A 5th Grade Teacher’s Guide to Surviving October

Amy Konen
Elementary School Teacher

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It is October and I sit here wondering if I am doing enough for my students. Am I providing enough for them to be ready for 6th grade by the end of this year? Am I giving them knowledge, strategies, friendships, and hopefully, good memories of this year?

My own reflections involve questions such as, how do I know if I am doing a good job? … What am I really doing to help my students gain one year's growth in one year's time? Am I doing enough? … What is making me a strong, accomplished teacher for them? … Am I spending enough hours before and after school to prepare the strongest lessons? … Am I engaging them enough to help them keep that learning throughout this year, and over the summer, and into next year?

When Striving to Be the Best Teacher I Can Be, I Reflect on the 5 Core Propositions

These questions always plague me. Haunt me actually. A teacher can spend so much time analyzing, reflecting, journaling that it can make a person crazy if one's not careful. It is at these crucial times that I find myself leaning heavily on my National Board training and reflect on the 5 Core Propositions that are really just good teaching strategies for all kids and adults to put into practice. We know that every student deserves to be taught by an accomplished teacher.

Research even tells us that students taught by accomplished teachers learn more than those who are taught by other teachers. What I love the most is that to be the best for my kids, I do not have to do anything overwhelmingly hard or something on top of everything else I have to do. I simply have to constantly reflect, modify, and understand what my kids need. The more I know them, the better my teaching will be.

October's Here - Full Speed Ahead

The reality is that now its October. My shiny new supplies are lost, broken, and worn down. I am falling behind in grading, preparing lessons, and I am trying not to panic that I need to get going to cover enough curriculum and not worry so much about building connections. The truth is October is hard. Five-day weeks are here; it's a long time until Thanksgiving but Christmas concert practice is right around the corner along with Parent Teacher Conferences, end of first quarter, and the first field trips that will take me away from the lessons necessary in my classroom; and, in a blink of an eye, I am completely overwhelmed.

Angela Watson, from my 40 Hour Workweek course, keeps me forever grounded. She said it best when I read her inspirational email…

" But remember that you don't need the strength for ALL of the school days right now. All you need is strength for today."

During these hard first months of being back to school remember to focus on what you can control. In this moment. Right now. Not two months from now. Not by June. But right now. In the next hour. Or the next ten minutes, if that's where you are at on the stress continuum. I can control being committed to my students and their learning.

A-Ha Moment: Some Vocabulary Has Been Over My Students' Heads

Am I really getting my information to ALL my students? I recently went to a training on ALD (Academic Language Development). I have many Native American students in my classroom and what my big Ah-Ha from that training was that I realized that I have a tendency to teach above my student's comprehension level.

I know I give one direction at a time, I know I use models and visuals and colors to help my students process the directions I give them. However, nothing hit me harder than when I assigned a social studies activity. I asked my students to define the highlighted words in the chapter, and three different 5th graders came and asked me what it meant to define the words. It was the next day I went to the training and brought that example up to the class. I was told my students needed academic vocabulary development. It made all kinds of sense. They did not understand the language of school. I was so glad they were courageous enough to ask me to clarify ( I guess my time building connections wasn't wasted time after all!!)

Regaining Control: Making Sure My Students Understand the Language of School

Now I spend time on the language of school and I have been rewarded with a student who never spoke up to this point in class who now is speaking to me privately and asking questions and producing work. I was so worried for awhile because I could not get anything from or out of her work-wise. What I found was that she just did not understand the language of school.

Control. I have a small piece of that back. All because I chose to be committed to her and the rest of my students to find out what they needed that I was not getting to them. In addition, I was having disengagement in whole group lessons so I added some Total Participation techniques from Persida Himmele and William Himmele.

I started with Chalkboard Splashes because this is a busy bunch who needs movement. The Chalkboard Splashes allow students to get up, write on the board, share ideas and work together. Suddenly, I didn't have students crawling around on the floor or playing with things in their space. Now they were raising their hands, begging me to call on them to send them up to the board next. Control returning. My breathing is almost back to normal!

Learn from Last Year's Mistakes, Don't Repeat Them

Next I looked over my plans from last year and reviewed my curriculum during my summer vacation. Last year was my first year back in the classroom in 11 years, so I really just struggled getting through what I was supposed to teach this past year. I had no control because I did not know what I needed to teach my students, what was coming up or what would be hard for them, or what concepts I needed to be spending more time on.

Now I have a year under my belt and I could start refining my knowledge and extending it. When I know my subjects and what is expected, then I can be a more effective teacher for theme. I now know that fractions are really hard for fifth graders and that I need to spend more time just practicing the process of finding least common denominators. I know I need to really support my students and make sure they know their multiplication facts and that they know the vocabulary of fractions. That will help ensure they're not getting frustrated or shutting down when we get to that unit.

In social studies, I learned that my students hated the subject, which means I did not do a good job last year getting them excited for it. Now I know what I am teaching, I understand the subject better this year and I can use what I learned from Hope and Wade King in the book The Wild Card, and plan more engaging activities during social studies. I plan to incorporate room transformations during the section on Westward Expansion.

The more a teacher knows the subject she is teaching and how to teach that to her students, the more successful, engaged, and confident students will be.

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Monitoring Student Learning the Right Way

We are asked to do so many things throughout our day and one of the biggest goals is to manage and monitor student learning. How do we do that? Is it done through our State testing and its results? Through our MAP (Measured Academic Progress) testing done three times a year? Or is it done through our end of unit tests that the district creates? Those are always the long term goals and it is usually what we are judged by from our stakeholders.

We must manage and monitor our student's learning on a daily, even hourly basis. My district follows the RtI model, or Response to Intervention. This is where we set goals for our most at risk students and place interventions in place that will help them achieve success throughout the school year. We track their progress, meet monthly with our team and adjust where necessary. It becomes overwhelming when you have a third to a half of your class needing some kind of intervention. How does one keep up with the paperwork, the lesson design, the assessments to demonstrate the intervention is working, AND cover everything you are required to cover before May? Angela's words echo in my brain again…

"But remember that you don't need the strength for ALL of the school days right now. All you need is strength for today."

So today, I need a structure that will allow me to monitor my student's learning.

Use the Tools You Have to Create Structure

I lean heavily on the Daily 5 and Daily 3 structure for reading and for math. These structures allow me time to conference, set individual goals, reteach, run groups, provide choice and use my mandated curriculum that I am required to cover. The structure of the Daily 5 offers a comforting sense of routine, which is extremely critical for students who do not enjoy the same reassuring consistency outside of school.

I spent many hours teaching and re-teaching students to develop stamina and work through the 10 Steps to Independence. In addition, it remains critical for me to find books that will reach my students and their interests. Daily 5 Reading and Daily 3 Math allows me to be thoughtful by using purposeful instruction and well-established management, which in turn helps my students progress toward their goals. What I have found since using these structures is that I actually have more time to teach in my day because the routines are established and the focus is on the content rather than the micro-managing of the behaviors.

I have a purposeful routine set up where I can teach, reteach, provide practice, conference, and work with individuals four days a week and then assess them on the fifth day. That fifth day all my data goes into my RtI profiles and I can set new goals as I monitor my student's learning. I can use this monitoring of my student's progress to help me make purposeful and intentional lessons that will reach my students and help them achieve a year's worth of growth in one year's time.

Experience is The Best Teacher… And Taking Notes is the Best Way to Make Sure Those Lessons Aren't Lost

Another way for me to gain some control back this October is to think through my practice and learn from my experience. In other words, I spend some time at the end of each day going over what went well and what did not. From there, I have a notebook where I just write down thoughts of why lessons or interactions with students did not go well and what I could have done differently. I gain so much more control over my daily practice by simply taking this time to get ideas, fears, issues out of my head and into my notebook.

In a month where control is fleeting, it is so important for me to have ways to get my control back. By analyzing my procedures, my kids who struggle and ideas I have in place to help them, I am constantly reflecting on questions like: Did I model enough for the students to practice and learn my expectations and procedures? … Did I differentiate curriculum enough to keep them regulated so they could complete a task fairly independently? … Did I plan purposeful lessons and assess accordingly so I know exactly what they know and where they need to go next?

By constantly reviewing my practice and recording my thoughts and observations, I am able to feel in control of my day, their education, classroom culture and connections. This thinking systematically allows me to set up a nurturing environment for all my learners.

Help in Community

Finally, one of the best ways I can get control back is to join learning communities. There is nothing more powerful than surrounding myself with colleagues who are motivated and positive. They inspire me and give me hope when I am feel overwhelmed and stuck in my thinking. There are so many people out there with expertise and knowledge and it is so helpful to hear, watch and share what others are doing with great success. I find myself seeking out national and local groups to broaden my growth mindset.

I find the more information I can take in, process and use in my classroom and my practice, the more control over my teaching I gain. It proves so empowering to add in different techniques and try new styles that reach students I was not able to reach before.

I have participated in my local ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Excellent Teachers and Teaching) for four years. It is a conference ran by teachers that offer collegial circles and an opportunity to work with each other to solve a problem that is impacting our efforts to teach. You gain insight, ideas and options from other teachers and they follow up with you throughout the year as you work through the ideas generated in the work session.

I have also found powerful online forums to help me organize and streamline my time, my room, my small groups and my procedures. It is called the 40 Hour Workweek Club run by Angela Watson and it has proved very powerful in helping me work through the little things which, in turn, allows me to focus on purposeful and intentional lessons. My teaching has become much more effective and efficient. There are also support groups through Facebook and Twitter. This can be overwhelming as there are so many options to choose from that it can overtake all your time.

This year, I have set some goals that include coming home at a decent hour, not staying at school late into the evenings and throughout the weekends. With that goal in mind, I found groups, blogs, and organizations that would support my goal to gain time and control back into my workweek.

This year I intend to conquer October. I plan to have as much drive, enthusiasm and love for my craft as I did in July. My plan is to focus on today. Right now. Use the strength to get through each moment with grace, purposeful lessons, reflection, and kindness. You can too. Keep doing that, one moment after another. You can do anything, but not everything!

Before you know it, it will be November!

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Amy Konen