Monday, January 4, 2016

2015: Homeschool Under Review

One of the most challenging parts of being a new teacher is that, in everything you do, you're doing it for the first time.

You're dealing with that particular demographic and group of learners for the first time.  You're planning curriculum activities from scratch for the first time.  You're trying to modify said activities to fit your spectrum of learners for the first time.  You're learning how to assess on the go, and you're making the necessary changes when any given lesson either works or doesn't.

It's a lot to process all at once at any level, but that first year it is nearly overwhelming.  And you make a ton of mistakes.  It's a phase of most teachers' lives that is such a trial by fire that we simply repress it instead of spending a ton of money on therapy.  (And let's face it, if you're a teacher, spending tons of money isn't an option anyway.)

I always laugh when people try to tell me how easy teachers have it.  I mean, they get summers off and they just re-use all the activities they did they did the year before.  Easy peasy, right?!

To which I reply a very dignified, HA!!!!

Is it true?  Can a teacher just reuse all the same stuff in any given year?

Well... yes and no.

The reality is that you want teachers to be able to reuse their old lesson plans to a certain extent, and not have to start over from scratch every year.

The reason for this is, like a professional sports player, there are two things that make us better: repetition and review.  We get the feel of a certain set of activities and how they will be received by our demographic of students.  We learn to anticipate the questions, the problems, the modifications necessary to make it a success.  We learn to better support the places that are going to be difficult, which parts are a little dry and boring and require a joke or two to keep everyone's attention (or we learn that it's okay to cut those boring parts altogether).  We have the opportunity to edit, edit, edit so that each lesson becomes something wholly different than what we started with.

And trust me when I tell you: Different, in this case, equals better.

There is also the constant (and usually circuitous) flow of information.  If you ask a teacher what he or she does all day, they will tell you the following: 1) Teach.  2) Arm-chair therapy.  3) Plan/evaluate instruction.  And the beloved #4) Meetings, meetings, meetings.

It has been two and a half years since I have been in a classroom in a formal capacity.  When I left, I'd say I was near or at the top of my game.  My scores were strong.  My kids were learning.  There is always room for growth, but I felt good about the state of my classroom and confident in my own abilities as an educator.

In some ways, homeschooling sends me back to feeling like a first year teacher again.  I'm constantly planning, rearranging and honing my material without the benefit of having done - and improved upon - it last year.  And, I never thought I would say it in a million years, but: I miss my meetings, meetings, meetings!

All those hours of "professional development" where I used to think, If only they trusted us enough to do our jobs and teach!

Yeah, somebody take me back.  It turns out after all my silent protesting, professional development is well named and really does help you develop as a teacher.  It forces you to do something that is actually really tough to do when you're all by yourself, and review your performance.  It keeps you sharp and reminds you of things you knew, but forgot in the busyness and chaos of the moment.

There's a reason the sports industry spends so much time and energy on play-back.  Top athletes keep on top of their game by being brutally honest about how they performed, and why.

A desperate lack of all these things has conspired to make me a bit of a lazy teacher.  I'm not going to say homeschooler, because as a homeschooler - who has only two students but walks simultaneously in the shoes of maid, chef, mother, entertainer and overall keeper of the home - I've worked my tail off.  But as a teacher?  Yeah... I haven't exactly been on my game.

So.  A few things under review from 2015:

  • Literacy.  Instead of teaching a veritable feast of balanced literacy, I served mostly phonics.  Which is pretty much the equivalent of serving salmon on Thanksgiving: it's a great choice from a nutritional standpoint, but leaves a lot to be desired in all other regards.  
    • What's the fix?  It's simple, really.  Practice = progress.  90 minutes of reading everyday, per my favorite ever reading expert Richard Allington.  Not reading instruction.  Not phonics.  Good, old-fashioned, book open, page-turning reading.  Read alouds.  Guided reading.  Independent reading.  Book on tape.  Talking about reading for fun.  All these things I am working into our school schedule for 2016.  And I'm stoked!  Remember in my previous life when I was myself a reading teacher?  Yeah, it seems I forgot, too.  
  • Writing. We've been working largely on copy work, which is developmentally appropriate but boring.  And uninspired.  And it's showing in the quality of her work.
    • What's the fix?  Modeled writing.  Shared writing.  Guided writing.  Choice writing.  Diary entries.  Brainstorming.  List creation.  Story writing.  And OH SO MANY more!  In short: connected, personally meaningful writing.  (And again, the teacher in me says, DUH!!!)
    • I added this writing program to our arsenal to help me structure the day and give us a better routine than our current one consisting of here's some paper, write stuff.  
  • All the other stuff.  Yes, I'm trying to do preschool with Logan.  But he's three.  And all those cute and clever activities, while fun, are getting in the way of us using our time wisely.  Instead of going for one hour in the morning, we were often spending an hour and a half to two hours on those activities alone.  TOO MUCH.  
    • That's not to say we need more academics.  School is supposed to be fun, but that's where I need to work harder on making reading and writing pleasurable - because they are!  My plan is simply to streamline, bring meaningful literacy into our preschool activities and keep them time-bound so that we really can go on when it's time to go on.  Whatever doesn't get done in that one hour time frame, well, it can wait.  
  • Management.  One important thing I've discovered about Leah: She's a perfectionist.  To, like, the Nth degree.  Change one thing about the formatting of a math problem?  Yeah, it's going to completely freak her out.  Ask her to spell a word she doesn't already know how to spell?  Odds are good she'll melt - even though she could totally sound it out on her own.  She doesn't already know it, you see.  She'll cry and tell you that she might not get it perfect - her words, not mine - and will be unwilling to even try.
    • What's the fix?  I have always admired elementary school teachers for their bulletin boards and colorful charts and well-placed management systems.  And now it's time to recreate a few of those strategies in my own little elementary school.  So we're working on star charts for when she completes each subject without melting.  We're printing those colorful schedules.  I brought out some puff balls and a large glass vase to keep track of each book we've read, Book-It style.  We are starting off the new semester looking at how to be "Bucket Fillers," an awesome book series that helps kids simply conceptualize the complex idea that their emotions are affected by the behavior of others, and vice-versa.  I've also gone back to my roots and revisited strategies for building a responsive classroom.   The point of all of this effort is to remember that she's little.  And little ones need help regulating their sweet little social-emotional selves in order to do their best learning.  
  • Consistency, consistency, consistency.  I've got the schedule.  The one who needs to stick to it is me.  The better their routine, the easier this all gets.  That's just true.  Mom needs to batten down the hatches and make sure we're getting through what we need to do, every day. 
And me.  I'm recognizing the significance of how it all comes back to me. 

To be the best that I can be in all the areas that are required - when there's no back up teacher and frequently not so much as a husband around to take out the trash, - I need some sanity-savers.  I need time to quiet my soul, to rest and reflect and to grow myself.  I know, it sounds overly-ambitious, right?

I re-claimed time to read the first book on my list: 

It seems counter-intuitive to start off my "me time" with a book that focuses on how to help my kid.  But seriously?  It was SO MUCH FUN!  Teaching reading is one of my great passions because my super coolness is off the charts, only one step above those Dungeons and Dragons cats.  

In this place devoid of development meetings, deep conversations with knowledgeable colleagues or even annual repetition, it felt awesome to have a touchstone to help guide my decision-making process and remind me that, even though I'm at home, I am a professional.  

It was a good feeling; one that I haven't had in a while.  One I'm looking forward to repeating more often in 2016.

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