Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Inspiration from Unexpected Places

One of the great things about teaching is that we can draw inspiration from anywhere. Teaching is an art. And just like an artists, we teachers never know where the next amazing idea might come from.

One of the biggest drawbacks of being a teacher is that we rarely (if ever) have time to observe our colleagues in action. Seeing a great lesson enacted by a fantastic teacher is a treasure box of information, skills, and techniques. Even visiting another classroom for a few minutes can yield tons of ideas for my own classroom.

I have two children of my own and I have learned a few things from observing them in action. It has been fascinating to me to watch their various instructors in dance, karate, soccer, basketball, baseball, etc. Most parents are watching their kids...I'm watching the instructors! 

I've been taking my kids to the weekly programs at the library this summer. We've seen a magician, juggler, story teller, and a musician. These people are professional performers and the audience usually encompasses a wide range of in babies in laps all the way to 5th graders. The main thing I've noticed in all of the performances is that the show must go on...even if there are toddlers wandering around making noise, parents on cellphones, random comments from children. All of which stresses me out, but I have been inspired seeing these professionals carry on with their shows. It's such a great reminder for my classroom!

We are trained to wait for all eyes to be on us before proceeding because we all know good and well the kid talking in the back will be asking what the directions are before we've finished our last sentence. But is this really true? Do I really need every pair of eyes on me? A goal for this year is to train the students not only to listen during those few moments when instructions or information must be given, but also how to use their peers as information resources.

The next thing that I've noticed with these performers is that they naturally grab the kids' attention by just starting. The juggler played music and began juggling. The magician performed a series of simple tricks with interlocking rings. Now I know that we're supposed to begin with an attention grabber, but it's hard coming up with little tricks and songs and whatever else on a regular basis. However, having seen this technique in action several times this summer I think it is well worth my time to investigate attention-grabbing options.

Now, in the sports arena I've witnessed that sometimes you have to break inattention with physical activity. My son's first soccer coach was great at this. When the boys (all 5 or 6 years old) got distracted from the soccer lesson he'd have them run a lap. There was no yelling or irritation, just a sense that the players were mentally tired, they needed a break, so let them run. They loved running and laughed the whole way around the field, but when they returned (out of breath) they were much more focused on the lesson.

My son's karate instructors were amazing at creating structure, discipline, and natural rewards. Every lesson began with the same series of exercises - a routine. The goals were crystal clear and their progress towards the goals was evaluated at every class. Every student was held to the same expectations in terms of respect for their peers and the instructors as well as performance of the assigned tasks. Disrespect was met with discipline in the form of a quiet reprimand with the offender sitting quietly on the edge of the mat or running a couple laps. Time out was always followed with brief personal instruction and reflection over what happened to result in punishment and how it could be avoided in the future. Every class concluded with a game. Of course the kids didn't notice that the games were simply skill practice presented in a fun way.

My daughter was involved in her first dance class last fall. Again there was structure and discipline even within the class full of precious, easily distracted, tutu-adorned 4 year old girls. Class began and ended with a set routine. Students were expected to listen respectfully and practice the moves to their best ability. The performance (even after only a handful of practices) was joyful despite the fact that some kids went the wrong way and did the wrong thing. 

My take-aways from these varied experiences and venues is that structure, routine, and discipline are the keys to a successful classroom. There can be no excuses. If a magician can wrangle a group of 40 kids ages 18 months - 10 years old, then surely I can effectively manage 25 students in the classroom. 

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