Reflecting with 7th graders

 

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the the word reflect as “to think quietly and calmly”.  I’d go a step further and add that reflecting also involves some analysis of the topic: what went well? What didn’t? How could we improve?  Reflection is the process of taking a critical look at the things that we do and deciding if what we are doing is working or not.

As teachers, reflection is key to determining how successful we are at reaching our students both as learners and as people.  Are the students grasping concepts? Are they inspired to push topics further on their own? Are we presenting the material to them in an engaging manner? Are we building meaningful relationships with the kids in our room?  These are questions that I cycle through on a daily basis: during lessons, after lessons, between lessons, in the car, while running, while hiking, while sleeping.  Reflection is a sign that we are invested in learning how to get better at the things that we endeavor in.

As we approach the impending winter break, I wanted my students to engage in some reflective writing.  In English classes, we regularly reflect on books, essays and current events, but we rarely ask the students to reflect on themselves and the lives they are living.  On Friday, I had each of my Language Arts classes begin class with 5 minutes of reflective writing on the following topic:

“Think about the year 2017: what did you do or accomplish that you are most proud of? What could you have done better? What did you want to accomplish, but couldn’t? Finally, what is something that you want to achieve in 2018?”

In an attempt to show solidarity and take part in the activity as well, I told each of my classes that I summited three 14ers (14,000 foot peaks) last year while hiking in Colorado, and my goal this year was to do five or more.  Most of my students have never been hiking in the wilderness, so my response of course led into a longer-than-intended discussion about steepness, elevation and the time it takes to summit a mountain.  Also, a lot of kids wanted an explanation as to why anyone would WANT to hike a 14er.

Eventually I got them back on track and writing about the aforementioned topic, and I allowed students the opportunity to share their reflections. The overwhelming majority of the responses were things like:

“I made A/B Honor Roll.”

“I made better grades this year.”

“I improved my behavior.”

“I want to make all A’s next year.”

“I want to get in less trouble.”

Other than a few kids who mentioned goals related to sports, almost all of my students focused their reflections around issues concerning school.  I was a little surprised.  I suppose I had forgotten that a 12 or 13 year-old’s world is still relatively small.  The main focus of their lives at this point is school.  Because of their age, many of them haven’t yet developed outside interests like traveling, running, hiking, biking, sewing, cooking, dancing, yoga-ing and all the other things that we (adults) aspire to do during our free time.

As they grow older, my students will hopefully find time to explore hobbies and interests that will help make them more well-rounded people.  But right now, at this moment, school is their main squeeze.  And I have to remember that.  Teachers have to remember that.  For these kids – whether we like it or not – we play a significant part in their lives.  They are awake for 12 to 14 hours a day (hopefully not too much more than that), and we get to see them for 8 more hours of that time frame.  While I have a number of outside interests and personal goals aligned with them that I want to achieve, I have to remember that my students aren’t there yet. They have dreams and goals and aspirations, and they depend on my colleagues and I to help them reach them.

I realize it’s cliche, but this week reminded me of just how important teachers are to their students.  I know as teachers we all have crowded classrooms packed full of students, but we must not forget that they have only one of us.

As I look forward to 2018, my students’ reflections have led me to reflect, and I now have another resolution to add to my list for the upcoming year: be mindful every day of the role you play in the lives of all of your students.

 

 

 

 

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I hate the first day of school

One week of school is in the books.  Well, technically not a full week of classes since we started on Wednesday, but the amount of tired I am parallels the level of fatigue that normally sets in from a typical five-day week.

Let me just say that I do not like the first day of school.   I tossed and turned all Tuesday night and into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.  If I could ballpark the total amount of sleep I got that night, I’d say it was somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours.  This is my 6th year of teaching, yet having a restful evening the night before the opening day of school continues to elude me.  The first day of school contains far too many unknowns, which causes my angst-meter to skyrocket, making sleep impossible.  Bleary-eyed and sleep deprived, I arrived at my school roughly 40 minutes before the first bell.

In 7th grade, we have the kids for an hour and a half of what is called “extended homeroom”.  During that time, I have to greet students at the door, get them seated, introduce myself, assign them lockers, help them open the lockers, review the code of conduct, discuss rules and expectations for the 7th grade hallway, tell them the schedule, show them where they will eat lunch, and explain to them what we will do in case of a fire, tornado or lockdown procedure.  It’s an incredible amount of information to cram into 90 minutes, not too mention that I’m really stretching the limits of 7th grade attention spans by going over so much material in lecture format.  Most of my extended homeroom was spent showing students how to open their lockers, even though they had them on the 6th grade hallway.  After two or three failed attempts by a student, I would swoop in and work my magic.  When the locker opened, each kid would inevitably ask, “How did you do that?”, to which I simply replied, “I’m fly like that”.

But the two things I hate most about the first day is going over rules and expectations, and the fact that I do not know any of these 80-something faces looking at me.  Don’t get me wrong – I understand the value of reviewing the expectations that I have for the class along with the consequences that I will administer if those expectations are not met.  However, running through that same song and dance four times in a day becomes quite tedious.  I much rather prefer a normal class day where I talk WAY less and serve more as a facilitator to the students’ learning.

As I mentioned, the awkwardness of those first classes is unnerving; the kids don’t know me, and I don’t know them.  Neither of us is completely sure how the other is going to act or react.  The best part of teaching is the relationships that are built with students, but at this point those relationships have yet to form, and we are really just twenty-something strangers together in a room.

With all that being said, we made it.  Even though we are just three days into the year, I feel as though I know my students SO MUCH BETTER than I did a week ago.  Some of their personalities have begun to emerge through our discussions and interactions.  I can already tell that I have a lot of eager learners as well a handful of students who are going to be more difficult to reach.  Either way, I’m excited to begin working with all of them.

The highlight of the week for me came on the second day of homeroom when I read aloud to my kids for ten minutes from Sharon Flake’s Bang!.  For anyone unfamiliar with the book, it’s a pretty easy read that starts off with a bang (pun intended) as we learn immediately via a flashback how the narrator’s brother was shot and killed.  My students did an excellent job of listening and responding to the questions that I posed to them as I read.  When I finished, we talked about how much I valued the importance of giving them time in class to read books of their own choosing.  I told them that they were going to get opportunities to get lost in a variety of different genres over the next year.  We discussed the ways in which readers preview potential books, and how they set about choosing one to read.

Then the kids got out of their seats and perused my classroom library, which I am quite proud of, and chose a text that appealed to them.  Finally, my homeroom read independently for 6 minutes (we were pressed for time).  More than half of my students asked for bookmarks that they could personalize so that they could continue reading their book the next time we met.  On Friday, this same group read for nearly 10 minutes during the end of homeroom, and several more left bookmarks in their novels.  I couldn’t have been more pleased with how well this group dove right into the independent reading initiative in just two quick days.

Needless to say, my enthusiasm for the upcoming school year is high.