Monday, January 18, 2016

Third Grade: A Day in the Life

Dear Teachers,

Normally this blog is written for you, but this post is about what happens all day in a 3rd grade classroom. I figure you guys already know what it's like to be a teacher. So with your kind permission, I'm writing to a different audience today.

Dear Person Who Has Not Been Inside a Public School Classroom in a While,

Several days ago, I had the pleasure of being a fly on the wall in one of the 3rd grade classrooms in our district. It was, truly, a pleasure, and I write this with the purpose of conveying the good things that are actually happening in many public schools in America today.

I was there on a Friday, and on Fridays, the school opens with an assembly that started at 7:45 on the dot. They did the normal announcements and pledges to the flags, and then had a "Something to Brag About" section. Selected students from each grade stood and the whole school got to hear the teacher's compliment about him or her. After that, students with a birthday during the preceding week or upcoming weekend stood as everyone sang a birthday song (not "the" birthday song - a variation with lots of arm movements and several verses). The assembly conveyed a lovely sense of community.

Third grade was the first grade to be dismissed, so I was on my way to the classroom at 7:57. Because the teacher had arrived nearly an hour earlier, the room was already set up and ready to go. The teacher, Mrs. H, greeted the students again as they came in. The morning routine was projected on the board, and she also reminded the students orally of what they should do. By 8:05 the students were writing in their notebooks, responding to the writing prompt on the board.

After asking some of the students to share their writing, it was time for a spelling test. The students completed the test quietly, and then it was time to gather some papers, including Time for Kids (who remembers Weekly Reader? I always loved Weekly Reader days!) and some math homework, into their homework folders, which the students then placed in their mailbox near the door of the room. My little station for the day was near the mailboxes. Most of the children looked at me with a mild curiosity and smiled or waved at me shyly as they walked by. I heard one whisper, "She's blogging about us!" which also made me smile.

At around 8:40, the kids were gathered into a circle on the floor, as Mrs. H reminded them about their class "Respect Agreement" and all the things that entailed. She took the emotional pulse of the room by asking the students to show her on their fingers if they were at a 1 or a 5 - with 1 meaning my day is awful and 5 meaning my day is great. She had the kids do some goal setting regarding their behavior and how they would work in their groups.

The next activity involved decoding some license plates and putting them together to  form the words of the Declaration of Independence. I don't know about you, but I don't remember reading the Declaration of Independence when I was eight years old! The students worked collaboratively to work out the puzzle. It wasn't an easy activity for third graders, but they really persevered. Near the end of the allotted time, Mrs. H asked for a show of fingers for how hard the activity was, with 1 being way too easy and 5 being very difficult - I saw a lot of 5s. The students cleaned up according to directions and by 9:43 they were lining up to head to Specials - for those of you unfamiliar with this term, it's when students go to Art, Music, or PE, and is when the teachers have their planning time.

At 9:50 the other 3rd grade teachers made their way into Mrs. H's room for their planning meeting, and they were already talking about upcoming events they will be doing next week - college week, the staff meeting, the cultural competency training. First on the agenda was trying to find a date for a field trip. This is not as easy as it might seem! There are many considerations for planning a trip, and just as they were circling in on a date, the ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher popped in to discuss the ELL (English Language Learner) students in third grade. The conversation immediately shifted to the plans to help particular ELLs to be successful, the progress each is making, and what recommendations the teachers would be making to parents. And then a Special Education teacher stopped by with some specific questions about some of the SpEd students in the grade level. In the final minutes of the planning time, Mrs. H discussed with the other teachers some specific concerns that a parent had emailed her about, and they brainstormed ways to address those concerns. As they were finishing up the meeting, Mrs. H was getting the next slide with instructions ready for the return of her students.

At 10:35, students returned and divided themselves into groups for some math review. This was something of a "fruitbasket turnover," as a mix of students from all of the classes in third grade entered the room. The children had been divided up according to what they needed to work on. The focus in Mrs. H's room was rounding and place value, so each of the four small groups now in her charge had a different activity to complete to reinforce those concepts.

Mrs. H got her "teacher table" group started with a problem, then circulated to the other 3 groups to monitor their progress, then went back to the teacher table to ask and answer questions, then circulated again. The groups rotated and the process began again. When it was time for the students to return to their homeroom classes, Mrs. H asked each student to tell her one thing they liked, one thing they got better at, or one thing they were still confused about - a nice way to get students to reflect on their learning.

Once all the students were back in their regular classrooms, Mrs. H read aloud to her students before it was time to head to lunch. Mrs. H had cafeteria duty, so she monitored the lunch line and then the tables for the half hour of lunch, eating parts of her lunch as she circulated through the cafeteria. The students had recess after lunch, and Mrs. H was still finishing her lunch as she returned to her classroom.

When she returned to her room, Mrs. H checked the computer and then  left again, coming back with four measuring cups with water, which she placed on a shelf at the back of the room. At 12:30 the students come back from recess; they finished the story she had begun before lunch and then returned to their tables for a math quiz. The timer for the quiz was already on the board.

After the math quiz, at around 1:15, the students were ready for a science experiment, which involved shaking gravel in some water to make predictions and observations about weathering, one of the "Hollywords" for the week.

The challenge was to divide into groups and shake the gravel 500 times, using tally marks for each group of 10 shakes; the students enjoyed this and each group came up with its own way of dividing up the tasks. When the shaking was finished, Mrs. H asked about the words they could use to describe their process. The students predicted what would happen when they poured the murky water through a filter, and made observations about what was left in the filter as Mrs H led a discussion about how weathering affects the earth's surface. (Yes: third grade.)

At 2:00 was a fire drill, followed by a lockdown drill. Back in class at 2:25, they were wrapping up the first week of 2016. Mrs. H asks the students to show her with their fingers, 1-5, how the week has gone for them, and to write their "tweet for the day." My favorite was:

A student who had made a trip overseas during the winter break gave a quick show and tell of some of the artifacts from his trip. Then it was time for students to stack up the chairs, gather their belongings, and head out for the week.

What that little synopsis doesn't convey is all the nuances and side conversations that teachers have to tune in to - the student who is uncomfortably holding his stomach who needs a quick pass to the nurse's office; the childd relentlessly rocking back & forth in a very squeaky chair who was excused to use the restroom; the random kids' questions like "Mrs. H, have you ever heard of Saddam Hussein?"; the teachable moments about respect and kindness; the student with obvious behavioral problems that Mrs. H dealt with so skillfully (she confided to me when the students were out of the room that the first thing she asks him every day is whether he has eaten that morning); all the tips and mnemonic devices that teachers use to help the kids remember concepts; the routines that have been established from the beginning of the year that contribute to the classroom climate; the way that teachers are always thinking five or six steps ahead to ensure that the day goes smoothly; the nosebleeds and spilled water and paper scraps and side conversations between the students and hundreds of other possible but unpredictable interruptions. It doesn't convey how cute the kids are, nor how earnest and beautiful and smart they are. It doesn't fully convey how very much dear teachers everywhere truly care about their students, day after day.

But it does remind me how very much I like this profession.