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Learning while teaching: reflections from this year

September 15, 2022

A few weeks ago, we began year 3 of homeschooling. What started out of necessity (no internet for virtual school) has become something that I love and that is working really well for our family. Last year, our family joined a local co-op that meets once per week. This year, I am tutoring several classes in that co-op... none of which are Spanish! I have a set curriculum to follow, and I am already learning a lot.

Following a script is perfectly okay.

A parent that tutors with the same curriculum wrote out a teacher script for every week of the lesson plans. Oh. My. Word. this is the greatest thing! Her script virtually eliminates my prep time, and it is giving me the confidence to teach a curriculum that I've never experienced before. To prepare for class, I print out her script, read through it 3-5 times during the week, and gather any needed materials. In class, I literally hold the script in my hands and teach from it. Once I begin an activity, I might place it on a lectern, but it's back in my hands as soon as it's time for me to move on to the next thing.

I often hear from teachers that they feel bad about carrying around the various scripts that come with our curricular materials (ClipChat scripts, Storyasking scripts, PQA questions, etc.). They are afraid that their students will see it as a lack of experience or give the sense that they don't really know what they are doing. But you know what? Holding that script does not make me feel like I don't know what I'm doing. In fact, it does quite the opposite. With that script in hand, I feel like the expert in the room, and that confidence is emanating out to my students. I'm loving the scripts!

Multi level learners need cues.

Students take the class that I am tutoring for three years. Each year, the course repeats the same content, but in a new context. For example, last year they studied grammar and practiced writing in the context of Ancient History, and this year we are doing Medieval History. Because of this, second year students already know much of the content and are needing to go deeper, but first year students are taking everything in for the first time.

Taking cues from my script and incorporating a few of my own techniques, I'm finding that this can work if I am very clear in establishing expectations about who needs to know and do what. For example, this past week we began looking in-depth at the anatomy of a variety of verbs in English. (Yes, it's crazy - I am literally an English grammar teacher! Remember that I am working with students who have had thousands and thousands of hours of reading and listening input over the course of their 10-12 years of life.) However, my first year students are still just learning how to identify the verb in the sentence.

Here are some tips that are working for me:

Be transparent. It shouldn't be a secret that there are kids in the class that are in Year 1 versus Year 2 versus ____. In a multi-level class, everyone can know that Leland is a Year 1 student and Ellis is a Year 2 student, and that there are different expectations for different years.

Cue your kids. I told my Year 1 students that sometimes, I am going to explain something that I know makes no sense to them because they are still learning the more basic concepts. I affirmed that it's going to feel really stressful when I do that, because it's not fun to try to listen to someone when you can't make sense of what they are saying. So, whenever I share information that is meant for my Year 2 kids, I'm going to go ahead and massage my temples, and I want my Year 1 kids to do that with me. "Temple massage!", I say. This is the cue that gives them permission to not worry about what I'm saying until next year. What this could look like in the context of a language class is cueing your kids whenever you are going to say some bit of language that is too complex for many students in your class to understand. If you want to engage in a back-and-forth with your more advanced students about a piece of content that the whole class is working with–you can! Just be sure that all students understand the expectation that they don't have to understand.

Offer options. Elicia (our Director of Training) is the differentiation queen, and I have learned so much from her that I am able to apply to this new context. I'm trying to give my students options for nearly every activity that we do together, and for their homework assignments. (I am NOT a fan of homework in traditional settings, but all work is homework if you homeschool ;-)). This can look like:

  • Copying information or writing from memory (ex: recalling/reviewing a story or information from class)
  • Reciting information/retelling orally or writing it down (ex: retelling a story or summarizing what you remember)
  • Working alone or with a partner
  • Finishing something we started together versus starting something new on their own (ex: finish answering the comprehension questions from class OR write your own comprehension questions about the text)
  • Working toward a simple checklist or adding more requirements (ex: try to write 50 words OR try to write at least 50 words AND use certain words or expressions as you write)

Teaching multi-level learners is definitely a challenge, and there is a lot of good in it. Since I am teaching a Year 1 class simultaneously with a Year 2 class, my Year 2 kiddos that really need the extra support are essentially repeating their first year of the course, and also expanding their knowledge in their areas of confidence.

Brain Breaks are a must.

My class is from 1:00pm-3:00pm and boy oh boy are those kids feeling sleepy. I have never taught such a long class, and I am using brain breaks more than ever before. I am using very basic brain breaks frequently throughout the two hour period, and it is doing the trick.

All of the fun brain breaks that I shared in this Best Brain Breaks post? They take too much time! I am already struggling to work through the required content in the time allowed, and there is no way that I could incorporate multiple small-group brain breaks or explain instructions for game-style breaks. Instead, I am sticking to these basics:

  • JUMP! Each student puts a pencil on the floor, stands up, and jumps over it from side to side on your cue.
  • High five/pound it - Students pair up and go through a sequence of high fives and fist bumps
  • Card Cues - Flip through a deck of cards and call out the value of each one. Each value corresponds to an action. For example, if it's a Joker, kids have to squat. If it's a queen, they have to curtsy, etc.
  • Wink/Snap - Students do a sequence of winks and snaps
  • Hands/feet - Students pair up and go through a sequence of high fives and tapping their feet

I've got a whole bunch of these brain breaks in this resource, and even more on this list.

Be a believer.

The most important thing that I know I am doing well is communicating to my students that I believe that they can do this. I believe that they are capable of doing everything I am asking them to do, and they are going to feel smart, capable, and powerful as they work through this course. I am celebrating individual successes at their level, and no one's accomplishment is more deserving of celebration than someone else's. Answering a single question is just as incredible as presenting a paper orally. My celebrations are not patronizing; they are completely genuine. I love getting to be on this journey with this group of kids, and I know they are going to do great things this year.

It's okay to not know everything.

This curriculum is new to me, and I am learning along with my students. According to the publisher, I am the "Lead Learner" in the room. The title is a bit cringe, but it's so true. I'm embracing the fact that I don't know all the things, and I'm being transparent with my students that I am learning along with them. I think that there is power in modeling what it looks like to be a learner and how to navigate all the emotions that come with it: excitement, frustration, confusion, pleasure!

My students (and their parents!) know that I am new at this, and I am trying to be as transparent as possible with my failures. Last week, I sent home a worksheet that I hadn't reviewed closely. When I sat down to do it with my own kids, I realized that it was WAY too hard. I messaged all the parents and let them know that I hadn't looked at it carefully enough, and I sent them an alternative that they could do instead. Another example- on the first day of class, I played a game with the students that completely overwhelmed one of the kids and brought him to tears. While I felt very unsure of what to do in the moment since I don't know the content well enough to easily pivot mid-activity, I checked in with him, gave him a new task to focus on during the game, and let his mom know after class how I was going to plan differently for the next week. Although your communication with stakeholders will look different because you are not likely teaching in such an intimate setting, those lines of communication can stay open.

I'm trying to simultaneously trust the plan (my script!), and also not let the plan get in the way of meeting the needs of the learners in the room. So far, I'm loving this new role!

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