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Year in Review: 4 Lessons We Learned

 
Mrs. Young’s students working on a canvas mural.As June rolls around, school halls empty, students gear up to break for the summer and teachers experience mixed emotions as they usher their students out of their classrooms. As Ellie Pryor, a kindergarten teacher in Oklahoma, describes it, the end of the year is always “a bittersweet but exciting time.” With the day to day slowing down, we took this rare moment to reflect with three DonorsChoose.org teachers on their lessons learned this school year. Read on to absorb their insights – and see how your own experiences compare.
Lesson 1. Small Gestures Add Up to Big Gains
Meg Takahama, a special education teacher in Hawai’i, builds a home away from home for her nine pre-K students. Her focus on patiently working with each individual child allows Meg to get to know their personalities and feel truly involved in their lives. “Even though they’re little, [daily events] do affect kids,” she explained. This awareness has led parents to tell Meg, ‘Oh, you really know my child.’  When students who were nervous to start the year express excitement at the prospect of returning in the fall, Meg knows that she’s helped kickstart a lifetime love of learning through creativity every day.
In her reflections on the year, Anais Young, a high school arts teacher in Florida, was struck by her interactions with a specific group of six students. “At the beginning of the year, they were those troubled kids that had Cs and Ds. I told them from day one that I don’t accept a C.” Anais took these students under her wing, using her artistic approach to explain other tough subjects. She told them, “If you have trouble with math, come to me and we’ll see if you can understand visually,” instead of through the traditional means. Her extra effort was rewarded — these students showed up in her classroom on Mother’s Day with cake and balloons telling her they appreciate her and everything that she does. Come the end of the year, they had turned their Cs and Ds into As and Bs.
Lesson 2. Ask Yourself —and Your Students—for Feedback
Although you may need a reminder to soak in your teaching accomplishments, unless you’re new to the classroom, you likely have a practiced end-of-year approach for identifying the areas ripe for future improvement.
Throughout the month of June, Anais reads back through her lesson plans and reviews the results from each quiz to determine where her curriculum fell a little bit short. She also tucks away her pride to ask her students directly what they’d like to see in the future. This year’s students shared their desire to learn more digital arts and requested Anais get certified in Adobe InDesign. In preparation for next year, Anais has already signed up for a course over the summer.
In a similar vein, Ellie uses conferences to expand her thinking for the year to come. She plans to attend a reading, math, and writing conference this summer.
Lesson 3. Keep the Lessons Your Students Continue to Talk About
They say it takes two to tango — the same can be said about learning. If you’re not enjoying the material, your students likely aren’t either. No matter the grade or topic, our interviewees all agreed that learning should have an element of fun. As Ellie explained, “Do things that they’re going to remember. So many people push play aside, but it’s important to have because that’s how they learn. If you know you’re doing an activity and they remember it in ten years, then they probably learned what you were trying to teach them.”
Ellie’s themed literacy stations have become a classroom favorite. Ellie changes the station themes depending on the unit and students always engage — this approach has helped to minimize behavior issues by allowing students to interact in small groups. This year, Ellie also implemented an ABC countdown for the last 26 days of class. Each day stood for a letter in the alphabet and was filled with a classroom surprise. Who wouldn’t love D is for donut day?
Anais sets the tone early on in the year by telling her students, “You’re not just going to learn art in my class.” This year, she had her students read Animal Farm and then sew their own animal character. Anais laughed as she recalled an instance where the football players in her class showed off their stuffed animal creations to her high school principal.
Lesson 4. Use the Student Perspective to Expand Your Own
There’s something to be learned from those who are still learning. If you’re open to their perspective, your students can show you old things in a new light. Meg had this experience while building a weather unit this school year. She recounted, “Sometimes I think I learn more about things having to teach them. When I went to school, I dodged all the science classes and now, when I planned a weather unit for my preschoolers, I learned more than I ever did [while I was in school]. I had to distill it down to what they notice. ”
This year, Ellie was struck by how her students “can see the good, even if someone is having a hard time.” Ellie recalled a child who would get angry from time to time and disrupt the classroom. When another students confided, “I really enjoy enjoy him. He’s really funny. The fact that he gets angry sometimes, that’s okay.” Ellie couldn’t help reflecting on her own response to this student. This conversation served as a valuable reminder to focus on the positive.
Don’t Just Rinse and Repeat
Now that the school year has come to an end, “Don’t sit back,” says Anais, “Always try to look for ways to improve not only the things you can do for your kids but [for] yourself.” As you look over your lessons and document your own end of the year takeaways, consider new ways you can use DonorsChoose.org in the year to come. Last summer, Meg received funding for classroom fans, play-doh and blocks in preparation for the year.So how do these teachers’ experiences compare to your own? What have you learned this school year? Share your thoughts in the comments below.__
Find out more about these teachers and how you can support them:
Mrs. Ellie Pryor is a kindergarten teacher in Woodward, Oklahoma.
Mrs. Meg Takahama is a special education pre-k teacher in Waimanalo, Hawai’i.
Mrs. Anais Young is a high school arts teacher in Miami, Florida.

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