Friday, September 19, 2014

10 Things High School Teachers Could Learn from Elementary Teachers

In my new position as our district's STEAM coordinator, I have had the opportunity to visit over 50 elementary classrooms in the last two weeks. Let me preface this by saying that I consider myself a highly trained and practiced physics teacher. I have dealt mainly with high school juniors and seniors for over fifteen years. The skills I have learned over the lat decade and a half have served me very well in working to prepare my students for the next step in their journey.

That being said...

I have learned more about teaching in the last two weeks than I had in the last 15 years! Please allow me to share some my new insights with my high school colleagues.

1) Energy is conserved!

I am convinced that the energy that a teacher brings to a lesson is transferred directly to their students. We can not create enthusiasm in our students, it has to come from somewhere, that somewhere is many times the teacher! Elementary teachers are some of the most energetic, wonderfully crazy people I have met. I could not believe the amount of effort they were putting into keeping their kids engaged. It was every minute of the day, and focused on every student.

I witnessed teachers dancing with kids when their reading character's danced. I heard them sing directions and content to their kids. I saw them use therapy dogs with special needs kids, hug crying girls who were asked to work with mean boys, talk to kids about farting, and run after kids at recess.

2) It's All About Moose Ears!

"Thumbs up if you understand the directions for the activity we are going to do.... Johnny, your thumb is not up, do you have a question?"  "Yeah, Mrs. Thompson, I want to know if it is okay to change crayons to another color." "That is a very great question, Johnny. I think you and your partner can decide that on your own... Okay 1A, Moose Ears if you understand the directions!"

We talk a lot about formative assessment at the high school. We talk about checking for understanding with our students before we move on, we have strategies that are employed sporadically when our students are really struggling. I think back to how many times we move on with our curriculum before the kids are ready. We have to get to three more problems before the end of the block... we have to kill Hitler by Christmas! Primary teachers do not move on unless EVERY ONE of their kids is ready and focused on the task. Procedure, procedure, procedure.

3) My Class Is The Best Class Ever!

Imagine my confusion when I walked into one of our elementary schools and heard a teacher tell her class that "3A is the best class ever" when just 5 minutes ago I walked out of 2B, which apparently held the title as well. Even spending a quick 15 minutes or so in each classroom, I came to realize that there were no less than 13 "best classes ever!"

Elementary teachers are blessed with the same group of kids for eight hours a day for an entire year. (I said blessed... you can substitute your own word if applicable). There is no fresh start with a new group of kids every 85 minutes, or even a brand new group every 9 weeks. They have to make the personalities in their room work together. There is no other option. They HAVE to know their kids like a family. High school teachers can get caught looking forward to 9:30 where this group of thugs will leave and be replaced by our nice, friendly second block. It is hard to develop a close relationship with 150 kids a year, so too often we don't see the value in it. Those kids will be gone in a bit, demoted to nods and an occasional fist bump when we see them in the hallway between classes. I am not saying that high school teachers don't develop great relationships with kids, they do. I challenge them to develop relationships with every kid, a necessity in our primary schools.

4) Differentiation is Possible

Imagine my surprise when I witnessed a teacher begin a math activity by asking her students to work through some problems in their notebooks. Then, without missing a beat, she pointed to three students and asked them to join her at her desk. I was taken aback. She just called out the kids who struggle in math in front of the entire class. In my mind I was thinking, what about their self-esteem? What will the other kids think of them being singled out? I looked at the rest of the class closely.... no one noticed a bit! The kids who were called forward actually looked excited to work with the teacher, and everyone else was a bit jealous. After about three minutes, Johnny was done with his work, so she gave him an activity from a book in the back that worked through some higher level math problems. She had three levels of skill working on the same concept at the same time and she did it flawlessly! Color me impressed.

5) You can still teach using a canned curriculum

I hate textbooks. As a high school teacher, I want the ability to develop  my curriculum to fit my teaching style and the learning styles of my students. I get really edgy when departments or states try to push a boxed package curriculum on a teacher. I think it stifles creativity and the ability for a teacher to tailor their lesson to the students in their class. Respect the craft is my rallying cry.

Elementary teachers make them work for them. This year, our district bought a new literacy and math curricula that comes in a lot of colorful packages. We have been using FOSS kits for the majority of our science lessons which literally has a slogan that brags about it having all you need to teach science in a nice closed box. Elementary teachers seem to enjoy having the planning of their lessons taken off their plate. They don't have time to develop lessons for all the subjects they have to teach. How can anyone create something new for literacy, math, science, social studies, and health in the 15 minutes of prep time they have while their kids are at recess? That is not to say that they can not and do not do a wonderful job being creative with the curriculum. They mold it and shape it to fit the needs they have that year.

I sat in three 3rd grade classes that were all reading about folk tales with the same story about a Hawaiian shark. Each teacher had their teachers guide in their lap and basically led the kids through the lesson. The teacher's edition told them what questions to ask, where to lead the discussion, and that this part of the lesson should take 12 minutes. What I found interesting was that each of the classrooms did the same exact lesson, but each room was different. Teachers had their content scripted, but not their reactions to it. They answered questions, put examples into students' own experiences, and made it their own. Having a position where I could compare identical lessons was intriguing.

6) Invest in good shoes!

I started wearing a pedometer on my wrist to see how much I actually walk in a day. After two weeks of data, I still have to reach my goal of 10,000 steps. I am pretty sure the primary teachers I saw would wear my wristband out. These teachers were buzzing around their desks at Mach 3 looking over shoulders, pointing to mistakes, giving high fives, fixing chairs, picking up books, and overall making damn sure their kids were on task. It was exhausting just watching them move so fast. It seemed to me that they wanted to check each and every student a couple of times a minute to keep them on task. Looking back, I don't even think they were doing it for my benefit! The students treated the whirling dervish behavior as par for the course.

7) There is a lot of thinking that goes into playing blocks!

I sat on a carpeted floor for 10 minutes and played blocks with a kindergartner named Max. He was explaining to me how he was putting together monsters with his blocks. You see, his monsters only came out at night, and Joe across the table was creating his heroes that only came out during the day. With snaps and fasteners, they gave their monsters and heroes eyes, ears, hands, blasters, and bodies. It was hard for me to see the picture they had in their head, but believe me, they had one. They carried on conversations about the creatures, correcting me when I mistook the red block to be the being's eyes when in fact it was it's butt.

Imagination is a powerful thing. Somewhere along the road to graduation, kids tend to lose this a bit. I don't know if it is due to social pressures, classroom assignment restrictions, or just a loss of wonder, but it is different at their level. Girls were playing house across the room. Another young man was drawing a picture of his dog catching a frisbee.

I just left our high school drawing 1 class where the instructor asked the students to bring in three objects for a still life drawing that told him something about themselves. He almost had to beg them to use their imagination to find things around the house that depict parts of their personality. He told me that without a doubt, the next day half the class will just bring in anything they find in the hallway, or their locker. Even when given the opportunity to improvise, our high school students are not comfortable with doing so. Many would rather not show that they can be creative, just get the job done and move on. How can we get them dreaming again?

8) Rewards can come in many forms

Remember behaviorism? Pavlov's dogs? I always found it hard to incorporate operant conditioning into a lesson that didn't involve grades. As high school teachers, we use grades as our reward and our punishment. Elementary doesn't have that luxury. They need to assess, then reward or restrict on a minute by minute basis to survive the day. I saw badges, line leader privileges, verbal praise, extra recesses, extra free reading time, fun video time, and about three hundred different ways to motivate kids. One kindergarten teacher took clothes pins off her lanyard with kids names on it and hung them from the ceiling fan because the kid was being "FANtastic" that day. Elementary teachers are masters of operant conditioning. I found myself wanting to be line leader or hoping that she would tell my table that we were being the quietest, nicest kids in class.  How often do we high school teachers formally or even informally congratulate a student on a test score? We talk to the kids who are struggling, but often find that the kids who do well don't need our extra attention. Actually they do! Teenagers strive for attention, often times acting out when they don't get it. Elementary teachers have behavior figured out.

9) When was the last time you saw this in your class?

Nuff Said!

10) Rinse and Repeat!

"Today is the 4th day of school. Can we count to 4?"  "Great! Lets see where 4 is on our calendar." "Can we get to 4 on our number line?" "How many pennies is 4 pennies?" "How do we write 4 cents? Can we write 4 cents in dollar form?"

If those kindergartners didn't know how to count to four after all of those examples, I can't imagine how 6 will treat them. This teacher repeated, sung, and danced the number four for over five minutes. She showed them so many examples of the number four in their lives, that the students were counting to four on fingers, toes, teeth, whatever! She wouldn't let it go, she wouldn't stop, and the kids learned.

We can't assume our kids get it the first time. Doing one example of a type of math problem is not sufficient to give our students mastery of a topic. They need practice, they need repetition. I worry about lessening homework in our middle and high schools. I worry about such a wide swath of content in a course that students become masters of none.

After I finished my parade of classes, I came back to our instructional leaders and talked about my amazing discoveries. I challenged them to pair up with a teacher at another level and visit their building. Next week I await their stories. What did they see in the elementary buildings? What insights will the former 4th grade teacher I am showing through the high school have? Will there be another post about what primary teachers can learn from secondary?

This document took me about 25 minutes to write. There was so much there to talk about, it was easy. I limited it to 10 because I am pretty sure you are bored by now. Please comment below with anything else that comes to your mind on the topic.