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Greek Mythology Like Never Before

67a1408b76d203375d97ad21f6a535a9.jpgMy fourth grade students have been studying Greek Mythology over the past few weeks, and it’s been so much fun. I’ve taught this content before, of course, but never quite this in depth, and never with some of the techniques we’ve been using. Boy, what a difference!

Some of the changes this time around:

  • more versions of the same myth (in particular Hercules’ Quest: when we view the Disney film it will be the fourth version we’ll examine)
  • more myths (Psyche & Eros, Arachne, Medusa, and others)
  • incorporating drama into our study (tableaux of various scenes, forcing students to deeply explore the characters’ feelings and actions)
  • incorporating more art into our study (resulting in some wonderful projects)
  • allowing students to not only choose various ways of expressing their learning, but letting them create the various choices (and they were so much more engaged in the activities they designed themselves)

Just spending more time in Ancient Greece has been so beneficial to the students. They’re seeing recurring themes including jealousy, vanity, bravery, and sacrifice. They’re drawing parallels between characters and stories and they’re becoming quite knowledgable.

As an added bonus, the Rick Riordan books (the Percy Jackson series) have been flying off the library shelves, as have the other mythology books. The students are excited!

I’m so pleased with their enthusiasm and their level of commitment to their work. I believe we’re building a strong foundation for future learning as they’re developing a love of these ancient tales. I don’t know if this work will show up in the form of growth on their end of year standardized tests, but I know it’s beneficial. For that reason, I’m feeling successful and yes, a little bit proud. I can’t help but feel a bit like Zeus on Mt. Olympus, looking down at the mortals with affection and feeling pleased with their successes.


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Why Do I Write?

This was the question posed to my fourth grade students on their recent “Writing Motivation Survey.” It was in the form of an online poll, complete with twenty-eight questions that they were to rank on a 1-4 scale. It was required before they completed their annual district writing assessment.

Twenty-eight questions. They are nine years old. If I ask them why they write they will tell me things like, “I have to” or “I like writing because it’s fun” or “I like making up stories.” Those replies are perfectly appropriate for a nine year old. But twenty-eight questions? Too much.

Speaking of too much, there’s the assessment itself. In the old days we passed out a paper folder with a writing prompt on the front. It was one or two sentences long. We also passed out a check sheet that kids were to use for revision and editing purposes. Some used it, many did not. After they completed a rough draft they got a second paper folder for the final draft. It was a long process, and quite demanding, but appropriate to the age and grade level.

Times have changed, however. Now the kids get a copy of the scoring guideline, which is written for adults. Good thing we have access to it ahead of time so that we can teach them what it means. The test is now on the computer, which isn’t uncommon, but it does take quite a few more steps to get to than passing out a paper. They have to read through two dense pages of “how to use the tools” (again, we are able to do this ahead of time, thank goodness), before they even get to the prompt.

Ah, the prompt. It’s on the right side of the screen, with a related article on the left side. Remember the old one to two sentence prompt? That’s gone. Now there’s about 200 words of text they have to navigate before they can figure out what they’re supposed to write about. And am I allowed to read it to them or help them interpret it? Absolutely not. They are on their own (even though this is not a reading comprehension test, it’s a writing test).

The expectation is that they will then independently read the included article on the topic (again, no help is allowed) and incorporate information into their response. They also watch an informational video and take notes on it to include. Then they are to independently compose their piece, revise and edit it, and type it into the computer. Did I mention that they’re nine?

We try to prepare them for this task, but frankly it’s too much. Even if I could rewrite the prompt so that it’s easier to understand, even if I could choose a shorter, simpler article, even if I could read it to them, it’s too much. How often do you have to read text, view a video, and compose a piece of writing all in one sitting? And you’re an adult!

It’s a good thing they take the “Writing Motivation Survey” before this assessment, because afterward I don’t think too many of my kids were feeling very good about writing, and that’s terrible. I have to do damage control, and work hard to get them back to a place where they don’t hate to write. Tasks like this are discouraging to so many learners, even kids who are normally enthusiastic about writing.

I understand the value of being able to accomplish that type of task, but honestly for kids in the fourth grade it’s too much, too soon. Now we’ll take a few steps back, break down some of those writing tasks into smaller chunks, and tackle those. We’ll also go back to enjoying language and learning how to play with it.

fun-writingThe good new is that kids are flexible. They did it. They survived. They’ll move on. My creative writing club kids met yesterday afternoon, and they proved it to me. They wrote for thirty sustained minutes about planets they created based on their watercolor paintings from the previous session. We had poetry, a space explorer account, a newscast drama, descriptions of the unicorn planet, the rainbow planet, the basketball planet, and more. Now that’s a reason to write.


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What Does it Mean to Be a Teacher?

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I’m a teacher. I know what that means. I know what’s required of me as a teacher, and I know how to achieve those demands. I know my responsibilities to my students, their families, my colleagues, and my supervisors. I know how to help kids understand complex ideas. I know how to challenge them to approach problems from multiple perspectives. I know how to encourage them to do their best and strive to do better.

I also know how to develop curriculum, design lessons, assess achievement, improve accountability, and instill excitement. I know how to calm fears, increase independence, and promote collaboration. I’m not bragging, most of my colleagues know these things too. It might be news to you that we do all of these things and more.

While visiting with a friend today, I learned that many people don’t realize teachers usually create our own curriculum and assessments. She sheepishly admitted that she thought teachers were simply handed a curriculum and materials at the beginning of the year and their job was to just follow along. She went on to tell me that volunteering in her son’s classroom opened her eyes to the reality of modern teaching. She now spreads the word to others when she comes across those misconceptions.

To clarify, yes, there are teacher’s manuals for many subject areas, but I don’t know any teachers who rely solely on those to teach their students. They simply don’t meet our students’ needs or properly align with our grade level standards. Some of them assume that we have far more time to teach particular concepts than we do. Others only skim the surface of topics, leaving students without the deep understanding necessary for further learning. At times, the text book publishers assume our students have more previous knowledge than they do, and other times they skip important concepts completely. And let’s face it, text books are often boring. Today’s students require more novelty and active engagement. The teacher’s guides don’t provide that, the teachers do.

Of course that’s not all it means to be a teacher. It also means you laugh with your students, you receive countless crayon pictures, and you know when a kid REALLY needs to go to the bathroom. It means you grade papers, complete report cards, identify and secure services for students with learning disabilities, conduct parent-teacher conferences, attend staff meetings, make copies, organize and chaperone field trips, participate in professional development, read professional journals, pin countless teaching ideas on Pinterest, scan hundreds of files on Teachers Pay Teachers, put up bulletin boards, pass out thousands of papers, and share tales with friends and families until they dread spending time with us.

Unfortunately there are some aspects to teaching that are far less pleasant. We have to cope with student misbehavior, we have to endure countless interruptions to instruction, we have to report suspected abuse or neglect, and we have to mediate conflicts between our students. We have to assist students coping with stressful situations, and we sometimes become targets. There are those who, in their attempts to advocate for their children, either intentionally or unintentionally undermine our efforts to educate those children. Adults who excuse bad behavior, don’t require effort, or bad-mouth teachers end up doing students a disservice. It is difficult for students to develop a sense of responsibility and respect when it isn’t required of them or modeled for them at home.

Recently I read an article about the suicide of an ivy league college student. On the outside it appeared that everything was going fine for her, but she was struggling. The article went on to state that suicide rates among college students are on the rise, and it speculated that one of the main causes was the lack of problem solving skills that many young people have as a result of parents micro-managing their lives. All too often parents are quick to fire off an irate e-mail if a child loses recess as a result of wasting time in class, or they demand make-up work for assignments that a child has chosen not to complete. They rush to school with forgotten lunches and library books and instruments rather than allowing their children to experience the natural consequences of those common oversights.

I submit that not allowing kids to fail once in a while is a huge mistake. We grow by learning from our mistakes, not by having others bail us out when we make them. It’s our duty to raise responsible, independent kids who are hard-working problem solvers, not dependent kids with a sense of entitlement. Those kids may be smart and funny and wonderful, but sadly they don’t tend to be very resilient, a quality that success in life demands. Let them have small failures in elementary school, when it doesn’t “count” so much, rather than allowing them to rely on adults to get them out of situations as they get older. Kids whose parents don’t hold them accountable have a difficult time learning accountability, and that makes them poor candidates for employment, not to mention people with whom you might not want to enter into a long-term relationship.

The good news is that those situations are the exception rather than the rule, but they happen often enough that teachers often feel as if they’re walking on eggshells. Rather than taking the time to find out what really happened, many parents simply take their child’s word as gospel when they have some complaint about school, and go on a tirade directed toward the teacher. Rarely are school situations as dire as parents make them out to be, and usually a calm conversation can clarify a situation and provide a satisfactory result. Jumping to conclusions and becoming hostile is simply not the way to go.

Parents, please remember, we have the same goal. We became teachers because we want to help students learn. We want to instill a sense of wonder at the world, as well as develop the skills necessary to make sense of it. Don’t forget, it is in the teacher’s best interest that your child is successful in our classroom. We want your child to be happy, engaged, and learning. We don’t want your child to feel stressed out, unsuccessful, or unappreciated. We want each student to feel safe, valued, and smart. Teachers aren’t out to “get” kids, they’re out to educate and empower them.

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