So, I often write about the incredible school I call home and the people and things that make it such an incredible place. So often, these “things” are collections of moments; some so small and seemingly inconsequential that you might actually not even notice them if you weren’t paying attention. And I try to pay attention. Because other times those moments are great big things that happen — the type of things that cause one to be filled with inspiration and appreciation for the people who are creating them. So I try to pay attention because quite frankly, I don’t want to miss a single tiny or big moment. I don’t want to miss them because this incredible school, with the incredible people who make these incredible moments happen, really must be shared. Last night, I experienced another of those moments. This one was part of one of those great big moments we have here, one that deserves it’s own post.
For a little backstory, two years ago couple of teachers got together with some students and formed a club called “The Giving Tree“. The club meets monthly to volunteer in the community. Here is a feature story about this club. Last night the club had one of those events. We went out at 6pm and, for a couple of hours, we helped the “Feed the Hungry” campaign. This is a national campaign and we sorted and packed meal kits which will be delivered to places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Kentucky…all over the world. There were about 40 of us there, including staff, students and a few parents as well.
All the credit for these moments, these acts of love and service, go to the wonderful educators that plan and organize them and inspire so many of us to get involved as well. What a difference these teachers are making in the lives of so many others…including myself.
I can’t tell you what a blessing it is to stand together as a group and serve others. It was such a great opportunity to make a difference that had nothing at all to do with school, but everything to do with school. What I mean by that is, there is just something special about working together like this. We laughed, we packed, we got tired, we danced (there was music) and we celebrated as we announced the completion of each box we filled with meals. All in all, we helped pack enough food to feed aroud 35,000 people. And we did it as a group. A family.
We have had the opportunity to get involved in so many other activities like this as a staff, some as part of the club and some not. Making cards for veterans at the local assisted living facility. Helping at the local food bank. Working on a house with Habitat for Humanity. This is a school that serves. Those moments are big, but inside those big moments are the small, tiny ones. The ones that make you smile. The ones that make you feel like you are a part of something very special; something unique. Something bigger than each of us. We are a staff that serves. That loves. That cares. That makes a difference inside and outside of school.
We are a staff that thrives on making moments and celebrating life. Do you think this spills over into the campus? The kids? The classrooms? What about instruction? Lesson design? Collaboration? You better believe it does. But, those incredible moments I will save for another post….
This year our curriculum team has revamped the curriculum with a reading workshop framework. I am thrilled to see this! I truly believe in the power of a reading workshop classroom and have seen so many kids thrive in this type of environment. While there is no one program or method that is the “end all, be all” of reading instruction, I think it is an awesome move on the part of the district literacy team to spread the workshop model throughout the district.
When I first starting teaching reading workshop, it was a big change and I will admit I did not like it. I really felt like I was not truly teaching because I wasn’t up in front of the room instructing. It took me quite a while to realize that letting students read was the most important reading instruction I could give! Small group and individual conferencing took a while to get the hang of, as well. But once I did, I saw the powerful results of students having ownership of their goals and taking charge of their own progress as readers. Ten minute mini-lessons replaced whole class lessons…another big change that was a bit scary at first! I learned how to use read aloud picture books to kick off my openings and wrap up my closings. They soon became my most favorite times of the day! But the most important things I noticed with this change in teaching style were that my students became lovers of reading, and I became much more knowledgable of them as readers. By the end of that first year, I fell in love with Reading Workshop.
Below are some resources I used which helped me start building my own Reading Workshop classroom.
If you are moving to a Reading Workshop format or have been engaged with this style of reading instruction for a while, please share your ideas, thoughts, questions and suggestions so that we can all continue to grow together!
The inspiration for this idea came from a leader in New York, click here for story.
One of the most important things we can do as educators is tell our story. We share all the learning and positive things that are going on in our schools and classrooms because we are doing great things and they should be told! And as the saying goes,“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will”. As a teacher, I have mostly done this through a weekly newsletter which I send out via email and in backpacks for those who do not have access at home to email. I also have used the website to share information. But sometimes I have noticed that the newsletters are not always read, or don’t always make it home, and the hit counter on the website sometimes reflects that there were no visits that week. Can you relate?
So, I wanted to try and make this sharing of information more interesting, and what better way to do that than to have the kids do it themselves! After tinkering around with a few ideas, my class and I settled on video newsletters. These are written and produced by the kids. My only job is to hold the iPad and hit record (and that could also soon be turned over to a student) and then of course to email the videos out. Sounds good right?! But how do we get it done? Well, we are still learning, but here is our early process.
First, we brainstormed ideas for what topics would be included as standard in each video newsletter. The major focus is on our learning each week. So, we identified Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies as standard segments, each about thirty seconds to one minute long.
Next, we decided to include a segment each week on “Book Recommendations”. It is also about thirty seconds. We also liked the idea of including a “character trait” to focus on each week in our video. We could also use that segment as a reflection on something we are currently talking about or going through, such as this past week and the conversations we’ve been having about making sure we are staying focused these last few weeks of school. So basically this is a segment that is related to character, but could be flexible. Our morning meetings usually reveal what this will be each week. If we are having an ongoing conversation about something, for example, we might talk about including this.
Finally, we know there are always weeks when we do something different and we wanted to include those as well. Things like field trips or other activities would be included as they come up. We also have different adventures we always seem to find ourselves involved with and we want to include those as well. For example:
1. A couple of weeks ago we participated in a global challenge issued by a principal (@GustafsonBrad) on my Twitter. The challenge basically was to take a “squiggle” he posted and create something new and original out of it, and then tweet it to the hashtag @stuconnect which he had set up for this. Some will be chosen to receive art sets! Here is the original Squiggle, along with one my students’ creations:
2. Last week, we participated in Teacher Appreciation by writing special notes on these cards that were posted by the U.S. Dept of Education and then tweeting pics to the hashtag #ThankATeacher.
3. We recently started using Go Noodle to have some fun brain breaks during our day. Boy do we like this! It has become a great addition to our classroom!
4. Mother’s Day gifts we made! (But we didn’t give away what they were, just that we have something up our sleeves!)
5. We learn new technology, and might want to include a favorite website or app that we are using, such as Kid Blog.
6. We put up our new Standards Boards each six weeks, and we would like to have a segment on these soon, maybe give a tour of them and talk about how we use them.
These are a few examples of additional segments we might have during a given broadcast. It really just depends on the week and what we decide we want to share. We also have to choose carefully, because we want to keep these videos to around 5 minutes in length, so we are learning to be very purposeful when telling our story. This is the basic overview of the things that go into our classroom video newsletters each week.
After creating this rough sketch of what we would include as segment features in our news, we talked about how we would assign “reporters”. We decided that these would become our new classroom jobs, and rotate them each week. We have a student who is particularly skilled at creating videos, so he volunteered to be the producer and also train others along the way to do that job. Yay!
Here is how we go about putting it together:
On Monday, students are given their jobs. So for example, if John will be reporting on Math, he knows that by Friday Film Day, he needs to have written out about a 30 second summary of what we have been learning in Math. He will also decide if he wants to include an artifact in his report to help support his segment, and if so, which one. It is up to them to write these features and have their script ready to go Friday.
We hung a long piece of blue butcher paper on a wall in the room, and that is where we film. I just call each student back, quickly go over what they will be saying, and then I record them. It takes about 1 minute to do this for each segment, and we usually have about 6 segments, plus the intro/conclusion.
After each segment is recorded, our producer uploads them to our You Tube channel. From there, he downloads them, arranges them, adds text slides, and cuts them for clarity and length. And viola! We have a video! My job is to review what he has put together, make suggestions, and act as a second editor for things like spelling and grammar on the text slides. Then we all watch it, and I email it out.
I also made sure I have parent permission to share these, and we do not include our names. We did talk about having reporter names, but decided to just forego that.
Below is our second video newsletter. Each week, we identify ways we could improve these. After watching this one, we know we need to make sure the volume is high enough, and that background noise is reduced as much as possible. We also tried to add special effects this time. But, we think they are better without these, because some of our words were cut off toward the end. It’s a learning process!
We have received compliments on our new newsletters from our parents! Below is a comment we received last week from one of the dad’s in our room:
Great job kids. I really enjoyed this look into the classroom. Keep up the good work. – Br.M.
We currently use One True Media for this newsletter. However, they will not be in existence anymore after May 30. My friend and IT Specialist Kirsten Wilson (@teachkiwi) recommended the app called “TouchCast” as an option for future recordings after OTM goes away. I don’t know anything about that particular app, and neither do my students, so we have something new to learn!
If you are looking for a fun new way to tell your classroom or school story, I recommend you try a video newsletter! I am hopeful that this might expand to a grade level or even schoolwide newsletter! What others ways do you have of connecting with parents? I’d love to hear your ideas!
Are you looking for something new and fun for your students to do during reading, while also hitting multiple standards? I am!
In looking at the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), there are several reading standards that I want to specifically target in the coming weeks. I also want to make sure I have some solid time scheduled with my small groups. Today I thought I would share an activity I recently created. I think it allows for student choice, reinforcement of skills, and active engagement for my students while I work with small groups and individual kiddos. I used the TEKS to design each activity, focusing on the ones that I really want to hit in the next few weeks. You could easily adapt this to fit whatever your state standards are!
I have often wanted to start using this particular set of magazines I have, which until now have been residing on the back table in my room-not touched by the kids. These are a little like booklets, with laminated and sturdy front and back covers, and are by a company called Mondo. I actually received these last year but, quite honestly, I just have not taken the time to dig into them and figure out how to best use them. But they are way cool!
These magazines are in sets of seven, with each set centered around a different topic. Multiple types of text are found inside each one, so even though there is a variety of genre, it is all related to the same central topic. Each magazine contains a fiction story, non fiction article, poem, play, persuasive letter, and vocabulary builder. And yes, these have just been on my counter not being used! FAIL!
I dusted these off and laid them out in my room. Here are the ones I chose for my students to select from for our first Reading Safari:
Hot Air Ballooning
Smart Animal Adapters
Life in Bali
They will be using this safari board I created with their chosen magazine. If you click on that link, you will find not only the activities I designed, but I’ve also included the safari music I will be playing. This is also a great excuse to wear a safari hat to school 🙂
Here is a peek inside the “Bali” magazine (my personal favorite):
These are really well designed with interesting stories, unusual facts, and compelling images. Another great feature….they each come with a set of chapter books that I could use for my guided reading groups. Here is a picture of the books that come with the Bali magazine:
I can use these for book clubs as well as in guided reading groups. How cool!
Everyone will complete the same safari menu using their chosen magazine. Since all magazines are structured the same, I tried to design a safari board that would function with any chosen text. I am not going to grade these safari’s; instead my assessment will be in the form of feedback and probing questions to get them to thinking more deeply. I am hoping that this safari will lead to my students’ becoming fully immersed in our latest addition to the classroom library!
This weekend, my students will be thinking about how they want to showcase their work. I have a group who thinks they might want to make a wiki and upload onto that. I have another group talking about creating little books using construction paper and notebook paper, and a few who might want to compile all the work into a live binder. A few are still thinking about the possibilities for how to organize this information and share it. So, it seems like an added bonus to this Reading Safari is that my 4th graders are going to be curating!
Today my students were able to look through each magazine and make their selection. They were very excited about these, as I anticipated! I think they will be really engaged in reading, writing, and creating quality work while I am working with small groups and one-on-one during reading workshop. Looking forward to using this new resource!
What about you? Do you have any hidden treasures sitting on the back counter in your room? You might want to go on a safari yourself, to see what you can find!
One of the best things I’ve done this year was to implement student-led conferences. This was a learning experience for me! I definitely stepped out of my own comfort zone here by turning over the conference to my students.
I want to see students as critical thinkers in all areas, including an awareness of their own progress. To be comfortable in recognizing struggle and seeing it not as a defeat but as a place to employ strategies and devote energy. To be aware of strength areas and informed about how they learn and demonstrate that learning. To be comfortable and aware enough to share this information with their own families.
We know we are experts in something when we can teach it to someone else.
This is about life-long learning habits. Below is the system I used this year, along with the documents I created to support it. I will also share what I am learning through the process.
Pre-Meeting First Conference:
The first step is to share data with my students. Because I teach all subjects, we discuss everything! Fluency targets, comprehension areas, math standards. I show them their own information alongside each area, and we discuss and celebrate the “wins” and “struggles”. I want them to see areas for growth as just another step on the journey, but I am careful in how this information is shared. Knowing each student well at this point, I feel comfortable in knowing how to share this information and how to have these conversations. I start always with the positives. If we come to an area where they are showing little progress, I have that conversation with them in a meaningful but positive spirit.
The focus is not on “how you compare”, but rather on “what progress you have made”.
They Do/I Do
About three weeks before the parent-conference days, I give each student this Student Led Conference Form and have them complete their section. They do this independently and I am careful to encourage them to think about it before answering. I tell them to be transparent, honest, and thoughtful as they think about and respond to each section. After a few days, I collect these, review them, and then complete my own section of the form. You will see that I included a behavior section as well as a “learning targets” section (more on that further down).
We then begin brainstorming goals. Along with their input, we identify specific, measurable goals both short and long term, and complete that section of the form together. I like coming up with short term goals that I am confident they can reach soon. I think this sets them up for success and by doing so, empowers them to continue striving to meet those long-term areas for growth.
One thing you will notice about my student-led conferencing form is that it contains a section on “Learning Targets/21st Century Skills”. I did this purposely because I am of the belief that I don’t teach content, I teach kids. I think there is a place for “learning skills” in general and I also like that it isn’t content specific. We all have areas that we are great at and areas that we struggle with. Kids are no different. But “learning skills” removes the barriers that they might see in, say, math. If they can identify a learning goal, it can transfer over to the weaker content area and lead to improvement in something they may not have a lot of confidence in. For example, if a student believes “I can’t do math” (many do), but can identify “problem solving” as an area to target, this is a direct correlation minus the self-imposed defeatist attitude they may carry into that content.
Throughout the weeks leading up to the conference, students are in charge of collecting work that showcases their skills, improvements, and celebrations. They also collect work that supports the goals they have identified. This is kept in a folder with the SLC form we have already completed. They are in charge of keeping this data folder until the week of the conference. I have yet to have anyone misplace it. This becomes a very important folder! Within it lies their own thoughts, ideas, dreams….
Have you ever noticed how many parents will show up for their child’s performance in a play or choir concert, but then fail to respond to these conference requests? I have. It’s apparent that many may have either had their own negative experiences with school, or experienced a difficult and unhappy conference in the past. About two weeks prior, I send out information to parents asking for a conference. I let them know that their students will be leading it, and that they are eager to share their triumphs and their goals. I have found that parents are very eager and responsive when they anticipate that their students will be holding this meeting. It won’t be the teacher handing out information. It won’t be a conference in which the teacher is “talking to” them; instead, it is a gathering, and their students are leading the show. The unease that many parents may feel toward parent teacher conferences seems to evaporate. I had 24 out of 24 families schedule a time! The students are really looking forward to their “appointments” leading up to this time and they talk it up at home!
Parent Input Form
I send the parents their own Parent Input Form to be completed ahead of time. I ask them to return it to me prior to the meeting. By reviewing this ahead of time, I am more aware of what they are wanting to discuss and can add to our meeting documents and conversations as needed. I also note if they have concerns that they want to discuss privately and make arrangements for that to happen after the student has shared. I have heard great feedback on this from my parents! They really enjoy the opportunity to submit what they want to discuss and know it will be brought into, and be an integral part of, our conference.
I collect all folders and then organize them by day of appointment. If I have four conferences scheduled for Monday, I have them organized in order of time slot. It is easy then to pull them out and begin the conference. The prep work has already been done and I am ready to meet with parents and share the conference with my students. No time is wasted in walking around “gathering” my grade book or grabbing work from student’s desks or binders. We get down to business!
I have students bring me any journals they want to share, with pages they have marked. It might be a reading response journal, a writing binder, a science journal. The excitement is felt this day as students anticipate their meeting! Parents are eager for this time and so are their students, who prior to this normally did not even attend this meeting!
When the conference starts, I thank them for coming, and explain again that their student will be presenting most of this information. The student begins by sharing out their great triumphs, following the form in order. I have coached the students ahead of time; we have practiced their conference and I have shown them how to stop after each section and ask if there are any questions or input from their parent (they have note card reminders in their hands as they go through the conference). I do this because I am trying to structure it so students don’t go so quickly. Plus, I want them to be able to field questions as I think this helps solidify understanding and adds to the conference by giving parent and child an opportunity to engage in discussions.
I lead the data discussion myself with students taking the listening role. They are fine with this because I’ve already shared it with them. But there is more to the data story itself than what I have typically shared with students and so this area is the one I talk through. At this time, if there is a need to meet privately with the parent I excuse the student. There are some conversations that a 9 year old really does not need to be present for, and the decision to share that is left to the parent. It’s a consideration I think is important to give.
During each section, the student pulls out and shares the work that he/she has collected which ties to that strand of the form. They discuss the work using note cards which they have already completed and attached to each sample. This saves time and also gives them “talking points“. I have seen this to be a very good thing because many of them are so nervous at the conference, and might otherwise stumble over words! It also helps them refer back to their goals.
If parents have shared on their input form that they want to discuss reading, or have a specific concern about math for example, I try to have that worked into the section as we go through it. If it doesn’t relate to one of these areas already on the conference form, then at this time we have parent share time. I have already invited them to give input (via the parent portion form) and so this time is specifically reserved for them to share thoughts, questions, and suggestions. They also have this time to reflect and discuss anything that their student or I have shared thus far. Normally, I have heard “well, everything I wanted to know about has been covered”!
I then ask them what I believe is a very important question that often goes unasked, “What goals do you have now for your student“? I have found that most are kind of quiet at that moment because I suspect they’ve never really had that asked. We discuss their goals (many of which the student has accurately identified already). I note this information on the parent goal section of the conference form and now I have it to plan activities for their student that supports that goal. The student also takes note of this and will then be charged with incorporating this into their own learning. We make that an integral part of their goal setting and daily work. The parents really enjoy having this type of impact!
I include personal goals because it gives me insight into the family and it provides a way for me as a teacher to support home/personal goals within the classroom.
About two weeks after, I have students complete a follow up which you can find here. They report out on how they are doing with regard to their goals, and the parent’s input during our meeting. This has opened up a lot of communication for my families; they often tell me that they discussed this at dinner, etc. I’ve even heard about them being hung on several refrigerator doors! About two or three times is all that is needed for my parents and kids to tell me that they are engaging in ongoing dialogue about learning and progress. This is the most beneficial aspect of these student-led conferences. Family impact.
Time–And Other Questions We Ask
The most common question I’ve been asked about student-led conferences is, “how long do you spend with each family”? My answer is: I spend as long as is needed. I normally schedule these conferences in 30 minute blocks of time. If some are going to need to be longer, they are longer. I try to be aware of that and schedule accordingly. In the rush to get through multiple conferences, teachers sometimes decide to schedule back to back conferences in 15 minute segments, rushing through one to get to the next. I don’t agree with this. I think this time is far too valuable, and the lasting impact potential too great, to approach it that way. I use the two “late night” days we are given for this, but I also use about two weeks of other time. I want this to be meaningful, and for me, that doesn’t happen in that quick of a way. I don’t think of this as just checking off something on a list. I want it to matter. And things that matter, take time.
Followed by time, I’m asked about how I convey concerns with the student present. I don’t know why we shy away from this. I think it’s important that students are aware of areas where there is a concern. However, if it is something that can’t be framed in a growth-mindset way, if it is something that is of a delicate nature, this is taken care of in a separate, private conference. I think it’s important for all students to have the opportunity to shine and learn to lead a conference, so they engage in these regardless. Separate, additional conferences are scheduled as needed.
Bottom Line: We are in the kid and family business. The meeting itself is just a starting point, but it is a vital part of the process in developing habits, building relationships, and giving students a pathway to become actively engaged in their own education and learning.
The Little (Big) Extras
In starting student-led conferences, I have seen a great increase in parent engagement. Communication is at an all-time high, but more importantly, we have truly developed a bond and established a relationship upon which I can build throughout the year. We are truly partners.
Feel free to use my forms, system, or any other tidbits of help that I might have provided in this blog post. What are some suggestions might you have to grow in this area? I welcome and value your input!
My students have been working hard on their writing this year. We are currently perfecting our skills in the area of expository writing. As we head into Black History Month, as well as our upcoming Alamo unit, we’ve been reading and learning about people that are considered heroes. We have had great conversations about traits that a hero embodies, and began identifying heroes in our own lives. We have explored ideas such as empathy, courage, belief, truths, strength, love, peace, and wisdom. We have read about people, we have listened to songs with hidden lyrical references (U2’s Pride), and we have had very deep conversations on how other people can have such powerful impacts on the world, and on each other. We then looked inward and considered our own unique “hero” traits and possibilities!
My students were then asked to write about a person they consider a hero, in expository form.
We revised and edited as we went along this past week, learning about different strategies such as: beginning with a quote, powerful conclusions, creative transitions, and voice. We also continue working on our conventions (our weakest area) and supporting details. Now that they have published their final Hero Expository Writing, my students are ready for our next Teach Like A Pirate experience:
The 4th Grade Epic Hero Expository Writing Battle!
For this experience I will use several hooks. I’m wearing camo tomorrow to kick off this unit. I will have this battle music playing as they enter the room 🙂
The room will be divided into East vs. West, and gear (essays, rubrics, highlighters) will be distributed. Gold coins will be given to each victor as we go through the battle phases. After much thinking, looking for ideas, discussing possibilities with my twitter PLN, and consulting with my Army veteran son, I am (finally) prepared to share our upcoming experience. Feel free to use this in any way you see fit!
The Mission/Prompt: “Write About Someone You Consider a Hero”
The day you’ve trained for all year is upon us. All of your learning about what traits embody a hero has come down to this. The class has been divided into 2 brigades-The East vs The West. Each of you will be assigned to a brigade. Within those brigades, you will be deployed to one of three battalions. You will determine your names. Choose wisely, as the winner’s camp will be bestowed the honor of being our First Epic Expository Writing victors!
Armed with our Hero Expository Essays, and persuasive skills, essays will battle head to head for victory in each category on our writing rubric. You will not battle your own paper, but rather, one that fate has thrown your way! Be advised: You must collaborate and be able to JUSTIFY the awarding of each battle victory based on merit and skill-citing our rubric as evidence of victory. Let it be noted that throughout the battles, a paper will never cross paths with it’s original writer.
Phase 1: Preparation for Battle
Papers have been collected and divided among two brigades. Now, 3 Battalions (4 students each) will be deployed through each brigade. You will become experts on the papers you hold, scoring each paper on EACH SECTION of our writing rubric. Papers will engage in one-on-one combat for the victory in each category. These battles will determine the victors in each of 6 categories on our rubric:
Content & Critical Thinking
Introductions & Conclusions
Topic Sentences & Details
Voice and Word Choice
Note: It is possible for a paper to win multiple battles; however, a stronger brigade will be formed if each paper in each battalion can secure at least one victory.
Once each battalion has declared a winner for each of 6 categories, these papers will now battle against the 2 other battalions. You will come together with the other battalions at this point. You must be an expert on your winners and the rubric, and be able to justify each paper on merit. You must also be able to listen to the reasons behind other selections. At this point it is no longer about battalion winners—you want to find Brigade Winners.
At the end of each battle, the Brigade will emerge with 6 battle winners, one for each rubric section.
Phase 2: In phase 2 of this mission, the two brigades will go head to head as they each defend and justify papers. Focus on the skill each paper represents in each writing strand using our rubric. You must provide justification both verbally and in writing for each paper you are defending. You are now battling for overall writing effectiveness-skill in each category.
Phase 3: We will celebrate as an “army of writers” our victors in all categories, as well as the overall winning papers. You will have justified and decided upon 6 overall winners. From here we will enter the Ultimate Battle: As a class, we will now enter a round-robin tournament, pour over these 6 papers and rubrics, and determine 4 Epic Battle Winners. These 4 will demonstrate skill in all of the writing rubric categories. They will be bestowed the honor of being named an:
Epic Hero Expository Writer.
As such, these 4 victors will be spotlighted on our upcoming Standard Based Bulletin Board. Selected by the class for their skill and merit, you as classmates will have chosen our SBBB spotlighted work, and written justification defending each paper that meets the standard for expository writing. These will be the commentaries that will be posted next to each victor on the board, so write a compelling and thorough justifications!
Phase 4: Personal Battle Reflections:
1) How did this activity challenge your critical thinking skills?
2) What did you learn about the craft of writing as a result of this activity?
3) What new goals will you now set for your own writing?
At the end of this battle, you will each be epic heroes–battle-tested and eager for the next quest. In a most honorable of fashion, we will celebrate, reflect, and set further goals.
I’m often asked to share my strategies for developing integrated units that incorporate 21st century skills. An upcoming PBL I’m developing is on The Alamo. It will blend content areas while building 21st century skills and promoting family involvement.
Giving students opportunities to develop and refine their 21st century skills is something most of us see as paramount to learning in today’s classroom. Where many struggle is not with the “why” but with the “how”. One of the most successful ways I’ve found for doing this has come through integration of curriculum and grabbing ahold of Problem Based Learning. When I talk about integration, I mean that in terms of not only content, but 21st century skills as well. I intentionally plan and integrate these for one simple reason:
What Gets Measured Gets Done.
It’s important that students have the ongoing opportunity to develop and refine these skills. They also need the opportunity to examine their progress in specific 21st century skills and reflect on how they are progressing over time. Here are four of my rubrics used to measure these skills: 21st Century Skills Rubrics
For this unit, I’m going to bring in:
Collaboration, problem solving, technology literacy, and public speaking.
Each will be measured throughout the unit in the form of self, peer, and coach (me) evaluations.
Now let’s take a look at how I develop integrated units. I will also share my plans for my upcoming PBL as well.
Backward Design Intended Outcomes
I start with identifying what specific content knowledge and skills are coming up each six weeks, and what students need to know at the end of each respective course unit. This is perhaps the “heaviest” part of the process. I’ll use my own upcoming units as an example here.
Social Studies: Understand the significance of the events leading up to the Alamo, and it’s impact. Language Arts: Develop and refine skills in reading and analyzing nonfiction text. Develop and refine writing skills and produce an expository essay that includes descriptive details to support a main idea.. Math: Understand and manipulate fractions and decimals, and their relatedness. Understand 3D shapes and identify attributes. Science: Identify forms of energy and understand interactions, pathways, conversions.
I have specific learning outcomes identified for each content area (though here I am just giving you a brief synopsis of the content covered). I also have formatives and summatives identified so I know where we are going. I can now plan out how to get there.
How And Where To Integrate
Now that I have my concepts identified, I move on to how and where. Quickly we can see a connection here with Social Studies and Language Arts. So I will start there. I know that, throughout the Alamo unit, I want to include opportunities for literacy skills in nonfiction genres. Here is how I will embed this throughout:
Primary and Secondary Sources. I will use autobiographies, letters, journals, and our Social Studies textbook as the mentor texts during Reading Workshop. Mini lessons will center on nonfiction reading strategies.
We will examine quotes found in letters and journals to interpret meaning, context, and also find synonyms. Rewrite pleas from today’s perspective.
Media. We will critically examine a movie poster promoting the film “The Alamo”, and discuss the impact of the chosen colors, taglines, and images.
Writing Workshop will be used to provide instruction on effective expository writing strategies, with opportunities to respond to Alamo related prompts, journaling, letter writing, persuasive debate, and cause and effect essays.
Math. We are working with fractions and decimals, while continuing to spiral in measurement concepts and move into 3D shapes and attributes. How can I use the Alamo unit to support this learning?
We will learn about the number of soldiers and ratios between armies.
Money as it relates to this historical period.
Fractions of time.
Comparison of rifle and musket range of fire (200 yards/70 yards) and conversion.
Examine 3D shapes and attributes found in pictorial representations of Spanish missions.
Suggest and design upgrades to the Alamo layout.
Science. We are going to identify forms of energy and how they interact with matter. I will include:
Potential and kinetic energy as it relates to gunpowder, cannons, and firewood.
Sound energy as we listen to replays of music used during this battle.
Social Studies. We will examine key players, dates, and locations. We will consider events leading up to the battle, and impact on future events. Students will uncover the significance of this historical event and take a virtual tour of the site using Google Earth tour.
Planned throughout in each content area to measure progress on specific content skills as well as 21st century skills. Ongoing feedback allows students to refine and improve in each strand. The Alamo PBL includes benchmarks along the way which are related to both content and 21st century skills. As an example: Students can improve on a grade in Social Studies by improving on a 21st century skill, such as their current level of performance in the area of collaboration.
DEVELOPING THE PROBLEM BASED LEARNING UNIT
The Driving Question
In creating a Problem Based Learning unit, I start with looking at the standard. I then develop a driving question. This is the most difficult part of the task. It’s also the most critical. We want students to not only know what they are learning, but internalize and be able to articulate why they are learning it. The DQ is written ultimately for the students. The question will fuel understanding if it’s written well, articulates the standards, and includes a motivation to learn. It can promote ownership and guide students as they move through to unit. It also needs to include a community connection. I use a “tubric” to help me do this. Here is a video on that:
Here’s my DQ:
Why did the American public popularize the Alamo and how might this legacy apply to my own life?
Now, this is the over-arching DQ. Throughout the unit there are Learning Targets which are written to help them ultimately answer that driving question. Here are questions that will be embedded in this PBL:
What were the issues leading up to this battle, and why were they important?
How did those issues impact decisions that were made?
What might I have done had I been involved in this event? What are the issues that drive that decision?
What are some suggestions I might make if I were in a position to affect change?
How can we share our impressions of the Alamo battle with a larger audience?
How do members of my family approach decion-making situations?
Though they will be incorporated throughout, the above DQ’s are where I will specifically embed those 21st century skills I will assess within this unit. I will leave much to student choice as far as designing their final products is concerned. However, I will provide structured choices for them to consider and work with them to identify appropriate avenues for demonstrating their learning. I also have identified required products along the way to help build capacity and to assess 21st century skills. Each week, the four identified 21st century skills will be assessed through these required activities:
Collaborate in book clubs using texts centered on the event and players involved, such as biographies
Compare/Contrast presentation essay on two key players
Measurement and Conversion/Time/ Fractions
Digital descriptive timelines
Decision Making Brace Map presentation
Journal entries from different perspectives/problems/solutions (will continue throughout)
Character trait analysis
Student-chosen problem and it’s impact: Cause and Effect presentation Graphic Organizers
Critical writing on energy conversion in science
Collaborate to design a movie poster for an Alamo film. They will decide on a tagline, colors, and actors who they imagine would portray main and supporting characters. These will include critical writing on the reasons behind their selections.
Student-chosen problem and it’s impact: Cause and Effect Graphic Organizers
Impact of different energy sources on the events of the Alamo/presentation
Fraction and decimal conversion practice with Alamo facts and figures we uncover
Students collaborate to produce a news broadcast of a self-selected problem and it’s impact on events
4 Corner Stance with critical writing to defend a position
Shared Classroom Debate with Public Speaking Skills
Collaborate and submit suggested upgrades to Alamo design and layout
Expository Essay: An Important Decision I Have Faced
The final product needs to answer the driving question. These will make excellent artifacts for our Standards Based Bulletin Board as well. For more on SBBB’s embraced by my district, visit this link.
Guiding Options for Final Products:
Web page design
Student-produced documentaries on a chosen Alamo figure
Artwork depicting important events and/or people
Digital Biographical sketches
Reenactments, student-written plays
Poetry anthologies related to the significance of the Alamo/events
Personal analysis through persuasive essay
Resource curation on Pinterest or Live Binder
Creation of games (can be 2d or 3D)
Blueprint design of the Alamo, accompanied by student built model to scale. Includes Legacy Snapshots, which are written supporting documents placed on the model
Produce and direct a Public Service Announcement
Lyric writing/music to accompany a scene
Each will allow for problem solving, collaborating, and public speaking/sharing work. By choosing an option above, or by following their own inventive ideas, we can leverage student passions, which always become top-notch products! Each product must be submitted in digital form for uploading to student’s ePortfolio. This will allow for sharing of work with a global audience. Students will include a written reflection on the product, it’s significance to the student, and what was learned through the creation of that product. Each student will also be encouraged to provide ongoing feedback to their peers both during the learning and on the final product. Weekly projects can also be uploaded to ePortfolios, with students selecting the artifacts to share globally.
Students will talk with their families about how they approach big decisions and collect this information. They will explore with their family different strategies for making decisions and short/long term goals. These will be compiled into a class “family advice” book that students can refer to when facing their own “big decisions”. I think this will be a great way to open home communication and provide students with a variety of diverse viewpoints.
Throughout this six week unit, there will be specific mini-lessons and common assessments as written in our curriculum. The backdrop for our day to day learning and connections will be Alamo PBL.
All in all, I’m looking at a great opportunity to develop my students 21st Century Skills, integrate curriculum for deeper understanding through a PBL, and promote family involvement with building decision making skills. So I am very excited heading into the 4th six weeks!
I often wish I could have a do-over with my first class. I’m afraid they didn’t learn much from me. My mentor teacher was somewhat disengaged, and the student teaching experience was of such unremarkable value that I barely remember it. Next week, I’m hosting a student teacher. Even though I have taught for 15 years, I still always think, “why me?” when this comes up. I don’t see myself as any kind of expert in this. But I do see this as a significant opportunity to have a strong, lasting impact on a future teacher and thus hundreds of students. I will also get to learn some things from my student teacher (I always do!). Collaborating with enthusiastic and excited soon-to-be teachers is always a great joy! So for that, it is a privilege for me to do this.
With this comes great responsibility. I’ve been thinking a lot about what things I want to leave her with -what type of impact I will strive to have- because whether good or bad, at the end of this experience, I will have had one.
One of the best mentoring experiences I’ve witnessed was portrayed in the movie Karate Kid. Now, I am nowhere near the mentor Mr. Myagi was. The best I can hope for is to try and have a positive impact and share some things I’ve learned that have helped me be an effective teacher (most days). So what can mentor teachers, and student teachers, learn from Mr. Myagi and Daniel-san? Here are five things that I think are important, and what I’m going to try and incorporate as we go through this experience together.
Mr. Miyagi: “No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.”
Be prepared every day. Come to class with a knock-out lesson. Plan experiences that keep students engaged, leverage their curiosity, and allow them opportunity to actively engage in their own learning. One thing I’ve learned is that when the lesson doesn’t include plenty of opportunity for active learning, students will disengage. At that point, classroom management issues will appear. By contrast, planning lessons (experiences) that captivate, challenge, and motivate will keep most – if not all-students on task.
Mr. Miyagi: “Daniel san, karate here (he points to his forehead). Karate here (he points to his heart). Karate not here (he points to his gut). You understand?”
Know your students. Build relationships with them in such a way that you know what they like, how they learn, and what motivates them. Teach from your heart. If you are passionate about the topic, show that! It will rub off on them. Love your kids and love what you do every day, even on the bad days (which will happen). Always remember that you are not teaching a content–you are teaching kids. Your love for students and teaching will carry you through even the worst days–those days when your stomach is tied up in knots due to failed attempts, piled up paperwork, and worry over tests and such. Keep the focus on your kids and your passion as much as possible.
Daniel: “Hey, what kind of belt do you have?” Mr. Miyagi: “Canvas, you like? J.C. Penney, $3.98!”
What makes you, YOU? A good piece of advise is to take risks, grab ahold of initiatives and trends that come along, and always be willing to learn from others. Observe what works for veteran teachers. But at the end of the day, you must develop your own style and what works for you. There are fundamental things that make you who you are, and those will work to your advantage in the classroom. Own your strengths-know when to adopt something and when to discard it. Just because it looks good on the teacher next door, doesn’t always mean it’s going to look good on you! Take the good things and tailor them so that they build upon your strengths.
Mr. Miyagi: “Win, lose, no matter. You make good fight and respect. Then nobody bother.” Daniel: “Ya, they’ll bury me where I fall.’ Mr. Miyagi: “Either way, problem solved.”
Standardized tests cause every teacher a little stress. There exists a common divide as to whether to teach content or teach to the test. My philosophy is this: If we teach the standards in such a way that we help develop critical thinking and reasoning, and build in successes so that they believe in themselves, students will do fine with whatever opponent they face. I keep the focus on the day to day learning. I know what content is covered and I know how it is typically presented on the test. I try to mirror that with such things as “question stems” and level of rigor. But at the end of the day, my belief is that as long as my students are prepared through daily trainings, the final match will take care of itself.
Daniel: “Wouldn’t a flyswatter be easier?” Mr. Miyagi: “Man who catch fly with chopstick, accomplish anything.”
There are many times when we as teachers think, wouldn’t it be easier to just _____ (fill in with whatever). Easy is easy, but shortcuts are rarely effective long term. I’ll use math as an example. Yes, it’s much easier to teach a formula for solving a problem. Students can memorize the formula, practice it enough to become proficient at it. But will they understand the “why” behind what they are doing? Will they have built conceptual knowledge? Doubtful. This may be fine short term-to get them through the unit, the test, the grade. But down the road, problems will emerge because they failed to learn and understand what is happening behind and within those mathematical processes. This goes back to the earlier idea of not teaching content, but teaching kids. Easy isn’t always the best choice. Be wary of shortcuts.
As I get ready to host a student teacher, I want to make sure that I focus on not only the specific tasks, but also pay attention to her as a person. I hope to fuel her love of teaching so that when she enters years 1-5, she doesn’t become on of the all-too-common victims of teacher burnout. I’m not the expert by any means, but I do want to have a positive impact and help her cultivate her own unique gifts and talents. So I will also focus on this:
Mr. Miyagi: “Just remember; license never replace eye, ear, and brain.”
I’m looking forward to not only teaching, but learning from her. So here’s to not getting too caught up in the brittle and cold analysis of our craft, and focusing instead on individual reward for both of us.
I am honored to serve in this capacity! I will return to update as we go through the journey together. How many of you have had the privilege of hosting a student teacher? What insights can you share about the experiences you’ve had?
We are all becoming more and more aware of the importance of feedback. A look at this article by John Hattie and Helen Temperley reveals just how effective quality feedback is in moving students toward mastery. But what about students givingfeedback? Isn’t what our student’s say just as important as what we say?
I thought about that as we were nearing winter break. My students already have a voice in my classroom (as do yours, I’m sure). I think I do a pretty good job of offering choice, setting up opportunities for collaboration, and encouraging/supporting them as they identify goals and track progress. I also know there are times we as teachers think we “always do this” or “never do that”, but our student’s perceptions can be very different. And perception is reality. So in an effort to refine my own practice I decided to add another dimension to the voice I am giving students in my classroom. This year, they evaluated me. In the spirit of transparency, I am going to share my evaluation here!
Walking The Walk
We all like to say we are ego free, that we are lifelong learners, that we grow and learn from one another…I feel pretty confident that those statements are true about me. But I can say it was very scary to actually have my students evaluate me. I had no idea what might be written. Was I prepared to receive less-than-glowing reviews? Am I truly seeking growth-enough that I am willing to read the less-than-tactful responses that may come from a 9 year old? In honesty, my answer is yes. So, I acknowledged the lack of control I have in this process, the commitment I have to being the best teacher I can be, and the power I see in feedback and it’s ability to move one forward toward growth. I then turned to my PLN to help find, revise, and create my own evaluation. After looking at a few documents shared by my PLN (thanks everyone!) I saw one that I thought was pretty authentic and brief but powerful. Just what I was looking for! I tweaked it a little bit to make it my own. I like that it isn’t slanted toward positive supposition. I also made it anonymous to eliminate fears about “hurting my feelings”. You can view my evaluation here. On the day of my evaluation, I took time to really discuss a few key points with my fourth graders.
The Power of Feedback
We talked about how powerful feedback is for them (this has been a focus all year) and I explained how the same thing is true for me. I told them that one way I get better at teaching is by hearing back from my students on what works, what doesn’t, and what I can do to improve. I told them I welcome and seek feedback -as I expect them to -because it leads to growth.
I told them to leave their names off the document. I explained that I wanted them to feel completely comfortable saying what they wanted, and not worrying about what I might think or hurting my feelings. I reminded them how I “can’t tell who is who from handwriting” (I say this daily as I quiz the class on the paper with no-name -again). I tried to make them understand how much I want them to feel free to say anything that might improve my lessons, teaching style, and how I relate in general with them. Scary isn’t it? With that, I passed out the documents. They seemed very excited to do this. I had noticed a few who smiled as I was explaining this task, and one student remarked, “This is different” when I gave him the evaluation. I could tell they were not used to doing this!
I think they felt as if, at that moment, the only voice in the room that mattered was theirs.
Results Are In
I brought my evaluations home to review (but purposely did this after Christmas so as not to put a damper on my holiday)! I looked for common responses/themes/patterns in these. I know there’s a difference between one or two comments here and there versus five or more of my students making the same reference. Five would be more than 25% of my class! So I needed to pay attention to common responses and similar thoughts. Below are some common themes I pulled out of their responses.
14 of 20 students mentioned Genius Hour as being something that they really enjoy and are learning a lot from. You can read a prior blog entry and look at our Genius Hour website here.
8 of 20 students identified Hour of Code as being an activity they really enjoyed and learned a lot from. (Below is a quick video of a student explaining her code)
15 of 20 students identified our Kinder Crash as a memorable lesson. This was a really cool experience for us; unfortunately, I’ve misplaced the pictures and have never blogged about it. FAIL!! Perhaps I will!
11 of 20 students mentioned our Maya Mystery Experience as being a positive learning experience. You can read about that experience here.
Areas of Need
12 of 20 students referred to math being either too hard or frustrating.
9 of 20 students suggested I do more explaining during math as an area to improve.
6 of 20 students suggested we do more partner reading during Reading Workshop.
How They See Me
Most common attributes checked to describe me included: Funny, exciting, interesting, and fair. There were no negatives checked, although one did write out next to the option “unfair”: “There are times I don’t agree with things, but not enough to check this box”. I’m okay with that. 🙂
Things I Found Interesting
On both the celebrations and needs there were several open-ended question, such as “If you could change anything about my lessons, what would it be” and “One lesson you really enjoyed so far this year”. I purposely left it this way because I wanted to see where it would lead. I think it’s important to note the number of students who referenced the same things, without any direction or specifics.
Here are some images of a few of their comments :
Genius Hour – This seems to be a valuable activity; not only is it improving their 21st Century Learning Skills-it’s highly motivating and engaging for them (based on these responses and my observations). A much treasured activity that is new to our classroom – I will continue!
Kinder Crash- This is also a program that will continue. They seem to value the opportunity to learn and then teach others. We loved this!
The Maya Experience – This was my first pirate lesson (Teach Like A Pirate) and I am thrilled about two things. 1-they listed it as a favorite, and 2-most referred to it by the name I gave it (specifically-the word ‘experience’) instead of The Maya lesson. I like this because Dave Burgess, author of the book Teach Like A Pirate, says “Don’t teach lessons, design experiences!” and encourages us to give our experiences a name, which I did. I love that they used it! I look forward to planning my next pirate lesson: The Remember The Alamo Experience!
Hour of Code – This was a one time experience, but what I can take away from it is: My PLN is a great resource for finding innovative ideas that impact students as individuals and as learners, and I will continue to seek out these opportunities and take advantage of them! Also will include technology as much as possible.
Math – I need to adjust my method of instruction here. We are a very inquiry-based classroom using Investigations math. While they do well and enjoy the activities, they are identifying a need for a bit more explicit instruction in this area. Data from last year supports the idea that this group as a whole seems to struggle a bit in Math. I think more direct teaching in the mini lesson-and stronger closings- will help them feel more confident in this area. I will also “go slower” when we begin something new…allow more time for examples, modeling, and them getting comfortable with the content before sending them off to explore, investigate, and produce.
Reading – I can include more opportunity for partner reading in our workshop. We are beginning book clubs so this will be a great chance for them to explore books together.
I think by having my students evaluate me, it added to the climate of authenticity and trust in the room. I think it served to strengthen our classroom community, and I think it helped my students take even more ownership of the class and their learning. Simple Activity – High Impact. That’s an activity that is valuable and worth doing. I did this at the end of the first semester. I plan to adjust based on the feedback received and have them evaluate me again in May. I think December and May are pretty good times to do this, as both allow for opportunity to reflect, implement ideas, and measure progress.
I would love to hear your ideas about students evaluating their teachers! How might this add to the student voice factor in your classroom? How might the responses help you refine your craft?
Today started out like any other weekend morning. I woke up, poured my coffee, and powered up the IPad for my daily PD ritual: Twitter and blog reading. As I browsed the articles and read a few updated posts, something caught my eye. Among the hashtags and updates was the quiet retweet of a blog. Something about the title attracted me, so I followed the link. For the next hour I was totally engrossed in what I was learning on the website Authentic Education and a few blogs entries written by Dr. Grant Wiggins, President of Authentic Learning and co-author of the program Understanding by Design. One of his blog entries in particular really resonated with me: “Feedback-How Learning Occurs”. Here is the beginning of his post:
Feedback is a word we use unthinkingly and inaccurately. We smile at a student, say “good job!” and call it feedback. We write “B-“at the top of a paper and consider it feedback. We share a score on the state test with a student and his parents and consider it feedback. But feedback is something different. It is useful information about performance. It is not praise, it is not evaluation, it is not a number on a standardized test. So, true feedback is critical—perhaps the key element—in effective learning. -Grant Wiggins
Now let’s pair this with the wiki definition of feedback below:
The key part of this which I focused on was “….used as a basis for improvement“.
Now, a few things to note: I tend to think systemically. My thinking process revolves around (and among, and between) relationships and connectedness, seeing separate ideas as systems. Synthetic thinking. When I am introduced to something new, I immediately begin connecting ideas and configuring information in ways that make sense—bringing different parts together into a whole. This is why things like integrated curriculum, contextual understandings, and even PBL are such natural and comfortable areas for me. So naturally, I pulled out a Hattie & Temperley article on feedback (here) which I’d read a while back and began synthesizing information. Considered together, the article written by Dr. Wiggins seemed to help bring these big ideas into focus for me. I won’t bore you with the connections I made between the two. Unless you ask 🙂
I then navigated to another article by Dr. Wiggins, “The Shift From Teaching Content To Teaching Learning“. This is a fascinating article on changing our mindsets and moving from teaching content to being learning coaches. What I got was this: I don’t want my feedback, or teaching, to be a “yes you did this correctly” or “no you need to work on this”. I want to coach the learning process itself. I want students to understand the results of their thinking and the outcomes of their ideas. In this way they can begin developing the self-regulation and meta-cognition processes they need in order to experience understanding. I want the feedback to serve as a push forward, not a destination to which they arrive. I found myself fascinated with this joining of topics: feedback and coaching.
I pulled out a stack of narratives written by my students which I’d brought home to “grade” over the break. My focus at this point was on applying the principles of effective feedback and coaching their learning. I also wanted to compare my results with how I might have done this before. How was my feedback different this time? How did I approach this task, compared to the way I approached it before? Below are some examples of my changes:
In each of the examples above, my first feedback was more “destination” focused (and more like advice):
You did this – Now do this -Here is your score.
In the second attempt, I tried to design my feedback as more of a tool, while including some “learning coaching” within it. I think this is much higher quality feedback and will hopefully lead to greater internalization and understandings on my students’ part. When mastering a process, Hattie’s research points to delayed feedback as being most effective. So I think this will further the effects I’m after.
What I’m understanding is that feedback is the journey, rather than the final destination.
I am eager to continue exploring these ideas as I shift the goal of feedback from an outcome, performance based judgment- such as “You scored a 3!” -to one which truly serves as a vehicle for shaping my students’ understandings and strengthening their conceptual knowledge of writing. I want to make sure that, as the definition above reads, my feedback is given as a basis for improvement. I want to be careful that it is serving as a means to an end, and not the end itself.
I can’t wait to share these remarks with my students. What is your system of giving feedback? How would you classify the purpose it serves? How is it evolving? How can you incorporate more opportunity for-and combine- effective feedback and learning coaching?