I need to take a moment to thank Annabelle Allen, Grant Boulanger, Bryce Hedstrom, and Elissa McLean for your words of wisdom this summer. I learned so much from each of you.
Whew! I've reached the end of week one; it's Friday night, and I'm happily sitting at home all by myself. The introvert in me is crying for some alone time, and it's a perfect opportunity to reflect on the past three days.
After having gone to NTPRS and the Express Fluency conference in southern Vermont this summer (both of which were INCREDIBLE experiences), I started the year with three main goals: to really truly deepen my personalization with my students, to create an atmosphere in which it is obvious that French will be the only language spoken in my classroom, and to slow down.
(NB-I know I split an infinitive there, but NPR has done it, and it just sounded right in this situation. I'm not really comfortable with it, but let's move on. Hashtag grammarnerd)
I truly believe that I do a good job of connecting with my students on a personal level. I ask them questions about themselves, comment on their T-shirts, acknowledge things I notice when they're walking through the hall, tell them stories about myself (and my dog), and generally treat them as real people. One of my favorite examples of this comes from last year. I wanted to teach the word bureau (office) in order to do a particular Movie Talk. I decided to introduce the word using a photo of the Dunder Mifflin office from the American version of The Office (a show that I LOVE). When I projected the image in one class, several boys lit up. They recognized it, and acknowledged that they were fans of the show. From that point on, we knew that we had a special connection, stemming from this TV show, and joked about it for the remainder of the year. It was powerful.
Back to now. I had decided before this year started that I wanted to make a concerted effort to take personalization to the next level. On the first day of school, I made a big fuss over a third-grade girl's bright pink Converse sneakers. Then when I saw the fifth graders (whom I am not teaching this year) in the hall, I showered them with high fives. Finally, I embraced something that has always eluded me, even though I know it's crazy important: "teaching to the eyes." Before my first class walked in on the first day of school, I mentally prepared myself and set myself on really "seeing" my students. At the end of the day, I felt differently about my classes and I'm not 100% sure why, but I have some thoughts brewing. If students believe that teachers see them as real human beings, it creates a strong bond and trust between the two parties. I know my students think I'm a little wacky, and my sixth graders might roll their eyes when I give them high fives or make a super fuss over a right answer, but I don't really care! It establishes a connection, a special one that only I have with them, and that goes a long way in ensuring that my classes se déroulent as I want them to. The bond between a student and a teacher is HUGE. How many times have you heard a story from someone who had a teacher who seriously impacted his or her life, either positively or negatively? Everyone has that one particular teacher. (I think of a recent episode of the podcast Risk that I heard recently, where a man shared the story of the relationship he had with his high school history teacher. It was not a warm-and-fuzzy recount, and the episode is intense and not without expletives, like the majority of the episodes, but it reiterated to me the importance of the teacher-student connection.) So I started each class this week with the thought that each of my students is an individual with his or her unique idiosyncrasies that must be recognized. Not always easy, but absolutely imperative.
In general, I must say I put a lot of mental energy into this week. All of this pre-thought has allowed/forced me to slow down. I know that I have a tendency to barrel along, inadvertently leaving some students behind. But I've come into this year hell-bent on connecting with ALL of my students. Every teacher has a couple of students that s/he just can't seem to grab, and I am determined to pull those students in this year. Half of the students I have this year are kids I've had before; this is my third year in a row with my current fourth-graders. There are definitely a couple of kids in the group that have posed challenges for me. But I am dead set on pulling them in, keeping them engaged, and involving them in everything that we do. And, if I look back on the three days of school that we've had, I feel like I'm achieving that. When I'm deliberately slow, it's a heck of a lot easier to see if my students are with me. It really is amazing how slowing down impacts, positively, so many aspects of my teaching and what happens in my classroom.
Finally, I decided this week to really allow myself a significant amount of English use in order to establish routines, reinforce the rules, and generally build classroom community. Elementary teachers have unique issues that don't always line up with the challenges that upper level teachers have. My students are with each other ALL DAY LONG, from 8:30 to 3. It's not like a high school class, where students come into class, interact with each other, and then leave, potentially not seeing their classmates for the rest of the day. So the definition of "community" in my situation is a little bit different. I strive to establish trust between me and my students, and also to let them know that I mean business. I have always had a hard time with classroom management, but I know now that taking the time in the beginning of the year to ensure that my students know exactly what I want, and exactly what I expect from them, will make for an easier time for the rest the year. One thing I have really reinforced, through the use of my rejoinders (go, bitmojis!), it's the fact that I absolutely, 100% expect my students to use French as the language of communication. I have stressed to them that it is my job to facilitate this for them, and I've shown them the ways in which I am providing them the vocabulary and power to be able to do that. I said that it is my responsibility to make speaking French easy for them, and I think framing it that way was quite powerful. I also told them that if they didn't understand something, that was my fault, not theirs. That's not normally what students hear, and I think it was a little bit strange for them to recognize that there is a great amount of responsibility on the shoulders of the teacher to make sure that students are with them. Hashtag rolereversal.
Another thought. Being desk/table-less has also been a unique aspect of my class. This is not not normal for students, and they recognize that. I have my alternative seating options, but I told my students on the first day that they have to earn the privilege of using them. I have to know that I can trust them to use those seats responsibly, and so I've built it up to be a pretty big deal for them to reach that point. I know they can, but I'm going to hold out for a little while, milking it so that they're doing exactly what I want. I'm coming to realize now, after 16 years of teaching, that students really need to be guided to behave the way we want them to. We can't assume that they will understand anything about what we expect in our classrooms, and I'm working very hard to train them this year so I can eliminate management issues and create an environment where speaking French is the norm. I had a lot of success last year using a timer to keep track of how long my students stayed in French, but I knew that my classes this year would present a different challenge. So, by taking the time to lay down the foundation, I believe that I will have stronger French participation from my students. I am using points à la Annabelle, but I might introduce the timer if I feel like it will help me reach my goals. I think that points and timing serve different purposes and can serve different groups differently (maybe another blog post?), but at this point, I'm focusing on points. And it's working. (How many times can I use a form of the word different in one sentence?!)
So...there we go. My first three days, fully laid out there. What do you think? Are there things I should do from here on out? What do your first few days look like? Please share your thoughts!
Allison Litten, the 2019 VFLA TOY, teaches French at the Marion Cross School, a public PreK-6 school in Norwich, Vermont. This is her twenty-third year teaching, and twentieth at Marion Cross.