Final Reflection:

Classroom students workingJust as my students moved from blank or masked canvases to masterpieces of art, so too have I been changed through this process. This year has been a challenge and a blessing at the same time.  Initially deciding what area of my classroom and teaching practice to change was the most pressing; there were so many possibilities (writing, grades, student centered learning, 21st century classroom, inquiry based learning). It seemed that I had some divine permission now to do something that I had always wanted to do- make my students into a more successful version of themselves.  I had always struggled as a teacher with accepting below quality work from my students with no chances to redo the assignment. I felt as a teacher my job was to teach responsibility and, by enforcing strict due dates and guidelines, I was helping my students learn life skills.  Ironically, I decided to go a different direction- a complete 180. By taking away the possibility of the D (poor quality work), giving students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding with each assignment assessed based upon a rubric the students and I developed collaboratively, I was not only changing my expectations for my students, but for myself and my classroom. 

Approaching these ideas with my principal, students, and parents, I was filled with mild trepidation.  How would they respond? Would they be supportive? I should have had no doubts.  As my principal stated, “what parent wouldn’t expect more for their child?”  The students responded so well to the dramatic change in their learning environment. They embraced the opportunity to be part of and lead the change.  They were expected to do more and be more.  I was infected by their encouragement and support to make a difference.

We began the semester creating expectations of their work developing their own rubric for assessment. We also discussed the challenges of eliminating the D and being able to revise their work. With each aspect of the learning environment that was going to be altered, the students were involved in the process. This was a tremendous change for them. Never before had they been allowed so much latitude and responsibility. Before I thought I was teaching them responsibility by holding them to due dates, but now they were actually experiencing meaningful responsibility. They could get the work done improving their learning and understanding. The responsibility rested on their shoulders. I had moved from the enforcer of policies to a supporter of their learning.   It was such a natural shift and so welcomed by me.  The positive change to the learning environment was transformational. I could now be the teacher I wanted to be.  I could be the coach, motivator, encourager, educator not the task master, scheduler and hand holder.  Kids were staying after class to finish work. They were reflecting on their learning and changes they witnessed meta-cognitively. At the same time, I was doing so as well. I was blogging consistently about how they changes I was implementing in the classroom were affecting me, the classroom, and the students. 

I do not know why it took until I was working on my Masters to feel that I had permission to change. The last few years I had spent changing aspects of my classroom into a student centered constructivist learning environment upon receiving a laptop classroom, but I still experienced poor quality work from students.  I assumed that with laptops and a constructivist learning environment, students would do more and be more. But when still held to the same traditional rules of school, how could they change?  Learning is a process and I needed to instill that belief in my students.  Taking away the D, raising the expectations, and placing the responsibility on the students to revise their work, students could be enveloped in the process. Their reflections on the changes are a testament to this.  Students wanted more from themselves and from their learning. They were challenged by redoing their work if it was not acceptable on the first try.  And after redoing their work, they learned from the revisions. They grew in their understanding making less and less mistakes as time went on.  This brought on challenges to me as the teacher as well.

With feedback on so many revisions and various assignments, grading became a nightmare.  How was I supposed to be grading in a timely manner when there were so many versions of an assignment?  And it wasn’t just grading but giving meaningful and relevant feedback to assist the students in revising their work.  Just as they made a commitment to me to do more and learn more, I made this commitment to them giving them accurate feedback and time to redo their work. I was now in a new role.  I really focused on giving written feedback but also expanded at times to oral feedback and 1-1 feedback in class.  It seemed overwhelming at times to be grading and assessing this much, but at the same time, I felt that I had a better grasp on the learning taking place within every student. Not only could I recognize their individual growth, but the students were noticing a change as well.  Thinking back to the first four months instituting these changes, I have never worked harder as a teacher and practioners.

I was changing my perceptions about learning and teaching, reading voraciously, revising rules that I had instituted for years, grading, assessing, and reflecting constantly. What kept me inspired and focused was the influence of my students’ growth and a message a learning circle colleague bestowed upon me.  He reminded me that it is our job to work hard for our students. That is why we are teachers!  We are here for them.  Keeping this in mind throughout the first cycle really helped sustain the motivation to keep up with the kids. They were producing more, growing, learning and changing. I was supporting them all along. Whether they knew it or not, their drive to do more and be more was inspiring me to do the same for them.

With the end of the first cycle, although it still remains, the second cycle and a student teacher entered into our learning. The students wanted to sustain the same practices as they had first semester.  This was challenging to the student teacher as well as myself. For the student teacher, he was inheriting policies he knew nothing of nor had any buy-in for. These were not his policies but were the classes’. Coming from traditional teaching practices into an environment that was student centered and directed was challenging. He struggled, the students struggled with the change, but in the end, they all learned much from one another. I also really struggled through this time. Letting go of my classroom to the instruction of another teacher was a shift for me that did not come easily. Being a perfectionist by nature, to let someone in and take over was difficult. Not to mention, when I felt he was failing my students, the urge to jump in and save all of them ran through my mind constantly. But there was no saving.  Instead, I practiced what I wanted my students to do.  We talked, we reflected, we revised lessons, we learned from our mistakes, over and over again. Over time, fewer mistakes were made, more honest reflection grew, and all were ok.  The last couple of weeks watching my student teacher work was witnessing the lessons learned all come together. There were some of the remaining struggles that go away with experience, but he was in a much better place.

With the second cycle, the research focus shifted from my students’ success  as learners to now include the success of my student teacher as a teacher/learner. Having never taken on a student teacher before, I was learning about my own teaching practice while mentoring a new teacher and student at the same time. The cycle was to focus on the feedback process with student work. While teaching the ninth grade position paper, I was modeling for Randon how to give feedback on student work. We examined styles and methods for giving student feedback. We also asked for the students to reflect on the feedback they were receiving to see what changes we needed to make or what manners were most effective. Most surprisingly, this was a fascinating challenge for me as a teacher and mentor. I had to examine and explain the methods I used when giving feedback to students. Why did I give feedback the way I did? Where did I learn these methods? And more importantly, how did I know these were the right methods to use?  Teaching and mentoring Randon about feedback was an amazing self reflective process. To take the time and slow down really thinking about why I give feedback the way I do, was important to my growth as a teacher. I do not think very often in education we give teachers time to think about why they do what they do and if what they are doing is in the best interests of the students and their learning. Having this time with Randon to examine my practices and to explain my choices allowed for me to grow as a teacher and reflect as a practioners.

Inspiration all around me

I was struggling with writing this last reflection. I put up my concerns with motivation and inspiration on Twitter and a friend tweeted back, “Take a breath and look around, your inspiration is all around you.”  Now sitting here looking at my students write, I think about how lucky I am to have my job, with these kids, with my colleagues at this school.  I have incredible support around me to try new things-to be the masterpiece of myself.  I have a principal who expects nothing less than greatness from me and I work hard to meet that expectation every day, month, and year.  I am surrounded by greatness that my students embody. They want to work hard for someone who believes in them. When they are challenged to do more and be more, they rise to that level.  I know great things lie ahead for these kids. They will be forever changed and opened to the possibilities that are contained within them. I see the same for my student teacher Randon. He has so much to learn, but if open to the opportunities, he will be amazed at the transformation that comes from learning from others and reflecting himself.  Lastly, I have learned the possibilities that lie with in me. I am an agent of change who will not be satisfied with mediocrity anymore. I will hold myself and my students to a higher standard. Looking forward, I want to continue being an example or model of learning for them. From this experience I will continue to wonder about the possibilities of teaching and learning differently. Spreading the message of the changes I have made can be part of the challenge moving forward. I want to speak about what I have done, the struggles I have encountered, and inspire others to take that leap forward into 21st century learning. Through empowering my students, I have empowered myself. The art of possibility has created not only more successful students but a more successful teacher and learner as well who will continue on the path of reflecting, changing, questioning, and growing.