Fear Means You’re Doing Something that Matters

I am making my way through Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership podcasts. The most recent one I listened to featured Jon Acuff, popoular author of Quitter.   The podcast was about fear and opposition in leadership.  However, like all of the EntreLeadership podcasts, I found that it applies to me not only as a leader, but as a teacher, a mother, a wife, and really every other aspect of who I am.  The topic of fear was brought up–fear of failure.  Acuff shared his approach to fear, which is that if you don’t fear what you’re doing, to some extent, you’re not doing something that matters.  Fear means you care; it means you want to see something succeed.  Without fear, you are not getting out of your comfort zone and you are simply average.

This, I believe, applies to education.  I am also in the middle of an education read by John Hattie, called Visible Learning.  Hattie compiles thousands of research studies in this book and discusses those practices that yield the highest results.  He explains that teachers will help their students make positives gains, no matter what.  However, what we should reach for in education is to be highly effective teachers that help our students yield the MOST gains possible by using the practices that research shows helps students significantly.

For some teachers, using some of these high yield practices requires them to step out of their comfort zone and alter how they’ve taught in the past.  For many, this, in a sense, brings about fear.   I believe all teachers care about kids and we want to be sure what we do positively affects them.  Trying a new strategy, a new  classroom structure, a new approach brings a tinge of nervousness: will it work?  Am I wasting my time?  Will my kids learn?  Will I be supported in trying this new approach?

My most recent experience with facing “fear” and trying something new was  how I structured my math class.  Last year, I decided to dump whole-group math instruction and instead teach math in small groups.  Using resources such as this one (http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/top_teaching/2010/05/math-workshop) from Beth Newingham, I transformed my math class to one where I only had a surface knowledge of what my students were capable of to having a deep understanding of it.  This year, I wanted to perfect my math class even more and add in the high-yield strategy of having students monitor their effort and progress–a strategy Hattie and Bob Marzano has shown to have a huge impact on student achievement.  I wondered how I would fit this in with “all” that we are required to teach–you know, the approach of a mile-long curriculum an inch thick.  I simply said I would no longer be concerned with bredth of my curriculum coverage, but rather the depth of the essential skills third graders need to have.  What I decided was to teach a new skill one day.  The next day would be structured as follows: 1) time to finish homework from the previous day (because Hattie found that homework at the elementary level as a negative effect on student achievement).  2) Students assess their effort on the assignments. 3) We grade the assignment together and I answer any questions they have.  (The purpose here is to give immediate and quality feedback, another high-yield strategy).   4) Reteach the skill to those who need it.

I was nervous that this approach would take too much time and that I wouldn’t be able to help my third-graders learn to manage this new and very different approach to math.  On top of that, I was on maternity leave the first 30 days of school. I had a fantastic substitute, but I did miss those valuable first few weeks of school where you establish routines and relationship with kids.   Would I be successful?   Could my students handle this?   How much do they need to be taught about effort?  Would it take too much time to train my kiddos how to do this?   Though I had a multitude of questions and I feared it wouldn’t work, I knew it was, as Acuff said, work that matters.  For me, it was risk that needed to be taken because it would allow me to use high-yield instructional strategies to a much greater degree than I did last year. My students and I are about a month into this new strategy.  It is not as fine-tuned as I would like it to be, but as always, my students are stepping up to the plate.  I love how students almost always rise to the occasion when you set high expectations.

If you are thinking of trying something new in your classroom, don’t let fear stop you.   As Acuff says, you’re doing something that matters.  And, most importantly, our kids deserve the best opportunities you can provide. That means, you must take risks.

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Whole Group Math Instruction: Never Again!

The 2011-2012 school year has come to an end and my first year of teaching third grade is now complete.  It is super important that teachers take time to reflect at the end of the year in order to celebrate successes and improve on areas of weakness for the benefit of future students.  As I thought about this year, one aspect of my classroom I am so thankful I took on was small-group instruction in math.   Reading instruction is definitely my strength.  I use differentiated groups in reading, and find it to be very beneficial and necessary in meeting the needs of students.  I’ve always struggled with meeting the needs of my students in math with my whole-group math lessons in the past, so I decided it was time to take on small-group math instruction.

Though I was not nervous in taking on this task, I knew it would be a change for both my students and myself.  In addition, I would be asking beginning-of-the-year third graders to be independent.  With this being my first year of teaching third grade, I really had no idea how they would handle this.  But, I also thought, as with anything in teaching, kids can accomplish amazing things, and if a teacher takes the time at the beginning of the year to set up the structure of  their classroom before jumping into instruction so quickly, then it pays dividends the rest of the year.

So, my first task was to seek out help for this.  I was excited to find that Beth Newingham utilizes small-group math instruction.  Beth writes for Scholastic, and is clearly a teacher who goes above and beyond.  Here is a link to her explanation of her small-groups in math: http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/top_teaching/2010/05/math-workshop.  I also referred to a website Mrs. Newingham used when she set up her small groups.  Here is that website: http://alicesmathworkshop.weebly.com/.   Both of these websites served as a great starting point in my new adventure into small-group math instruction.   It was also a ginormous help that my district uses the same math program as their district (Everyday Math).

The school year started and my plan for structuring my small-group math instruction was as follows: Introduce the lesson to the whole-class in a quick five minute mini-lesson. Then break up into three rotations: one group would work with me for continued instruction on the skill of the day.  A second group would be taking part in independent practice, and a third group would be taking part in math games that practiced basic math skills.  A challenge for any teacher is limited time.  I found that it was easier to introduce the skill in my small-groups as opposed to the whole group.   I found that this worked well, even better than introducing it to the whole-group, because I could immediately begin differentiating, starting with the introduction.

I have to admit, the first few weeks were a struggle and I wondered if I would be able to manage my plan of small-group math instruction.  However, I was determined to make it happen as I am a huge believer in differentiating and small-group instruction.  I also believed in the ability of students if a teacher can effectively facilitate the structure and environment they want for learning.   So, I forged forward.  Eventually, the students became more independent and we hit the road running with our new way of structuring math instruction.

Looking back at the year, I can definitely proclaim that I will rarely do whole-group math instruction again.   I knew my students’ abilities so much better this year than I have been able to in previous years.  I was able to differentiate lessons and assignments.  (This part is a challenge and one I am definitely still perfecting).   I think with federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind, we tend to focus a lot on our lowest achieving students.  We should absolutely address their needs, but I think sometimes our average and high-academic students get lost and we do a dis-service to them.   Small-group math instruction allowed me the opportunity to meet the needs of all of my students, not just the low-achieving ones.

I asked my students at the end of the year what they thought of small-group math instruction.  I had 21 students in my class and all but two said they preferred small-groups.  I asked why and their reasons included the following: not getting bored as they sat through a whole-group lesson they already understood, not getting embarrassed from sitting group a whole-group math lesson that they struggled with, while others didn’t, being able to focus better and getting an opportunity to do three different activities as they rotated from station to station.  Pretty telling, eh?

I have a lot of work to do on this new small-group math structure, but its success is obvious to my students and myself.  It was a challenge to take on, but so is anything else that is worthwhile!  And, if it benefits students, why would I not take on that challenge?!