Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Crazy Teacher in Room 106

Today's post is by @mrsmelva, a K/1 teacher in northern Saskatchewan, Canada.

Yes, the children in the picture do have sharp knives! Why? Because they have a crazy teacher? No. Because they are cutting apples and you can’t cut apples with dull knives. My Colleagues often imply that I am crazy, or at least that I do crazy things in my classroom. My students cut with sharp knives, serve themselves breakfast, explore rotting pumpkins, dance, draw, play with blocks, choose their own centers, read, cook, write, cut, glue, paint, play with dolls, play with sand, water, and ice, fight, make up, sing, problem solve, tweet, blog, collaborate, talk and learn!

My colleagues often think I am crazy (in a nice way) for all the different things I do in my classroom; especially those who are more traditional teachers of grade one and up. I try to have a child centered exciting room where learning happens in community. I put the word talk in bold text because that is one of the main areas in which my classroom differs from others in my school, especially at this grade level.

I encourage my students to talk. To each other, to me, to the special needs tutors in the room, to other school staff. I encourage them to talk about their work, while they work. I do try to have them use working voices - only loud enough for the person they are working with to hear. I also encourage them to walk over to someone across the room to talk to him/her instead of calling across the room. That is something I need to continue working on myself. It is so much less disruptive to the class. Unfortunately, I often forget and call loudly across the room for someone to be quiet.

One of the key differences in my classroom is that you don’t see students raising their hands very often. You do see it on occasion, especially at the beginning of the year. Many children come to school prepared by their parents,  or their previous teachers to raise their hands in order to talk. They also often raise their hands and begin talking immediately. That’s when I begin to teach my procedures for talking and sharing ideas. In “real life” people rarely raise their hands to talk. Most talking is conversation where people take turns respectfully. That is what I try to teach in my classroom.

Another factor in my not expecting students to raise their hands is that all but one student this year (and some years all my students) do not have English as their first language. I try to encourage them to talk when they are ready/when they have something to say.

I became most aware of this difference in December, when the gym teacher had come to my classroom because the gym was set up for Christmas Concert. She was doing a lesson about the heart, with an introductory story and discussion followed by activities to show the students how their heart rates change with exercise. I was in the classroom gathering materials for my prep time. The gym teacher was asking questions and the students were answering, but not raising their hands. She asked them to raise their hands and they did, and began talking as soon as their hands were up. She then explained that they should raise their hands and wait for her to ask them to speak. In that very short lesson they quickly mastered this expectation, and I began to reflect on my practice.

Did I need to change my procedures? Was it wrong not to teach the students to raise their hands? I remembered early in the year conversations with other teachers. “Did you have Billy last year? He just talks without raising his hand.” Hmmnnn, do I need to change my practice or am I doing what is right for my students. Why don’t I insist on hand raising?

There are two main reasons that I don’t insist on hand raising. One is that in my studies about teaching English as a second language and about teaching Aboriginal students, I have learned that students need a lot of opportunities to speak in their new language and a feeling of security and encouragement to do so. Raising their hands can be a risk they are not ready to take. The other reason is that I am trying to build a strong, close sense of community in my classroom. People do not usually raise their hands to speak to others, except in school or meetings. I do teach my students to take turns when talking and to listen respectfully to others. They do need reminders to do this, and so do I.

On Thursday, our first day back this year, I was having a discussion with my grade ones about New Year’s focus words. We were brainstorming and sharing ideas. The students were sharing more and more ideas as the lesson progressed. Finally, one girl gently tapped my shoulder to remind me that one student hadn’t given a word. Earlier in the lesson he had chosen to pass, but later he had whispered his word to the girl beside him. After her reminder he contributed his word to the group. If I didn’t have a climate where this type of talking was the norm, he probably would not have contributed at all.

Am I hindering my students’ future success in school by not teaching them the common classroom procedure of raising their hands? I don’t think so. The day the gym teacher was in the room, she had them raising their hands to speak before I left the room with my materials. She took a few minutes to explain and teach her expectations and the children responded. Am I helping them become good citizens and community members by teaching them conversational skills of respect and turn taking? I think so. Are other teachers wrong to expect their students to raise their hands? No, every teacher needs to establish and teach the procedures that work in his/her classroom.

Our peace table where students talk out their problems with other students. Writing this post has inspired me to write another one in the near future about how I use the peace table to help students talk about their feelings.

Melva says: "Hello, everyone. I teach a kindergarten/grade one split class in a Dene community in northern Saskatchewan, Canada. My name is Melva Herman, but my students call me Mrs. Melva. I am on twitter as @mrsmelva and I blog sporadically at mrsmelva.wordpress.com I have my M.Ed from the University of Regina and did my action research into the connections between Montessori education and traditional Dene ways of teaching. I am in my 28th year of teaching and still having fun."

Come back tomorrow for a post from @klirenman: "The Power of Learning Beyond Your Classroom."


  1. Yes. To all of this - Thanks : )

  2. I love this Melva! We need more "crazy teachers" doing innovative and developmentally appropriate play and learning. :)

  3. Melva, Enjoyed your post. Must say I wasn't sure where you were heading at first, so I stopped and started again. Got it this time. Would agree with you about teachers needing to find what works for them and their students. I also think it's good for children to learn a variety of ways in which to positively respond to situations. Think your class showed that in how quickly they adjusted to the expectations of the Phy Ed teacher even while in your space.
    Oh, and "crazy" is good. Won't life be boring without the ability to shake it up now and then. I also find it interesting how much children learn from those "crazy" times. But maybe my view is a little slanted as many of my peers would place me under that same label :)

  4. I get in trouble with the "school rules police" about hand raising too. At times it has its place, but hand raising is not conducive to great conversations.

  5. Power to the crazy teachers! How else are we going to change the world? :-)