Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Know Your Audience!

I have a pretty open door policy in my classroom. Any visitors are welcome to swing by and observe, participate and contribute to the activities that my students are engaged in. When somebody of the caliber of Ewan McIntosh walks in however I would hope to be found teaching my students in some profound way. When Ewan McIntosh himself did in fact walk into my room unannounced last week I was not teaching my students, I was learning about them.
It was Valentine’s day and the schedule had been altered to accommodate a party during the last hour of the day. The 5/6 teachers host a talent show during this party and my teaching partner, Rick Joseph, and I strive to get 100% participation from our students. While some kids love the opportunity to perform, others find it can be a bit of an ordeal. Rick and I constantly ask our students to go beyond their comfort zone and take risks so that they can explore the barriers to their own learning and discover strategies to overcome them.

After lunch recess my students asked if they could have some time to rehearse for the show to overcome nerves and to problem solve with their classmates. Respecting their wish to prepare and figuring my shortened lesson on weathering and erosion would be soon forgotten in the ensuing sugar rush, I consented. Within minutes the room was filled with the sound of violins, keyboards, drums, singing and laughter. I floated around to see what my students had planned and I was amazed by their creativity and willingness to collaborate. Merrill had used You Tube to learn how to play a Cold Play song while David was figuring out his dance moves to accompany her. Ethan and Andrew, as M.C’s, were busy creating the running order and staging requirements. A group of girls were putting the final touches to a skit they had written while another group went outside to perfect their violin quartet. The confident were supporting and encouraging the not so confident and together they were pulling together as a team. Enter Ewan McIntosh!
Ewan McIntosh is the founding CEO of NoTosh Limited, and he works with schools and universities in the Middle East, Australasia, Africa, North America and Europe to apply the ways of working in  creative industries to the world of schooling. He is one of my educational gurus and I can’t really remember what we talked about for the brief time he was in the middle of my classroom chaos, but I do remember what I learned about my kids that day.I learned what motivates them, what interests them, how they learn, how they come together and how they face their fears.There is a performer lurking in every teacher and we also need to know our audience, know the whole child in order to meet their learning needs more effectively. Being a math and science teacher I’m frequently sad that I don’t get to share books with kids or read their stories and essays. These can often provide great insight into who our students are and in the hurly-burly race to leave no child behind, opportunities to really listen to and learn about our students can often be missed.

Later on that day lots more visitors arrived in my classroom as parents poured in to enjoy the talent show. We marveled together at the courage, flexibility, ingenuity, and levels of trust and camaraderie displayed by our kids. One of my first teaching mentors told me that education is like a three legged stool: parents, children and teachers. While classroom parties can often be messy, loud and seen as a distraction from the curriculum, they can also be seen as a rare opportunity for the three legs of the stool to come together to enjoy, celebrate and appreciate each other.
I spent the rest of the week collating and analyzing mid-year assessment data about my students. This data will be helpful in making instructional decisions but no more so than the knowledge I gained about my students by taking forty minutes to let them teach me about who they are as people.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

It Takes a Village

I recently “found” my cousin via Facebook. Over twenty years ago she moved to Ireland and we just kind of drifted apart. It has been so wonderful to reconnect and we’ve had fun Skyping and sharing memories of growing up as cousins. Our mothers were two of the eight sisters and one brother raised by my Grandma Grimes, which meant we had a whole lot of cousins and a whole lot of fun times to remember. While it has been lovely to reminisce, it’s also made me think about about what my own children are missing out on because of our decision to come and live in the U.S. I’m reminded of the ancient African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child.
 I know my husband and I have often missed the support and comfort of close family members to help us weather the storms life brings, and I began to panic at the thought of the eternal damage we must have done to our children by denying them the opportunity to grow up surrounded by their extended family. How much will our decision to emigrate cost us in therapy in the future? My panic subsides as I realize that they do, in fact, have a village. An adopted village that has grown around all of us as we have made friends and acquaintances that have sustained and nurtured us during the ten years we have lived here. It then occurred to me that it also takes a village to raise a teacher.
The first decade of my teaching career was spent in a small elementary school in a leafy suburb of Liverpool. I was fortunate to work with and learn from an amazing group of teachers whose combined teaching experience totaled close to one hundred years. Like a sponge I soaked up every tip, technique and strategy they employed to help students reach their full potential and they fostered in me a true passion for my job. Here in the U.S I have been equally fortunate to work with dedicated professionals at Birmingham Covington School and I have been able to connect, collaborate and create with my peers like never before. My lust for learning is fed by my personal learning network which I have been able to cultivate with the use of technology. Twitter, Partners in Learning Network, MoodelMeets, and Blogs are just a few of the tools I use to create the global village that is guiding and supporting me on my learning journey.
One of my goals in the last few years has been to help my students learn how to use social media to create their own global village and in the last few weeks I’ve discovered that we don’t have to look too far. For the second year my class is participating in Cyberfair, an international program that encourages students to use technology to research and share their learning about a particular aspect of their community. The topic we chose this year is local businesses, how they meet the needs and wants of the community and how sustainable they are. My students have connected with local experts who have embraced their pursuit of knowledge with a level of enthusiasm I never expected. Bradley MCallum thrilled a group with a tour of the basement of the famous Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. Ruth Kremer gave my students the royal treatment at the Detroit Receiving Hospital and Michael Hauser shared his extensive knowledge of the history of American theater while allowing three of my girls to do cartwheels across the stage of the famous Detroit Opera House .All of my students returned from their visits gushing about what they had learned and how exciting it was to learn beyond the classroom. These are the days they will remember. I sincerely appreciate the time our local experts took out of their working days to help me educate my students about their community in a memorable and authentic way.

We are lucky to be living in an age when technology allows us to reach out and make connections with people who can help us learn and grow. My own kids may well need therapy for something in the future, but it certainly won’t be for lack of a village to cherish, support and encourage them.