge.  When students are behind it leads to frustration and that manifests itself in different ways.  Sometimes it’s harder to invest some parents as well.”

Teacher 4:

“It’s hard for me to say because I haven’t worked anywhere else, but compared to my experience growing up I do think that there is more of a cultural disconnect between staff and students in an urban environment. I think this creates a lot of issues including teachers setting low expectations for students, and students and staff not seeing eye to eye about behavior expectations. I also think there’s a huge issue with staffing experienced teachers. While I’m very appreciative of the program that allowed me live my dream of becoming a math teacher without going back to school for math or teaching, I recognize that it’s not the best situation for students. There are plenty of people accepted through TFA that get put in math and science teaching positions that have neither the desire or the content knowledge to teach their subject and they end up overwhelmed and under performing.”

Teacher 6:

“Many students do not know how identify their feelings or their family situations sometimes impact upon their learning. […] Sometimes they’re so severe that they can’t win because they’re hungry or because they hadn’t eaten at or because they couldn’t sleep because they heard fighting.”

Teacher 7:

“The importance of education. I struggle with getting support from both the parents and the students when it comes to realizing how important education is. Urban students are exposed to many more facets of life than suburban students and this is a struggle for teachers when teaching content. It’s almost like teachers need to get buy in from their students because they can successfully teach them anything. As far as the parents, they are often too busy to connect with their kids and the teacher, making it harder to get support from them for academic or behavior issues.”

These issues are not absent in suburban schools, but the amount of students with these setbacks are fewer.  I was on the reduced lunch payment plan in my suburban school.  All my students currently get free lunch.  My previous schools offered free breakfast and lunch.  Some schools have programs, as mentioned above, to send meals home for the weekend.  This is the only meal some of our students get.  The cycles of matter do not matter when when my head is spinning from not being fed.  Urban students are now faced with the very real fear of their parents being deported, if not shot and killed.  The urban environment is unpredictable and unstable.  Teachers and school staff need to do everything they can to ensure that the student is as protected and comfortable as possible while they are in the classroom, despite the fact that their minds may still be on other more pressing issues.

Final Thoughts

I have been asked on many occasion why I do what I do.  “Why don’t you go teach in a nice suburban school?”  “I could never do what you do.” “Aren’t you scared?”  I teach in city schools because I feel I am making a positive impact on the lives of these students.

Teacher 6:

“Being an urban teacher is extraordinarily challenging and at times heart breaking. However, when you get through to a child or class or you have a great moment, it makes it all worth it.”

Teacher 7:

“Urban schools may be challenging but what else would we really do with our time? I’d be bored doing anything else!”

Humor and a kind heart help push us through!

I do not fool myself into believing they will remember everything I taught them about science. I hope that I can at least teach them something about organization, something about perseverance, something about themselves, something about their self worth.  My job is not easy, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  I only wish that the lawmakers would value their educators, especially those in urban schools.  I feel as though urban schools are set up for failure.  What keeps them afloat are the teachers and staff that lose give their all to the students day in and day out.  I am up for the challenge.

 

References

All teacher tools referenced in this article are linked in the hyperlinks above.

All quotes are directly from teacher responses to survey questions.

Classroom Management in Urban Environments [E-mail interview]. (2017, February 27-2017, March 11). Teachers interviewed will remain anonymous for the purposes of this research.

Let It Go! Interactive Journal

This interactive journal is a versatile resource that utilizes the popular Disney film Frozen to tap into the reader’s feelings and responses to how others feel.

I filmed a video of me singing and reading along to the book.

let-it-go

The Book goes through the lyrics to Let It Go, stopping to discuss what the lyrics mean and giving the student the opportunity to make a connection to feelings.

The book can be printed in color or black and white.  Students could, in theory, just answer the questions in their own journal.  The pages can be printed for one-time use or be laminated for use with dry-erase or wet-erase markers.

This book could be used with a variety of ages, spanning from lower elementary to high school in both general education as well as special education classes, depending on how you use it.  I could thoughtfully respond to the questions just as easily as a first grader, but our responses are likely to look very different.

This could be used as a whole-class winter activity, a center for reading groups, or an independent activity.

Let me know how you utilize it in the comments below!