September in February

 

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There’s a special and challenging time ahead for me starting next week as Intensive French comes to an end and I break out the “Compacted Curriculum”. We’re doing the switch over to English right now in grade 5 classrooms all over New Brunswick and it’s like we have a second September, but it’s February and I don’t have the same amount of energy I had at the beginning of the year.

Luckily, this is not my first kick at the can. I’ve been through this particular kind of turn-over, one where I get to keep the same students but switch subjects, three times in the past six years. The other three years I kept the same subjects but switched students. Both kinds of switches have their positives and negatives. Teaching just Intensive French is easier in terms of planning and marking but it’s hard changing students, whereas keeping students and changing subjects is a lot harder for planning and marking, but at least I have already an established relationship and routine with my students.

Things I’m looking forward to with this change:

The subjects: There’s so much in the grade 5 curriculum I enjoy teaching. I love doing literacy with my students and getting know them as readers and writers. I love sharing that part of my passion with them. And science! There are always a few students who struggle to get excited about other subjects but shine when we do science and I know this year is not going to be an exception. I’ve already noticed a few who rarely speak in class, especially during French, but who have confided a love of science to me. I also have the opportunity to pilot the new Health curriculum this year. I’m looking forward to that.

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Projects and independent learning: Yes, in intensive French we do little “projects” and sometimes in math as well, but it’s not the same. For first time language learners, they are so reliant on me and my knowledge of the language that it’s hard for them to work independently on projects and nearly impossible for them to do project work at home. We may officially be a bilingual province but the amount of parents I have who speak French is extremely low. I’m looking forward to doing a LOT less talking and a lot more listening over the next 5 months. I often feel like I’m a performer during the IF block. I have to speak slowly and clearly, with a lot of gestures and actions to convey meaning. I draw, I dance, I sing, I act like a fool to keep the energy and focus up in my room and it is exhausting. As much as I know I will need more time and energy for planning my lessons, I’m happy that it will take less energy to teach.

More variety: The great thing and the challenging thing about IF is the routine of it. Every day is pretty much the same. We have three hours of IF everyday plus one hour of math and sometimes a specialist subject like gym, music or art. Everyday we start our day the same way. We do a warm-up (which has been duolingo lately, more on that another day) then we do our “mini-prof” routine where a student asks other students questions about the date, the weather, preferences, mood, etc. and then we do our message of the day, we circle the sound we’re working on, we learn a new question and answer dialogue, we read a book, we listen to a song or play a game and we write a little bit. Everyday with only minor variations. I love routine and I know a lot of my students like to have things so structured and routine so they know what to expect next but, frankly, it gets a little boring especially after teaching the same thing for six years, sometimes twice in one year.

Things I’m not looking forward to:

Planning: Planning for IF right now is so easy! As I said, this is my eighth time teaching the same program and the program hasn’t changed since I started teaching it. I’ve changed up some of my methods, but the core hasn’t changed. It’s a very scripted program and I’ve moved away from the script of course but I’ve taught it so many times that I don’t even have to think about it. Planning mostly involves writing my morning message and finding new songs and games to play. Frankly, I’ve become a bit lazy when it comes to planning. Not so much for math, but that’s only one hour of my day. Now I’m going to actually have to plan for the whole day and go back to consulting curriculum guides more often.

New Curriculum: This is kind of related to the previous one, and is also a positive. Since I last taught the compacted curriculum, there’s a new curriculum for social studies, and as I said before, I’m part of the pilot trial run for the new health curriculum (which is written for a full year of teaching, not compacted yet for grade 5 so that’s going to be a challenge in and of itself). This is an interesting new challenge, especially in social studies, because I don’t have the resources and previous knowledge of what I’m going to be teaching yet. It’s exciting in a way, but also daunting. Plus, I miss the old social studies where I got to teach about ancient societies and medieval cultures. That was always so much fun! Instead I’m going to be teaching about how to use artifacts and aboriginal societies which will be interesting too and it’s important stuff, just not what I’m used to teaching.

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To top this all off, January has been a busy month and February is looking much the same. I started stage managing a new show with my community theatre group, we had a visit from another school to look at how we’re doing flexible math, I got my students ready for Drama Fest and we had our dress rehearsal / performance for the school on Friday. Looking forward to February, I’m helping out a friend by doing sound for his show all next week, I’m taking my students to Drama Fest on Monday, we finish up flexible math groups this week, and I have friends visiting from PEI and from Korea this month. All great stuff, but also stuff that’s making me feel a bit like I’m burning the candle at both ends.

On the whole though, I am looking forward to this change. I know that once I get going, a lot of my fears about more work will dissipate and I’ll enjoy the new challenges that are coming my way.

Getting ready for the first day of school

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In about 11 hours I’ll be greeting my brand new class for my 5th first day of school as a teacher with my own class. Hard to believe this is my 5th year of teaching grade 5 already.

This past week I’ve been getting my classroom set up. I wrote here about some of the ideas I want to use this year from last year and posted a picture of what my classroom looked like at the start. I’m happy to say it looks much less bare now.

Table groups

Table groups

First of all, I’ve opted to do groups again this year rather than starting off in rows like it was when I got the room. I’ve also put up some of my favourite fabrics to cover the bulletin boards. Each table group has a pencil holder and an “art basket” where they will keep their coloured pencils, markers, rulers and things. So far I have 20 students so I have 5 groups of four students which is a nice number.

Unfortunately, my classroom doesn’t have a whole lot of shelf space, so I went out and bought these lovely wire shelves and some cool baskets to put my french books in. I’ve also put my responsibilities and some of my daily routine words on the white boards because my chalk boards are not magnetic, making them mostly useless.

Book shelves

Book shelves

I was pleased at how easy it was to put the shelves together. I have an old set that I got when I was in university that was a huge pain to put together. Then I came in one morning and found out why the set that was harder to put together is better. So I set them back up and spent a long time getting them set up properly. Hopefully they will stay together better this time.

Why it's not always good that it's easy to put together

Why it’s not always good that it’s easy to put together

This morning I decided I needed to go in to school for a few more hours to get things more ready. I wanted to get all my photocopying and everything done so that the hour that I normally spend before my class comes in won’t feel rushed. I’m really glad I went in because I’m feeling a lot more calm about tomorrow now.

There are a few things that I’m happy about in my organization this year. Last year when I decided to not keep supplies in the students’ desks, I didn’t have a good system for where to keep everything. This year it’s all organized and labeled.

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I’m also excited about these neat closets in my classroom. They’re all controlled by one door, the one with the door handle, and they all open and close at the same time. I’m planning to use the bulletin boards on them to display class work.

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This is my reading corner and classroom meeting corner. I’m happy to have a good easel this year. The chalk board is going to be my “sound” wall and up above is going to be my word (sentence) wall. Just above on the blue bulletin board is my group responsibilities board.

Reading corner

Reading corner

And these are cushions I bought for the students to sit on when we meet in the reading/meeting corner. I’m hoping that they’ll work well.

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Now to get ready for bed and hopefully sleep!

Back to school jitters

Tomorrow is our first day back for teachers. We have until next Wednesday before our students start which is a lovely long amount of time. I’ve very grateful to have this much time to prepare. I feel like I have a lot of work ahead of me. I’m starting at a new school. I’m happily staying with the same grade level so I have some idea of what I’m doing but new school means new culture, new routines, new expectations to learn.

There are many things I’m looking forward to about my new school. It’s a much larger school. Last year my school had 10 classes K-5. This one has 25 K-5! It will be my first time working with another Intensive French teacher at the same school. I’m looking forward to being able to collaborate with a colleague who’s teaching the same thing as me at the same school. Also, this school has French Immersion as well so I’m hoping that speaking French to other teachers will help my French. Plus it will be easier to create a French culture in my classroom where all the grade 5’s will be speaking French, not just my class.

I’m happy that I know several teachers and the Vice Principal used to be my Principal a few years ago. It’s not like when I went to my last school and didn’t know anyone at all on staff. I’m excited to get to know the other teachers as well. I hope that there is a good teacher culture. One of the things I loved most about my last school was how supportive and friendly the staff were. As a supply teacher I used to see staffs where there was some in-fighting and pettiness between teachers at some school. That didn’t happen at SD. We all supported each other. We all knew what we were up against.

I am a little nervous. Moving to a new school is difficult even while it’s exciting. There’s a steep learning curve involved in figuring out how things are done that are the same or different. But luckily I have almost a week and a half to learn as much as I can before I meet my new class.

What sorts of things do you do to help yourself get ready for the first days of school?

Saying good-bye

Yesterday was a difficult day for everyone at our school. Our principal who has been so amazing, had her last day with us before she retires. On Monday we had a grade level assembly that my class organized and a few classes shared poems or stories celebrating how much she has done for us and how much we are going to miss her.

This is only my third year of teaching and starting tomorrow (because today is another storm day) I will start working with my fourth principal. I’ve been incredibly lucky thus far. I started off my teaching career, or at least my full time teaching career, with a principal who was very supportive. I only worked with her for just over six months before she retired and I moved on to another school. My second principal was also wonderful for me in a different way. He made a point of pointing out the good things that teachers were doing and thanking us for our hard work. I felt very respected and valued working with him.

When I heard he was moving on to a new school and we were getting a new principal, a woman I had never met but who I knew was close to retirement, I must admit, I was nervous. I knew that this year was going to be a challenge for me, after all, I had taught most of my students the year before so I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for. I knew I was going to need some extra support. I was afraid that our new principal would be hands off, just filling a position until she retired. Or worse, what if she was a dictator, someone who would criticize me for any mistake, who would blame me for the problems in my classroom.

Both of those fears were so far from the truth. Right from day one with the students, my principal has been my biggest supporter. She has seen me through my worst days and was even a shoulder to cry on when I felt very frustrated. She pushed to give me every support she could, have my SMART Board moved, had so much 1 on 1 time with some of my students who needed that extra support so desperately, and made it possible that I could have Mrs. W in the class with me.

Now we have a new principal coming in. I’ve met her before. She’s going to be the new principal at our new school when it opens up next winter so it makes sense that she would be our principal for the remainder of this year. She has other obligations with the new school and at the district office so she will be our part time principal and our VP will be VP full time. We’re also getting .4 more M&R support from a new staff member who will start tomorrow and we have a new phys.ed. teacher to free up our VP. In other words, they’re giving us three new staff people to replace the one we’ve lost.

I’m sure we’ll be fine. The new principal has a lot of experience. She’s been doing literacy up at district for a while so I’m anxious to pick her brain about CAFE and Daily 5 and Lucy Calkins and how to fit all of this into my literacy block. (I’m still in my pj’s today but I’ve spent all day delving into my literacy books trying to plan out my literacy block but that’s another blog post entirely.) I’m mostly worried about my students. After all, us adults are pretty resilient to change, but they don’t deal with change that well. There were more than a few tears yesterday. Even one of my biggest, toughest boys was in tears because she was leaving, asking why she had to retire and didn’t she want to work? It’s so hard to explain these things to them. And the timing wasn’t very good. We also started our French writing assessments yesterday and we’re about to go through the major change of switching from French to English so my students are dealing with a lot of change just now.  Having a storm day today did not help things, though it was a pretty bad snow storm all day so they were right in closing school, but it will mean more disruption, more hurrying to finish the assessments.

Luckily, this day also means more time for me to prepare for the change over, to do some stress relieving exercises and get some extra sleep.

Reflection on a day after a storm day

I’ll admit, I was pretty happy to see that there wasn’t going to be any school yesterday. It was a Tuesday, my day without a prep, I had supervision before school and at lunch, and I was meant to have what was most likely going to be a long meeting in the afternoon. Instead I got to stay home, get some house work done, help my husband, who just had some moles removed off of his back, had the meeting and moved this blog over.

But at the same time I knew that this was a double edged sword. Having a day off is nice… that day, but the next day tends to be not so nice. As of right now we have one week and two days left of Intensive French. Somehow in the next two days I have to make sure all of my students have completed a new piece of writing, prepare for our grade level assembly on Monday and get ready for the writing assessment which starts on Monday. I was hoping to get through our unit on clothing before we make the change over to English but I can see that this is not going to happen. We’ll continue the unit on clothing for a while longer when we have our two French classes a week. But the other things, the writing samples, the assessment coming up so fast and the grade level assembly are now, just because of one day off, so much closer.

Today I really wanted to keep things moving. I wanted to have the students working hard on their writing. I wanted them to feel the urgency that I’m feeling. I wanted to give them brain and body breaks to help keep things going. My plans didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. A day off of school meant a day away from their friends so they were quite chatty today. The general Wednesday calm that comes after two days of reinforcing expectations was mostly lost. There were more than a few nodding heads from staying up too late. It was more like a Monday and I didn’t feel like we had time for a Monday.

But we soldiered on through and got as much work done as we could. Before recess we focused on speaking, working on our question “Qu’est-ce que tu portes?” which we used and re-used until almost all of the students were able to say what they were wearing and what other students were wearing. We played a game where a student’s name was chosen on the name selector, they’re sent out to the hallway. Then another name is chosen and that person needs to tell us what the student in the hallway is wearing. They enjoyed this game, though it was hard to keep the others from shouting out the answers sometimes.

After recess we focused on writing. We wrote a story as a class, a difficult feat on the best days, then I had them spend the rest of the time writing “independently”. One of the things about writing that my class, and I would suspect most language learners, struggle with the most is that they don’t have the words to write their great ideas. They have the words in their first language but not in the language they’re asked to write in. So they end up trying to write stories about pirate ships and cannons when they don’t have the vocabulary to write about those things. I tried to impress upon them that they need to write using words and phrases that they already know because “Madame n’est pas la dictionnaire” especially during the assessment.

After a false start, we did manage a pretty good short story about a birthday. It still had some moments of silliness but it was done with words that they know. Here’s the story we wrote today with the names changed:

Le voyage

C’est la fête de Britney. C’est le 19 juin 2017.

Chad dit « Bonjour, comment ça va? »

Mme W. dit, « Ca va bien. »

Britney dit, « Je suis excitée parce que c’est ma fête. »

Ils sont allés à Alaska pour sa fête. Ils font de la natation parce qu’il fait chaud.

Ils nagent à Madagascar. Ils sont fatiguées alors ils dorment avec un tigre, un hippopotame et un crocodile. Ils sautent sur leur ami, l’hippopotame, et ils sont allés chez Nigel.

La fin

As I said, very silly but it was all in sentences that they could say. Now I did help a little with correcting grammar of course but for the most part, this is their work. It took 45 minutes to get this much. I’m hoping that tomorrow they will be a little more settled and we will be able to get everything done in time.

Test Prep?

I read a few teacher blogs of teachers from the States and when things like test prep or State testing come up I am very thankful that I teach in Canada. The insanity of some of the testing just makes me want to take someone and shake them. Luckily, Provincial testing in Canada hasn’t become quite that bad. We only have, generally, one Provincial test per year, though Grade 5 Intensive French has two, one of which is coming up in two and a half weeks.

Also luckily, the prosperity of my school and my job do not hang in the balance over the results of this assessment, in fact, in the past two years where I’ve had my class write this assessment I have yet to see any of the results of how my classes have done. I want my class to do well, but I’m not spending all of my time prepping my students for it either. Good thing too because that would defeat the purpose of Intensive French.

In a nutshell, the point of the Intensive French program is to have an intense period of only French to help our Anglophone students get to a level of French where they aren’t going to be sliding back in levels every year. Researchers found that with the old Core French program, especially in the older grades, the same concepts had to be taught and re-taught every year. Some students would make some progress, but the majority never did. Intensive French is centred around using and re-using phrases until they become ingrained. We also do reading and writing in French but the majority of our mornings are meant to be spent talking in French.

Some classes are assessed orally, but everyone is given a written assessment at the end of the Intensive French block. They’re given a story starter and are asked to write a fictional story based on the story starter. My opinion of this particular assessment and it’s validity is beside the point. I need to get my students ready to write this assessment.

My main focus to prepare them for this isn’t that I need them to do well either. I do want them to do well, of course, but my main focus this year is that I don’t want them to feel over-whelmed and stressed this year. My first year of teaching I had my class for three weeks before the assessment. I didn’t know what the assessment was going to be like and I did very little to prepare my class. I thought they might do okay on it but I wasn’t prepared for the tears and the frustration that both they and I felt. Last year was a little better because I knew what was coming so we could talk about it before. But still, they were frustrated. There were tears. They wanted me to be able to help them like I did normally when they were writing. I realized that I had failed them. I had talked about how to do this assessment, we had done practice stories, but I hadn’t had them practice writing independently. They were lost without me as their guide and as “Mme leDictionnaire”.

So this year, against my judgement, I decided to introduce independent writing, just like I do with Daily 5 in English Language Arts. We did an I-Chart, talked about what to do when they’re stuck, and I enforced the idea that they needed to stay where they were, working in their spot, using the resources around them, but not asking me for help. I would walk around and conference with them, but I was not going to translate every sentence for them. They can write about whatever they want. We did model stories together and model brainstorming and I let them go.

And they amazed me.

Their writing is not perfect. There are lots of mistakes and most of them wrote more descriptions of people or pets than actual stories (my mini-lesson for tomorrow is going to be on the difference) but they wrote. Not all of them wrote their own stories, some copied the model story and that’s fine. It’s a stage of learning, but they did it and some of them did an amazing job. Not only that, some of them ask for time to write and I happily give it to them.

We’ll continue with our “assessment prep” over the next two and a half weeks, enjoying their new-found independence and I will hope that there will be fewer tears this year.

Tables and Desks

Please excuse my absence from my blog. Life has been busy lately. I have another post coming explaining why in part but for now I have another post about today.

We had a meeting today about our new school. Our school and another in the area are going to be closed next year and our new school is currently being built. We will be combining the two school staffs and students and to ease this transition, we have meetings occasionally with both staffs to talk about what we would like to see at our new school and what we would like our culture to be like and to get to know each other.
I’m fortunate enough to have worked at both schools, though the other one I only worked there for about two months and then supply taught a bit after, but I know most of the teachers there.
One of the things we were asked to discuss today was what we would like to have in our classrooms. We came up with a list of things like having a tall stool, a small table near the SMART board for our laptops, having a guided reading table and a reading area with something on the floor. These were all things we easily agreed on in our grade level groups.
Then we started talking about desks versus tables for the students. I had never even thought about this idea before. I just assumed we would be getting standard desks and that would be that because that’s what every classroom has in the upper grades that I’ve seen. But the other Intensive French teacher said that she would like tables. She explained that she didn’t have her students put much in their desks anyway and they always end up being a mess. The students tend to play with things in their desks and they end up being more of a distraction than necessary.
I agreed with all of her points and felt that I too would prefer tables over desks. I’ve always had my students store most of their stuff in places other than their desks and I find that their desks end up just being cluttered and full of things that they don’t need. So why have desks? Wouldn’t it be easier to have the students store things elsewhere? And also, this could help them prepare for middle school where they will not have desks of their own. They will need to carry their stuff from room to room and won’t be able to keep supplies in their desks. For that matter, I question the necessity of having desks with storage space in middle and high school. What’s the point? All it does in encourage them to put things in there like notes for students in other classes and other distractions.
Together we thought of a system where we would have tables with different responsibilities for bringing over the table’s basket of supplies. Especially in Intensive French where we do so much oral and group work together, there isn’t a lot of need of supplies. We barely have any duotangs or scribblers and no text books. So what is the use of having a desk to store things? But the other grade 5 teacher, who teaches French Immersion was not convinced. She wants desks with storage space in them in her classroom. At first we thought this would be fine, that we could customize our spaces. 
But it turns out that they want our wings to be be uniform. And when I thought about it a little more I realized that although I’m setting up this classroom for me and for what I would like to have to teach, I also have to think of the teachers who will have my classroom after me. After all, it’s not likely that I will stay in the same classroom for the rest of my career. And even if I did, the new school is going to outlast my career. So I have to think about what the teachers after me would want to have in their classroom as well. And that’s a difficult thing to do. We’ve been told that we can’t change our minds once our furniture is ordered. We don’t have enough money for that. So if we decide now that we want tables and then we find out that it was a horrible mistake then we just have to live with it. Both of us are new teachers. We’ve never worked with tables before in older grades. We just have this idea that it would work better but we don’t know in practice. 
So I’m asking you, my more experienced PLN, what do you think would work better? If you could have any kind of furniture in your room, in your ideal classroom, what would it be, knowing that you have to get the whole wing to agree and that future teachers will be living with your choices? And other than student work spaces, what would your ideal classroom contain? Would you prefer a round table for conferencing or a ‘c’ shaped table? Would you prefer to have a water fountain in the room or in the hallway? If you could design your classroom to look however you wanted, where would you put the board? Your desk? Would you even have those things in there at all?