My Why and What Happened
I became a teacher to make a difference in our world and the people living in it. Make a difference…we’ve heard the phrase a million times, but my “why” has deep meaning for our society: the world needs change, and who better to serve as active agents for change, than those who work directly with the future adults of our world? I get to work with the young citizens of our country when they are just 5 and 6 years old, for 10 consecutive months of their lives, seeing them for more hours in the day than their parents even get to see them. And even though I may only work with an average of 20 students each year, I can use my voice to help impact education at my school, in my district, and abroad, through the tools we have access to in this day in age.
When I picture myself making a difference, I envision a class of Kindergarteners with no more tattling, because they’ve learned to work out their differences without my help. I envision a group of students who can build and create to display their thinking, because they aren’t one-dimensional students who need paper/pencil every time. I envision students who collaboratively put their different strengths together to solve a problem, rather than preferring to work alone because it’s easier. I envision students pursuing their personal passions, even if no one student’s learning path looks the same as another, to become experts in what matters to them. These are ways I envision myself making a difference…creating group after group of prepared and thoughtful citizens, who will eventually become the adults and leaders in our society.
These are the thoughts and visions that led me to get my degree in Elementary Education, but these are also the thoughts and visions that temporarily came to a screeching halt when I was thrown out on my own during my first year of teaching. In our district, state, and nation, there is a large emphasis on the curriculum standards, particularly CORE standards (English Language Arts and Math), that students are expected to master by the end of each year. In elementary schools throughout the state of North Carolina, we have even transitioned to Standards Based Grading, where students are given a 1, 2, or 3 in each particular curriculum standard. I became a teacher to make a difference in our world and the people living in it, but without even realizing it, my focus had shifted to standards, standards, and more standards. As a first year teacher, and really as a teacher with any level of experience, the amount of “standards” that need to be taught and assessed each quarter seems astronomical; so naturally, this becomes the focus, and for me, it overshadowed the whole reason I became a teacher. At this point in my career, teaching the standards became like checking off a mandatory checklist that drove all my instruction. When teaching becomes centered around checking off boxes, our lessons lose relevance for the learners; and for me, I lost sight of the big picture, my why.
Teachers can’t get rid of the curriculum we’re expected to teach; in fact, we do need a curriculum to guide us and to ensure that our students are getting similar experiences, are being held to a set of common, high expectations, and are learning content skills that will help them be successful in the real world. But finally I realized…there are effective teachers out there finding a way to get it ALL in, not just the standards, but the real-life, 21st century learning skills also. After a year of building a comfort level with the curriculum and taking baby steps in 21st teaching and learning, I was ready to bring back my “why,” and more than before, make a real and true difference in the lives of students. Teaching the whole child isn’t simply about training a book-smart society, it’s about teaching the standards AND MORE.
Things are Looking Up
I am honored to be a part of the Instructional Leadership Team for my school, where we hear directly from our district, take part in learning about components of our district’s vision, and discuss as a team how we will tie these components into our school’s personal plan for improvement. It has been so refreshing to be a part of our district’s movement to #becomebetter for students, and to understand our new emphasis on both the standards and the 4Cs (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity). The 4Cs really are the foundation of relevant, 21st century learning…the 4Cs line up with all those visions I mentioned above. And even our district is now saying that these 2 things are linked together, so when I’m teaching the standards, I should be having the students learn and practice the standards by communicating and collaborating with one another, thinking critically, and coming up with creative solutions and ways of displaying their learning. When digging into our district’s vision, there is a new emphasis on teaching the WHOLE child…this is music to my ears! Teaching effective life skills is no longer something I feel like I have to creatively sneak into my day; I am actually being asked to align my why with the standards I am expected to teach.
Standards AND 4Cs
So how are we doing it in Kindergarten? Now that we’re starting to get over the first month of K beginning of the year hump, we used a fun project as a springboard for introducing the 4Cs as our foundation for the school year. This is a project that Linnea Gibson introduced me to and co-taught with me during my first year of teaching, but doing it again year 4 has allowed me to really link the standards and 4Cs, make it my own, and be even more intentional with the goals and learning I want students to walk away with. We worked with the story Spookley for about 2 weeks, thinking critically about the key ideas and details from the text (standard RLK.1). Students responded to the text in writing by completing the picture and illustrating a scene from the story (standard WK.3). We compared the story Spookley, a fictional story about a square pumpkin, to a nonfiction story about how pumpkins grow and change (standard RLK.5).
It is easy to see how we linked this story to our reading and writing standards over these weeks, but to culminate our unit with the book, we focused in on a key detail from the story: the problem with the fence in the pumpkin patch. The fence broke, and many pumpkins rolled out of the fence into the ocean during a storm. Spookley helped save the day by using his square shape to block the crack in the fence. Our job was to create a new solution to the story: using a chosen material, students were put into groups to collaboratively build a fence with their material. Students were asked to build a strong fence that would not break when the storm came and shook up the pumpkins.
Before making an official plan, we focused on communication and critical thinking. Students first chose the material they wanted to use. Then in their group, they took turns thinking critically about and communicating their individual ideas for the fence, and responding/giving feedback to the ideas that were shared.
Shout out to my teammate Claire Morrison for taking the risk to jump in and try this project with her students too (during her first year of teaching)! This open-ended element of the project is something I would have been so scared to try my first year…how would Kindergarten students have productive and effective conversations without an adult present to facilitate each group? But with a structured protocol and role play modeling beforehand, they CAN! You just have to let them try it, even if it seems like organized chaos!
To make their official plans, we focused on collaboration and creativity. Students each took on a job in designing the plan they had communicated about the day before, and made their own creative, collaborative plan. I also completed our 4C anchor chart shown below.
And finally, we put all the 4Cs together for the final day of creating our fences!
Shoutout to another teammate, Kelsey Clarke, for intentionally integrating the 4 Cs with her kinders on this project also!
After breaking the large task into smaller daily sub-tasks, with explicit modeling and instruction on the 4 Cs, each group successfully built their fences! We tested them with pumpkins, I shook up their fence for a storm, and every fence was strong enough to hold the pumpkins inside!
It could’ve been easy to skip the fence building part of the project. We had already checked off standards RLK.1, RLK.5, and WK.3…why do anything else with the story? But if I chose to skip out on opportunities like this culminating Spookley project all year long, I would deprive my students of practicing and building on the skills they will need to be valuable and effective citizens in society. If all I did was teach the standards, I would be creating one-dimensional learners, who may or may not even be interested in learning the standards without the relevance the 4 Cs bring. Most of us did not sign up for education to teach standards, but to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. If we don’t bring relevance to how students are learning, practicing, and problem-solving through the curriculum, our learners will not be empowered, and we will NOT make a difference in the way our society functions. The WCPSS district is encouraging us to link the standards and the 4 Cs together, so those of us in this district don’t even have an excuse to deprive students of this connection that brings relevance to the curriculum. Educators, let’s not forget our why….let’s communicate with one another; collaborate to think of projects like these; and think critically about how to get it all in; so that we can help create a multi-dimensional, well-rounded group of problem finders and solvers that help make our world a better place.