A 5th Grade Teacher's Innovation Journey - a reflection on innovation in the classroom

A 5th Grade Teacher’s Innovation Journey

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How It All Began

Written by guest blogger and 5th grade teacher Kelly Honn

The phrase I heard often in my undergraduate classes at Northwest Missouri State University was that we should all aspire to be “lifelong learners.” I took that to heart and let it guide me through each of my twenty-five years, most of them in 5th grade, teaching.

I’m one of those people who always knew that I wanted to be a teacher, to make a difference in the lives of my students, and be the best I could be for them each and every day. It is because of these things that I think my innovation journey began a long time ago and I didn’t even realize it. 

Those times when I did the research, tried something new and different, jumped head first into the deep end, made mistakes, jumped again, made more mistakes and learned from them, told myself it didn’t matter if others didn’t understand what I was doing (or even think it was a good idea) and did it anyway because I thought it was best for my students...those are my innovative moments, but I didn’t think of them in that way.

I just knew I didn’t want to become stagnant, and that I would get bored if I taught the same thing the same way each year. In addition, I still think it’s fun to learn about new ideas and tweak them into my own way of doing them in my classroom with my 5th grade students.

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My room set up for book tastings.

 

Who Says It's Innovative?

When you’re in your classroom trying to juggle all the individual needs of each student, write engaging lesson plans, keep up with the grading, decorate your classroom, communicate with parents, and all the other daily tasks, it’s easy to zone in and just do the best you can do.

As you are doing all those things, you aren’t usually thinking, “Am I being innovative enough?” No, instead we, as teachers, typically say “Am I doing enough?” If we ask ourselves that question, then we are on track to being innovative. 

What does it mean to be innovative? What words come to your mind? Can you think of other teachers you know who you look to as being innovative? Do you consider yourself to be an innovative teacher? How do we decide if someone is being innovative?

I recently heard someone say that we need to look at our own personal growth first. Maybe something that is innovative in their classroom is such because of the growth they have made and where they started to where they are now. The most important part of innovation is the journey we and our students are on together.

The Question That Changed Me

When I read the book Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, I came across the question, “What am I doing for students that they could do on their own?” That question made me stop and think about my practices.

I knew I was trying to do new and innovative things, but was I doing enough to help my students be innovative? That was when I decided to start a new school year by doing as much as I could to give my students voice and choice in our classroom. It’s scary to let go, but oh so worth it.

Wow, the kids surprised me every day with the level to which THEY were taking their learning. They were asking questions and wanting to do everything they could to find the answers. They were learning and loving it. I was truly the guide on the side, with tears in my eyes watching them take off and not looking back.

There were tough moments, kids who weren’t so excited, and sometimes there still are, but the good moments outweigh the hard ones. Now, when I tell kids at the beginning of the year that I’m giving them control of their learning, they seem to think I’m crazy at first. When they realize it’s not a joke and I let them ask questions, find their answers, and share what they learned the joy and excitement is contagious!

We All Need a Pusher

While I have always tried to stay current and try new things, it wasn’t until I had a principal whom I consider to be extremely innovative, that I wanted to do more than just try new things. I didn’t just want to think outside the box, I wanted to do that AND take action to do the things I was scared to do.

Even though I did try new things, I usually chose the ones that could be put into place in small pieces like flexible seating, trying a piece of a big project - you know, the ones I thought I could do and surely be successful. It took someone to push me, someone to say it’s awesome you tried that, but have you thought about going further or trying it this way? What?? I haven’t, but why not?

I preach to my kids all the time about not being afraid to fail, working their way out of the learning pit. So, why was I taking the safe way out?

I needed to be willing to mess up and willing to go further than what feels comfortable. Knowing that I have administrative support and permission to try (and even fail) is so empowering!

Find someone who can be your pusher. Find someone who can convince you that you can go further than you’ve ever gone before.

 
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A student enjoying a flexible seating option.

 
 
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Students completing a STEM project to make an artificial hand.

 

Start Small

I think what has really worked for me is starting small. Start with something you really want to try and dive in. Do what you can. Do what is manageable for you. Do what is best for your students and you!

When I started using flexible seating, I only had a few options because they were items I had at home or picked up at a garage sale.

When I painted some tables with whiteboard paint, I only did a few because I wasn’t sure if I would really like it or not. I LOVE it and so do the kids! 

When I did my first room transformation, I just pulled out some tablecloths and fake candles to try it out.

The key is not trying to do so much that you give up. Do what you can and make a commitment to do more next time.

 
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Students using the whiteboard painted tables.

 

It's a Neverending Story

I’m still on my innovation journey, and I hope I will be until the day I retire. Some days are much harder than others, but I know if I’m not continuing to grow and learn, then I become irrelevant to my students.

I also know I won’t personally be happy with the job I’m doing. Every day has to begin and end with, “How can I make this better? Is this what is best for my students?”

I also keep Dave Burgess’ quote in mind all the time, “If you haven’t failed in the classroom lately, you aren’t pushing the envelope far enough. 'Safe' lessons are a recipe for mediocrity at best.” - Dave Burgess, Teach Like a PIRATE: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator.

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