Monday, February 27, 2012

What do you do when things fall apart?

We've all had those days...or weeks...where it's like our classes have had an invasion of the body snatchers. Students seem to have lost focus and form new, bizarre habits. So what do you do about it? We had such an invasion recently and I turned the tables on the students. I asked them for some solutions. We had a great discussion about the norms and routines they had set. Then, we all knew the most powerful way that we can improve ourselves is through some personal reflection. My learners had raised some ideas to ponder and they began writing. I thought I would share some of the things that they wrote about the learning environment that they had designed.
"In our learning environment...we can teach other people by doing amazing projects that teach life skills."
"Our learning environment helps me learn to help people, just like they help me." 
"We learn better this way. We're all teachers and students so we learn more and learn faster. If we have any trouble, we go and fix it ourselves." 
"...have an environment where we can learn, not just from books,but from our PLN." 
"Working in groups helps me learn better."
"My classroom is the coolest place that I've ever been to in my entire life."
"I keep earning A's on my report card because I know this classroom works." 
I could keep going, but I think they have made their point. They value our class and how we learn every day. They understand the power that they have to learn from and teach one another. They see the relevance of the learning they are doing each day.

So next time you have one of "those days," take some clues from your students.Give them time to reflect and and find solutions. As with so many things, our students have answers as to how to solve problems and meet challenges. We've just got to give them the opportunity to do it.

photo credit: _StaR_DusT_ via photopin cc

Thursday, February 23, 2012

In Defense of Student-Directed Learning

Recently, I was in a training session where we observed a lesson. Once it was over, we were led into a group discussion about what we had observed. Immediately negative comments were made placing the blame solely on the students. As the negativity escalated, I knew I needed to speak up. I also knew how they would react, but I jumped into those shark infested waters anyway.

Even though many of our children have no support system at home, we can give them the skills to learn at school. If they become invested in what they are learning and they see the relevance, they will WANT to learn and practice what we do in the classroom...even when they aren't in the classroom.Students need to be given the opportunity to explore how each standard we teach relates to their lives. They need to have the guidance from us to find how learning this content will make their lives better. Then, we need to give them the opportunity to explore, design and create something new with what they have learned. If we give them this, they will be self-motivated to learn...not because of some grade or a test, but because they LOVE it.

I know there is plenty of research out there that supports student-directed learning. However, I don't need research to know that this is a valid way of facilitating learning.  I see it every day in my class. I have had students that are exceptional education students, who are so low or such behavior problems, I was told they wouldn't even be able to function within the classroom. My administrator admits to putting the more challenging students in my classroom because "they always make such great gains and reach a level of success that they've never had before." (See Let's Celebrate or When Things Click or  Becoming Techknowledgeable) I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back, but to give examples of how successful this is with students...academically high or low; wealthy or homeless; Asian, Latino, African American, or Caucasian. When you have 10 year olds who don't want to go home at the end of the day or they want to spend their Friday afternoon doing research to prepare for a lesson they are going to teach older students via Skype, you know that it works. (See Students as Teachers). It works because we are giving students the power and responsibility to drive their own learning.

The reason I spoke up was because the students of those teachers were being sold short. Their potential wasn't being explored. That love of learning hadn't been ignited. I hurt for those kids.

Isn't it our responsibility to do whatever we can to meet the needs of our students? We can't afford to waste any time giving them the tools to success. Because when you ultimately think about it, we are only hurting our future selves. These are the kids who will be running the world in a few years. We can't afford to sit on the sidelines and point fingers at the students. Students know how they learn best if they are given the opportunity. They are the SOLUTION.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How We Love to Learn

One thing that I've observed that makes a huge difference in student motivation is HOW the students learn the content. I've written other blog posts on this subject (see An Afternoon in Pleasantville and A Tale of Two Tools and Learning Inside the Box) but this past week, we've put a little different twist on it. We are working on the 10th Edition of the Coast to Coast Chronicles. The students wanted to learn more about the scientific method for this edition.

One of the collaborative projects we are doing is a Voice Thread of poetry on different science topics.This is a way for the students to connect, broaden their horizons in the field of science, and sharpen their poetry writing skills. We are working directly with a 3rd grade class in our building along with the students across the country. For this activity my students and the 3rd graders were put into heterogeneous groups across the grade levels. The first day, they brainstormed different topics that interested them in science. Because my students had just had Innovation Day, they were really thinking outside of the box. My learners did an amazing job of guiding the 3rd graders into topics in which they were unfamiliar.  The conversations were amazing. When the groups had a time to add their ideas to a words splash, because of the way that my students had encouraged and nurtured their ideas, all of the students participated in sharing their thoughts and why that topic was of interest to them as a group.

The second time we met, the learners began building context and meaning with different types of poetry. Because SimplyBox has closed their site, we moved to LiveBinders. Some of my previous students (who are now in 6th grade) and I created a Poetry LiveBinder of examples of different types of poetry. As with all genres of writing, I want my students to read real examples (mentor texts) to building their understanding of the characteristics of that type of writing. As one student said, "If I want to write great poetry, I need to read great poetry."  With the LiveBinders, you can create a collection of URLs, files, images, video or text on a particular topic. It is a great collaborative tool because you can invite collaborators to add to the binder.  It also allows the user to embed it into another site, which made it easy for my students to access.

As the writers were reading and discussing the different genres of poetry, the 3rd grade teacher and I were moving around the room, joining groups, listening to their conversations and asking guiding questions. They were already selecting a genre that they wanted to compose. What was validating to hear was that they weren't just choosing a particular genre randomly, they were thinking about how that genre would support their science topic.  All 50+ of these students were engaged in deep and meaningful conversations. With their previous experience, my students already knew where this was headed and guided their younger partners who stepped up to the challenge and joined right in the conversations.

Before they began composing, the learners set the criteria for their writing. This is where the real evidence of the learning manifested itself; not just my students but also the 3rd graders had a clear understanding of not only their genre of poetry, but also what things needed to be included with their topic, the audience and the purpose. As they began creating their poetry, they divided up the work. In most groups, you had a researcher to check facts, a recorder to write the ideas, and editor/time keeper, and an illustrator. With this lesson, everyone, no matter their exceptionalities, were able to successfully participate.

Of course the enthusiasm was intoxicating...all of the learners enjoyed themselves and they gained a much deeper understanding of poetry and their science topic. When kids complain about having to pack up to go home because they want to keep reading and writing, you know you've found a winning idea.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Time to Innovate...Our Innovation Day

What is Innovation Day? Innovation Day was born in the business world and originally called a FedEx Day (because it’s delivered in 24 hours or less). Anyone who has read Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is familiar with this concept which increases productivity and motivation among their employees while fostering creative thinking and problem solving. The employees are given employees the time to explore new and creative ideas during the regular work day. These ideas made their way into the innovative classrooms of Josh Stumpenhorst and Pernille Ripp (and into my Google Reader).

An activity that gives students the ability to drive their own learning and fosters creative thinking and problem solving is an opportunity that I really want to provide to my students. They would be given one day to learn about any subject that interested that we didn't study in school. I knew this concept was new to everyone involved…administrators, parents, and students. Because we are a nontraditional classroom, I knew my students would be the easiest to prepare for this activity, but as we know, often other adults are the last ones to try a new idea. I went to our new administrator and explained the Innovation Day concept with the proposed learning outcomes. I asked if we could have one day out of strict schedule to try this out. Thankfully, she agreed. Thanks to Pernille, I adapted her pre-planning sheet to send home to the parents. I also sent an email explaining the concepts and my learning objective to the parents. Every parent supported our day and returned the pre-planning sheets signed.

Now it was time to prepare the students. As with so many activities in the classroom, I knew that the success of this day really depended on how well the students had prepared before the actual day. About two weeks before our Innovation Day, we began reading Mistakes that Worked by Charlotte Foltz Jones. This fascinating book includes a host of daily items that we enjoy daily that were created by accident. They are organized into short stories which worked well with our schedule. This book fostered some amazing, deep discussion about creativity, pursuing your passion, and thinking outside of the box. 

That discussion spurred my learners into looking into other innovators that impacted their lives every day. They began drawing comparisons between these different people and the qualities that they had in common. My students wanted to publish their findings, so we turned to's Fakebook maker. They had a blast create these Fakebook pages of the innovators they had been researching.

Then it was time for them to select a topic that they wanted to spend one day becoming the expert on and creating the project to share with their peers. We spent some time conferring. There were a lot of probing, guiding questions here as many of them we stumped when it came time for them to choose any subject that interested them. They seemed overwhelmed with all of the possibilities. After some conversation, everyone narrowed down their topic, filled in their planning sheet, and had their parents sign it.

One thing that I hadn't anticipated was that they were so excited, that many of them started their projects at home. Some of them spent hours researching and working because they wanted to learn more. When the day arrived, the excitement was palpable. Our classroom was a flurry of diligent students focused on their tasks and all of their supplies spread into every nook and cranny of our room.
Here are some of the projects:
  1. Testing combinations of all natural fruit juices to create a healthy way to season food
  2. The invention of a 31-day medication dispenser (no medication was used)
  3. The history of handbags with an Animoto movie
  4. An original play complete with props, costumes, and sets
  5. Eight pieces of art with different medium inspired by Claude Monet
  6. A model of a hydroelectric plant
  7. A diorama of a spider's habitat
  8. A battle scene from a World War 1
  9. Prezi of Jackie Robinson
  10. Flipchart of the life of Elvis Presley
  11. Three scarves made out of recycled materials with a digital how to slideshow 
  12. A balanced meal plan
  13. Handmade fleece pillow and blanket
  14. Voki and ProProfs Quiz on Jesse Owens
  15. A mural of a clownfish with an accompanying lesson on a clownfish
  16. A map of all of the battles of World War 2
  17. An original fable published on StoryJumper
  18. A book of brain teasers published on StoryJumper
  19. A model house built to scale
  20. A 3D model (with removable sides) of an Egyptian pyramid
  21. A bird house build to fit the specific size of a red cardinal
As you can see, creativity and critical thinking flourished this day. There simply aren't enough superlatives to describe the excitement and level of engagement that my students had. As one student said, "This is a day where the teachers and students switch roles. The students become the teachers and the teachers learn about what interests the students and how they learn best."

You can find all of our Innovation Day projects, photos, testimonials (text and video), reviews of Mistakes that Worked, and their fakebook pages on our Innovation Day wiki. We hope you enjoy looking at them as much as we enjoyed creating them. The question on all of my students' lips was "Can we do this again?" Without a doubt!